Thursday, November 30, 2023

Adapting the ‘rules’ of production to do what’s best for the livestock

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A Taranaki couple do not follow the manual, but with their Taranaki farm’s excellent figures they must be doing something right.
Taranaki farmers Brad and Penny Jordan own an 80ha dairy farm at Opunake where they milk 220 cows.
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This article first appeared in our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.

A Taranaki couple’s farming philosophy and their ability to farm profitably was put in the spotlight during a recent SMASH (Smaller Milk and Supply Herds) field day – but they do not believe they do anything special.

Brad and Penny Jordan milk 220 cows on an 80ha dairy farm nestled7km from Mount Taranaki and Egmont National Park, which defines their farm’s climatic conditions.

SMASH had noticed that the Jordan’s farm profit per hectare was higher than the benchmark for similar sized farming operations, and that they’d held their farm working expenses to $4.36 per kg MS. The majority of that cost was stock feed.

Hosting the SMASH field day on the farm was a bit of a conundrum for them, with Penny saying, “We don’t do anything special, we’re pretty boring.” 

But achieving excellent figures in a challenging environment, with upward-spiralling costs, is no mean feat, and certainly not boring. 

“One of the first things our farm consultant said to us when we started out was to keep things simple. We’ve stuck to that the whole way through,” Brad says.  

Not having to pay for labour is a big cost saving. Right from the start they knew they wanted to run the farm without any staff. 

“It might sound boring, but we just try to keep everything simple. You don’t have to do everything that everyone tells you that you must do. There’s no point doing things just for the sake of it,” Penny says.

They have owned their farm for 10 years and their farming philosophies are to keep things simple, and to feed their cows well. Their mantra of “If you don’t need it, don’t buy it” has proven itself and helped them farm profitably. 

Brad and Penny were sharemilking when the farm came up for sale and they were released from their contract so they could buy it. Brad and Penny check on the herd.

Brad grew up in a farming family and after leaving school he spent 12 months at Taratahi in Masterton completing a National Certificate in Agribusiness Management. At the end of the course he stayed on to work over the Christmas holiday period until the staff and students returned in the New Year. 

He then moved to Aokautere (Palmerston North) for 12 months for a dairy assistant role on a 500-cow farm before shifting to Mokoia, south Taranaki, to work for a year on another 500-cow farm. 

He then returned to his parent’s farm at Hawera, milking 150 cows. Two years later his parents bought the 140-cow farm across the road and milked the herds in each of the sheds for two years before amalgamating the farms, building a new 30-a-side herringbone cowshed, and milking 300 cows. 

When a neighbouring farm came up for sale they bought it and increased the herd number to 500. 

During this period Penny worked in Hawera supermarkets, boarding kennels and a drapery. 

“Brad began having issues with unreliable staff, and because I was already milking with him on my days off, I left the drapery to work with him on his parents’ farm,” Penny says.

Two years later, they made the jump to sharemilking and took on a three-year contract and went 50:50 on a 70ha Manutahi farm milking 200 cows. They leased a 90ha farm at Alton then returned to sharemikling.

“We only stayed there for two of the three years because our current farm came on the market and they let us go so we could purchase it,” Brad says.

“We went through quite a few jobs to get into a position to buy this farm. We were attracted to it because the four-year-old 34-bail rotary cowshed had ACR, Protrack, walk-over scales, teat sprayers, drafting, and an automatic plant wash system.

“It’s basically a one-person shed, which worked well for us when the kids were young. It meant that one of us could always go to their events while the other ran the farm.”

The 220 predominantly Friesian herd produces 105,000kg milk solids and average 477kg MS per cow. They are fed 300t of supplement through the in-shed feed system.

The farm is a System Three and they have a 45ha runoff 2km away that is primarily used to grow their young stock.  

This season’s production got off to a slow start due to the inclement spring weather, but has now caught up with last season’s figures. They target 105,000kg milk solids and average 477kg MS per cow. The cows average 470 -500kg in bodyweight and they aim for them to produce their bodyweight in MS. 

Being in such close proximity to the mountain means that the farm has both rocky paddocks and some quite wet areas. This makes pasture management a tricky balancing act during the wetter seasons. All of the swampy areas are fenced off. 

The wet weather and ground conditions were the catalyst to build a feedpad in 2017.  

“We once fed PKE from trolleys in the paddock, but we were making a lot of mess and often got the tractor stuck. One day I looked at the farm on Google Earth and saw all of those bare spots and it didn’t look good,” Brad says.

“The pugging was losing us a lot of pasture too, so we decided to build the feedpad. It’s probably the best thing we’ve done here. The timing was perfect, because the following spring was incredibly wet; a real nightmare. We’d never had it that wet before.”

They initially used trolleys on the feedpad, and were surprised how much feed the cows spilt onto the concrete. They then realised just how much the cows had been wasting in the paddock when they flicked it out of the troughs and trod it into the ground. 

A cow barn is next on the to-do list, but they’re still contemplating what type to build. They say a composting bedding home would be the best choice, and could be sited beside the feedpad. 

