Milking once-a-day change pays dividends

The 236 cows and the men who look after them on Selwyn and Gordon Taylor's South Wairarapa farm are all happy with a change to once-a-day milking.

Farm worker Liam McMenamin says he feels "less tired, less knackered. I'm working at more of a steady, sustainable pace rather than flat-tack all the time. It gives me more time to pay attention to detail".

And the cows show how pleased they are not to be making the afternoon trek to the milking shed. "When we move them to a new field they kick their heels up.

"They don't trudge around the farm, heads down plodding along. They're quite naughty, but we don't mind," he says.

The Taylor brothers, who also employ Selwyn's son Nathan, are in the third year of a conversion from twice-a-day milking on their 90-hectare farm at Taumata Island, a once river-bound dairying enclave near Carterton.

After a 28 per cent fall in milk production in their first year, they have steadily recovered. So far this year, they are just trailing their previous twice-a-day figures. And they are 12 per cent ahead of the average twice-a-day milkers in the district.

Apart from the initial dip in earnings, the move will not cause them any financial pain. It means they can concentrate on what is most important to them - to not harm the environment for future generations and to care for their animals' health.

They were scoffed at for wanting to make the move to once-a-day milking, but they are used to that.

For the past 20 years they have prided themselves on their environmentally friendly farming practices.

In the early 90s they changed their fertiliser regime, from a superphosphate-potash mix that needed follow-up nitrogen, to the Hatuma Lime Co's dicalcic blend of superphosphate and lime.

They encountered strong opposition. Their consultant told them they would send themselves bankrupt and they were forced to defend their decision to their farm discussion group. But the results quickly silenced the critics. Within three weeks, the grass was noticeably greener and health problems began to disappear.

They lowered their stocking rate to 2.5 cows per hectare and less stress on the cows brought a jump in milk production.

The farm's net profit rose to 10 per cent above that of the district's top dairy farms.

"Naturally, our accountant told us to carry on and not alter anything," Selwyn says with a smile.

They realised that the "livestock" beneath their pastures - the worms, insects and soil bacteria - was as important as the livestock above ground.

A report by Hatuma found a high worm population, estimated at 13 million per hectare, plenty of organic matter in the soil and a near- neutral pH of 6.5.

In 2002 their efforts were recognised, with the best dairy farm award in the regional farm environment awards.

But in early 2007 the clover root weevil appeared. The damage to clover leaves was noticeable and a check of their roots showed larvae. The effects were aggravated by the region's drawn-out drought and for the first time they were not able to make silage on the farm. By August they were reduced to milking the cows once a day.

With a loss of $160,000 in earnings that year they were forced to use nitrogen for the first time in 16 years.

Selwyn says it was a bitter pill. "I had been convinced the health of our soils would win the battle against the weevil, that our clover would withstand the assault."

He made the decision to put on sulphate of ammonia, a source of nitrogen not as concentrated as the more commonly used urea. Liam recorded the event in the farm diary: "An historic day. The little bug has beaten us."

The pastures reacted immediately and gradually the cows were eased back on to twice-a-day milking.

They fought back against the weevil, with the release of a tiny wasp specially imported to attack it and reworked their soil to plant resistant red clover pastures.

At the same time, they made the decision to convert to organics. "It wasn't a big step for us, we were nearly there," Selwyn says.

Fonterra promised to pay 45c a kilogram premium during the three- year conversion and to raise that to $1.05 once it was completed.

Meanwhile, the Taylors also decided to move to once-a-day milking. "It just seemed to fit nicely with the move to organics and we liked the idea of reducing stress on the cows," Gordon says.

They had the example of nearby farmer Melvin Herrick, who had been milking once a day for seven years. After an initial fall-off in production, he had quickly climbed back to where he was when milking twice a day. His cows were healthier and easier to get in calf.

Three years later the Taylors are delighted with progress.

The wasp seems to have beaten the weevil. "I no longer find them clinging to my overalls when I get off the bike," Gordon says.

Their organics foray was cut short when Fonterra cancelled lower North Island contracts last year and they decided to go back to farming conventionally. This was mainly so they could use herbicides on an increasing number of weeds, and antibiotics and chemical drenches to more quickly treat sick cows.

Organics has its good and bad points, Selwyn says. "There is a lot more bookwork, California thistles and gorse threatened to get away on us and when we had a sick animal we couldn't just go down to the shop for a quick fix.

"But the animals we bred were exceptionally good. There's a line of heifers that have never had a drench and they look wonderful."

As if they did not have enough to cope with over the past three years, they have also spent most of it building a new milking shed in the spare time between milkings.

The move to once-a-day milking has pleased them the most, however.

In their last year of twice-a-day milking they adjusted it to match pasture growth, starting once a day, then going to three times in two days, then twice a day for three months before going to three in two and then once a day. From this they produced 450kg per cow.

The first year of once-a-day started with a wet spring and though milk flow fell 28 per cent to 350kg, it meant the cows were in good condition for the next year.

With the poor performers weeded out and in a growth year, production then rose to 415kg.

This year, the cows are recovering from low spring growth and are working harder.

The Taylors say they will be happy to get at least 400kg per cow.

"We should keep on improving," Selwyn says.

"We've got a lot of two-year-olds in the herd and as they mature they will give more milk."

As the cows have become less stressed they have got pregnant easier and the bulk of the herd is calving closer together. This means the cows are spending more days in milk, gaining an extra five or six days across the herd.

The reduction in stress has seen somatic cell counts - a warning sign of mastitis - fall and with less walking to do, fewer lame cows are being seen.

Underlying everything they do is the need to farm sustainably. The farm is susceptible to flooding and in winter they have sent the cows to a runoff.

However, it is clay country and also has problems, so a second runoff has been bought, this time on stony ground.

"Three things determine how we farm - the quality of the soil, the goodness in the herbage that grows in it and the health of the cows that eat it," Selwyn says. "It all works together and has to be kept in good condition from year to year. If you can't manage that now, think what it will be like in 100 years - it won't be able to feed everyone."

Liam agrees. "That's what counts - improving your environment. That's winning."

The Dominion Post