Late-starter couldn't resist the call of the cowshed

Andrea Fox meets a reluctant farmer who, since committing to the rural sector, has given it his all.

Andrew McGiven milks 570 cows just south of Waihou.
Andrea Fox

Andrew McGiven milks 570 cows just south of Waihou.

Right up until he was 23, fourth-generation dairyman and Waikato Federated Farmers 2IC Andrew McGiven did not want to be a farmer.

Through his teens he was set on an army life, preferably in the elite SAS.

But badly breaking an ankle playing rugby in Australia torpedoed that dream, and McGiven retreated to his parents' farm on the skirts of Waikato's Kaimai Ranges near Mt Te Aroha where he sulked for 18 months, being "the world's worst employee".  If he hadn't been family he would have been sacked – many times and deservedly, he recalls.  On the verge of turning 19 he applied to join the Police and was accepted. Based in Auckland, he had plans to be a detective but in 1992 the Government merged the police force and traffic policing department and a year later he was back on the family farm.

"They tried to make us traffic cops and changed all the conditions. I didn't want to be a traffic cop. It made me realise that maybe being my own boss wasn't so bad," says Auckland-born McGiven, who has lived in the Te Aroha district since he was 10, when his parents Jan, and the late Peter McGiven, moved south after selling their Coatesville dairy farm which was being eclipsed by Auckland city sprawl.  

"I came back to the farm and worked for wages for my parents for a year. This time, because I wanted to be there, I started learning something."

With cash from unpaid police leave, McGiven put down a deposit on his parents' dairy herd in a 25 per cent sharemilking arrangement.  His brother Simon, who had also returned to the family farm, did the same.

Without meaning to, McGiven had become a farmer.

Today he and wife Jenny, a registered Auckland-born veterinarian, own a 140ha property  (135ha effective) milking 570 cows just south of Waihou off the main road to Te Aroha, not too far from the original family farm, which Simon now owns.

The couple, who in June added a 42ha support grazing block to the business and now live on it, have built their farm up from a rundown, 200-cow operation with a 16-bail dairy shed once owned by a McGiven family trust and run by a sharemilker.

"My brief from my father was to get the place running again and the deal was I would pay a cheap lease but all the improvements I would pay for myself so not to put the trust at risk. But when it came to me buying the place back I would pay a market price, minus the cost of improvements."

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In 2001, a year after the couple moved in, they bought a neighbouring 33ha, and soon were eyeing the next door 42ha property they eventually secured this year. 

"But we couldn't afford it (then). I was taking eight hours a day to milk 220 cows through the little 16-aside shed and thought I would burn out if I had to keep doing that plus improvements and maintenance and calving, so with the money that would have gone to buying the block, we built a 50-bail rotary shed.

"We thought if we had cup removers on it, it could be a one-man operation after calving was finished and we could save on labour cost," says McGiven who was starting to get busy off-farm with community activities.  Today he is deputy chairman of the National Party in the Waikato, vice president of Waikato Federated Farmers, chairman of the federation's Te Aroha branch, a trustee of the Tauranga-based Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre and advisory trustee for the local Tui Pa marae. Along the way he's gained an agriculture diploma and an MBA from Waikato University.

With the new rotary shed the couple increased the herd to 400 cows and eight years ago bought another neighbouring property, a 33ha former goat farm, which took their milking platform to 140ha.

Production last season was 247,000kg milksolids, about 1800kg/ha.

The couple, who have two sons aged 16 and 13, started winter milking last season.

They now do spring calving, starting on July 13, and autumn calving at the end of February-early March.  Winter milk is supplied by 170 cows.

The decision to start winter production was for several reasons.

"We couldn't induce anymore and I didn't like seeing wastage of good cows. We seem to be having warmer winters so we are growing more grass, and we have the facilities to be able to cope with a wet winter so not to have a lot of pugging damage. And we're only four kilometres from Fonterra's Waitoa UHT plant so the winter transport levy is only 2c/kg."

He says the current cow count of about 570 is too many.  "Ideally we should be about 550, and we're talking about pulling it back to 530 to 535 to enhance cow performance and fine-tune costs."

The farm's stocking rate is about 4.1 cows per hectare.

The McGivens' herd breed is mixed, reflecting the property's soil types – white clay on sand through the middle of the farm which gets "pretty sodden in winter" and sandy loam on either side.

"When we first moved here with the wet soil we shifted to jersey, but then found the jerseys were getting quite small and the protein-to-fat ratio was getting way out of kilter," he says.

"So then we started crossing the smaller jerseys with ayrshire so we've now got quite a lot of jersey-ayrshire. It's a really good cross. It's balanced up our fat-protein ratio, added more capacity to the cows and they certainly don't sulk as much as the jerseys."

As well as the milking herd, the property is currently carrying 22 autumn-calving rising two-year-olds, yearlings, 80 calves, and 12 jersey sire bulls.  About 450 cows calved down this spring. The McGivens have since culled about 30 cows and plan to cull or sell more. About a dozen bull calves are donated by the couple every year to charities. 

"We typically like to rear about 125 to 130 replacements but we had a bad year for sickness with  immune-suppressant-type problems," he says.

The farm has had a covered feed pad for six years. "We used to feed maize out in paddocks along the fence lines. There was a lot of waste. If it was a dry autumn it wasn't so bad but on a year like this one, it would be horrendous. We were wasting 25 per cent of the maize. It paid for itself in five years."

