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Milking small herd no longer profitable

LYN WEBSTER
Last updated 06:20 19/03/2014

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OPINION: My milking season is nearly over.

It is a shame because the year started off so well, but a season of two halves is pretty typical in this neck of the woods. It hasn't really rained since January, and my decision to go once-a-day milking seemed like a good idea at the time.

Unfortunately, low milk volume and every-second-day collection has pushed my somatic cell count beyond the required standards, and I have been selectively drying off cows in an attempt to avoid dairy factory penalties.

I am now down to 95 cows, which is hardly worth getting up in the morning for. Plans for upgrading a section of the track and applying some mag-lime prills are now on hold and I am wondering if I will be able to pay my lease, let alone the cost of the spouting the Northland Regional Council insisted I put up to keep the rain water off the yard.

But on the up-side, the cows have stayed in good condition and Fonterra have given us a bit more money, so once again I am back to scrimping and scraping just to get by.

The bill pile is severely diminished thanks to some massive milk cheques earlier in the season, but the old debt situation remains the same. Oh well - I suppose no one said it would be easy.

There is such a lot in the media about the environmental impact of dairy farming and the proposed changes farmers may be required to manage in the future. Limiting dairy conversions in at-risk areas seems like common sense to me and something I assumed would have been already covered by the Resource Management Act. Overloading this country with dairy cows would be environmental suicide and I don't think anyone is going to let that happen. Dairy farms need fresh water to survive as much or more than anyone else.

I'd love to have a crystal ball so I could see 25 years into the future and know what the talk and actions of today resulted in. I have a suspicion that a lot of social media comment is uninformed twaddle and certain politicians and parties use environmental issues to draw attention to themselves and their policies.

One thing I know for sure is that what I am doing on 120ha in Northland, with a stocking rate of about two cows per hectare and refusing to use palm kernel on moral grounds, is a far cry from a highly stocked, modern dairy farm.

I look back to when I started my dairying career in Stratford less than 15 years ago and cannot believe I got obsolete so fast.

The lifestyle I desired from milking a small herd of cows suddenly seems to be quaint and old fashioned - not to mention unprofitable.

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However, I am also sure that my environmental impact is much more sustainable than a corporate-type operation with a higher stocking rate.

If limits are imposed on dairy farmers that affect profitability, and the price of milk products does not rise accordingly, then some farmers will go out of business. Dairying is about profit margins and even though milk price is at a record high, pressure is pushing on those margins from many directions.

* Lyn Webster is a dairy farmer in Northland

- Waikato Times

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