Dairy conversion good decision for Waikato farming couple

Converting a sheep and beef farm to dairy and going once-a-day has proven good decision-making by Jersey breeders Matthew and Emma Darke of Aria, Waikato.

Ten years ago, Matthew and his parents Peter and Elizabeth moved to dairy to diversify the family farm.

Initially building a small shed to milk 100 cows and rearing 1500 calves annually, with the plan to eventually milk 450 cows, the Darkes now milk on two farms in two herds, with each block around 260ha effective, supporting 625 cows each.

The Darkes took a fair bit of ribbing from their neighbours in the beginning, who found it more than interesting that not only were they converting to dairy, but with Jerseys on the once-a-day system. However, it turns out the Darkes are trailblazers in their area, with many of the local dairy farms following suit.

Matthew and Emma credit Malcolm Ellis of LIC with the inspiration to moving to Jerseys.

They’re also actively involved in a once-a-day discussion group, based at Massey University, started by Colin Holmes, who sees once-a-day as the future for dairy farming in New Zealand. “We weren’t ‘proper’ dairy farmers in the early days — we didn’t have our beliefs and systems firmly in place, so we were prepared to try new concepts on farm,” says Matthew.

An average farm with average infrastructure, the new (upper) block has previously supported a crossbred herd that produced 90,000kg/MS in the year purchased, with a farm record of 103,000kg/MS.

In 2014, the Darkes purchased the neighbouring 135ha property, increasing the total land area to 500ha. “In our first year of operation on once-a-day, with a predominantly Jersey herd, we averaged 115,00kg/MS,” says Matthew.

“This season we changed it up. We split the two herds and farms into equal land and herd sizes, with 450 cows in each herd,” he says.

“On the lower (original) block, the longest walk to the shed was 4km but that paddock was only 2km from the upper block’s shed, so it made sense to swap them around.” In the 2016/17 season, the upper block averaged 850kg/MS per hectare, 330kg/MS per cow in 250 days from the predominantly Jersey herd. The lower block produced 750kg/MS per hectare on hillier country from a mainly crossbred herd.

Having weighed the cows, the 400kg Jerseys were averaging 330kg/MS per cow, making them the most efficient converters of feed (82.5 per cent of liveweight). At other discussion groups Matthew and Emma attended, the averages were 360kg/MS from 460kg cows, with extra feed required for maintenance.

Last season the Darkes’ production totalled 406,000kg/MS, just one per cent off their record season.

Matthew comments on the hard spring this season, followed by five weeks without rain.
“Now that it’s raining, the grass is bolting,” he says.

“We’re currently about 2000kg/MS, or 0.5 per cent, behind last season’s production but we’re well into catch-up mode and we’re looking at producing 400,000kg/MS.” With on-farm costs of $3.25 per MS, they’re taking advantage of the once-a-day premium.

Emma and Matthew say the ideal once-a-day cow matches or beats her liveweight in production, with over 10 per cent milksolids on test.

“She needs to have great capacity, big rumen and a big heart, good feet and legs, a big gut and a wide mouth,” says Matthew.

“A good strong fore udder and udder attachment are vital for the once-a-day cow — and the will to milk.”

He comments that most good twice-a-day cows will work on once-a-day, but it’s very rare for a poor twice-a-day to be successful under the once-a-day system.

“We’re just starting to really pinpoint exactly what we need,” he says.

“J12 and over is ideal and we’re not looking for anything too fine in the bone.

“Because Jerseys mature quickly, we want solid cows that aren’t too tall.”

Both herds are now actively mated to Jersey, with the exception of one crossbred bull (approximately 150 straws). The lower 10-15 per cent get a beef straw.

Emma actively mates each cow and selects bulls based on their breeding values, matching the requirements of each dam.

“We’re using the elite LIC and CRV Ambreed bulls,” says Emma. “More recently we’ve used some overseas bulls from Genetic Enterprises to address a slight issue with inbreeding.”

Coming from a stud breeding background, Matthew comments that the ‘bull of the day’ philosophy is not for them.

“We can improve the herd more quickly by nominating semen,” he says.

For the Darkes, the Jersey breed meets so many of their goals for their herd.

“They deal really well with the heat in summer,” says Matthew.

“You see them eating well while the crossbreds are panting.

“Their fertility rate is also considerably better, and in a normal year we don’t have to do premate heat checks.”

The once-a-day system suits both the Darkes’ lifestyle and the farm.

Their system is designed to be simple and everyone is more content — the herd is in no rush to get back to the paddock and the family gets to spend more time together.