Friday, July 1, 2022

Three times a winner

A Taranaki farmer made history this year when he scooped the Taranaki Share Farmer of the Year title and became the first person to win all three Dairy Industry Award titles.

When John Wyatt’s name was announced as the winner of the 2021 Taranaki Share Farmer of the Year in the New Zealand Dairy Industry Awards (NZDIA) it was a one of a kind achievement.

John had previously won the 2009 Hawke’s Bay/Wairarapa Dairy Trainee of the Year category and the 2015 Manawatū Farm Manager of the Year. His 2021 Taranaki award made him the first person in the award’s 32-year history to win all three titles. What made the Taranaki win even sweeter was that he won it alongside his wife Kristina.

John and Kristina are contract milkers for Mike Hammond at Auroa, South Taranaki, where they milk 315 crossbred cows on his 121-hectare (106ha effective) farm.

Kristina works four days a week as a large animal vet at Taranaki Vet Centre’s Stratford clinic and also works with John on-farm. This is their fifth season on the farm.

The NZDIA had a big influence on John’s career. He feels that winning the trainee award was key to him getting his first manager’s job as a 21-year-old.

“I was home-schooled so had no NCEA qualifications or university degree. I won the manager award before coming to Taranaki. I think winning the award was one reason why I was considered for this job,” John says.

When he entered the 2021 Taranaki Share Farmer of the Year he had considered that he might win the third of the three awards. At the time of winning he was so excited that they’d won the award that he never really considered that he’d now won the trifecta.

When he won the trainee and manager awards he did so on his own, but was able to share the special moment of winning the Share Farmer award with Kristina.

Kristina broke her ankle during the lead-up to the awards and couldn’t work. During that period she was able to use the time to prepare for the NZDIA. She was familiar with the practical side of the farm operation, but was now able to learn the theory aspect, which gave her a far better understanding of the farm as a whole.

“It was a huge learning curve ensuring that we had everything covered. I’d always wanted to enter the share farmer category with John and we got the chance to do it. It was amazing to win together; I couldn’t get the smile off my face,” Kristina says.

Telling others how they operated the farm forced them re-evaluate what they did, whether they were the best ways to accomplish them and to research other approaches.

“The NZDIA opens up an entire network within the industry. You meet other award winners and interact and bounce ideas off a range of people from different life stages that you wouldn’t have met if you hadn’t entered,” she says.

“That’s especially true when you’re from outside the region. We’ve expanded our community with people with knowledge that will help us become better farmers. We can help others too, which is really cool.”

John has farmed since leaving school. He grew up on a small Dannevirke sheep and beef farm and also helped the neighbours with docking and shearing. His first job after leaving school was on a Dannevirke dairy farm.

“They wanted a worker until Christmas and I thought it would be a good opportunity to try dairy farming. I’d always wanted to farm, but wasn’t sure about dairy. I ended up staying on that farm for three years,” John says.

He worked as a farm assistant milking 430 cows and in the process, discovered a love of dairy farming and felt that it offered a better progression pathway to advance his farming career. He would have been able to get a shepherd’s job, but could see there were limited pathways to farm ownership.

He then took on a farm manager’s job for three years in Pahiatua where he milked 300 cows for the first year, then milked 280 on their other farm. He then spent four years as a farm manager on a Palmerston North dairy farm milking 460 cows.

He also studied through Primary ITO to gain his New Zealand Diploma in Agribusiness Management.

Kristina always wanted to become a vet. She applied for the School of Veterinary Science at Massey University to undertake a Bachelor of Veterinary Science (BVSc), but wasn’t accepted the first time. She worked on a goat farm and a horse stud and did some relief milking for four months.

“I milked 1300 goats and loved the job. Even though farming was an option, I still wanted to become a vet. So I had another crack at vet school and was accepted. I met John in my first year and realised that I could be a vet and a farmer,” Kristina says.

Her fifth year of study was mostly practical work experience and she worked in veterinary practices from the Northland to Southland. Taranaki Vet Centre’s Manaia clinic was her favourite.

“I applied and got a job at that Taranaki clinic and said ‘John, guess what? We’re going to Taranaki.’ I began work in December and we got married in January 2017,” she says.

“John relief milked on local farms until June when we began contract milking on our current farm. This job wasn’t advertised, but at every farm I visited I said my husband’s looking for a job and we landed this job through those contacts.”

Farming has given Kristina a real-world experience of the practical pressures and stresses on a farm, and it helped her become a better vet.

“At university you’re taught the ‘gold standard’ methods of treating animals and best practice techniques. But it has to be put into a practical context. You must think ‘this is best practice’, but is it achievable on this particular farm at this point?” she says.

“Rather than tell a farmer the gold standard method and have them say ‘I can’t achieve it’ and do nothing, steps can be initiated towards that standard.”

