Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Life as a solo farmer

A Taranaki farmer is doing it alone and although life can get hectic at times, every day she pulls on her gumboots and happily heads off to milk her cows. Farming is hard work. But when you farm alone, there is no one to help when the work pressure mounts, and every decision falls squarely on your shoulders.

A Taranaki farmer is doing it alone and although life can get hectic at times, every day she pulls on her gumboots and happily heads off to milk her cows.

Farming is hard work. But when you farm alone, there is no one to help when the work pressure mounts, and every decision falls squarely on your shoulders.

Maryanne Dudli milks 175 cows on an 84-hectare leased farm at Auroa, in South Taranaki. She runs the farm on her own and takes pride in running an efficient farm, and owning a high production herd.

Dudli grew up on the family dairy farm and has been absolutely passionate about cows as far back as she can remember.

“My poor father couldn’t leave the house without me following him,” Dudli says. “Even in my preschool days he would get up at 4.30am, and as soon as I heard him, I’d rush outside and get on the tractor with him.

“He made me a little box to sit in and I’d fall asleep in it. I’d then sit in the pit in the cowshed and pat the cows as they walked past. It was always where I felt most comfortable.”

She has always loved the interaction and feel of the animals, and would always hurry out onto the farm as soon as she arrived home from school.

She appreciated the animal health side of farming, and initially dreamed of becoming a vet. As a teenager she undertook work experience with a local vet, however, she didn’t venture down that path because even though she loved helping animals, she always wanted to go home to her own animals.

“I did reasonably well at school and many people told me that I shouldn’t be ‘just’ a farmer,” she says.

“I was a very quiet, studious kid and did what I was told. So I went to university, even though I didn’t want to leave home – or the farm.

“I studied Applied Science, majoring in Animal Science. It would’ve entailed eight years of study and culminated in a doctorate, which sounded lovely.

Maryanne helps Jeremy Connolly of Orahiri Hoof Care trimming her cow’s feet

A firm believer in employing a professional hoof trimmer to regularly attend to her cow’s feet rather than doing it herself, Maryanne helps Jeremy Connolly of Orahiri Hoof Care trimming her cow’s feet.

“I got to uni and the first six months of three-hour science lab sessions just about finished me.”

University life wasn’t a good fit for her and although she has always believed that you can never stop learning, the university format never felt right.

“Things are different now. If something similar to the Primary ITO system had been around then it would’ve probably been a compromise I could’ve accepted. It’s awesome to see that pathway opened up,” she says.

Her family farm was in the process of being sold, so she left university and returned home to help. She was at a loose end and just wanted to get away.

She left for a two-year overseas break that stretched out to six years. Three of those years were spent working on an Oregon dairy farm, which opened her eyes to different dairy farming systems.

“The Oregon farm was a reasonably high input operation with a total mix ration going in. The cows were housed but with some grazing too. Those cows achieved phenomenal production,” she says.

“I came back to New Zealand a different person. Travel was very good for me and brought me out of my shell.

“I began work as a District Manager for LIC in the north Waikato and then for Semex as an area manager in Taranaki.”

She spent four years in a 50:50 partnership before going out on her own.

Maryanne installs a new filter sock and sets up the shed for afternoon milking

Maryanne installs a new filter sock and sets up the shed for afternoon milking.

Nine years ago she took on a 50:50 job, completing two seasons before the farm was put up for sale. Even though she was offered a third year on the farm, she was told that if she could find another farm the owners would sell their farm.

“I was then offered a 50:50 job milking 160 cows at Ohangai, which was exactly what I wanted,” she says.

“I wasn’t at the point of taking on staff, I just wanted to do it by myself. I love the simplicity and it suits me.”

When you farm on your own everything falls on your shoulders, which is a positive and a negative. Dudli is the sort of person that likes to be able to make decisive decisions. But there are times when it can become stressful.

“I often wonder whether I’ve made right decisions and if not, I tend to kick myself a wee bit. I have wonderful friends who are hugely supportive and give me tremendous guidance, but I tend to be quite independent,” she says.

“I feel that because I made the decision to farm on my own, they shouldn’t have me continually telling them my farming problems. I should be able to deal with them myself. At the end of the day, the buck stops with me.”

She feels that farmers often need to take a step back and look at what they’ve achieved rather than always looking at what needs to be done. It’s an aspect she is focusing on but it’s not something that comes naturally to her or most farmers.

“Farm work never stops. You look out the window and there always seems to be something that needs to be dealt with. That’s part and parcel of living and working in the same environment. It’s not a 9-5 job where you can just switch off,” she says.

This is her third season on this farm milking 175 Friesian and Friesian-cross cows. The breed mix is F12 J4, which is what she has been aiming for.

The herd is run in two mobs, the second of which is two rows and consists mostly of older cows that fare better in the second herd.

