Secrets to sharemilking success

17:00, Apr 11 2014
KEY TO SUCCESS: James and Melissa Barbour, with children Ben and Josh, credit the good relationship with farm owner Joan De Renzy.

James and Melissa Barbour's strong relationship with their farm owner and staff has propelled the sharemilking couple to the top in their field.

The Waikato Sharemilker/Equity Farmer of the Year winners credit these relationships for their success and place a lot of emphasis on maintaining them.

They 50:50 sharemilk 355 cows for Joan De Renzynts at Matamata. Both are 28 years old, and are in their seventh season and third position 50:50 sharemilking.

They take on board what De Renzy says and work as a team along with assistant Hayden Thompson.

"We have learned a lot from Joan. She's definitely been a wealth of knowledge and she's definitely helped up pick up the award," James said.

They treat the farm as their own while taking into account the owner's goals. These are not always focused on production, and include following best practise guidelines and environmental compliance.

"As a sharemilker you have to be aware that this is their farm and they have plans for the farm as well. We have to work within what they want with their farm and land," Melissa said.

The Barbours are proud of Thompson's development over the past two seasons.

That was recognised by the judges when they won the human resources section at the awards.

It is Thompson's first dairying job, having come from the fencing industry. He has just accepted a contract milker's job on another farm.

"He's been a huge asset to our business and he's a really good guy. It's been awesome to see him grow being new to the industry," James said.

Entering the awards provided the Barbours the opportunity to get expert analysis on their business from industry experts.

"That analysis has helped us to grow and become better farmers."

The win came as a pleasant surprise to the first time entrants.

"We always wanted to enter the awards, it was just a matter of getting the timing right and putting the effort in. It's been a hugely rewarding process."

Dairying is in the Barbours' blood. Both were raised on dairy farms and established a love of dairying from a young age.

James credits his father for teaching him basic stockmanship and pasture management.

Upon leaving school, he completed a Bachelor of Applied Science from Massey University.

"It taught me a lot of the 'why' behind the way things were done on farm."

He was also fortunate enough to receive scholarships from Dexcel (now DairyNZ) and from Ballance Agrinutrients to help pay his tuition.

He worked at Ballance for six months after graduating before the opportunity to go 50:50 sharemilking arose at his parents farm near Te Poi. He was able to afford his first 170-cow herd after earlier investing in two residential properties. The sale of these houses helped fund this herd.

Melissa has a Bachelor of Management Studies at Waikato University majoring in accounting. She worked as a tax consultant with KPMG after graduating, and left that position to have her first child in 2011.

Melissa handles the financial side of the business although they also get an outside accountant to look over their records as another set of eyes.

They spent two seasons at Te Poi before spending three seasons at a bigger farm at Turangaomoana, milking 260 cows.

The pair married during their second season.

"That was an awesome stepping stone and allowed us to pay off a bit of debt as we went through and build [stock] numbers," James said.

They built their herd over this time and paid off debt by leasing out heifers and trading beef animals.

James would mate his later-calving cows with a hereford bull and sell its reared calf. They also purchased beef calves and paid for them to be grazed on a block at Te Miro until they were two years old before selling them.

In their second season at Turangaomoana, they bought a line of in-calf heifers. They reared the calves and leased them out and they joined the herd once they moved to the Matamata farm.

"When we look back at it, it was a good little progression that kept things ticking ove.

"Young stock are a great investment and it's helped up keep a young herd and you have them for the rest of their lives."

It meant they only had to buy 40 cows when they moved to De Renzy's farm.

Sharemilkers were often faced with a big jump in the equity required to move into a larger farm. Stock trading helped minimise that hurdle, Melissa said.

"You need a big chunk to buy to go bigger and this spreads out that equity over a couple of years."

They are also quite conservative in their budgeting and constantly re-visit those figures.

"We like to run a low-cost system. We put a lot of value on saving well, we're good savers," Melissa said.

De Renzy's farm is 120ha, of which 108ha is effective. It has good medium early rolling country with fertile sandy loam soils that provide excellent  pasture growth.