The farm is subject to strong winds, so whatever home is chosen it must be able to withstand them. The farm does dry out at times, but generally it’s relatively summer safe. 

“When we first came here we had to learn what areas were too wet to have the cows on at certain times of the year. But you don’t learn that until you’ve been here a year or two,” Brad says. 

“The fertiliser trucks were always getting stuck and we often had to pull them out. So we began applying it ourselves with the tractor, so we could do it when the weather was suitable and avoid the wetter areas,” Penny says.  

Brad takes the herd after milking to the feedpad where they are fed maize silage.

Only a couple of paddocks are cropped for silage, which amounts to 50-100 bales. A further 100 are made at the runoff. The bales from the runoff are either brought back to the farm to be fed out during summer or early spring, or they stay at the runoff to be fed to the stock there. 

“We buy 100-120 hay bales to feed out over winter. We prefer to buy it because we’ve found that if we make hay up here it always tends to be later into summer, and it takes a long time for the grass to come back,” Brad says.  

“At the moment we’re feeding maize silage daily on the feedpad after afternoon milking. We hold them until after milking to give them an equal chance at the feed. At the moment they get 7kg of maize silage each.”

About 300t of supplement is fed through the in-shed feed system. It comprises 4.5kg per cow daily of mostly PKE. But over the past two years they’ve been adding 15% tapioca and 5% minerals to the mix. 

They try to keep feed costs as low as possible, but over the past few years they’ve begun buying maize silage to feed during autumn.

The farm is split into 26 paddocks and 24-hour grazing is used for most of the season. 

“We get down to 23-24 day rounds when we take paddocks out for silage. But we mostly stay on the same rotation until April 1 when we go out to a 40-day round, and on May 1 we use a 55-day round. We do grow some grass through winter, but nothing like they do down by the coast,” Brad says. 

Their production per hectare was higher compared to most farms as their supplementary feed costs were much higher. But they’ve demonstrated that it works for them. They know that if they want to achieve their targets they need the 300t of in-shed feed and 100t of spring maize silage. 

“We don’t do any cropping, so don’t need the machinery or have to spend time putting it in. Topping is another time-consuming job and expense. We used to top the farm, but now have the philosophy that we’re better off eating that grass. We just keep a few more cows and top up with supplements when needed,” Brad says.

The farm has 4.5ha and 1.44ha QEII National Trust reserves and a 0.47ha fenced-off area of native forest. They set predator traps and usually catch 100 possums per year in the reserves, and stoats often along their riparian plantings. Brad clears the grass away from a predator box trap entrance.

If a drought does occur, the coastal farms tend to dry out about three weeks earlier, so Brad and Penny get a three-week heads-up to get prepared. If there’s plenty of leftover silage they only buy enough hay to fill the gap. 

“We don’t do any re-grassing, but do undersow areas that were pugged during winter. If a pasture is growing well we don’t see any need to re-grass it, which is another cost saving,” Brad says.

“It’s pretty difficult getting new pasture established up here and contractors aren’t keen to work in stony paddocks.” 

Penny says, “A couple of years ago we had a severe drought, so we just bought extra feed. Instead of drying off, we continued milking and had our best season. We never made any money, but it paid for the feed that we would’ve needed anyway. You still have to feed your cows and set yourself up for the upcoming season.”  

Penny in the milking shed. After finishing milking she sets the auto platform washing system going.

Milking is pretty easy when they both milk. The cows are usually in and out in 50 minutes and they’re finished milking in one and a half hours – an hour less than their previous farm. Two hours extra work per day for two people quickly adds up, and freeing those extra hours was equivalent to employing a part-time worker.

Calving begins on July 23. They calve 230 predominately Friesian crossbred cows, and milk 220. 

“We’ve got a few bigger cows but they have trouble backing off the platform. We don’t really want big cows on our wet paddocks. The smaller cows are hardy too,” Brad says.  

They keep 50 replacement heifers and rear 20-40 beef calves. The heifer calves go to the runoff in November and the beef calves in December. The beef calves provide diversification, help with cash flow, and utilise the runoff to its full potential. 

New-born calves are collected daily and brought to a calf shed close to the cowshed. When they’re four days old they’re moved to a bigger shed with woodchip bedding.

The calves are fed colostrum twice daily and vat milk when the colostrum runs out. The calves aren’t given meal or hay until they’re three to four weeks old. 

“We keep them in the shed until they’re bigger. They’re weaned when they’re around 100kg, and for the first ones that’s usually around the start of AI in October. But we can be still feeding beef calves right through until Christmas,” Penny says.  

Mating begins on October 17 and comprises 4-5 weeks of AI before finishing off with bulls. Two teams of two bulls are used, one Angus and one yearling Jersey. The bulls are rotated every two days for five weeks. Jersey bulls are run with the heifers. 

 “We’ve used short-gestation bulls in the past, but over the last few years our in-calf rates have increased, so we don’t have many late cows,” Brad says.

“My son and I have a contest where we each pick our bulls and compare our choices. The last couple of years we’ve picked the same bulls.”

