Sunday, July 3, 2022

A home for the herd

Installing a shelter for their herd that is used year-round, has benefited a Taranaki couple in more ways they could have imagined.

When a Taranaki couple decided to build a Redpath standoff shelter on their dairy farm, it revolutionised the way they farmed. And now seven-years later, the couple could never see themselves farming without one.

Bryce and Lee-ann Hunger, in partnership with Lee-ann’s parents, operate a 200-hectare (185ha effective) dairy farm, milking 480 crossbred cows at Inglewood. They have been on their current farm for 16 years. They have three children Cameron, 16, Caitlin, 13 and Renee, 10.

They were both brought up on dairy farms. Bryce has always farmed and Lee-ann initially worked in a real estate office before their marriage and her farming career began.

“We began as lower order sharemilkers, milking 180-cows at Norfolk before spending five years as 50:50 sharemilkers on Rugby Road near Inglewood milking 250 cows,” Bryce says.

They were sharemilking 500 cows on a Tariki property when they bought into the partnership on the current farm.

The farm is seven kilometres from Mount Taranaki and receives 3000mm of rainfall.

“We felt it’d got to the stage that it was too wet to be calving in the paddocks. During a wet spring we had to use the tractor to get the cows and calves in because it was so wet underfoot,” he recalls.

“We had to do something, pugging was wrecking the pasture. We did our best to avoid it, but the sheer amount of rainfall makes it hard to avoid. We needed to discover what would work and still run a profitable farm.”

They wanted to house their cows 24/7 for weeks on end, in the dry and warmth of the herd home during winter.

Lee-ann Hunger outside shelter

Their decision to install a shelter came about after they decided that the pasture damage the cows were doing was too great. It was installed seven years ago and has radically changed the way they farm.

They were milking 650 cows in a System 4 operation and had come to the realisation that they were using too much bought-in feed.

“Back in the low payout years we had to really scrutinise what we were doing. We were leaking money and had to do something. We decided that if we brought everything home, we’d be more profitable. But I had to get my head around the idea of reducing herd numbers,” Bryce says.

“We reduced our numbers by 150, which only caused a 30,000kg drop in milksolids. Over a couple of seasons we culled the lower producing cows, any with undesirable traits, and sold some of the spare higher producing cows.”

The farm is now a System 3-4 and the shelter has been pivotal in allowing the farm to grow more grass, better feed the cows and milk through the winter.

Bryce spent four years visiting and researching different standoff shelters and how they were going to best fit their business. They looked at different installations locally and around the North Island before deciding on a Redpath Standoff Shelter.

“The shelter was a big outlay and a touchy subject at the beginning. I wasn’t very keen on the idea but I now love it,” Lee-ann says.

The couple had many sleepless nights worrying whether they’d done the right thing. Looking back, they feel that it was unequivocally the correct choice.

The cows are on deep bedding, which is warm and dry. The litter is approximately 50cm deep and is “ripped” daily by the tractor to aerate it and keep it fluffed up and dry.

“The more often it’s ripped, the better it is. We occasionally top up the feed lane. Other than that, we haven’t had to replace bedding for four years. We have drainage installed but nothing comes out. We’ve never cleaned the drains out in seven years and they’re still clear,” Bryce says.

“Replacing the bedding annually costs us $15,000-$20,000 each time. One day Neil Chesterton phoned us from an overseas conference, he’d just learned of the ripping technique that would save us replacing the bedding. The current bedding has been in the shelter for four years.”

The biggest takeaway Bryce gained from viewing many shelters was that it gives farmers control over the weather and allows the farm to grow a great deal of grass.

“Production isn’t weather dependent anymore because we control the herd’s conditions. Previously, a wet month would nearly wreck our entire season. Now we just bring the cows inside,” he says.

They winter 500 cows and milk around 480 crossbred cows. Last season the herd produced 580kg of milksolids per cow. Total production was 270,000kg MS and is also this season’s target.

The shelter has enabled them to sell the runoff and raise their young stock and grow all of their maize on the farm. The farm’s stocking rate is approximately three cows a hectare, including the young stock.

“Heifers come into the herd at 500kg. We grow them on-farm instead of having them coming home from grazing at 380 to 400kg,” he says.

“Looking back, they were far too small. The heifers now produce close to their body weight in their first season.”

Production is achieved through milking days, as well as through better feeding.

The shelter has changed the way they feed the cows and grow their supplemental feed. They grow 15-20ha of maize and around 400 bales of silage are harvested annually.

“We can grow a lot of grass now. We used to pasture harvest 12 tonnes of DM/ha before the shelter, now we’re up to 17. We were growing 14 tonnes DM/ha and we’re now up to 21. We’re getting a lot of that during winter and early spring,” he says.

