Thursday, August 18, 2022

Born and bred to farm

A small farm with a small herd is doing big things in Taranaki proving that size is no barrier when it comes to farming.
Farmer Cliff Shearer milks just 26 Jersey cows in a split-calving system on his 14-hectare farm at Normanby, Taranaki.

A Taranaki farmer who may have one of the smallest herds in New Zealand, milking through a 40-year-old walk-through cowshed, doesn’t let it hinder his herd’s production.

Cliff Shearer milks 26 cows on his 14-hectare dairy farm with an 8ha milking platform at Normanby. His farm is one of the very few farms that still utilises a walk-through cowshed.

In 2003-04 his Glenbrook Jersey Stud was the first NZ Jersey herd to produce over 600kg milksolids in a season, and in the 2015-16 season it was the first NZ Jersey herd to produce over 700kg MS.

The herd’s achievements don’t stop there though. It has been NZ’s top-producing MS herd 14 times and has had the country’s highest-producing cow five times.

The herd also holds the all-time record litres for a Jersey cow, with Glenbrook Final Cosma producing 12,747 litres of milk and the all-time record litres for a Jersey heifer, with Glenbrook Hans Charlotte producing 9017 litres.

Dairy farming is in his DNA. Both of his parents who bought their 54.5ha farm in 1965, are from dairy farming families who came to Taranaki in the 1880s.

“Dairy farming is all I’ve ever wanted to do,” Shearer says.

“I began milking at around 11 or 12 years old and could run the farm by the time I was 14.”

Leaving school he attended Victoria University to study accounting.

“I only lasted 12 months, I hated big city life. There were no cows in Wellington and I missed the farm,” he says.

“My parents wanted me to have a second string to my bow, but I was a born and bred farmer and returned to farming. I worked on another farm for a few months before catching leptospirosis and returned home to recover.”

Dairy cows in paddock
The 26-cow herd has some of the country’s top-producing Jersey cows and average over 680 kilograms of milksolids and produce 20,000kg MS each year.

His parents farmed grade Jerseys with top genetics. They’d used AI since 1959, began herd testing in 1966 and sold many bulls to the NZ Dairy Board.

In May 1979 he established Glenbrook Jersey Stud by purchasing six pedigree heifers and adding them to the herd prior to beginning a 33% sharemilking job for his parents in June.

“I bought a third of their herd over the three years and made up the rest with pedigrees I’d bought and my replacements. I milked 65 cows in my first season,” he says.

He bought a tractor and a share in a haymaking gang before buying the back third of the farm in 1982 when he was 21 years old. This season will be his 44th season farming and the 41st on his own property.

“When I bought the farm I borrowed $20,000 to build an eight-bail walk-through cowshed. I also leased 8ha from my parents for a number of years,” he says.

“I lived at home for several years before building a car shed to live in for a few years before shifting an ex-factory house onto the farm in 1993.”

His herd numbers rose and fell over the years. Sometimes they went as low as 29 cows, a number he enjoys milking. He initially milked two herds of 30-35 cows as the yard couldn’t accommodate them all at once, so each milking took four hours. He had to manually give each cow its 2kg of pellets.

“I had to let an entire row in, wait until they were milked and out before filling up the meal tins for the next eight; it took about 16 minutes to milk a row of eight cows,” he says.

A new in-shed automatic feed system was installed in 2000 and it reduced the milking time and he can now milk 30 cows in 40 minutes.

Shearer has always loved Jersey cows and when he began farming approximately 90% of Taranaki’s dairy herds were Jerseys.

“I’ve always felt that Jerseys are the most efficient dairy breed and they’re much better now,” he says.

Jersey dairy cows coming in for milking
The Jersey herd which is quiet, well behaved and friendly, comes in for morning milking.

“I used to look at big Friesians that were twice the size of the Jerseys and think they’d be nice to milk, but they’d use half of their food to maintain their size.”

The herd averages approximately 150% of milksolids to liveweight. His average cow size is about 440-450kg and they produce around 680kg MS.

Twelve herd tests are done throughout the season. The latest showing the cows are producing 680kg MS, but the factory figures have them producing well over 700kg MS.

“Basically, I exist for a high herd average. It’s what gets me out of bed each morning and what I was born to do. I don’t aim for an exceptionally high-producing cow, or a champion show cow. My ultimate goal is a high herd average,” he says.

“I used to look at the American Jersey Journal and see their cows producing 750kg MS. Two years ago my top cow produced 985kg MS. She was New Zealand’s top cow and I’ve been fortunate to have had five of them.”

His herd produces over 700kg MS per cow and has averaged over 650kg MS for the last 12 seasons. They’ve never produced under 600kg MS during that period. His top season average was 701kg MS.

The small herd must produce 20,000kg MS per annum for the farm to remain viable. This season he’s achieving that production from 26 cows on a split-calving system.

“What I do is scalable. It just comes down to feeding the cows properly. It’s not rocket science or difficult. I tell people that I’m a System 10 farm. I have to be a high input system farm because I don’t have the acreage.”