They have hit their production target of 127,500kg milk solids from their 355 cow herd in the farm's 30-aside herringbone shed this season.

They were on track to do 130,000kg MS but their season will be shortened by two weeks due to the drought. It is still above the previous record of 123,000kg MS produced by the previous sharemilkers.

Last year they produced 118,000kg MS and James estimated the rolling average for the farm would be between 112,000-115,000kg MS. 

The farm has good sound infrastructure. It does not have the latest or greatest technology, but has everything required and it all works well, James said.

They operate a two-herd system where the heifers are kept separate from the main herd. James separates the heifers into this herd about three weeks into calving. There are about 100 heifers in this herd while the balance in the main herd.

"The good thing about it is that we can preferentially feed our heifers and our lighter stock. If those are struggling a bit we can put them in the herd with the younger cows," he said.

He switches that mob to once a day milking at the end of the season. With the drought, he monitors his stock daily and shifts any lighter conditioned from the main herd into the second mob until the entire herd is milking once a day.

"It makes a huge difference, having two herds, especially the heifers. They really benefited from being in their own herd. We only had four empty heifers this season, which was awesome."

He uses a spring rotation planner from mid winter. From dryoff, the cows are on a 90-day round and work their way down to an 18-21 day round at peak milking.

Calving in the main herd occurs on July 15 with the heifers calving five days earlier. Mating takes place over 13 weeks starting on October 3 using AI. That is carried out over five weeks before using jersey bulls are put out onto the paddocks.

This season they had a 8.5 per cent empty rate. Melissa rears the calves and they are allowed to keep 20 per cent of the calves for themselves. Last year they reared 82 calves.

The herd is a mix of crossbred cows and some friesians. Their breeding worth average sits at 115 and productive worth is 145. James said he would like to improve this.

"Figures aren't everything to me. I'm looking for a nice crossbred cow that I know is going to milk with nice udders and good confirmation that we can take forward to a larger job."

He culls his herd of empty cows in March and again in December, taking cows out with bad udders or those that would not perform in the new season.

Their balance date is around September 10. He generally does not cut pastures for silage before this date, instead focuses on feeding his cows as well as he possibly can during the spring.

"Our cows peaked at over 2.2kg milk solids this year. The milk in the vat is more important than silage.

"I really focus on feeding them then, because that's when we make our money."

The spring was so good this season that he ended up making plenty of silage.

The Barbours also use an aquaflex moisture meter that measures soil temperature and moisture.

They use the data to decide when to apply effluent onto paddocks, when to re-grass and start or stop topping their pastures.

"It's a really handy tool for putting on fertiliser and all sorts of things. It's really good for decision making."

James's emphasis on the visual assessment of his pastures saw them recognised with the pasture performance award.

He also re-checks this assessment with data gathered from a plate meter. During the spring he would use this tool every two to three weeks while in the winter it would be every month.

They have undertaken improvements over the past two seasons. Areas around the farm's streams have been fenced off and a riparian planting programme has been carried out.

This year they have planted 400 native plants and they plan to continue that next season. They have also fenced off all of their waterways.

They also have a standoff pad for the cows during wet times. The farm uses a low application rate low labour effluent system. This involves installing a series of hydrants in each paddock on the effluent block, to which sprinklers are attached, covering an 18-20m radius, and twelve or more sprinklers can be operated at a time.

This allows them to irrigate into three or more paddocks at once, allowing large volumes of effluent to be pumped at low application rates (3-4mm/hr).

The system also operates on a timer and automatically turns off after two hours.

Their effluent pond holds about 20 days' storage in the spring and 40 days during the summer.

Looking ahead, their goal is to progress to a larger sharemilking position and then into farm ownership within five years.

"But at the same time it has to be the right job. Eight hundred cows would be a nice progression for us," James said.

But they will look at all of the opportunities that come their way.

"We know they are getting harder to come by so we are realistic about that," Melissa added.


Fairfax Media