Growing only 7 kilograms of dry matter a hectare during South Taranaki’s dry summers is as good a reason as any to switch to autumn calving.
Lisa and Andy Tippett, who are milking 400 cows on their 160-hectare (135ha effective) Okaiawa dairy farm, are in their first season of full autumn calving. They’re targeting production this season of 180,000 kilograms milksolids, slightly more than their spring calving production of 175,000 kgMS.
“Twenty years ago, you’d have been stupid to milk in winter,” Andy said. “But there’s been a change in the last seven to eight years – summers are drier and you can grow more feed in winter than in summer.”
Their winter growth rates of 25kg DM/ha are achieved with the application of urea and gibberellic acid behind the cows.
“We have the ability to make the grass grow in winter,” Andy said. “This is an area that responds well to nitrogen. It’s good fertile land, but it’s a dry location.”
One farmer nearby also undertakes autumn calving and about six farmers in the Okaiawa district operate split calving systems.
Andy said the autumn calving production curve was flatter than the one generated by spring calving. Their herd’s daily per cow production is currently at 1.25 kgMS.
The couple expect to move to once-a-day milking early in January in preparation for drying off the herd in the middle of the month when the cows will be in good condition for calving in mid-March. Mating will begin early in June.
Drying off in mid-January gives them and their five daughters, aged between 4 and 10, the chance to have a family holiday before the start of the school year.
The couple are in their sixth season of an equity partnership with Lisa’s parents, Dennis and Diane Bourke, long-time dairy farmers at nearby Te Roti. Long-term, the Tippetts will increase their equity in the farm – currently at 20 per cent.
Last season they grew fodder beet and although they achieved a good yield they found managing it was intensive. It also required a lot of chemicals to keep pests and weeds under control.
“And we don’t really want a lot of chemicals on the farm,” Lisa said.
“Autumn calving is more like an organic system and allows us to reduce sprays. We’re conscious of what we put on the farm and what we put into the feed.”
Andy said after a dry summer, the grass – once it grew – was more beneficial than paddocks in fodder beet.
This season they’ve planted 24ha in maize which will allow them to make the most of the infrastructure in place when they bought the farm. Even though the 60-bail rotary cowshed and large feedpad allows them to milk 600 cows, they don’t want to intensify their operation.
The maize crop, which they expect will yield 20 tonnes, will be harvested in early February. Spring calving allowed them to plant only 12ha in maize.
Autumn calving lets them grow annual crops and manage their feed without having to buy any.
In winter the cows consume pasture, maize, grass silage and 2kgs of palm kernel expeller. “At the moment, just grass is going down the cows’ throats.”
They say the pros of autumn calving outweigh the cons.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, but there are lots of advantages – like collecting calves in your t-shirt and shorts,” said Andy.
Lisa said it was much more fun for the children. “It’s dry and warm, you’re outside in the sunshine, so it’s not a stressful time – you’re happy doing it.
“It’s the right thing for us, for our family and for this farm because it fits the weather pattern and our grass growth.”
Even though they did no vaccinations, they lost no calves last autumn and there were no infections like rotavirus. “They grow so much better in autumn because it’s not cold. They had no setbacks,” she said,
At weaning, the smallest was 110 kilograms and the largest tipped the scales at 140kg.
Andy said the price of autumn calves was another benefit. “I hate to say it, but the bobby calf cheque was bringing in more than the milk cheque – that’s how bad the milk price was or how good the bobby calf price was.”
If more pasture grew in winter than in summer, then autumn calving wouldn’t be worth it. Getting cows in calf in winter was a bit of an issue, but if winter mating was unsuccessful, the cows could still get in calf in spring and be sold. “So you have that flexibility.”
Having moved their supply to Open Country in June 2015, they receive a winter milk premium of between $2 and $2.80 from May to July.
Andy said the couple, who didn’t have to buy shares in Open Country, switched from Fonterra because the co-operative wasn’t paying a winter incentive.
They are keen to display the farm in a way that shows their pride in it.
Riparian planting along about 4km of streambank alongside an unnamed tributary of the Waingongoro River is complete. Now they want to plant natives like kowhai and pohutukawa along the farm’s fence lines to improve its aesthetics, to boost grass growth and to provide the cows with shade and with shelter from the wind.
Andy grew up on a Manaia Rd dairy farm owned by his parents Doug and Merilyn Tippett and started his farming career when he left school, although he did spend a year playing rugby in Scotland.
Lisa, who has a diploma in outdoor adventure and eco tourism, has worked as a blackwater rafting guide at Waitomo Caves and is keen to apply her skills to diversifying the couple’s farming operation.
Within the next two years, she wants to establish a farm-based tourism and hospitality operation by converting the farm’s disused cowshed into a bed and breakfast operation for a country retreat and setting up an adventure course for children.
The couple have already developed a large spring-fed lake where they’ve introduced their daughters to kayaking and where they may erect a lakeside cabin. “It’s about making life on the farm enjoyable, having fun and sharing it with others,” she said.
As South Taranaki Parents’ Centre president, she recently organised a 2.4 kilometre walk on the farm for families. “We had prams and pushchairs and everyone enjoyed the mountain and sea views.
“People love it. We take it for granted because it’s our backyard,” she said.
“It makes you enjoy the farm more when you see other people enjoying it.”
During the last two seasons of low farmgate milk prices, they have appreciated the support of friends and family as they’ve watched their capital erode.
Lisa said the Okaiawa community was a caring one where farmers helped each other out.
“It’s important not to isolate yourself. Otherwise you think you’re stuffing things up. In your own view, you’re not doing well. You think you’re doing something wrong, but really it’s out of your hands,” Lisa said. “Don’t stop living – but talk to your accountant and your bank manager.”
While they couple are not part of an autumn calving discussion group, Andy is keen to facilitate round-the-table chats for the neighbours.
“Farming is always moving and so is the way we communicate.”
With dairy farmers having been through a couple of tough seasons, catching up with each other and watching out for each other was important. “Sometimes we’re so focused on production. There’s so much pressure to achieve more, but why can’t we just do what we want to do?
“It’s important to look after yourself, to have time off and not to push yourself to the wall.
“We’re happy just to be grass-roots farmers,” he said.
By: Sue O’Dowd