Herd in padock

Last season the 175-cow herd produced 636kg milksolids per cow and 109,300kg MS and is tracking to achieve the same this season.

“They’re good cows that have worked hard for me for 10 years and I need to make their lives a bit easier and try to get a couple more calves out of them. There’s always a cow that needs special care or is recovering from an issue and just needs some time to come right,” she says.

Each day she carefully considers her work plan and strives to be as efficient as possible when completing tasks and their location on the farm. She often completes jobs while waiting for the cows to walk to the cowshed. She keeps chipping away at her jobs to get on top of them because she finds that it’s the little jobs that come back to bite you.

When the farm is exceptionally busy during calving, it’s tempting to leave things until the next day but she finds that if she does so, then she usually ends up playing catch-up and the problem snowballs.

“I feel better if I feel organised. If something needs doing I can’t just say ‘I’ve done enough, I’m going home,’ have tea and go to bed. It’s frustrating at times as I’m the sort of person that keeps going until it’s done. My mind doesn’t relax until it’s done,” she says.

Last season the herd produced 636kg milksolids per cow, 109,300kg MS, and is tracking to achieve the same this season.

“If the payout is a touch lower, I’ll make some decisions in the second half of the season depending on the weather,” she says.

“If it’s not economic to push for that sort of production, I won’t.”

The herd is twice-a-day, but she may look at 16-hour milking in late summer/autumn, depending on the payout and climate. The herd doesn’t perform on once-a-day (OAD) at the end of the season.

“I like cows that persist in production. My cows peak at 2.85kgs MS, which is a relatively high initial, but by the end of April they’re still at 2kgs MS. So OAD is not really an option,” she says.

Maryanne feeds the calves

Only 30 replacement calves are needed so most of the herd is put to a Hereford bull and some Speckle Park. The calves are initially ad-lib fed stored colostrum then vat milk and weaned based on age and maturity. Maryanne feeds the calves.

Her cows are fed well, as she feels that if she’s wintering and calving a cow through the hardest part of the season, then she wants to gain maximum production without pushing her too hard.

“It also comes down to the sort of cow you have and personal preferences. The more you push for production, the more you open yourself up to other issues. It’s an interesting balancing act,” she says.

The farm runs a System 4 and most of the hay used is bought in due to the increasingly frequent dry summers. She likes to have plenty of hay on hand for winter and makes as much silage as possible – 20ha is presently shut up.

She won’t cut her cows back to make silage, but will buy it if needed. Maize silage was bought in for the first time in March – a last minute decision due to the weather becoming very dry.

“There wasn’t a great deal of feed around and the silage that was available was costing around $150 per bale. When you buy wrapped silage you’re never sure of the quality because you’re scrounging whatever is available,” she says.

“I’d thought about drying-off, but it was mentioned that I should look at buying maize silage. It worked out cheaper than the silage I’d been looking at. Friends loaned me a tractor and feedout wagon so I could feed it. I may even go with the maize silage each year.”

The in-shed feed consists of 35-40% PK, 20% DDG, soy hull, tapioca and at the moment, some high-starch wheat pellets. The feed is designed to balance the grass and the mix will change throughout the year to provide a balanced diet.

The farm has a 10-week calving period with 85-90% calving in the first six weeks, including the incoming heifers. This timeframe suits her as it’s more than enough work to be done at one time for one person.

“You want your herd calving quickly, but you also want the feed coming along nicely,” she says.

“Your workload must be at a level where at the end of that six-week period you’re still mentally functional enough to be making correct management decisions. If you’ve absolutely shattered yourself you’re probably not going to be in a state to make those decisions.”

Closeup cows

Maryanne’s number one priority is breeding for capacity, but the problem with that is only 12 cows can fit in each side of the 20-a-side herringbone and milking takes four hours from cups-on to the finish of wash-down.

The calves are initially ad-lib fed stored colostrum, then vat milk and weaned based on age and maturity.

“Some may say that it’s inefficient and not cost effective to ad-lib feed vat milk to calves. But it results in good calves and is a simple way to feed them. I give them the milk first thing in the morning and take it away at night,” she says.

“Mixing milk powder is time-consuming when you’re on your own. If you grow good calves you send off good yearlings to graze.

“On May 1 good two-year olds come home that fit into your herd, get in calf again and produce well.”

Downed cows are one of the most morale sapping occurrences on a farm. She checks her cows as often as possible during calving season through to midnight. Fixing a problem early is better than facing a bigger problem in the morning when the cows need to be milked and calves fed.

She only needs 30 replacement calves, so 40% of her herd go to Hereford (and some Speckle Park) bulls. This results in some very good cows going to beef bulls. The surplus calves are easy to sell and helps reduce the number of bobby calves.

In the past she was a pedigree Holstein breeder, starting her stud as a 12-year-old with help from a local breeder. She still has descendants of those cows in her herd.

