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Precision grass farming fuels brothers’ dairy operation

Precision grass farming fuels brothers’ dairy operation

When the Fabish brothers – Paul, Stephen and Bryant – came home to farm at Tariki, Taranaki in the 1980s, their dream was to expand from the original family property to each have a farm of their own.

They have achieved that dream and more through working effectively as a team and through precision grass management. They started out with an 80 hectare farm milking 220 cows.

Today they have four dairy farms milking 1200 cows and three run-offs. It is an impressive achievement for the brothers, whose farming roots in the area date back to the early 1900s. “Some land is leased but our effective area is around 520 hectares,” Paul says.

The same farm advisor who guided their father on farm improvement – John Gazzard – is still advising the brothers’ today. With 50 years’ service under his belt this year, retirement is finally looming. Paul says his guidance over the years has been invaluable.

The brothers each run their own separate but adjoining dairy unit. While they could pull them together as one big unit, Paul says they prefer the individualised approach and having their own sheds. Resources are still pooled, as needed.

“It works best that way. How we operate has evolved over time. My wife Heidi and I are hands on and still milk most days, whereas my brothers have taken on sharemilkers but they manage the run-offs and do relief milking. We have that flexibility to do things our own way.”

Three of the units have herringbone sheds – ranging from 14-a-side to 36-a-side – and they also have a small 28 bail rotary shed. Paul’s dairy unit is 108 hectares in extent, milking 310 cows, predominantly Friesians, (with 25 Jersey cows also in the herd).

Three of the family farms, including his one, are at high altitude (340350m) and often experience heavy rainfall.

As Paul observes, with many creeks, rivers and bridges on the farm, it makes sense for him to have his own shed close by rather than having to walk cows to a more distant, centralised shed.

Last year’s production was affected by a wet spring followed by a prolonged dry spell. The brothers hope this year’s drier winter will continue into spring and set them up well for the season.

Ideally, they would like to see total annual production of around 460,000kgMS to 470,000kgMS. Fabish Farms are largely run as ‘all-grass’ operations, though supplements are grown on the run-offs. There is no in-shed feeding.

In particularly challenging years, palm kernel may be brought in. “(But) we’re not set up for it. We try to do precision grass farming, deploying electric fencing and approaching it in an intensive way.”

Precision grass farming fuels brothers’ dairy operation

Farm improvement is an ongoing process. Drainage is being progressively upgraded, with older hand-dug drains replaced as resources allow.

On one of the lower altitude farms, the effluent system has been upgraded through the installation of a big holding tank and pumping system.

In common with dairy farmers across New Zealand, Fabish Farms is also very conscious of biosecurity risks in light of the Mycoplasma Bovis infection.

“There are a couple of farms in the area that are under watch restrictions. It’s a bit of a worry. We’re being as careful as we can with stock movements and trying to ask the right questions of graziers.”

Meanwhile, the brothers are mulling over the challenges of farm succession. Paul and Heidi’s son Nick is currently travelling overseas and will be returning at Christmas but has yet to decide his future course.

“I’d like to think he may come in with us. Stephen and his wife Faye have kids who are away either working or doing university studies and Bryant’s not married … Two of the farms currently have lower order sharemilkers and we’ve got a manager and partner on the smaller 180 cow farm. I’ve got an assistant manager and another part-time farm hand too.”

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