Friday, July 1, 2022

Some pretty handy cows

Keeping a herd Tb-free on a bush-bordered West Coast farm is a challenge, but as Karamea farmers Peter and Debbie told Anne Lee, embryo transfer is proving to be a successful part of the plan.

Bovine tuberculosis (Tb) can complicate cattle movement on the West Coast, so when Debbie and Peter Langford wanted progeny from a neighbouring Tb-infected herd, they harvested embryos instead.

Their own herd, in a hidden valley near Karamea, is made up of 220 mainly crossbred cows with a breeding worth (BW) of 115 and production worth (PW) of 124, but with "some pretty handy cows among them". It's also lucky enough to be free of Tb. So this year they took embryos from two donor-selected cows in the infected herd and implanted them into naturally-cycling recipients on their own farm.

Embryo transfer technician Nigel Juby from Ova-Achievers travels the country for on-farm multiple ovulation embryo transfer and he supplied the CIDR and superovulation programme to coincide with his arrival in Karamea to harvest the embryos. Donor dams were artificially inseminated three times over 24 hours to maximise the chances of fertilising all the released eggs and the result was 17 embryos from the two-year-old and one embryo from the older cow.

Recipients were chosen from the poorer-producing cows in the Langford's herd that would have less effect on next season's crop of replacement calves.

"Some of our poorest-performing cows will have some of our best calves next spring," Debbie says.

Each chosen recipient had naturally cycled seven to eight days before being implanted with the embryos, which had the advantage of keeping calving in sync with the seasonal production cycle as well as keeping costs down.

At around $300-$400/calf on the ground, the Langfords reckoned it was a cost effective way of getting the genetics they wanted.

Debbie and Peter already had some embryo transplant experience after flushing the top cow in their herd last year, along with two of her daughters. The 12-year-old cow with a BW of 208 had been top of their herd for 10 lactations and produced three top-producing daughters, but usually bull calves. Though she didn't produce any embryos, her daughters produced 32 between them, with 26 implanted that resulted in 16 successful pregnancies and eight heifer calves. The remaining six embryos were frozen and implanted this year.

Breeding passion

As well as embryo transplanting, they have used some sexed semen this year to further improve the herd. And for the first time, the entire herd received nominated semen from eight bulls, mostly from LIC and another from Ambreed to get the selection they wanted.

The cows are Debbie's passion and ear tags all display the cow's name that begins with a letter that links it to its genetic family.

"I mostly get overridden on breeding decisions," Peter says.

Breeding decisions have earned success and one of their yearling bulls, Kahurangi GB Topgun, with a BW of 282, is now part of the DNA-proven Holstein Friesian team for LIC.

"His mother did 107% of her liveweight in milksolids (MS) for her first season," Peter says. "In spite of everything, some cows will do the business and she seems to be one of them."

The Langfords farm 95ha effective in a picturesque valley surrounded on all sides by the bush of the Kahurangi National Park. Despite the bush boundary, possum numbers are low now and they have managed to remain Tb-free in recent years. There's always the risk of it returning though, so they support the effort of the Animal Health Board (AHB) with their own possum control programme. Deer wander over the farm, but Peter says they didn't interact with the cows and didn't appear to be a Tb risk.

While the bush and possums haven't brought Tb onto the property, the herd did contract it from a cow they purchased from a C10 herd seven years ago, which knocked the status of their own herd back and it's only now up to C3.

The small Karamea township lies a few kilometres north of the farm and contrary to the West Coast's reputation as a rainy region, this corner gets its full quota of brilliant, sunny days. But when it does rain, it pours and adds up to around 2.3m through a year.

Family heritage

Debbie's family has been milking cows on the farm for three generations, so despite the challenges of farming in what can become a bog in a long, narrow valley stretching 3.4km from one end to the other, with a small river weaving its way through its length, they're not going anywhere else.
"It's family history and you can't walk away from it," Peter says.

Despite the strong ties to the family farm and Peter's links with dairying in Golden Bay, the couple were late taking up a career in the industry. Peter had spent 13 years teaching agriculture at the Open Polytechnic in Lower Hutt and was working with Wastecare in Auckland when they decided it was time to get out of the city with their four young children.

"When it took me two hours to drive to work in Auckland one day, I wondered what else I could do," Peter says. "I said to Debbie that if we were going to go dairy farming we had to do it now or we'd be too old."

It had been 20 years since Peter was last involved in dairying, but in 1998 the opportunity was there to manage the family farm, so they left suburbia and traffic for one of the most remote spots in the country, with just locals and a few tourists travelling the main road to Karamea that ends at the start of the Heaphy Track.

In 2006 they bought the family farm and today they produce around 83,000kg MS/year from the herd which is a mix of Friesian, Jersey and crossbreds. It works out at 400kg MS/cow and that's at 2.3 cows/ha with mainly grass supplements, though last year they purchased palm kernel when the going got tough in an unusually wet, cold December.