They prefer a Friesian-type, 450-470kg cow.

To be selected, their bulls must be more than 80% black, have good temperament, milking speed, good traits other than production, no negative traits and be easy calving. They’re always high BW bulls, but they don’t specifically seek out high BW and have never really focused on it.

The herd was affected with a rare animal health issue and the Jordans discovered that their cows were very low in phosphorus. Brad dusts the maize silage fed with a high concentration of phosphorus.

This year they had a 91.6% in-calf rate and last year’s was around 92. When they first came to the farm their in-calf rate was 96% but it dropped each year until it reached 84%. 

The cause was a rare animal health issue where they discovered that their cows were very low in phosphorous. 

They still don’t know what caused the issue. The optimal cow phosphorous level is 2 mmol/L blood serum, but their cows showed 0.4 mmol/L. 

“We tested our soil and discovered that the phosphorous was locked in the soil and not getting to the grass. The vet took blood samples and we began injecting them with Vitamin B. They were going off the milk, going down, and dying very quickly,” Penny says. 

“One day we had three that weren’t looking good, just after we’d had a couple die. The vet took blood samples and after the first sample said ‘Ooh, that doesn’t look good.’ The sample was brown, just like chocolate milk,” Brad says. 

After receiving the results they injected many of the cows with a phosphorus supplement. 

“The affected cows were becoming anaemic within a week or two of calving, and went downhill very fast. Until we discovered the cause of the problem, it seemed like there was nothing we could do. They were just dropping dead and the vets had never seen anything like it before,” Penny says. 

On the vet’s recommendation, they dusted the maize silage fed on the feedpad with a high-concentration phosphorus. They noticed an improvement in cow health within weeks. 

The cows now cycle much better without needing to use any CIDRs. They believe the rising in-calf rate is a combination of the phosphorus supplement and the cows being very well fed.

“We lost about 10 cows. It was so stressful seeing them like that, you didn’t want to go back to them because you didn’t know whether you’d find more dead ones,” Penny says.  

“We weren’t used to having dead cows, and to have three or four in one day wasn’t a nice experience. We now use high phosphorus content mineral blocks on the feedpad too. The in-shed feed was mineralised, so we thought we had our bases covered,” Brad says.   

Mastitis is the farm’s main animal health issue and Brad and Penny are always on the alert for it. They think it’s mostly due to the amount of rainfall they receive. But their stocking rate of 3.3-3.4 cows per hectare can be tough to manage when it’s wet.

The farm has its own stone and sand quarry for use on the farm.

The yard scales aren’t compatible with Protrack. But when the scales were monitored they noticed that any ill cows quickly lost bodyweight. A cow with mastitis often lost one kilogram of bodyweight per day.  Brad usually gets the cows in, so is familiar with the order that they tend to walk home and into the shed. Any lagging cows are given extra scrutiny. 

“Now, we rely on the ‘eye-ometer’. It’s during spring when it’s really wet that we can have mastitis issues,” Penny says 

“Because it’s only the two of us who milk here, we know the cows and are familiar with the way they look, so can usually spot issues pretty quickly. During the spring we use a handheld teat sprayer as well as the automatic system.”

The feedback from the attendees at the SMASH field day was positive, but many attendees were puzzled why they didn’t carry out many of the practices that are deemed essential.

“We were asked why we didn’t herd test. Our shed is difficult to test in. Most of the attendees were surprised that we didn’t test, and didn’t know of anyone else who didn’t. If you find something that works for you, don’t change it.” 

Brad has never been too concerned about the figures received from herd testing, except for SSC. He finds it easier to strip the herd, because a herd test only gives him results for one particular day. 

“Herd testing is expensive. I’d rather spend the money on dry-cowing the entire herd at the end of the season. We’re a wet farm and it makes sense for us to treat them all,” Brad says. 

“We use a short-acting treatment because we don’t have an extremely high SCC. At the moment it’s sitting around 130,000.”

#Brad was born and raised on a dairy farm and completed a National Certificate in Agribusiness Management at Taratahi before going into farming. Brad opens a gate.

Looking ahead, they would like to purchase a drystock farm to rear beef or graze heifers, and employ someone to run the dairy farm. 

“We still enjoy the farming lifestyle, but would eventually like a change from daily milking. I really like rearing our beef calves and watching them grow until they leave here two and a half years later,” Brad says.  

“We’ll still be here in five years, but hopefully in 10 years we’ll be on a drystock farm,” Penny says. 

Brad says that getting into a dairy farm is still achievable, but you must stick to the goal. 

“We never thought we’d get our own farm, but we just kept working at it. It’s a bit different now though. We were lower order sharemilkers and there’s not much of that about now,” Brad says.

He’s always liked sharemilking or leasing compared to contract milking, because during good seasons it’s often possible to make more income than anticipated. 

“You’ve got to work hard and put in the time if your aim is to become a farm owner,” Penny says. “You mustn’t overextend yourselves. When we started out we bought second-hand equipment and we’ve still got one of those tractors. If you don’t need it, don’t buy it.”

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