“We target 2.5-3 leaves, which is always around 3200-3300 and a residual of 1500 to 1600 all year through every season. Surplus grass is mowed immediately and wrapped enabling the paddocks to be always in the round and growing to their maximum.

“We don’t put a 20ha block aside and wait for it to grow. By keeping the grass at a three-leaf stage and using a 30 day round, if we have paddocks ready, we mow them straight away.

“When grazing them around 16 days, we found that grasses were not persisting and were running out after five years. Roots were shallow and the plants were small; we were grazing them too early.”

They have an ongoing regrassing programme and find it much easier getting new pasture established, without having to push the cows onto it.

“Having the young stock at home helps because they graze the new pasture with minimal damage to the delicate new grass. The entire farm has been regrassed; we’re on our next round of regrassing and the grass quality is phenomenal,” he says.

“You need to look after the new types of grasses. They don’t last if you pug or overgraze them. That’s where the shelter comes into play, because the cows aren’t on the pasture during the wet winter months.”

In-shed feeding ensures the cows receive their year-round daily feed target of 20kg per cow. They have found that you just can’t feed that much solely in grass. Presently they’re feeding kibbled maize, some DDG and soybean hulls. This is reduced as production tails off.

“In the shelter we give them whatever we have. If we have wraps we’ll give them a mix of silage, maize and maybe a bit of PKE, if necessary. But generally it’s just maize. We have a feed-mixing wagon for speed and efficiency,” he says.

From a welfare perspective, the shelter is used year-round when needed.

The milkers are brought into the shelter if the weather is too wet to be on the paddocks. During wet weather the milkers will come in at 10am, be milked in the afternoon and then go straight back into the shelter after milking with feed on hand.

Before the shelter, the cows had to be given large areas to avoid pugging and try to fully feed cows, which was impossible.

In the hot dry summer months, the shelter provides a cool, shaded space.

“Using a shelter in summer is counterintuitive to what you would expect. On a hot day with no wind, there’s always a breeze in the shelter due to the ventilation. The shelter is open-ended, with top vents for ventilation. During summer they come into the herd home at 11am until milking time,” he says.

When the cows are brought into the shelter, there’s no mad rush to be the first to get to the feed. They amble in and often just stand around or lie down. They know that there’s plenty of food.

“We have no metabolic issues like milk fever or grass staggers during calving. The cows are sheltered from the wet, cold weather, so far less stress is placed on their metabolisms. We provide spring mineral supplements, which is far easier to do in a shelter than a paddock,” he says.

The cows now don’t eat as much and quickly can put on half a condition score in 10 days, which allows them to milk for 310 days knowing the herd will be at a condition score five in the 50 days they are dry. Prior to the shelter, the cows were dried off early because they were thinner and took a long time to regain condition.

The springer mob is brought into the cowshed yard and put through the drafter once their calves have been taken away. The cow’s numbers are punched into Protrack and the freshly calved cows are automatically drafted out. This eliminates the chore of finding and drafting the cows in a calving paddock and removes a stressful, disruptive chore for the cow, calf and farmer. Drafting is an easy one-person task.

Cows feeding in shelter

“I would never calve outside again. A shelter gives you huge peace of mind,” he says.

“There’s only one downside to a shelter – you get fat. Before, you were run ragged during spring and lost weight. You still get tired because you’re getting up early, you’re just not knackered.”

Calving begins on July 20 and the heifers July 10, which is very early for Inglewood. They like getting the heifers in before the main herd starts. It allows them to become accustomed to the cowshed and gives them a longer period before their first mating.

“About 50% of the herd calves within 10 days, 80% in three weeks and we’ve finished calving by September 20,” he says.

“Calving in the shelter is so easy. There’s none of the stress involved with calving in the paddocks.” Bryce says.

The first calving season in the shelter convinced Lee-ann that they’d made the right choice. The shelter centralised everything in one location, enabling all tasks to be completed by 9am during spring.

When the weather is wet and cold the cows are warm and calve in a warm dry environment, and are well fed away from the mud.

“It’s a nice feeling on a miserable, wet spring day to know that checking the calving cows only requires a short drive in the ute to the shelter,” Lee-ann says.

“There’s no need to wear awkward wet weather gear or take a cold, wet bike ride across the farm.”

Their days of using a heat box to revive cold calves are long gone. The cows calve in a warm, dry environment, which is beneficial for the cow and calf. Late night calving rounds to check calving cows are a thing of the past.

Replacement calves are fed gold colostrum for four days, then fresh colostrum until the supply finishes. They’re then fed with milk powder rather than stored colostrum, as they have found that their calves don’t do as well on the stored product.

Calves in shelter

LIC heat detection patches are used during mating, enabling any in-season cows to be picked out by the camera above the bails. A notification comes up on the screen to show that it’s been activated and the cow is automatically drafted from the herd.

