Saturday, December 9, 2023

Better fed, better bred leads to better production for Taranaki farm

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Te Matai farm is about to join an elite club and celebrate a century of ownership by one family.
Stuart and Delwyn Honeyfield are fourth-generation farmers on their Taranaki farm, which is home to their Te Matai pedigree Ayrshire stud.
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This article first appeared in our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.

Having a farm remain in the same family for 100 years is something few farming operations manage as more and more farms are sold and corporations take over. However, it’s a milestone that a Taranaki farming family will reach this year when they attain Century Farm status. 

Stuart and Delwyn Honeyfield are the fourth generation to work their Motunui (north Taranaki) dairy farm, which is home to their Te Matai pedigree Ayrshire stud. Stuart’s grandfather settled on the farm in 1923 and his great-grandson Scott is the latest family member to work it.

The 161ha coastal dairy farm, with a 60ha runoff nearby, is owned by Stuart and Delwyn. Scott works as their contract milker with the help of farm assistant Charlotte Procter, milking 355 cows, made up of 320-330 pedigree Ayrshires as well as first and second cross Ayrshires and a few Friesians. 

Scott now has the greatest input into the dairy farm decision making.

“I turn up and do as I’m told,” Stuart jokes.

“I’ll speak out if I don’t agree with something, but it’s up to him to make the final call on most decisions.”

Stuart’s parents Barry and Elma left the farm around 18 months ago. Barry was born in a house on the farm and lived there for most of his life. 

“My father and Uncle Bob were born in 1932. They worked the farm together, and their hard work put us in a good position when we eventually took over the farm,” Stuart says. 

The farm is situated in the heart of oil country and has two oil sites on the property, each taking up half to two thirds of a paddock. 

“When the drilling was underway there was a campsite here and people were continually coming and going. Even though everything went relatively smoothly you didn’t realise the pressure until project was over,” Stuart says.

“When the last truck left the property it was like a weight had lifted from your shoulders. The majority of the people we worked with came from a rural background, which made things much easier.” 

brown and white dairy cows in a paddock
The Te Matai pedigree Ayrshire stud at Motunui runs 355 milking cows, which include 320-330 pedigree Ayrshires. The remainder are first and second cross Ayrshires and a few Friesians. The herd is on track to produce 150,000kg of milksolids this season.

Apart from doing the usual childhood farm chores, Stuart began working on the farm when he was 17 years  old.  He’d considered attending university, but wanted to travel to the United States. Travelling was the more exciting option, and in 1986 he spent 10 months working on a Minnesota dairy farm.

He’d always thought of the US as being technologically far ahead of New Zealand. But he quickly discovered that dairying in the US was a vastly different experience. At that time the US dairy industry had been in recession for a number of years and the farm he worked on hadn’t made a substantial income for some time. 

“You spent 90-100 hours cutting and carrying feed to the housed cows, and milking the 100 cows took three to four hours, twice daily. The shed had four bails per side. A cow would come in, you’d lock her in and milk each one from a small pit before letting it out to bring another forward to milk,” Stuart says. 

“It was hurry up and wait. I found it boring after coming from a 16-a-side herringbone. I probably learnt something, but nothing that was applicable here. But I suppose all of your life experiences make you into what you are today.”

Delwyn was brought up on her parent’s Kaimata (north Taranaki) dairy farm. She initially worked as a word processor for a local law firm before marrying Stuart in 1989 and working on the farm. 

The only time she didn’t worked on the farm was when their children were young and they employed a farm assistant and International Agricultural Exchange Association (IAEA) trainees.

“One of the IAEA trainees was thrown in the deep end when Scott arrived six weeks premature. Admirably, she rolled up her sleeves and got stuck in, even though she’d probably never laid hands on a cow before,” Stuart says. 

“For a number of years we worked the farm on our own, but Dad and Uncle Bob were always around to help out, and the kids helped out when they were old enough.”

When Stuart returned from the US he took on a role similar to a contract milker and progressed from there. 

Stuart talking to farm assistant Charlotte Procter before she brings the herd in for milking Charlotte won the Taranaki Dairy Trainee of the Year 2023 Emerging Talent Merit Award.

In 1984 he bought a few pedigree Ayrshire cows and registered some calves. The farm had traditionally run a Jersey to Ayrshire herd and when Stuart took over he transitioned to pure Ayrshires and began appendix registering them. Many of their cows have been bred up from non-pedigree purebreds to pedigree status.

“The cows resemble Ayrshires in the old black and white farm photos, but you can tell that there’s a little bit of Jersey in them. In those days many farmers preferred the Ayrshire to produce a beef calf and they crossed back and forth to create a more robust animal,” Stuart says. 

“Dad and Bob had been running pedigree Ayrshire bulls. When I started, I began keeping records and individually hand-mated the bulls to selected cows at the cowshed. I then started using AI on the herd.”