The herd is fed 16kg of blend per day, which works out to be about 4.5 tonne per cow per year, plus grass and hay. The blend consists of 35% soya hull, 33% corn DDG, 15% PKE, 5% molasses, 5% kibbled maize, 5% starch pellet. The mineral additives are magnesium oxide, lime flour, salt, DCP, Monensin and rumen buffer.

He makes 400-600 (conventional) hay bales but likes to have 1700-1800 per year. He buys some standing hay and buys in more than 1000 bales each year.

“Hay provides the fibre in their diet and makes everything work. An American friend visited many years ago. He was a grass-based dairy farmer and told me that generally, if your herd has any health concerns you should simply give them more hay. That’s proved true from my experience,” he says.

Farmer Cliff Shearer feeding hay to his herd
The herd is fed 16kg of blend per day, plus grass and hay. Cliff throws hay out to his herd.

“Hay makes the grass and feed blend work together. I need to feed 16kg each of the blend for the cows to achieve 150% production. They get 4kg at milking and 8kg in their paddock trough. They’re fed hay for 365 days of the year.”

If he was solely feeding silage and hay, he feels that he’d still have well-conditioned cows but they’d only produce their bodyweight in MS.

“I’ve never met a New Zealand animal nutritionist who’s farmed and achieved the same production as I have. I’ve learnt enough to know how my herd works in my system,” he says.

“Jerseys are the most efficient cow and are the easiest to implement this style of system, but a crossbred herd may be similar. I think it’s totally scalable. I’m not so sure about a 600kg Holstein because she’d need to be doing 900kg MS to obtain the same result.”

In 2008 he built the first herd home in Taranaki for his winter milking herd. Half of the roof was blown off in a storm and he hasn’t had the funds to repair it.

He now uses it to house his springers at night, and it’s where 80% of his calves are born. The springers go to the herd home at 3pm and are let out onto the pasture at 8am, unless the weather is poor.

This season, there are nine autumn calving cows, which began calving on June 15, and 28 spring calving cows. He aims for calving to be finished by August 20 so he can achieve a 305-day lactation from each cow.

“My six-week calving period is usually shorter because my cows seem to have a built in shorter gestation. If I have three calves born in a day, it’s a big day,” he says.

All heifer calves from both herds are kept along with two bull calves to run with his heifers.

He ensures every calf gets a feed of gold colostrum for their first feed and is fed as much as possible. He leaves his cows in the colostrum mob for at least 10 milkings to make it easier to collect.

Calves are fed 10 litres of milk a day until weaning. He’s been told that Jersey calves can’t drink that amount, but says his do and they thrive on it. They’re fed stored colostrum or vat milk from a calfeteria.

Once they reach four or five weeks old they’re given Moozlee and hay, go into the paddock at six to eight weeks old and are weaned at eight weeks.

Man on tractor with Mount Taranaki in the background.
Cliff has a gorgeous view as he heads out on the tractor his parents bought in 1985; it has done 6700 hours and is still going strong.

Autumn mating begins on June 1 and spring mating begins on September 25. Both are for six-week periods.

AI is used for the entire herd, predominantly from his own bulls. Their semen is collected at Tararua Breeding Centre. His bulls are marketed as Glenbrook Golden Genetics and they provide a welcome secondary income. He’s sold many straws to Australia and the US.

“That’s the most exciting aspect of my farming. I’m in contact with all of the buyers. One Australian farm’s entire herd is mated to my bulls, and they’re now on their second generation. They’re probably doing better than me with the same bulls,” he says.

“About 95% of the farmers I sell to find me from Facebook. I post photos of my animals and other people’s animals that are bred from my bulls. I now just use Facebook to sell my genetics.”

He only keeps bulls whose daughters should produce over 800kg MS. Instead of concentrating on their BW figures he studies their pedigree over many generations.

“Glenbrook Carpediem is my best bull at the moment. Before him a bull called Glenbrook Camboge was the best bull I’d ever bred,” he says.

When he finds a good bull it’s used over the entire herd. Ten of his 15 heifers calving this year are by Carpediem. He’s now marketing his son, Glenbrook C Never Say Die, who is his next big hope.

He is a staunch believer in line breeding and every cow on the farm goes back to a heifer he bought in 1980. He’s found that the closer he line breeds, the better his cows become.

He was told that line breeding would be detrimental to his herd’s fertility and production. It took some time for him to become brave enough to try the method because he was going against perceived modern farming wisdom.

All heifers born are kept and reared as replacements. The calves tuck into their breakfast.

“Line breeding is a vastly misunderstood subject. For my herd and situation, it’s proved to be the correct method,” he says.

“I’ve spent my entire life studying every aspect of breeding. I’ve probably got just about every book written about the subject going back 250 years.”

He spends hours poring over old farming books and has realised that the best “old-time breeders” developed their herds through inbreeding and line breeding.

