Landcorp's Ruapehu Farm turns around to become top dairy business
The worst kid on the block is now not only the best but also an award winner.
Landcorp's Ruapehu Farm, beside the Manawatu River at Moutoa between Levin and Foxton, recently took the supreme prize at the Dairy Business of the Year Awards.
Managed by Glenn Weitenberg, Ruapehu Farm is a 253ha block milking 870-880 kiwicross cows and is one of nine farms owned by Landcorp at Moutoa in one title but farmed separately. Five to six years ago, it was the lowest -producing dairy farm in the group but is now the top farm.
This is Weitenberg's third season on Ruapehu Farm. Improvements and management strategies he and others before him have implemented have transformed the farm into a high performing award-winning business.
"Seven years ago it was a poor-producing farm and the worst in the group," he says.
"The farm wasn't making much money, grass didn't grow and production was low. The business manager even thought about turning it into a native bush block."
Since then, the farm has been regrassed, lime applied and better operating procedures put in place.
Two years ago, Weitenberg and his team entered the Dairy Business of the Year to measure themselves against other farms.
"It was big surprise to be a finalist that year," he says.
"Then we had a great season so decided to enter again this year. We have put in a lot of hard work on the farm to get systems in place and working right, so it is nice to be recognised for all our effort."
They also won the Best Manawatu Farm Performance, lowest environmental impact and high input with best financials awards.
Judge Cornelius Williams said the farm won the environment award due to superior nitrogen leaching performance.
"Landcorp Ruapehu also has good infrastructure to control environmental externalities through the season," Williams said.
"This includes a 3500 cubic metres lined pond, recycled greenwater and winter stand off and feed pad areas providing good winter management options. In addition to this, 5ha of natives have been planted on the property."
Weitenberg says the effluent management technology is an impressive set-up which prevents ponding on paddocks.
He also says he is particularly proud of what they have achieved as the team is relatively young.
"Our youngest staff member is 17. Our 2IC is in his 40s but is new to the industry," he says.
"So we have achieved some pretty cool result."
Winning the Dairy Business of the Year has not only given them recognition, but is also an indication to Weitenberg he is in the right business after all.
Becoming a dairy farmer was an "unconscious" decision for the 26-year-old, who has a passion for the great outdoors.
"I never set out to be dairy farmer," he says.
"It just sort of happened. I didn't actually want to work with cows but didn't really know what I wanted to do except work with tractors and outdoors."
Tractors played a big part in his youth. If there was tractor-work to be done, he was the first to put his hand up.
The son of immigrant sharemilkers from Holland, Weitenberg was born in Whangarei. In 2000 when he was 10 years old, the family shifted south to Marton, Rangitikei.
He remembers driving tractors on the farm at Whangarei so reckons he was probably about eight or nine when he first took one for a spin.
"I would come home from school and go straight out to top or roll paddocks or apply fertiliser," he says.
"In the holidays I always had a big list of tractor jobs to do so was happy. Mum and dad paid me an hourly rate based on my age, so not sure who won there."
He attended Palmerston North Boys High where he excelled in sports and in particular, athletics.
In 2007 he represented New Zealand at the Youth Olympics in Sydney in the 110m hurdles placing seventh.
But with niggling knee and leg injuries athletics fell by the wayside. At the end of Year 12 his parents decided to get out of sharemilking, so he left school to help them on the farm for the final year.
"I still wasn't convinced dairying was what I wanted to do," he says.
After a year his parents sold the herd and Weitenberg went to work as a barman at a nearby country club where he met Tammi. The couple married in 2014
He then went to work for Mary Craw and Bernie Hughes as a farm assistant at Hunterville.
"It was a great learning curve," he says.
"I had been doing things dad's way and now I was on a farm using different techniques. I was exposed to lots of different things, but the biggest was being grass-based so learnt a lot about pasture management."
Two seasons later, he secured a manager's role with James Bull Holdings, also at Hunterville. The role was a huge step up as it was a much larger farm milking 880-900 cows.
"The farm was high-input so again I learnt another system," he says.
"I was working with a team, so being in charge gave me a lot of people-management skills."
As a trial on that farm, they milked three times a day during the peak period with good results.
"The herd was big holstein friesians who were pumping the milk out," he says.
In 2014 the couple shifted south to Landcorp's Ruapehu Farm. Weitenberg is in his third season managing the property while Tammi commutes to Marton each day for work.
"It is a great place to work and live," he says.
"We weren't sure about shifting here but it is the best move we have made. Being at Ruapehu Farm affords me a great lifestyle and fits in well with our work-life balance. Being on a large farm with a team of five makes it easier to get away and have some down-time."
In his first two season, Weitenberg worked closely with then-business manager Brian Wilkinson who oversaw all nine farms. Together they analysed Ruapehu, with Wilkinson identifying production dips at certain times of the year.
"Brian said it was all to do with the pasture," Weitenberg says.
"So we came up with a plan to top every paddock before the herd went in. We started topping when the payout was dropping so this was adding a cost and we copped a bit criticism from people, but Brian backed me up and we carried on."
Pasture tests showed the topping had given them an increase in metabolic energy and quality, and better three-leaf pasture.
"We harvested an extra two tonnes of grass that season," he says.
