Leaving the security of their established agricultural-based careers behind them, a Taranaki couple took a leap of faith into the unpredictable world of dairy farming.
Oakura couple Matt Thomas and Sophie Parker are now 50:50 sharemilking on his grandparents Norton and Coral Moller’s 100ha farm. The farm nestles between Mount Taranaki’s Kaitake Ranges and the Oakura coast. Oakura’s Kaitake Golf Club and the township also border the farm.
Before farming, Matt was working as a large animal veterinarian and Sophie was a DairyNZ consulting officer.
“We were fortunate to come into the industry as contract milkers, a level that normally takes around five years to attain,” Matt says.
“Sophie worked with Shirley Kissick at DairyNZ and when she told her that we were considering farming, Shirley mentioned that she and her husband Bede were considering employing contract milkers on their Auroa farm.”
Under the Kissicks’ tutelage, they milked 360 cows for one season. They then contract milked 380 cows for John and Jocelyn Hartley at Okato. After a season at the Hartleys, Matt and Sophie moved to the family farm as 50:50 sharemilkers, milking 270 cows once-a-day (OAD).
Matt and Sophie are now in their fourth season on the farm and run a System 2-3 operation, with the back-up of two run-offs – 36 and 12ha – under the mountain and a 12ha coastal run-off.
The farm has nearly 20ha of riparian planting and QEII National Trust areas. The run-offs have a great deal of native forest and some Significant Natural Areas (SNAs) that can’t be altered.
Possum and predator control has been taking place on the farm for 10 years. Now the farm and run-off properties are part of the Towards Predator-Free Taranaki scheme, and contractors are undertaking the control work. The properties are now mostly possum free.
The coastal location means they regularly contend with dry spells. They could run a low-input system, but their production would fluctuate on a seasonal basis.
Sophie and Matt knew that OAD was the way they wanted to farm. Removing the second milking meant spending less time in the cowshed and attaining greater animal health benefits.
“Our run-offs are situated up under the Kaitake Ranges and OAD milking gives us more time to keep on top of them. OAD is very attractive when you’re hiring staff too, as it’s a bonus for them to do less milking,” Sophie says.
“We can continue jobs without being interrupted by afternoon milking. There’ve been no downsides for us. Nothing has happened to make us question running an OAD system.”
Their careers before going dairying gave them the opportunity to witness many farming methods, which spurred them on to try their hand at farming.
“We probably had a romantic ideal about farming compared to the reality. Understanding animals is a big part of farming. Matt had that covered and I had the pastoral knowledge. It was the practical day-to-day running of the farm that we needed to learn,” she says
The couple saved hard and bought two herds to bring to the family farm.
“We purchased two quiet, small owner-operator herds and both herds have been good to us,” Matt says.
Last season their herd produced 102,000 kilograms of milksolids and this season are on track to produce around 105,000kgs MS, which equates to 1200-1275kgs MS/ha.
“It’s all about managing risk. Our system is mostly focused on pasture,” he says.
“We use our run-offs for supplements and use a bit of PKE and soy hull to reduce the risk during our January to March dry period to keep the cows producing. We aim to have 60 days of supplemental feed on hand for that period.”
Four to five hectares of turnips, PKE, soy hulls (for FEI management), 380 silage wraps from the run-offs and the farm are used during the dry summer period. The turnips are planted in October and fed from January to March. They aim to make 100 bales of hay.
“OAD milking helps retain cow condition during the dry spell, and we can dry off some cows to our run-off. We pregnancy test early and get rid of 10 culls in December to begin reducing stock levels,” he says.
“We don’t have a feedpad, so haven’t gone to that next level. Potentially, it’s something that could happen here by growing maize on the run-offs. We’ve toyed with the idea but prefer to run grass silage.”
Calving begins on July 25 and they rear 60 replacement calves and the bobbies. They also keep 25 Jersey bull calves, five of which are used to put over the heifers and tailing the herd. The rest are sold.
They have recently built a new FlexiTunnel calf facility. The calves are fed colostrum twice a day, then a mix of milk powder and vat milk when the stored colostrum runs out.
The FlexiTunnel has proved to be a spacious, cost-effective calf rearing option, with the capacity to hold 80 calves. It cost $18,000 and took only one day to build.
“You couldn’t build a shed for that price. We have a three-bay shed and use two bays for bobby calves, so they have plenty of room too. The calves are always warm and the copious sunlight helps keep any unwanted organisms down,” Sophie says.
“Plenty of living space lessens the chance of diseases spreading through the calves. We bring a lot of replacement calves through because that’s the farm’s sharemiker replacement rate policy.”
Mating begins on October 15 and although both are AI technicians, Matt undertakes most of the 10-week mating period. The couple use AI for five-and-a-half weeks and their own Jersey bulls for the remainder.