The stigma of a breed’s poor traits will stay with it for years in the same way that bad news travels further and faster than good news. But breeders have spent many years working on the breed’s temperament.

 “My parents were very supportive but I had many debates with people telling me that going with Ayrshires was the wrong decision. I guess it was hard at the time. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a good Friesian or Jersey cow, it’s just comes down to your personal preference.”

Stuart believes that, like most dairy breeds, if you breed good cows they’ll produce for you. 

About 80 replacement calves, 80-100 beef bull calves and 10-15 beef heifer calves are raised each season.

The Ayrshire is a very versatile, easy-care breed that can handle high and low rainfall regions, and the feed shortages that can occur in both regions. They are very good foragers and pasture to milk converters. He believes Ayrshires perform better during lean times and tend to hold their condition.

 “We have cows producing over 500kg MS and a few years ago a heifer produced 500kg MS and still got in calf. So I feel we’re breeding the right way,” he says.

“I like their colouration and their temperament,” Delwyn says.

“They’re very quiet, contented animals. There’s still a perception that Ayrshires are bad tempered, but people who milk in our shed comment on how quiet they are.” 

Stuart bought into the herd in the late 1980s and they milked 230 cows and steadily increased numbers as further land was acquired.

As the herd increased in size, the old 16-a-side herringbone shed struggled to keep up. By the time they were milking 320 cows it was taking three to three-and-a-half hours to milk. 

“We were spending most of our day milking and knew that we either had to reduce the herd size, or build a new cowshed. The herd couldn’t fit into the yard and we needed to milk two rows before we could shut the yard gate. So we made the decision to build a 44-bail rotary,” Stuart says. 

“The first season was a little tough because we had to train the herd to the new shed. But we went from needing two or three of us to milk 320 cows, to one or one-and-half of us milking 380 cows in an hour.” 

Traditionally the herd has produced 120,000kg milk solids on the System 2-3 farm. The herd averages 480-520kg in weight and last year averaged 417kg MS per cow for a total of 140,000kg MS. 

This year the herd is on track to produce close to 150,000kg MS milking 20 fewer cows and rearing 180 calves on vat milk. Stuart believes this is due the herd being better fed. He says that by feeding fewer cows and feeding them better, you will at least achieve the same production, but usually more. 

Delwyn rears all the calves on the farm. Two years ago a purpose-built calf shed was constructed to house the heifer calves, with larger pens and better airflow.

“I can only remember one year like this one. This summer has been warm and we’ve been getting rain which gave us grass all the way through. When I first started here the trend was to have three dry years and one really good year,” he says. 

“It then changed to three good years and one really dry year. Recently it’s changed again, where you know that a dry spell’s coming, but you don’t know when or how long it’ll last.” 

No nitrogen is used on the farm. Because of the farm’s coastal situation it’s an “early farm” and spring grass begins growing 10 days before it does just across the road. 

“I figure that if the grass is going to grow, then it will. If not, we have plenty of hay and silage on hand. This year the grass grew right through and we didn’t feed any silage over summer. I can’t remember that ever happening,” Stuart says.  

They own all the equipment required to make their 600 bales of wrapped silage and 350 bales of hay, negating the need to use a contractor.

“We usually plant one or two paddocks of turnips in preparation for the regular dry period. This year the forecast was for a dry summer, so we planted 5ha. We didn’t really need them, so held off feeding them for as long as possible. But they did get us through the February hot spell,” he says. 

“During hot summer days the cows stand in the shade of the trees instead of eating. They’re given a good feed of turnips first thing in the morning and they can then wander off to the trees. We’ve trialled green feed maize but cutting maize requires more work than break-feeding turnips.”

The cows are fed 3kg per day of an Agrifeeds blend of PKE, DDG through the in-shed feed system along with zinc and other minerals. During spring some biscuit cereal is for added energy and during summer some tapioca is added to the mix.

Two years ago an in-shed feed system was installed; it increased production by 17%. They also dispense zinc and other minerals to the herd through it. 

The cows are fed 3kg per day of an Agrifeeds blend of PKE, DDG through the in-shed feed system. During spring some biscuit cereal is used for added energy and during summer some tapioca is added to the mix.

Calving starts around July 10 and finishes around September 20. This year calving was brought forward to utilise the winter grass. 

“The idea is to get them calved and we always have silage on hand to get them over any feed gap. Most of the herd has calved when the grass comes,” Stuart says.

About 80 replacement calves, 80-100 beef bull calves and 10-15 beef heifer calves are raised. The remaining beef heifer calves are sold to a beef rearer. 

“The beef calves diversify the operation and help with cash flow. I like the fact that I can see them from the day they’re born until they’re sent to the processors two-and-a-half years later. It’s very satisfying seeing a line of well-grown animals at the end of all the work,” Stuart says.

“Raising beef calves mean that we don’t have all our eggs in one basket and that income certainly helps out when the payout is down. We sell some animals during winter to help with cash flow.”

