Candy Dairy Focus Farm

August 2016

After being invited to become a DairyNZ Focus Farm, the Candy's production has grown

Four years ago Alister and Lyn Candy signed up for the DairyNZ Focus Farm experience not really knowing what to expect. They achieved excellent results – greater productivity and profit through better pasture and stock management producing better conception rates and condensed calving, and improved business practices. Although they are no longer a focus farm they are continuing with the improvement management features that now include succession planning.

The Candys didn’t set out to become part of the DairyNZ Focus Farm initiative, it just sort of happened one day when they were at a meeting of the next-door neighbour’s discussion group.

“The group was talking about feeding cows using wagons and feed bins but we wanted to feed meal in the shed because it was a lot cheaper that way, so they said ‘right, let’s get together at your place next’,” says Alister.

“We have a big covered-in plastic calf house and we were all sitting in there and someone asked if we would like to be a focus farm. At that stage we didn’t even know what a focus farm was, but when they explained we said “yes, we’ll give it a go.”

That was 2011 and the Candys were milking 320 Jerseys on 103ha with an adjacent 85ha runoff for young stock and wintering the herd. They had managed the property for two decades building the herd up from 200 as more land was cleared and grassed.

Their three-year average production in 2011 was 76,000kgMS and their ultimate goal was 100,000. Today they are milking the same number of cows but production is around 115,000kgMS thanks to input from the Focus Farm management committee plus a lot of hard work and many changes.

A group comprising five successful local farmers with AgFirst consultant Gareth Baynham as facilitator, set about examining the Candy’s farming system and asking questions. A major talking point was the poor conception rate and spread calving that an LIC adviser reckoned was costing them $70,000. Getting more cows in calf quicker would mean more milk in the vat before Christmas and better seasonal production. The way they achieved this was to focus on improving cow condition using better pasture management to increase feed availability along with some supplements.

“We started measuring pasture with a plate meter every 10 days and each of us including our daughter Christine had an area of the farm to measure, but after a while we decided that it would be more consistent for just one of us to do it,” says Alister. “I still walk the farm every 10 days and it gives a good handle on how much grass we’ve got and whether we are going to have a surplus or a shortfall. Instead of just a standard rotation the cows go to the best paddock no matter where it is. We work on allocating 17kg per cow per day and leaving a residual of 1500kg/ha. If there is a shortfall we know to feed some supplement.”

“I would recommend a plate meter to any farmer – for the cost of $700 we get about $200,000 of extra profit.”

Previously the Candys had relied on hay and baleage as supplements, but in their first year as a focus farm they fed some meal and subsequently PKE to make up any shortfall in pasture dry matter. They also learnt to condition score the stock, which helped with monitoring cow condition and achieving target scores.

On the milking platform increased pasture production has been achieved without extra fertiliser because of the build-up in the soil from previous applications over many years. Just maintenance dressings of lime and a phosphate/sulphur mix have been applied and less nitrogen has been used.

The runoff has been treated differently. Initially the advice from the committee was to sell the block because the young stock were not doing well there, but Alister and Lyn were keen to keep it. Under Gareth’s guidance they put on 2 tonnes of lime, partly to counteract the high aluminium levels in the soil. They also increased subdivision from 15 to 60 paddocks using “string and sticks” electric fencing. That meant many more concrete troughs along with kilometers of plastic pipe, tanks and water pump. Stream margins were fenced off so that stock used the troughs.

“Now we have a better rotation there and the young stock are growing much better. We weigh them regularly and they are about 50kg ahead of where they used to be,” says Lyn.

“It is quite steep land and can’t be cropped, but we run a few beef cows behind the heifers to keep on top of the grass and clean up the paddocks. We also winter the herd there.”

Two years ago the Candys became part of a heifer growth monitoring scheme run by DairyNZ and recent comments on the condition of the heifers have been very favourable.

Better heifer and cow condition led to the 6-week in-calf rate rising from 42% in 2011 to 71% in 2014. In that time production rose 50% and farm working expenses per kgMS fell 27%. Their economic surplus rose from 94c to $2.30/kgMS. Overall, says Alister, their approach is much more business-like – optimising management through better budgeting, questioning whether each expense is really necessary and getting quotes more often.

It may all sound straight-forward but farming in the area is not easy. Rainfall is between 2m and 3m annually and pugging is a problem particularly on the Wharekohe soil type that covers half of the property. When it rains the herd is stood off in the dairy yard, on races or under a pine plantation. In winter all work in the area is done with quad bikes.

The other half is mainly Okaihau loam and is generally flatter and better drained. Treated effluent is irrigated on 28ha and although the farm has a consent to discharge to a waterway it seldom needs to be used.

Being a focus farm has given Alister and Lyn a clearer direction, and since the project ended they have continued to look ahead. “The biggest thing we have been working on is succession planning. Next season we are going to put Christina on as contract milker and we will step away from milking. We have a rotary shed with an automatic cup remover and teat sprayer, which means that for much of the year one person can milk all the cows,” says Alister.

“We have bought a 2 ha lot just two minutes down the road and we are now planning a new house that we hope to build this year. We are not really leaving the farm but we will just stand back a wee bit and become the stand-in milkers, spraying gorse and doing the fertiliser or whatever. It will be a nice change for us. We have always had to come back home from fishing or social events to milk cows and now someone else can do that and we will have a bit more discretionary time.”

No doubt some of that time will be spent in the 170ha block of dense bush that the Candys have put into a QEII Covenant – listening for kiwi, checking pest traps for possums, rats, stoats and cats, and talking with groups of environmental studies students that sometimes visit.

Tafi Manjala is currently a farm management consultant with AgFirst but at the time of the Candy’s Focus Farm he was with DairyNZ and is familiar with the project. He says that the number one key to the success of the project was the team approach – the Candys had a group of professional farmers and advisers to help analyse what they were doing and make decisions that would improve their bottom line.

“The first key point is that the Candys were motivated to make use of those professionals as sounding boards and as people who could keep them on track and hold them accountable for keeping to agreed plans. The management team understood what the Candy’s goals were and the whole interaction was based around helping them achieve those goals,” says Tafi.

“Benchmarking the farm performance against the top performers in the district was also important because that identified the gap between what they were doing and what is possible, and what could help close the gap.”

Tafi says that there were a number of key KPIs identified by benchmarking:

Pasture management and generating good farm data around pasture: “Alister, Lyn and Christine were plating the farm religiously, which gave them planning information and helped identify what needed to be done around nitrogen and the things that would actually help them grow more grass,” he says.
Cow body condition score: “When we started the project in September the cows had an average BCS of 3.7 compared with a target of 4.0 for that time of year. They also paid attention to the condition of young stock, weighing them about every two months so that they achieved target weights and came into the herd ready to perform.”
Improving the performance of the run-off: “Better subdivision gave them better pasture quality that helped them achieve the target body condition scores.
Financial management: “By benchmarking things such as farm working expenses they were able to have a big focus on spending money only in areas that would add to the bottom line and anything that did not give a return was taken out of the budget. One important area was animal health costs that were around $80 per cow annually. They went to their vet and told him that they had a budget of $50 per cow and asked him to help them prioritise their spending. Despite their misgivings animal health actually improved and it was a huge saving.”