There are a number of J16 Jersey cows in the herd and Jersey straws are used on them to obtain J16 bulls.
“There are some great Jersey sires and a market for straight Jersey bulls. We tried Red Devon bulls for one season but had too many calving interventions. Our herd’s genetics are approximately 65% Jersey and it’s just too hard on them,” Sophie says.
“It doesn’t make sense to risk losing a cow for a calf, and it’s not good from an animal welfare point of view either. It’s a critical time for a cow and we need to keep it as easy as possible for them.”
Sophie says Jerseys are more suited to OAD milking due to their higher milk component concentrations to volume.
“If we were just thinking about having the best cows for OAD milking, we’d probably have a purely Jersey herd. But we also have to be mindful of the herd’s value,” she says.
“If we owned a Jersey herd and wanted to sell it, there’d be a limited market for it. Crossbreds are the predominant New Zealand cow and a crossbred herd provides us with a bigger market.”
They believe that the rise in cow fertility is probably the biggest benefit of OAD milking. They now achieve a 95.3% in-calf rate and a very high “days in milk” due to their concentrated calving period.
Their 79% six-week in-calf rate provides a compact calving period that results in more milk in the vat during the early months of the season.
The fertility increase has enabled them to achieve a high level of herd improvement. This has been accomplished because the high herd fertility allows them to realise more discretionary sales and culls because they’re not solely limited to removing empty cows.
“We’ve made massive gains in our herd, which builds on itself because the cows we keep are much better OAD cows. We can then drop our stocking rate to cows highly suited to our OAD system,” she says.
When they bought their herd it had a BW of 90 and a PW of 102. The herd’s current BW is now 163 and the PW is 199.
“If you have a high empty rate, those cows have to go. You can then only remove a few more cows that are lacking in traits. Our high in-calf rate allows us to be much more critical. Each year we have a really good pool of cows to choose from,” Matt says.
This year they only had 11 empty cows, but 30 in-calf cows had to be removed from the herd because 60 replacements were due to come through.
“The cows we must sell are still desirable cows, they’re not budget cows. Our cows have to keep performing in our OAD system, otherwise they don’t stay here. However, they may be highly suited to a twice-a-day (TAD) system,” Sophie says.
“We tend to have more discretionary sales to farmers but don’t have the same ability to simply offload 30 cows to the works when it’s dry. Farmers usually want to take our cows on June 1, so we must continue milking them.”
Sophie and Matt look for similar traits that are needed for cows in a high-input system. They must have very strong udders with high udder support scores. A poor udder is the primary reason why cows are removed from their herd. A high emphasis is put on cow capacity and BW.
The farm is kept as a closed system as a biosecurity measure. They feel that their farm was quite low-risk, but as soon as Mycoplasma bovis was discovered here, they stopped all inward stock movements. No external animals have entered their farm for three years.
They keep a close eye on animal health and being OAD, they have to be proactive to prevent mastitis.
“We only get one chance per day to see our cows. In a TAD system you’d likely see the cow with a mastitis problem in the afternoon if you missed her in the morning. We don’t get that opportunity,” Sophie says.
“Sophie and I milked this morning and two cows came around with their cups off so hadn’t been milked out. They’d already gone 24 hours without being milked, and another 24 hours would pass before their next one. We could get away with it at this time of year because they’re not producing as heavily, but it’d be a different story in spring,” Matt says.
Their new 44-bail rotary shed helps them to keep an eye on their herds. Previously, they were milking through a 14-a-side herringbone that was built in 1973 and each milking took four-and-a-half hours and OAD put a lot of pressure on the shed system.
A 44-bale rotary shed was built by Fabish & Jackson (2010) Ltd at the end of the couple’s first season on the farm, and was finished in 2018. It’s a big shed for the size of the farm, but it future-proofs the farm in case more land ever becomes available.
“The old shed couldn’t cope with the cows on OAD. The lines were skinny and the pump couldn’t keep up with the milk flow, which caused many flooding issues. We could only put on half a row of cups at a time. Whenever we tried putting on more you’d hear it struggling and need to take them off. It was very frustrating,” Sophie says.
“OAD’s heavier milk flows just accentuated the shed’s problems. The milking took so long that we worked half shifts. One person did half a milking and then came home for breakfast, and the other person replaced them. Four-and-a-half hours is a long time to be milking.”
The old shed had a very shallow pit that was only knee height for Matt. It was situated in an awkward location where the cows had to walk up a steep hill to reach it. The new shed is situated in a more central location.
Although the shed is fairly new, it is relatively simple in terms of technology. It has automatic washdown, in bail smart teat spray, a square yard, ACR and a very simple drafting system and automated drafting gate operated by EID tags. The system counts the cows which is ideal due to the farm’s gullies and riparian plantings.