Mating begins on October 15 and Bryce is the AI technician during the nine-week mating period. AI used for the first three weeks to provide 85 replacement calves.

They pick bulls that favour the F12J4-type Friesian breeding. They prefer bigger, more capacious animals and breed for capacity, good working udders and fertility.

Speckle Park semen is then used for three weeks and Jersey bulls tail the herd for the following three weeks after being used over the heifers.

“We’ve always farmed crossbreds. They’re smaller and suit our conditions. Over the years we’ve found crossbreds to be very efficient cows,” Bryce says.

They only breed from their best cows, the bottom cows are put to Speckle Park. The cows now milk better and for longer, so great care is taken selecting and breeding for cows with good udders. Bulls aren’t selected just by BW alone. Bryce uses the analogy of a wine barrel to describe selection.

“I think of it as a wine barrel. If you haven’t got all the slats up, something leaks. Cows need minerals, they must be well-fed and have a good condition score. You must tick all the boxes,” he says.

“We’ve always had good in-calf rates and have a 77% six-week in-calf rate. I think a lot of our in-calf rate success is due to feeding and selective breeding. We only keep replacements from the first three weeks of mating. We’ve never kept calves from non-cycling cows and don’t use any CIDRs.” he says.

The shelter ensures the cows aren’t put under physical pressure from inclement weather and tight feeding conditions, so they have greater longevity in the herd. Some of the herd are 12 and 13-year-olds and thriving.

“I think our animal health gains have come because the cows aren’t under stress,” he says.

“They’re well fed which eliminates bullying. There’s no mad rush to be the first to the feed.”

Mastitis has been mostly eliminated. They believe it’s due to the cows living in a mud-free, dry environment. The only time that a few cases arise is when the cows are outside.

The shelter’s dry environment hardens and protects hooves and has mostly eradicated lameness, with just one or two being treated monthly. The cows don’t have to walk long distances back and forth to the cowshed, which minimises the number of stones brought into the yard.

“At milking time the cows aren’t lined up at the gate waiting to get into the shed for the in-shed feed. We go in with the bike to get them out and they’re usually sitting down in no hurry to go outside. Especially when it’s pouring down outside. Without the shelter they’d be huddled up in a paddock corner, cold and covered in mud,” he says.

The herd is milked through a 50-bail rotary cowshed. With a Protrack system, ACR, automatic teat sprayer and in-shed feeding. TracMap has been installed in the tractors and Batt-Latch Gates in the paddocks. The gates are mostly used when the cows are on pasture during summer.

“We’re looking to install cow collars next season. I think they’ll be a huge benefit. It’ll pick out cows that are beginning to become unwell before we recognise it. It’s another backstop that leads to better efficiency,” he says.

“Collars are a fantastic diagnostic tool and supply a great deal of information on how well the cows are eating and ruminating. The accumulated data takes some of the guesswork out of farming and allows you to be proactive.”

Helping them on the farm are two full-time staff members, which enables them to take time off knowing the farm and the herd will be well looked after. Lee-ann helps out during spring, relief milks, raises the calves and does the bookwork.

“We’ve only ever had one worker, this is our second season with two,” Lee-ann says

“They have every other weekend off, which is a three-day weekend right through the entire season, including spring.

“I’m sure a shelter makes it easier to attract and keep good staff, as it’s a very enjoyable and comfortable work environment. During spring they’ve usually gone home by 4.30pm. If it’s wet, we normally get everything finished by 8am and then go home until the afternoon milking.”

Bryce feels that the benefits of having their shelter for a number of years now, that it’s not just for the stress-free, enjoyable work environment.

“It’s the public perception that we no longer wintering cows on paddocks. There aren’t any cows standing and making mud. If cows are outside, they are fully-fed milkers or young stock. We’re close to town, maybe too close at times. A lot of people that don’t understand farming walk and drive past every day,” Bryce says.

“I could go into the shelter now and lay in it, it’s that dry. There are no downsides; I’d never farm without one. I could never go back to the old system.”

They are quite content with the way their farm runs. In the future they are contemplating getting out of the shed and may employ a contract milker or sharemilkers.

Bryce summed up their view on the Redpath shelter in one simple statement: “Anyone with doubt about a shelter’s effectiveness shouldn’t knock it until they’ve seen some in operation. Once you have one, you’ll never go back.”

Farm Facts:

Owners: Bryce and Lee-ann Hunger in partnership with Lee-ann’s parents

Location: Inglewood, Taranaki

Farm size: 200-hectare (185-ha effective) dairy farm

Cows: 480 crossbred cows

Production 2020-21: 270,000kg MS

Production target 2021-22: 270,000kg MS and is also this season’s target

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