The farm has a large covered calf pad on the recently acquired 42ha block.  The couple shouted themselves an automatic, computerised calf feeder at a bargain price at last year's National Fieldays to economise on labour and it has proved invaluable for managing and individualising feeding per calf.  They also invested in weighing scales which means they can now accurately monitor the weaning weight of calves, and ensure they are growing as they should.

Woodchips from the covered pads are worked into paddocks to break down and return nitrates to the soil.

They buy about 450 tonnes of maize silage a year and grow 8ha themselves. They also grow 8ha of turnips to use over summer in strip-grazing. Last year they had about 600 tonnes of maize in the bunker.  This year it's planned to grow an extra 8ha of maize at a family runoff at Te Aroha West, the aim being to have 700 tonnes or so of maize on hand and to reduce cost.

Spraying out paddocks for maize planting is running late this season as the McGivens, along with many other Waikato farmers, wait for paddocks to dry out from a wet late winter and early spring.

McGiven says he only makes grass silage if there is a true surplus of grass on the milking platform.

The farm buys about 400 tonnes of palm kernel extract a year.  Soy hulls are also bought at "strategic" parts of the year.  "Like at the moment when it's so wet and grass utilisation is so bad."

Turnip is the only crop grown but he says sales reps are twisting his arm to consider fodder beet.

"It has its place I think and ideally if I had a supplementary feed block it could work quite well, but I don't know about growing it on-farm, it takes so much pasture out."

For three years he has been using a perennial grass seed mix of 16 different plant species, including chicory, fescue, plantain, four clovers, three types of cocksfoot and timothy.

"I try to get a blend so we have eight species that are winter-dormant, and eight that are summer- dormant.  I've noticed that in the recent droughts we've tended to hang on and we're green a bit longer."

The rainfall average in the summer-dry district is about 1200mm a year.

He says the move to System 5 farming has certainly paid off through the lift in milk production.

"When we first moved here with 200 cows we did a farm-best production of 55,000 kilograms of milksolids, probably only 800 solids a hectare. Now with 550 (milking) cows we're doing 247,000 kilograms, so on a per hectare basis we've moved to 1800 kilograms per hectare, which includes all improvements."

But there was more to the shift than increasing production, he says.

"We went that way because we wanted to take the climate out of play. I didn't want to be System 1 or 2 and have to dry off at the end of February or early March because there was no grass.

"I don't like my cows being skin and bone. It's more economical to keep them in good condition rather than let them run down and then have to feed them back up to cover winter."

Being bordered by roads with brisk traffic flow and in the public eye also figured in the decision.

"With the rise of social media and people driving past and taking photos, skinny cows in dust bowls is a very bad look.

"Our overview of farming is becoming more holistic. What they eat is what they are. "

Automatic timers on gate latches to the feed pad that typically accompany higher feed input systems  were also a plus, says McGiven.

"They drop at 3am or 3.30am, the cows have a feed before they go over and start milking at 5. It takes the labour out.

"The challenge is always to do it profitably. Ultimately, why we bought this place (the 42ha support block) was to stabilise grazing costs.  The next step is to buy a small supplementary feed block to grow all our own.  The trouble is, the land around here is so expensive."

The McGiven farm borders blue chip payout Tatua Co-operative Dairy territory.

However, he has his own blue chip dairying advantage in Jenny.

Having a vet in the household who prefers to work with large animals is a boon.

"Jen's a big part of our animal health. She does some of the AB and she runs the zinc programme and all the vaccinations. She tells me what to inject and how much and she looks at any sick cows.  Jen runs the whole animal health programme here."

She's also heavily involved come AI time, and, with veterinary colleagues, pregnancy tests the whole herd.

Overall management of the herd falls to contract milker Graham Wallace, who employs one worker. Wallace also does AI and has been with the McGivens for six years, the first three as a herd manager.

Farm costs this season are budgeted at about $3.94/kgMS, including contract milker expenses.

"If you take off contract milker costs it's probably $2.70 but that's not including labour and shed power etc. But if we were doing it ourselves and didn't have a contract milker, our costs would be $3.80 to $3.90," says McGiven.

The costs last season were $4.60 to $4.70/kg, including contract milker expenses, and $3.50/kg without.

The couple didn't cull cows when the milk price downturn dragged on but fine-tuned feed costs and tried to grow more grass.

"We haven't used urea for four or five years. We've tried to use other forms of nitrogen whether it's calcium ammonia nitrate or sulphite of ammonia. It's not to cut costs but because I believe it's much too hard on soil, decimating soil microbes. It's also a catalyst for compaction. In World War II, the US Airforce used it to harden up runways in the islands. They used heaps of it but I'm of the opinion if we keep doing that and having cows walk over it, we're doing the same thing."

He reckons by not using urea, his grass held longer in recent dry summers.

"But it knocked about $60,000 off our farm bills too."

They have recently changed their accounting systems to Xero and Figured farm management software.

"We're doing budgets and forecasts on Figured. I'm trying to put some of this education to use a bit more by forecasting better. We've always had a budget but we're not always good at monitoring it," he says.

"I need it to be easy so I can monitor it and have a variance report."

His goal is to reduce the farm's debt and stabilise the business which is "reasonably" highly geared.

"I want to keep the farm in the family as long as possible and provide farming opportunities.  I'm a firm believer in the contract and sharemilker system as a step up for those who want to do the work. I know it's hard work, but the rewards can be pretty good, provided you are working for the right person.

"I'd rather give a little (as an employer). You get a lot back."



 - Stuff

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