Palm kernel proved a challenge in itself and labour intensive without the setup to feed it out as they ended up shovelling it into a 6m home-built trailer. It's made them consider meal feeders in the dairy to deal with the uncertainty of the weather.

This season began well enough, but weeks of rain in September turned the farm into a swamp and it became impossible to spread fertiliser on the paddocks. That and cooler weather compounded the slower grass growth and by the end of September they made the decision to put the heifers onto once-a-day (OAD) milking and feed them meal.

"We had to make a decision and we had to prioritise getting them in-calf for next year."
Running the heifers in a separate mob effectively sped up the round and with little ahead of the cows, the challenge was to hold cow condition to ensure they cycled.

Opting for 16-hour milkings wasn't really an option with AI, so two weeks later the entire herd was on OAD. By mid-November they were back on twice-a-day (TAD) and the cows cycled well, so potentially a good start for next season, Peter says.

Though it was a particularly wet spring, only one in four springs were what they considered a good spring in the valley. Some of the farm is humped and hollowed to allow water to drain and a paddock on a small terrace above the farm has been flipped to create a better base to stand cows off during wet weather.

Rough ground

They're constantly checking the Metservice's three-day weather map which they find very accurate for their neck of the woods and that usually allows them time to move cows off paddocks before heavy rain turns it all to custard.

"The soul-destroying part is the mess the cows make when you get it wrong. When you're 20 minutes late it can mean you have to rework that paddock."

The pugging left behind this spring produced ankle-twisting terrain and Peter says it was "a bit of an art" using the platemeter to work out the amount of feed on the farm. Trying to get a reasonable assessment with the platemeter around the farm was often a four-and-a-half-hour job.

Cutting supplements on the rough ground isn't feasible, so most supplements are cut on the 35ha runoff along the coast where they also winter the cows.

Even cultivating some of the paddocks on the milking platform will have to wait until autumn this year because it was too wet to attack in spring. Last year they direct drilled with uncertified Italian ryegrass and that worked really well.

"We struck the jackpot with it really. We got 20ha done, whereas we'd only get three to four hectares done with cultivating."

Even after the ground dries out following a wet stint, the grass often continues to struggle and Peter says they have a theory that the grass roots didn't reach down into the soil very far because of the wet which meant it then became stressed as the surface dried.

While it was often difficult conditions for dairying, Peter says they weren't scared of a challenge, which is why they took on the embryo transplanting, shovelled palm kernel and were now turning a swampy pakihi plateau into dairy pasture.


Nigel Juby retrieves the embryos.













A flipping improvement

Before the Langfords flipped the first bucket load of pakihi soil on top of their 114ha development block, much of it was a boggy mass of bracken, gorse and sphagnum moss, with the remnants of harvested native forest around its edges.

After six months working a digger over the land they had buried 15ha of pakihi and brought a rocky soil to the surface resembling a vast dry riverbed that was still hard to visualise as future dairy grazing. Yet that boulder-strewn terrain would be grazing calves by January, reckoned Peter in early November as he pointed to the fine soils under the rocks.

All it needed was contouring with the digger bucket, a leveling bar over the surface, 10 tonne of lime spread to the hectare as well as half a tonne of phosphate super, seed broadcast and a good heavy roller to push down the loose stones. All up, he estimated it would cost around $12,000/ha including the price they paid for the land back in 2003.

They bought it when they were still managing the family farm, with the idea that if they did buy the farm, the block gave them possibilities for expansion down the track. It sits on a plateau between the dairy farm's valley and the coast, with a small strip of Department of Conservation (DOC) land between the two properties they have gained access through with a track and bridge to walk the cows.

When they initially bought the development block, the once-cleared land through the centre was already reverting to scrub and gorse. For about five years they grazed their young dairy beef on it, but they didn't grow well on the infertile country. Pakihi is a type of heath, sitting on top of a hard pan that won't drain and the effect is a boggy soil that becomes very infertile in high-rainfall areas.

Next they tried older beef cattle on the block, but they bogged up the gateways and it was impossible to drive a tractor around.

Pasture improvement

Now budgeting on a minimum payout of $5.70/kg MS for five years, they decided they could afford to start trench flipping the block to produce pasture suitable for a milking platform.

"It will give us huge flexibility because of the wet land in the valley and means we can winter on it and wet springs won't be an issue."

It cost $25,000 for the resource consents before they had even turned over the first clod of soil. With the go ahead to flip it, they paid $240,000 to buy a digger, strengthened the bucket for the job and hired an operator who has been beavering away on the block full time since May to achieve 15ha by early November.

It's worked out at 50 hours/ha to turn the ground over. Initially they dug down too deep and brought huge boulders to the surface that they will pick up and use for river protection.

They had good information on flipping the pakihi before they entered the venture; their son, Brett, had done a thesis on flipping, humping and hollowing on the West Coast for an honours degree. And though it's a high cost to turn it into productive land, Peter says the figures stack up, although he admitted to being nervous about the payout measuring up.

"We will still only have 50% debt with all of it developed and the equity lift from having this in grass will be huge."

Their plan is to continue developing the block as payout allows.

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