They made their tech decisions on whether they needed it and if they’d use it. They felt that people often installed so much technology that it resulted in excessive data. They’re unsure whether that data is fully utilised.
“Milk meters are nice to have but we can still herd test. We wanted practical tech that we’d use. We looked at robotic systems and came away thinking that they use a lot more power, are quite technical and need support staff. What happens if it breaks down? You’re kind of on-call 24/7. They’re expensive and change your system,” Matt says.
Vet and lameness expert Neil Chesterton gave the couple advice for the transition area between the concrete and metal race. He had recommended using a square concrete lip rather than the standard small hump to other farmers, but none had ever installed one. The square concrete lip prevents stones from entering the yard, which minimises lameness.
“Everyone does a ‘hump’, but ours is square. Where the gravel ends there is a metre of concrete, before a square concrete barricade that the cows must step over before continuing onto concrete and into the yard,” Matt says.
“Usually people have gravel before a small concrete lip. But when the cows leave they get into the same step going over it and rut out the same spots which retain water.”
Stepping over the square lip prevents the cows getting into the same step. Another benefit is that any stones fall out of the cow’s feet as they step over. There are now very few instances of lameness on the farm.
OAD milking minimises lameness because the cows don’t have to walk as far each day. The new cowshed has a large yard, and the in-shed feeding ensures that the cows walk smoothly onto the platform with no need to push them. The race concrete to metal transition area is also much cleaner.
“The transition area in many cowsheds is usually where they’re hosing and where the water pools. Our transition area has been protected and it’s amazing how something so simple can make such a big difference,” Sophie says.
They say it is easy to concentrate on the type of tech that goes into a new cowshed but not put that degree of thought into the yard layout. When looking at what shed to build, they often saw sheds that were built without too much thought going into the yard layout. They spent a great deal of time ensuring their yard design was right for them, and feel that it’s worked well. They spent many hours mulling over the scenarios that the yard would have to contend with.
“How do I draft a cow and get her back onto the platform? If a cow goes down in the exit race will it stop me milking? Is there another gate I can quickly open so the cows can exit another way? Can I get a tractor in there? These were questions we asked ourselves when designing the yard. So we strategically placed small gates for easier access,” Matt says.
The aim of the shed race system is that when a cow is drafted she won’t see a dead end ahead. This keeps her flowing and she doesn’t stop and balk the other cows. Sophie also came up with the idea of putting a shelter over the head bail.
A new Clean Green Effluent System was installed due to the expiry of the farm’s current consent.
The biggest difference they noticed between working a salaried job and farming is the tie they have to the farm. It’s difficult to imagine what the seven days a week aspect and lack of time off is like if you’re accustomed to working a regular job. They both find spring to be the most taxing time of the year, but also the most interesting time.
“You tend to think farmers take more time off than they actually do. Some people are good at getting away, but we aren’t. We find it difficult to just leave the farm in someone else’s hands,” Matt says.
“If you’re the person on the ground making the day-to-day decisions, the buck stops with you. You have to make those final decisions. It’s difficult to take time off, but if you have someone who can make those decisions it’s potentially easier.”
The birth of their daughter Hazel, who is now 18 months old, gave the couple a new perspective on leisure time. Prior to her arrival they were running the farm on their own with spring help. They then hired a full-time farm assistant who lives on the farm and knows it well.
“Having a reliable worker like Daniel (Downes) on the farm has enabled us to get away for breaks. I can nip out and go surfing or Sophie can go to town,” Matt says.
“It’s quite easy to do something locally. I still find it difficult to say ‘hey, we’re going to leave the farm for an extended period’. We spent a week in Northland this year, which was manageable.”
They have enjoyed being self-employed and have learnt the importance of being self-motivated. They’ve also learnt a great deal about interacting and working with people, running a business and working together.
They both enjoy the job’s physical nature, and the satisfaction gained at the culmination of that work. The job has technical and business aspects that nicely counterpoint the physical work. They also enjoy the satisfaction of seeing their cows perform well and getting their spring pasture management right.
“You have to really look after your animals to get them to perform well. It’s nice to be on a smaller farm where you can treat them like individuals. We know most of our cows and many of them are like pets. I think you have a closer relationship to your animals on a smaller farm,” Matt says.
“There are many aspects to a farm business and that makes it very interesting. I’m really interested in the breeding, herd improvement and pasture management aspects. It’s a challenge to get the pasture right in the spring when you’re under pressure and trying to make the correct decisions to achieve the outcome you desire,” Sophie says.
Owners: Norton and Coral Moller
Sharemilkers: Matt Thomas and Sophie Parker
Location: Oakura, Taranaki
Size; 100ha (84ha effective). Three run-offs, 36ha, and two of 12ha
Cows: Milking 270 crossbred (mostly J10F6) cows at the peak
Production: 2019-20; 102,000kg MS
Target 2020-21; 105,000kg MS