A Norsewood dairy farming couple is making sure their business is family friendly. Kate Taylor visited to find out how.
William Heald reaches out his hand hesitantly then looks at his dad.
‘Nice and quietly, don’t surprise her,” says dad Russell to the “almost” four-year-old. Number 198 gives her head a little shake then steps forward almost beckoning William to give her a pat. He does… and a grin spreads across his face.
These are moments cherished by young parents and Norsewood dairy farmers Russell and Charlotte Heald are no exception.
Putting their family first was one of the main reasons they changed their system to once-a-day milking at the start of this year.
They were talking within the family about the amount of time Russell had to spend on the farm in spring. It took a comment from their seven-year-old daughter, Isabelle, to make the change.
“She asked why I didn’t just start work later so I could have breakfast with them. We looked at each other and said, ‘Yeah, why don’t I do that?’ We had been talking about once-a-day milking in our discussion group and that was a catalyst to make it happen.”
Charlotte says they changed on January 2 and immediately they asked themselves why they hadn’t done it earlier – like in time for Christmas.
She says family comes first and the change was about being happy now, not some random day in the future when they met their goals.
A former nurse, Charlotte is studying an online Integrative Nutrition health coaching course. It’s part of a philosophy that is growing in importance for the family and the farm.
“We’re not organic but we are heading in that direction. We don’t use any urea and like biodynamic farming principles.”
“A2 milk is also an option in the future,” Russell adds.
“They’re great values for us to aspire to but for now we just want to get the lifestyle back into farming. I want to be there when the kids get off the school bus, to do more stuff with them on the farm in the afternoons and keep them interested.
“They put their overalls on and go out to check the springers. They write the numbers down in their notebooks and bring them back to me.”
“They help harvest the fodder beet,” Charlotte adds.
“They have calves for pet day. We have a favourite place at the runoff where we go camping with the kids in summer and swim in the river.”
Russell says it’s a cliché but work-life balance has become the No 1 reason behind many of their decisions on the farm.
The couple milk 430 friesian and friesian-cross cows in a predominantly System 3 operation.
Dunkeld, the 170ha (effective) property near Norsewood and a 128ha runoff under the Ruahine Range were bought four years ago by Charlotte’s family and are farmed in an equity partnership with her parents, Jerry and Diana Greer.
They had been discussing once-a-day milking in their DairyNZ-run financial discussion group, Russell says.
“There are eight farms involved, one of them milking once a day. We enjoy the meetings and discussing things in more detail. It’s all the cards on the table. The more you share the more you gain.
“We had been talking about once-a-day milking for a variety of reasons. I do all the ag work on the farm and there were so many days I would get in from the shed, have tea and go straight back out onto the tractor. Those hours just weren’t sustainable. We weren’t utilising the runoff to its full potential, either – we didn’t have the time to manage it properly.”
Nine months in, the change has been a winner.
“I’m enjoying the extra time. We’re always busy but without the pressure.”
They estimated the change would cause a 10 per cent drop in production and that’s how they’re tracking so far. They are targeting 140,000kg of milksolids this season after producing up to 157,000kg in past seasons with higher feed inputs.
“Plus we’re not running the shed twice a day – that has implications for power, labour, maintenance and other inputs right down to filters and rubber wear.”
The cows have adapted easily.
“We aim to have an increased in-calf rate, tighter calving, better cow condition and less lameness with them not walking backwards and forwards a couple of times a day.”
He hopes they will get to the point where the high in-calf rate means they can be more selective with replacements as well as needing fewer replacements because of a lower empty rate.
“That will also give us more room at the runoff for finishing animals,” he says.
The runoff is used as a support block but also for finishing First Light Wagyu cattle. The Healds’ company bought shares in First Light last year.
“We were already grazing and finishing for First Light so it was a natural progression for us to become shareholders,” Charlotte says.
“We put wagyu over our heifers and some of our cows. We’re proud of that decision because it means we rear everything and don’t have bobby calves. We sell a portion of them at 90kg and take the rest of them to two years.”
Russell says that fits with their desire for value-added product.
“We can get a premium for four-day calves, at $100-$150 compared with $30 for bobbies, then we can get a premium on the weaner market at 90kg and then a premium at two-years-old too.
“The first six weeks of mating this year was AI – 60 per cent of our herd go to friesian bulls for replacements and the rest are given wagyu semen. The next six weeks they go to a hereford bull. That means we’re only rearing calves for six weeks because the hereford-cross calves are sold at four days old.”
The wagyu and replacement calves are reared on whole milk and lucerne hay.
Charlotte says the meal was dropped from their feed two years ago because of the low pay out.
“It forced us to see where we could cut costs. We were cutting down a labour unit as well and we were already trying to move away from processed feed products. We heard people say they’d just used lucerne hay and tried it ourselves.”
They don’t have weight or growth data to prove the success of that move, but Charlotte says the calves are happy and thriving, which is the important thing.
Five hectares of lucerne is grown on the runoff – there are two cuts of balage or silage and then two cuts of hay, Russell says.
“It’s utilised for the cows and the calves, well, across all our stock classes, really.”
The farm has had a wet winter, but not as wet as other districts. Its annual rainfall is 1200-1400mm while the runoff, closer to the mountains, has 1400-1600mm.
“The runoff is summer-safe with good, free-draining soils and is a little cooler.”
The business has two fulltime staff but that will reduce to one permanent and one relief milker at the end of this month, plus Russell.
Charlotte is the convenor for the Tararua Dairy Women’s Network, transitioning her role to hub leader for the lower North Island.
“This is one of the best things that has ever happened to me,” she says.
“I have had so many awesome opportunities to learn different business skills I can bring home to contribute to our business. That’s invaluable.
“I thrive on the connections I have made with other dairy women. I get a real buzz out of being involved in delivering unique events in our community that allow women to get involved, support each other and learn something new.”
She says the network has many opportunities for leadership and personal development as well as an annual national conference.
“We went to Queenstown this year and it’s in Rotorua next year. The networking opportunities are fantastic. They have high-calibre speakers and motivating workshops and I am so keen to keep being involved.”