She was also a qualified TOP (Traits Other Than Production) inspector and classifier with NZ Animal Evaluation and is a firm believer in the importance of cow structure. She didn’t recertify due to the difficulty getting away from the farm.

“I used to be a cattle judge, but have stopped in recent years for the same reason; when you’re farming on your own, especially in a 50:50 position, your focus has to be primarily on the farm,” she says.

In her mind she has an image of what a good cow should look like and doesn’t care what colour it is as long as it has good structure, width and a balanced body. She doesn’t want extremes, she wants a cow that will have longevity in her herd.

“I have quite a low replacement rate and only rear about 30 heifer calves a year. I don’t like turning over cows. I like cows that will last up to 12 or 14 years in my herd and I want offspring from those cows,” she says.

“If you’re an index-based farmer then potentially some of those cows will have lower figures due to their older genetics, but I’m not looking at that. I’m looking at the fact that the cow has lasted in my herd for a number of years and has proven to suit my system.”

It doesn’t just come down to cost, she also seeks efficiency as she doesn’t want to be turning over her herd every few years. Some cows in the herd have genetics that go back to her grandparents’ herd. She has an attachment to them and they have proven that they suit her system.

“Herd longevity saves me time and money. I want as few heifers to break-in as possible,” she says.

“Breaking them in is just part of the job, but why break-in 50 when I can break-in 30? That’s especially important in a solo farming operation.

“I’ve had to learn that there is only me here to do the work. I have finite energy and there are only so many hours in the day. I have to determine how to get the most out of what I do.”

Bull selection is crucial but it’s what she is passionate about, so it’s not an onerous process. This season the herd had a 95% in-calf rate and 100% of the two-year olds got in-calf again for their second lactation.

Maryanne updating records

Some cows in the herd have genetics that goes back to Maryanne’s grandparents’ herd, so she is meticulous about keeping the herd records.

AI is used over the entire herd for the first six weeks of mating. During that period, approximately 40% are mated to Hereford or Speckle Park. During the second three-week period she is quite strict because those calves will be born a little later. Only the cows that she would be thrilled to get a heifer calf from go to a dairy bull, everything else goes to beef.

“I may be a little old fashioned but there are some cows that each year seem to come on when the bulls go in at the end of mating. Short gestation is a wonderful tool at the end of mating,” she says.

She has found her beef calves are more saleable if they’re born between August 20 and September 10, after that they become more difficult to sell. Jersey bulls are used over the heifers for calving ease.

“The late calves can become quite big, which is hard on the cows. Those calves can go overdue, especially with Herefords. I want those cows to calve with no issues,” she says.

A smaller herd allows her the luxury of daily handpicking the bulls for each cow. She uses four or five Friesian (AI) bulls.

“A tall, lanky cow needs capacity. So I’ll use a bull with capacity over her to try and create a balanced animal. A big, milky Friesian sometimes needs more components so I’ll use a cross over her,” she says.

“I want volume, but I also want components. A lot of thought goes into it during milking. But it’s what I enjoy and it enthuses me.”

Some crossbred bulls are used on some good, old cows that she feels using a Friesian bull may be a bit too hard on them.

The herd is milked through a 20-a-side herringbone, but only about 12 of her capacious cows can fit in each side.

“Breeding for capacity is my number one goal but capacious cows don’t squash up, so milking takes four hours from cups-on to the finish of wash-down. I love milking and I love my cows, but it’s a long time in the shed,” she says.

“I do a lot of business texting while milking to be as efficient as possible. When the cows hit their peak it takes a reasonable amount of time for them to empty out.”

She loves her animals, the outdoors, the land and the freedom. She sets her day and schedule, and has the freedom to make her own decisions. Farm ownership has always been her end goal and she relishes the thought of the stability it would provide.

“You put a lot into a farm and you want to be there long-term to grow and develop it. I’d like a farm a bit larger than this one where it would be economic to employ an assistant and either milk some more cows or be able to keep my heifers home,” she says.

“I don’t think of myself as a female farmer, farming isn’t really a gender thing anymore. Females are commonplace in the dairy industry, and have been for quite some time.”

She hopes there will be a future for smaller farms within the industry as an important step on the journey towards farm ownership.

Harvesting silage

The farm is a System 4 and as much silage as possible is made. About 20ha was harvested in early November.

“Cows are amazing animals, and what they do for us is incredible. I don’t like sending cows to the works. I have cows here that will never leave the farm,” she says.

“Cows have always been a relaxation for me. They give me a lot of peace. Whenever I’ve been stressed, I’ve always gone out to the cows. It’s still my happy place.”

Farm Facts:

Lease: Maryanne Dudli
Location: Auroa, Taranaki
Farm size: 84ha 
Cows: 175 Friesian and Friesian-cross cows, F12 J4
Production 2019-2020: 636kg MS per cow, 109,300kg MS.
Production target 2020-2021: 109,300kg MS
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