“The focus used to be on low-cost production but that’s changed. Now there’s nothing that gets in the way of getting better production.
“The best way to get costs down is to take production up … it’s 100% better. You can’t get costs down with beggar all production.”
An example of the new full-feeding strategy is to dry off cows giving less than nine litres/day over a few consecutive days.
“That starts in January. We see what each cow is giving each day and we shift those less productive but still good cows to the drystock farm as carry-overs,” said Ali, whose 50-bail rotary dairy has milk meters installed as well as automatic cup removers (ACRs), automated drafting gates and a database system for each cow’s milking, feeding, breeding and health data.
During winter the adjacent drystock farm grazes two-thirds of the dairy herd, about 600 cows, on grass plus grass silage from 140ha, maize silage from 30ha and a 20ha winter crop of swedes.
That means fewer than 300 cows remain on the milking platform at a stocking rate of one cow/ha that takes the pressure off winter grazing requirements.
The result has been a climb in milk production from 364kg milksolids (MS)/cow in 2008/09 to 392kg MS the following season, then a drop to 364kg MS before rocketing to 435kg MS/cow last season. The target this season is 457kg MS/cow or 1342kg MS/ha.
The herd’s empty rate is consistently around 8%, which Ali and Rob deem acceptable for a herd calved without the use of CIDRs or inductions.
The new dairy conversion began with 720 cows in the 2008/09 season, comprising 140 cows eight years and older, 150 low production worth (PW) cows, the tail-enders of other herds but including a sound herd from Otorohanga and 80 good quality heifers. This season 875 robust Friesian-crosses are being milked and the aim is to build to 950 cows.
They give credit to their farm consultant, Feilding-based Parry Matthews, for helping them apply his principle of fully feeding cows so they can more efficiently convert feed to milk.
“You have to feed them, feed them really well, and we do that by feeding good grass and supplements and use a mower to fix any grazing mistakes, not the cows,” Ali said.
Part and parcel of that strategy is to be kind to the cows – it’s an unbent rule at Huirimu that everyone must treat the stock with care and respect.
“There’s no alkathene pipe waved around. There’s no mucking around on that,” Ali said. “We don’t have a radio turned up loud in the dairy, we don’t dock tails, we don’t beat our dogs and we try not to swear at our wives,” he said with a smile.
Rob, who previously worked in rural supplies, drove tractors and harvesters in the UK and admits to having been on a steep learning curve since returning in 2007 to work on the family farm, said the theory is that if a cow eats 18kg of quality feed every day then it will produce 450kg MS/year.
“We are getting better at it. If we run short in November and December we put more feed in. If there’s a feed gap in February and March, we take cows out.”
Another part of the strategy is to increase the cow’s gut capacity so they can eat more and therefore produce more. It’s a feed policy extended into winter when mature cows are offered 13kg drymatter(DM)/cow/day, either swede or silage and grass. Summer feed options include strip grazing a 30ha crop of turnips – in effect shifting the surplus growth in November into a summer-ready crop.
In the bail bins at milking each cow gets up to 3kg of crushed maize kernel/day – a supplement that required an investment in two grain storage silos, the crusher and smaller dispensing silo. The alternative would be to buy in processed or composite feed as an in-dairy supplement, which would cost more over time.
Molasses is added and magnesium used to be in the dairy bail mix but was later dispensed in paddock water troughs as a remedy for suspected milk fever that persisted through the first few seasons.
The cows were not peak milking and too many were going down and, despite calcium by IV, about 30 cows a season wouldn’t recover. Finally PGG Wrightson nutritionist Charlotte Westwood was flown in from Christchurch and found the problem wasn’t milk fever but acidosis – an excess of acidity in the blood and body tissue caused by starchy or sugary feed introduced too rapidly into the cow’s diet.
“Until then everyone thought it was a magnesium (Mg) or calcium (Ca) deficiency or too much potassium (K) in our pasture. A good dose of bicarbonate of soda would have helped. The lesson learned was to transition the cows gradually from one feed to another,” Ali said.
Rob recalls the comment that you expect such problems on new conversions but at the time it didn’t add up and he believes acidosis had become a widespread problem that many hadn’t detected. He and his staff now take at least 10 days to transition the cows into diet changes.
“We can still feed them fully on grass, crops and grain but we had to change the way we fed them,” he said.
The heifers and colostrum mob, for example, get hay with grass while gradually building their grain intake. Similarly the milkers will get balage in the paddock with grain starting at one kilo a day, then at 1.5kg for four days, 2kg for eight days and finally building to 3kg/cow/day.”
The sheep and beef farm was run for 10 years by Ali’s older son Matt, who has a degree in viticulture and winemaking, but he has left to run a drystock farm at Piopio for the parents of his partner Kim Tatham. Matt and Kim, Rob and his wife Shannan, who is having their first child, their sister Joanna Gibb, who is a doctor, and their aunt Rose Berry, who is Jude’s sister, are all shareholders in Huirimu Farms with Ali and Judy.
Judy is the partnership’s administrator and is ideally qualified by a background in computer programming, managing computer network installations in many schools in the South Waikato and Bay of Plenty, including Arohena School where she is always at the annual prize-giving to present her cup “for the student showing excellence in IT”.
Ali has meanwhile stepped up to replace Matt as drystock manager and is getting his dogs back into work mode again.
“My shoulder stops me playing golf. I get seasick when fishing so I’m destined to keep working. I love farming. It’s my passion. They could keep me here driving a tractor,” he said.
Rob says Ali will likely still be driving that tractor at 75 and will never retire.
They appreciate they have a good team helping with the dairy side of the business.
Rob’s 2-i-c on the dairy farm is Grace Connolly, 20, who learned her farming skills from her father who dairy farms next door. Next in charge is Kris Barnett, 23, and assisting are Julz Peipi and Jess McMillan, a trainee vet nurse who has just started a season of farming. Full-time student Fergus McCool is also a regular.
They put the morning cups on at 4.30am, they’re out of the dairy by 9.30am and in the afternoon the cups are on at 2pm and, during peak days, it’s all over by 6pm.
The team work to a roster of seven days on, two days off, except during a busy calving period of three straight weeks, and the job of putting cups on is shared equally so everyone has a variety of work at milkings.
Location: Arohena, Waikato
Owners: Alistair and Judy Sherriff and family partners
Area: 298ha dairy, 485ha dry stock
Herd: 875 Friesian-cross
Production: 372,000kg milksolids (MS), 435kg MS/cow (2011/12)
Supplements: grass silage, maize silage, balage, hay, chicory, rape, turnip and swede, plus crushed maize and molasses fed in the dairy.
Judith and Ali Sherriff have successfully completed one more dairy conversion – their third.