Thursday, December 7, 2023

Striving to do things differently on farm

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Mark and Penny Brown fine-tune their farming to bring it ever closer to their sustainability goals.
Mark Brown and his wife have been making changes to their dairy operation in a bid to make it more sustainable. Mark out with his herd.
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This article first appeared in our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.

By Audrey Hayes

A Waikato farming couple have always been keen innovators, striving to make their dairy operation profitable in a sustainable way. 

Mark and Penny Brown of Aukati Farms milk 500 Friesian-cross cows on their 170ha farm at Pirongia. They have been making changes in their system for the past five years, striving to do things differently. 

“When we set up an equity partnership in the family farm, we looked at everything. We looked at where we wanted to go ourselves and how we could take the farm in a different direction. We looked at different milk companies and different ways of farming,” Mark Brown said. 

The first change they made on the farm was switching to a supplier that aligned with their values. They now supply Synlait and were one of the first farms in the North Island to become Lead With Pride certified, establishing themselves as industry leaders.  

“You’re looking at the four pillars, which are environmental, social responsibility, milk quality and animal health. It’s all in-depth, there’s a lot of SOPs and getting it all set up, but it’s well worth it,” Brown said. The Browns receive several premiums, including ones for A2, winter milking and being a part of Synlait’s Lead With Pride programme. 

Meeting these premiums and farming in a way that is sustainable means they focus highly on the genetic traits introduced to their herd. One way they do this is through sexed semen so they can get high-value replacements. Brown himself chooses which of his cows are bred to sexed semen and has a list of targets they must meet.

“The cows have to be 70 days in milk, have a rising energy curve and a previously recorded heat. The key is in the transition period prior to calving. They must have had no issues calving, no milk fever, mastitis, lameness, nothing like that.” 

He also goes by milk production, so he knows which ones are the highest performing in the herd. 

The cows that don’t meet his requirements are bred to beef to reduce the number of bobby calves, and he’s dabbled in a few different breeds, including Speckle Park, Charolais, Belgian Blue and Wagyu. 

“The Speckle Park calves are easy to feed, they find the milk and go straight for it. The meat is beautiful, they grow quickly and have good temperament,” he said. 

When it comes to the traits he wants to see in his cows, udder health and capacity are at the top of the list, followed by feet and structure. With a goal of having cows that can produce over 600-plus milk solids, he wants to be certain their udders can handle it. 

The new purpose-built composting barn will be used throughout the season to ensure the cows and pasture are well taken care of so more work can go into breeding.

The long, narrow farm means the cows need to be capable of walking long distances with minimal issues. However, time walking will soon be cut down significantly for the cows with the addition of a new composting barn. The new purpose-built composting barn will be used throughout the season to ensure the cows and pasture are well taken care of. 

His next goal is to bring in another breed to gain heterosis and bring down the live weight of the herd.

“We don’t want the cows to get too big. We’re around a 560-580kg live weight and we’re wanting it to be around 530-550kg, so this year we’re looking at using Jerseys over the big Holsteins.”

Aukati is a high-input farm, with the cows being weighed daily and given feed from the farm in shed. The amount of feed they get is calculated on an individual basis depending on production, weight potential and pregnancy status. The Browns are currently feeding around 2t of maize silage per cow.

 “We’re looking at feeding around 6t of feed a cow, but obviously still focusing on pasture first,” he said. 

He believes individual feeding is important as it allows you to target each cow based on their specific needs. 

For the Browns, taking care of their cows and farm in a sustainable way is at the heart of what they do.

“We’ve got individual milk metres, fat and protein readers, weigh scales, automatic heat detection and testers for mastitis. With switching from pedometers to collars we’ll also have rumination and other health alerts. Five years in and I think we’re still transitioning across to the type of system we want, but we’re always adapting.” 

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