As soon as a cow has calved it goes onto fresh grass. The calves are collected every afternoon. 

 “I rear the calves and the Ayrshire calves are very robust. I have my favourites and they have their pet names,” Delwyn says.

“We feed colostrum until it runs out before using vat milk and milk powder. The milk powder is mostly used in the big calfateria for the beef calves.

“We recently bought a milk wagon, which eliminates the chore of lugging heavy buckets of milk. It’s great, you just throw the milk powder in, flick the switch and it mixes it for you.”

The farm jobs never end, especially when inclement weather hits. Stuart clears the trees felled by Cyclone Gabrielle.

The calves are fed hay and meal from day one. 

The new shed enables the calves to move in and out of the shed onto the pasture. They can be shut in at night or during inclement weather. All of the calves can be housed in the two sheds. 

“The new calf shed is the best thing we’ve ever built. It has better airflow and bigger pens so the calves can spread out. We haven’t had any sickness issues since we’ve been using the new shed,” Delwyn says. 

“The calves are usually weaned when they’re around 10-12 weeks old, but I tend to go more by their look than their weight. When I have to fill their meal troughs up daily, I know they’re heading in the right direction.” 

Mating begins between October 1 and 5, and heifer mating begins five days before that. Mating usually lasts until the middle of December but this year it was extended to just before Christmas.

Spring’s inclement weather made mating this season tough, so the herd AI was extended for six weeks before running Hereford bulls for four weeks, and then tailing with short gestation Kiwi cross AI.

“Our in-calf rate is usually been around 88%, but this year it was down to 83-84%, which I think was mostly due to the poor spring. The first three weeks of mating were slow, but they came right after that,” Stuart says.

“This year there’ve been many tales of poor in-calf rates. I think we’re probably about average, and considering the spring conditions, I’m pretty comfortable where it is. We didn’t intervene with CIDRs, we just tried to feed them better. I think a great deal of cow fertility comes down to feeding.”

This year AI was used on 22 of the best heifers and purebred low-birthweight Hereford bulls were used over the remainder.

They have been concentrating on selecting bulls for their production BVs. The bulls must have sound conformation and a good temperament. Stuart primarily uses Semayr’s (Ayrshire New Zealand’s breeding arm) top bulls and Finnish genetics as an outcross.

Stuart is Ayrshire New Zealand’s board director and is on the national Semayr committee. Semayr focusses on providing bulls that aren’t readily available to NZ Ayrshire farmers. Semayr is aligned with LIC and uses science to pick, prove and progeny test bulls.

“We’ve been utilising genomic testing for the last two years and it’s been an interesting process. For example, we tested three ET brothers that you couldn’t visually tell apart. We only chose one because the other two were so genetically different. So rather than proving all three, we only needed to prove one,” he says. 

This year, the farm will achieve century status having been bought in 1923 by Stuart’s grandfather. Three generations of the Honeyfield family at the entrance to the farm. From left, son Scott, Stuart, daughter Rebecca, Elma and Barry Honeyfield (Stuart’s parents), Delwyn, and son Troy.

The NZ Ayrshire’s smaller genetic pool does limit choice, and it’s one reason Semayr also imports Scandinavian genetics. It’s an outcross from a very good Ayrshire population, where genomics and ET have been utilised for a number of years. 

Ayrshire breed development has come a long way in recent years. This was dramatically illustrated to Stuart when he used two 20-year-old AI straws that he’d stored in the bank.

“We ended up with a heifer calf from one of my own bulls that’d been in the catalogue. I can remember looking at it and thinking that I couldn’t remember his offspring looking that poor.

“It really demonstrated how far Ayrshire genetics have come over the last 20 years. It just didn’t perform compared to modern genetics. We used to do 250-300kg MS per cow and now we’re doing over 400kgs MS.” 

He says that there is a future for the Ayrshire in the NZ dairy herd and he would like to see more farmers using Ayrshire sires. 

“Using Ayrshires as a three-way cross is an area where the breed would really shine. It would be an alternative to using Friesians and Jerseys to gain hybrid vigour and breed a hardy cow.” 

They say dairy farming is a tie, and you’ve got to enjoy the life. 

“You work hard, but once you get through that period and the weather’s right, I can go fishing. I’ve spent 18 years trying to catch a marlin and this year it happened. My Ayrshire NZ work also gets me off the farm,” Stuart says. 

He would like to keep working on the farm as long as possible. His father was still going to the runoff to shift cattle when he was in his early eighties. 

Delwyn also enjoys the lifestyle and feels that the farm was a great place to raise kids. 

“They were brought up knowing that they had to help out when needed, which imparted a good work ethic. I love my garden and it’s good therapy. We’d both like to stay on the farm as long as we’re physically able to,” Delwyn says. 

“I have my garden here and we‘re close to the coast for Stuart’s fishing, everything we want is here. We’d just dial back the milkings and help Scott out when needed.” 

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