“Robert Bakewell is my favourite person from history. He was using line breeding and inbreeding techniques in 1770 and developed the modern farm animal and doubled the size of those animals to feed more people,” he says.

“We’re forever reinventing the wheel. I’ve learnt that there’s nothing new under the sun. Many of the supposedly new ideas that come out can be found in those old books.”

He doesn’t focus on BW but ensures the dam of the bull he uses has exceptionally high production figures. Regardless of the indexes, he feels that there must be some actual high production figures. He never uses a bull from a cow that hasn’t done at least 750kg MS because that’s what he expects from his herd.

“You must breed cows to produce, which has no reference to BW, which was developed as a per-hectare production system for the Waikato. It has very little correlation to an individual cow’s production,” he says.

“Most country’s genetic indexes are more accurate than ours because they’re totally correlated to cow production. When ours was developed it represented what our farmers were doing at the time. It’s only been in recent times that we’ve had so many System 5 high-input farmers and BW doesn’t work well for them.”

He aims to milk every heifer calf born on the farm, so must move on 50% of his herd each year. Many of them are very high-producing cows. You would think that farmers would be lining up at his door to buy his animals, but their lower BW is a major stumbling block.

“I still think my cows would do well in a lower-input farm, but it’s a numbers game. If I try to sell heifer calves or cows, most buyers want a trailer full. Whereas I might only have two and they’re a few weeks apart. It’s very frustrating,” he says.

There is an old saying that production is “80% feeding and 20% breeding.” Shearer has a different saying: “You’ve got to breed, for the feed you’re going to use, and you’ve got to feed for the breeding you’ve done.”

He feels that you must breed cows that can produce 800kg MS, but they must be adequately fed to achieve that production

Dairy cows in milking shed
The eight-bail walk-through shed milks 30 cows in 40 minutes. The herd at morning milking happily munches away on the meal while being milked.

“My heifers are bred to be high producers, so therefore I want to milk them to discover the best ones. Cow longevity isn’t as long as I’d like, but it’s enforced by my desire to milk those heifers,” he says.

The herd is not teat sprayed as it is too difficult to implement in a walk-through shed. He doesn’t have any major mastitis issues, but can have a somatic cell count problem due to the system and herd size. The SCC problems occur because he split calves and some cows are milked for extended lactations.

“Cell count is always an issue with 30 cows. You only need one cow with a crook quarter for the count to go from 200,000 to 600,000 before you know there’s a problem,” he says.

“It’s a dilution factor. In a larger herd that may mean a jump from 200,000 to 201,000; not 600,000. Here, it’s often down to 400,000 by the next day and 200,000 the following day and I still haven’t discovered the problem cow.”

The farm effluent system is a quirky story in itself. The Taranaki Regional Council had been happy with the sump and a pottle irrigator system for the past 40 years. But four years ago Fonterra asked him to install a $50,000 system or he would be shut down.

The TRC tried to find a solution to the problem. The farm is 1.6km from the nearest running water and some days only two cows leave manure at the shed.

“The herd home has a large effluent reservoir beneath the grates. Just two weeks before being shut down a friend suggested I use the reservoir for effluent storage.” Cliff says.

“I rang the TRC and they said it would be fine, but I needed to get it officially measured. They gave me a 41-year consent, twice as long as the usual consent.”

Shearer has often been called a hobby farmer and asked what he does as a ‘real job’. Yet he’s a full-time farmer who has milked twice daily for 365 days a year since March 1, 2010, which amounts to nearly 9000 milkings without a break.

“I’d considered selling the farm before covid struck. I still really enjoy farming, but I’m just one accident away from having to give up. My body doesn’t recover like it once did. I’d love to carry on for another 10 years, but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t physically do the work.”

Looking at a line of heifers and wondering about their potential is the reason he carries on.

“I contemplated selling this year’s spring heifers. I looked at their ear tags when I drenched them and thought ‘this one’s mother does 900kg MS and is classified Excellent’. I went through the entire line and realised that I couldn’t sell them, I just want to milk them,” he says.

Over the last 12 years he has been using Facebook and feels that it’s given dairy farmers a voice. If a situation arises that he feels needs discussion, he can instantly inform many dairy farmers about it. It’s also a space where virtual life has turned into real friendships. Facebook has become his conduit to disseminate helpful and useful information.

“By posting in a group such as the NZ Dairy Genetics Network I can reach many of the country’s most informed farmers. Facebook is my life outside of farming,” he says.

“It’s helped me make many farming friends throughout the country. I’ve met many of them and we’ve visited each other’s farms. I love visiting farms, taking photos of their cows and posting them on Facebook.”

Farm Facts:

Owner: Cliff Shearer
Location: Normanby, South Taranaki
Farm size: 14ha with an 8ha milking platform
Cows: 26 Jersey cows, split milking.
Production: 2021-22: 20,100kg MS
Target 2022-23: 20,000kg MS

This article first appeared in the July 2022 issue of Dairy Farmer.

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