The middle of the Mid-Canterbury plains is an unlikely place to find two massive barns housing milking cows.
Unlike New Zealand's typical outdoors pastoral grazing system, the 950 cows from Pannetts Dairies' herd at Mitcham, near Rakaia, spend most of their milking season inside the purpose-built barns.
While cows are free to wander out to paddocks if they wish, it is no wonder they prefer the indoors life, where their every need is catered for. As well as having a nutritionally complete feed available at all times, cows can rest on one of the 940 individual beds lined with rubber mats and make use of an automated back scratcher resembling a carwash brush. Using the barn system, cows will be milked and calve year round, rather than the more typical spring-calving seasonal production.
In its first milking season, Pannetts Dairies is attracting plenty of interest, as judged by the big turnout at a field day at the property last week.
Both 40 metres wide, one barn is 60m long and the other 165m, with distinctive circular roofs about 9m high. A 60-bale rotary dairy shed backs onto the shorter barn, so cows only have to walk straight out of the barn and on to the concrete yard ready to be milked.
Developed by an equity partnership of interested investors led by Mid-Canterbury dairy farmer Willy Leferink, the Pannetts Dairies' conversion happened quickly following the purchase of the 215ha property. Building of the 60-bale rotary dairy started on March 1, 2013, and it was milking cows by May 19, in record time and under budget.
The free-stall barns, designed and built by Rakaia Engineering Ltd, took longer because of district planning issues and some complaints from neighbours regarding their size.
"We lost six valuable weeks, which meant we finished the barns in the middle of winter after the snowstorm. We lost quite a bit of production because of that."
The first cows were in a barn on June 30, with the second barn ready on August 1.
The cost of the project was not for the fainthearted, and outside normal banking parameters, said Leferink. A normal dairy conversion cost $10,000 to $12,000/ha; Pannetts Dairies was $25,000 to $30,000/ha.
The farm supplies Synlait because when it was time to sign up to a dairy company it did not have the money to meet Fonterra's share value requirement. Pannetts Dairies is budgeting to produce 620,000kg of milksolids in its first season, lifting to 720,000-750,000kg/ MS once it reaches full production.
Cows still go outside for part of their lactation, but for the first 150 days are largely kept indoors.
After calving, cows spend the first few days in a special maternity ward. They then stay in a herd of 120 to 130 for the next four to five weeks, before going into a mob milked three times a day for the next 150 to 180 days, depending on production.
Milked twice a day for the remainder of their lactation, cows spend more time outside grazing paddocks. "We are still working on this. It may be a hybrid model, with one mob inside during the day and another mob inside at night."
At the end of lactation, dry cows graze outside.
The farm was set up with four key components, said Leferink. "It had to be environmentally sound, animal friendly, a nice environment to work in and profitable. Helped by the fantastic payout we will achieve all four.
"We open the doors and cows don't even want to go outside. They will go for a run and come back inside as that is where the feed is. In the morning, staff roll out of bed and 10 minutes later they are milking cows."
An overlapping roof and a gap at the lower sides of the barns provide ventilation and air movement.
Completely open at the north end, the barns have doors that can be closed at the south end. The round-shaped roof helps air circulation, as fresh air is important for cow health and production. "Cows are quite comfortable even on the hottest days."
Cows were producing a lot more milk than anticipated in the first year, with current daily production averaging 2.2kg/MS a cow.
"They produce like European or American cows. Cows will be culled on productivity, rather than whether they are in calf or not."
Cows are calved and mated every day, like European herds, said Pannetts Dairies managing director Hamish Davidson.
Based on overseas experience, a 400-day lactation is being targeted, but as Pannetts Dairies has yet to milk a full season this still hasn't been tested in practice. Cows are dried off for 45 days, depending on condition.
As the biggest on-going cost for the farm is feed, a 130ha block has been purchased across the road, so it can grow a lot of its own. "Our insurance is to have about three- quarters of a year's worth of feed on hand."
A nutritionist provides cows with the right balance of feed, a total mixed ration which includes lucerne silage, maize silage, grass silage and wheat.
A mechanical scraper keeps the barns clean of effluent, which is separated into liquids and solids, both of which are eventually applied to paddocks. The comprehensive feeding programme results in much lower nitrogen levels in the effluent compared with pasture-fed cows.
The state-of-the-art separation and distribution system for effluent includes a pond eight times larger than required by ECan, rubber lined to ensure no leakage, which allows the nutrients to be held over winter.
With three months of effluent storage available, effluent never needs to be applied during too-wet periods, avoiding the risk of leaching nutrients into groundwater. Liquid effluent and irrigation water are applied to paddocks via variable-rate irrigation, with every sprinkler computer- controlled.
- The Press