Gore dairy farmers have 'happier cows and happier staff'
Elieen and Shane Walker are working towards a happy farm, happy cows and happy staff with the introduction of a wetland and once-a-day milking on their farm.
The Willowbank dairy farmers, near Gore, began developing a wetland, complete with native plantings and a pond, on an unproductive paddock in March 2014.
With the help of Fish & Game and Environment Southland, they transformed the low lying paddock, which has an open drain running through it, into a sediment trapping pond.
The area acts as a drain for 70 per cent of the farm.
Eileen says that when they were first thinking about building a wetland, she thought it would be a difficult process involving lots of digger work, but instead all they needed to do was build a dam.
After letting the pond sit empty for a few months, they capped the end of the culvert in August and the pond quickly filled.
"We didn't really know until it filled what the outcome would be," Eileen says.
The end result was a three metre deep pond big enough to kayak in, with two small islands. Pukeko and ducks are beginning to make it their home.
The pond also includes a fish ladder, which zig-zags its way back to the original drain and allows fish to enter the pond.
"We've had the odd picnic down there with the neighbours. It's actually been a really nice thing to do," Eileen says.
The pond has also been doing its job, collecting sediment from across the farm.
When there is a decent rainfall brown water flows through the wetland but by the time it drains it is clear again, Shane says.
The pair have planted native plants, including flaxes and toitois, alongside the existing willows which were moved to the spot.
Originally from the Kapiti Coast, Eileen and Shane moved to Southland and learnt what mud was.
The move came after deciding they wanted to grow their farming business, Shane says.
"There was no ability to grow, we were surrounded by lifestyle blocks in the Kapiti Coast."
Going from sandy soils to Southland's wetter climate meant they had to adjust quickly to both the cold and wet, he says.
They converted their 388 hectare Willowbank farm in 2001 and three seasons ago they decided to switch to once-a-day milking throughout the year.
"I've been dairy farming for 35 years with the conventional twice-a-day system and it was quite nice to have a bit of a challenge," he says.
And the challenge was paying off, with the cows enjoying their lifestyle change, he says.
"They're much happier, the cows, and the staff are too."
The Walkers' equity partner had already switched to once-a-day milking before the pair, so when it was suggested they do the same, they decided to give it a go.
The farm still employs two full-time staff, as well as relief workers in spring, but sometimes their workers get to knock off a little earlier than on a twice-a-day farm, Shane says.
Since switching to once-a-day milking the Walkers have noticed a huge difference in their reproductive gains.
"It sort of halved the empty rate," Shane says.
When they had twice-a-day milking they were experiencing 8-9 per cent empty rates and now their empty rates have dropped to 4-5 per cent, he says.
Furthermore, their six-week in-calf rate was 78 per cent before, and is now 90 per cent, he says.
"As well as being better performance, it's at a lower cost too."
Once-a-day milking has cut electricity costs from cleaning and using the shed, he says.
But the Walkers are realistic about the fact they have dropped milk production levels.
They dropped their overall milk production by nine per cent in the first two seasons, which dropped to seven per cent in the third season, he says.
However, they are getting better individual production from their 770 cows because they are in better condition, he says.
"In our fourth or fifth year we expect to be as profitable [as a twice-a-day farm]."
They also make up their losses in stock sales.
Switching to once-a-day milking had some challenges in the beginning, with some cows not suited to the transition.
Heifers do not produce as much as cows in their first season, but their production levels increase in their second, Shane says.
"They end up bigger than twice-a-day but produce less."
In the future, the Walkers hope their good reproductive rates mean they can actively choose to keep less heifers because they will not need such a high replacement rate, Eileen says.
"That's where we will see we'll get cost savings."