"Our production also increased by nearly 45,000kgMS so the total cost of milksolids went down. Farm working expenses varied $4.50-$5 about 5-6 years ago. The total expenditure has actually gone up for the season now compared to then but we are producing around another 125000kg a year compared to 5-6 years ago which results in lower farm working expenses now."
Last season the herd averaged 437kg to produce 381,000kg, down from the 415,000kg produced in the 2014-15 season. Their target for the coming season is 420,000kg.
"We were hit by the floods in June last year, which affected production hugely," he says. The farm lies next to the Manawatu spillway, which diverts floodwaters from the river.
"The spillway overflowed and left a lot of silt which stuffed about 30ha of pasture. Because of all the rain, the rest of the farm just stalled and took a long time to recover so it was a tough start to the season."
With that behind them, he is optimistic. "Everything is falling into place and lining up to be a good season."
"But, all it will take is one adverse weather event to stuff it up. Touch wood it doesn't happen."
The farm was also hit in the 2004 floods when all Landcorp's Moutoa farms went under water. Flood waters rose three quarters of the way up the walls of the house he and Tammi now live in.
Production is achieved through a System 4 with about 500 tonnes of palm kernel extract fed throughout the season and a further 350 tonnes of silage sourced off-farm.
Grass silage made on-farm is used to fill in feed gaps during the summer, along with about 10ha of turnips and 6ha of rape fed from January to March.
About 22ha of maize is grown on-farm and is fed to late-lactating cows and through winter to the 500 or so cows that are wintered on-farm. The remainder are grazed off.
"The one thing about this farm is it grows really good crops," he says.
"We average 25 tonnes a hectare for the maize and 16t tonnes for the turnips. We do a lot of spraying on crops. Whenever we think there are bugs in the crops we spray, which helps, and the fertility is also high."
All crop paddocks are soil-tested before sowing for the following season to highlight fertiliser requirements.
From the day cows calve they go on a grass-only diet supplemented with 2kg of PKE a cow.
Calving begins on August 1 but the odd early calf had already arrived by mid-July. Springer cows are carefully monitored and fed a dcad diet to prevent milk fever.
On a busy day they can have 40 cows calve and within the first 10 days of calving about 300 cows are in. Calves are gathered twice a day and offered the feeder immediately to ensure they get their colostrum.
Weitenberg helps feed newborn calves on their first day after which a calf rearer takes over.
"They are the future of the herd," he says.
"I am really strict on getting colostrum into a calf first thing so I know they have had their first feed and best possible start."
About 200 calves are reared as replacements and Weitenberg uses Queen of Calves - a nutrient-rich powder system to enhance growth and performance.
"Our first heifers that were raised on Queen of Calves are about to come into the herd," Weitenberg says.
"They are looking good – fat and healthy - so it will be interesting to see how they go in terms of production."
Last season, 50 bull calves were reared for extra income, but Weitenberg says it wasn't worth it.
"By the time you take into account the labour cost and feed etc, the margin was small so probably won't do that again."
He is also strict about maintaining good hygiene in the calf shed with regular spraying and cleaning.
"If you focus on the little things and get the basics right, everything works," he says.
"I tell the guys four or five little things can add up to something big, so if you get on top of it early you can avoid any problems. We are lucky and never seem to have any issues with calves and illness."
Calves are weaned at 90kg and in early December are sent to graze at another Landcorp-owned farm at Tangimoana on a weight-gain basis, returning as in-calf heifers.
Mating begins on October 23 using the Why Wait programme where cows are injected with prostaglandin to make them cycle a week early. Instead of every 21 days, cows cycle at around 14 days.
Some CDIRs are used on non-cycling cows.
"Our six-week in-calf rate has traditionally been poor," he says.
"It was 57 per cent and is now 67 per cent so there is still room for improvement."
Landcorp Ruapehu now uses A2 bull semen for five weeks and bulls are bought in to put over the herd and then sold.
The empty rate is about 11 per cent but Weitenberg says this is likely to get better.
"Through better management and Why Wait we have squeezed things up and managed to take two weeks off mating and calving at the other end."
He and Tammi are slowly building equity in the hope of stepping up to an equity partnership or similar. They own two rental properties.
"At this stage, I don't want to leave and go and manage somewhere else," he says.
"Tammi and I want to do something for ourselves so we can progress. Whether that is an equity partnership or sharemilking, we will wait and see."
He says he has always wanted to buy land but is not sure what.
"I don't want to buy a small dairy farm and then be tied to the milking shed," he says.
"A bigger farm with a good staff structure appeals so we can enjoy that good life-work balance that we have now."
The couple also like to travel and plan more trips in the future. They recently spent five weeks in Holland visiting family and took in Italy and Dubai at the same time.
"It helps that Tammi works and we are a double-income family," he says.
"We want to enjoy the rewards of our work while we are young. We would probably have more equity if we didn't travel but it is important for us to have that balance."
Before calving starts fully, he is squeezing in a trip to America for a friend's wedding but knows that when he returns it will be full-on.
"My goal is just to continue fine-tuning the system," he says.
"We are looking good for the season ahead. The cows and cover are good, the heifers fat and staff keen. Everything is falling into place. If we get the first six months right it will be a sweet season. Hopefully we don't get any flooding."
Location: Levin, Horowhenua
Farm Size: 253ha
Cows: 870-880 kiwicross
Production: 2015/2016 415,000kgMS
Target: 2016/2017 420,000kgMS
Farm working expenses: $3.60
Target farm working expenses: $3.55