She took a year of maternity leave when Caleb was born and during that period worked on the farm full-time during calving. Up until that point she was mostly relief milking on the farm. She now works as a vet for four days a week. During her maternity leave she gained a far better practical understanding of the challenges that farmers face.

“I now look at different avenues and methods of attaining the gold standard where we’d like to see farms progress to. I’ve really enjoyed that and feel that my vet work has improved because of it. When you’re on-farm and tell the farmer that you’re a farmer too, they know you understand their situation,” she says.

They milk 315 crossbred cows and the mostly closed herd has been on the low-input System 2 farm for more than 40 years. Last season they produced a record 126,000 kilograms of milksolids (400kg MS per cow). The grass grew well throughout summer and a turnip crop helped summer production.

Last season’s turnip crop helped mitigate a dry season and safeguard production over the summer. This season’s production is going well. Production is slightly behind last year but is currently ahead on a daily basis, though spring growth was slow to begin with.

Over the past four years, production up until Christmas has been very consistent, but summer production is very weather-dependent.

“We’ve boosted early spring production by improving our six week in-calf rate (currently 76%) by a couple of percent each year. We produce more milk in a shorter period compared to what the farm traditionally did. High early production helps us achieve our desired production figures even if the summer dries out,” she says.

When the paddocks get too long for the herd they’re dropped from the round and cut for silage; they make 300-400 bales of silage and last season they put in 4ha of turnips and will do the same this season. About 30 tonnes of PKE is bought as a summer supplement for the calves. The calves stay on the farm until May 1 before going away for grazing.

The farm hasn’t been regrassed in over 40 years, except for where the turnips were grown. The present pasture is performing well, but lower-producing paddocks are being targeted for regrassing.

“Last year we planted Maxsyn NEA4 so we’re keen to see the results. The older pastures are well-established and come back well after winter. You lose out on the new grass high sugar content, but the older pastures have persistence,” John says.

“Cow body condition score is important to us and we dry off early if we need to. Pasture cover and cow body condition score are the two main drivers for when we dry off,” Kristina says.

“This maintains the condition score and builds us up for the following season. We ensure that there’s good pasture cover going into winter.”

Her favourite time of the year as a farmer and a vet is calving. The herd has a compact calving pattern and begins on July 31, with 50% of the herd calving by August 10, with the heifers starting a week earlier.

“I love being outside and spending time with animals. My favourite job on the farm and of being a vet is calving cows. It’s my favourite time of the year, even though it’s our busiest,” she says.

“It’s quite handy having a vet pharmacy parked in the driveway. The neighbours appreciate it too,” John jokes.

Each calf is tube-fed gold colostrum before going into the calf shed where they are fed twice-daily until three-weeks-old. The young calves are fed first, followed by the older ones and then the bobbies, to eliminate any cross contamination to the younger calves. There is water and meel in the shed from day one.

“The gold colostrum is preserved with potassium sorbate, which keeps the antibody levels high so next morning it’s just as good as when it came out of the cow. We use colostrum until it runs out and then use vat milk to finish off the season if needed,” Kristina says.

“We leave the calves inside for as long as possible, but the early calves are usually let out into sheltered paddocks by the time they’re two weeks old.”

Calves drinking from vat

A chilled calf-milk vat ensures the milk stays in better condition for longer. During summer, if the temperature of the vat milk isn’t dropping quickly enough they use the chilled calf-milk vat to chill water to run through the plate cooler.

Mating begins on October 22 and is solely AI using A2 bulls for the first five weeks to produce 70-80 replacement calves. They feel that the biosecurity aspect is the biggest advantage of using AI and now that Caleb has arrived, they feel a lot safer knowing there are no bulls on the farm.

This is followed by two weeks of short-gestation Hereford and then three weeks of short-gestation crossbred. The Hereford ensures there is no overlap between the replacements and the short-gestation crossbreds.

Short-gestation bulls bring the later cows forward and the farm gains an extra week to 10 days of milk production from them.

“We use Friesian over any cows showing too much Jersey influence. Anything less than 50% Friesian will have Friesian used on them. Anything over 50% Friesian will get crossbred for a more consistent line of calves. We use Jersey over the heifers for calving ease,” John says.

Their breeding goal is for a F10-F12 cow. Medium-sized crossbred cows give them fat content and volume in a smaller cow with hybrid vigour and efficient feed conversion.

“We’re aiming for an A2 herd in the hope that there will be a premium paid for A2 milk in the future. We’re about 60% towards that target. It’s not costing anything to move towards that goal. Our BW and PW (131 and 151) are still rising,” he says.

“BW is important to us. Our herd is above the average and we aim to at least maintain that and improve it as much as we can. Traits like udder conformation are important for us. We’re a low input farm so we’re not putting pressure on the cows, which helps herd longevity. Our oldest cow is 13 years old.”

They have considered using beef breeds over the tail of the herd, but the farm has limited calf shed space. The implement shed also functions as the calf shed.

“We’ve considered using Wagyu bulls, but the calves have to be kept for a time and we don’t have the shed space by the time we’ve put all of our keepers through the shed,” Kristina says.

They achieve a 90% in-calf rate for the 10-week mating period, which Johns credits to the herd’s higher body condition.

The milking shed is fitted out with various technologies, including automatic cup removers, a Protrack Draft system, automatic teat spray, plant and vat wash, YieldSense and CellSense. The cell sensors are in every third bail, ensuring that each cow gets tested every couple of days.

Cows being miled

“This herd has historically had a low somatic cell count (80,000 SCC for the season). It’s probably 50:50 whether the machine picks up mastitis before I do. The sensors alert the milker if a cow has high cell count,” John says.

Kristina is passionate about mastitis and took part in a mastitis research study and set up the mastitis lab at Taranaki Vet Centre’s Manaia clinic.

“We take a sample from any subclinical cows and culture it at the vets to see what grows. It gives you a good picture of what is going on in cows that may not have mastitis, but whose cell count is higher,” she says.

Mastitis is treated early and any problem cows are culled. Cows with a high somatic cell count are milked last so they don’t infect the herd.

Wet weather can be an issue as they receive 1500mm of rainfall, so have two effluent ponds for storage. A local contractor pumps out the ponds every two months.

“The cost of installing and maintaining an effluent spreading system was comparable to having the contractors spread it. We don’t have to shift irrigators every day and can spread the effluent over a larger area of the farm. The contractors have two kilometres of pipe, so we can cover around 80% of the farm,” John says.

The water supply comes from the Waimate West Rural Water Scheme and a year ago a greenwash system was installed, which has resulted in a 30-40% reduction in water use and a $10,000-$15,000 cost saving per annum.

Installing the greenwash and reusing water has also given the couple more storage in their ponds. Prior to the installation the ponds had six weeks storage, they now have nine weeks.

Helping them on the farm is a fixed-term full-time worker who is employed during calving. They have recently employed a part-time staff member for two days a week in a job-sharing arrangement with a nearby farm. She is relatively new to the industry and the initiative will provide her with a full-time job and experience in two farming systems.

“This is the first year we’ve had a permanent staff member. Previously we have only had a full-time worker during spring. Last year it was just the two of us and a relief milker. We didn’t have enough work for a full-time labour unit, so the job-sharing solution was perfect,” Kristina says.

“One of the drivers for employing a part-time worker was to give John more time with Caleb; you can never get the years back when your children are young.”

Their priorities changed when Caleb was born. They feel that it’s not a physically or mentally sustainable lifestyle to be working all hours of the day, 365 days of the year.

“My mum was a nurse and dad was a construction supervisor. We always had annual family holidays and spent weekends together at home. Our family has always been close because of the time we spent together. I want the same for our kids,” she says.

John and Cale in milking shed

“Farming is awesome because John comes home for breakfast and lunch, which is something you don’t usually get in other jobs. Caleb spends a lot of time with him, but it’s important for him to spend time off-farm too. We can go to the beach and have fun rather than just be on the farm.”

They encourage other farmers to consider a job-sharing model. It takes off some work pressure, even though the farm may not have enough work to justify a full labour unit.

“Job-sharing could be used more widely. You give someone a full-time job without taking it all on yourself. Historically we’ve only ever got someone in to milk when we have something on. Now it’s on the roster for us to have weekends off. This calving has been one of the smoothest and we’ve managed to get more done due to having an extra person here,” she says.

John likes the variety of farming and enjoys being outside, working with animals and seeing the results of the decisions he and Kristina have made together.

“We’ve learnt that attention to detail is very important. John is very strong at that and I’m a bit of a perfectionist,” she says.

“You have to be adaptable. You can’t have a ‘this is the way we do things and the way we always will do them’ mindset. I think that those two factors have been key to us being successful. Don’t be frightened to make changes.”

Employing a part-time worker does mean they won’t achieve their goals as quickly as they would like, but they feel that the journey is just as important as the destination.

They would eventually like to own their own farm. For them, a 300-cow herd would be the perfect size. A 300-cow farm provides a good work-life balance, it’s not too big and they can still know their cows well. It’s also not so small that it’s uneconomic and not profitable enough to employ staff when you need to take a break.

They believe that the dairy industry has many paths for progression.

“I don’t think there are many industries with so many options for progression. You must be prepared to work hard. If you don’t have the drive and the passion, you won’t get anywhere. When people see that, you can really go places,” John says.

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