Ups and downs of farming a juggling act
Since buying their dairy, sheep and beef property in Otago Mark and Kelli Divers have taken a structured and systematic approach to improving dairy herd quality and production.
Seven seasons into the venture, real progress is being made and the couple’s efforts are focused on fine-tuning what has already been achieved. Located in Clarendon, between Waihola and Milton, 180 hectares of the 800 hectare rolling to steep property is set aside for the milking platform with an additional 40 hectare run-off for young stock and dairy beef.
Mark says 510 kiwi-cross dairy cows are wintered on farm, which can get very wet. Next season the herd will be wintered on a standoff pad to avoid pasture damage and maximise feed utilisation.
While Mark grew up on a family sheep and beef operation and he and Kelli ran their own dry-stock and sheep and beef operations for a number of years, Mark had not previously been exposed to dairy.
On the other hand, Kelli, qualified with degrees in law and accounting, grew up on her parents dairy farm in the Taranaki, bringing that experience to the new farm.
The farm was being run as a sheep, beef and dairy unit when the couple bought it but its conversion to dairy had been a recent development.“It has been tough,” says Mark.
“We came in on an $8.00 payout and then it crashed. Like most farmers we’re heavily indebted and it’s not something that you dig your way out of in a season. When you buy a property you do your budgets and know roughly how it should work – and you do account for the unexpected. But there’s a side to it that if you get a couple of bad years it’s tough to work through.”
In addition to the dairy payout taking a dive, the farm has also been hit with droughts over the last two seasons. Mark’s management plan includes increasing residuals from the normal 1600kg/ha to 1800kg/ha – acknowledging there is a risk of poorer quality pasture.
Mark says that when he and Kelli bought the farm it was in a run-down condition and the herd that came with the farm was of poor quality.
“It’s been a very long process to get it to where it is now. There had been no records taken by the previous owners but now everything is recorded and we know our top cows. For the first couple of years we bought in replacement heifers from a good dairy farm to improve genetics and that’s now taking hold.”
For the last couple of seasons, all replacements have been from AI’ing the herd whilst putting the bottom 20% of the herd to beef bulls.
“The first couple of years we couldn’t really afford to cull because we didn’t have enough cows to do that – even though there were so many reasons we could have culled a cow. But now the herd has been improved to the extent that we have got it down to just a couple of things and we’re just fine tuning.”
To make further improvements to the herd, sexed semen will be used on the top 30% this season, with nominated bulls on the next 20%, wagyu on the next 30% and Belgian Blue on the bottom tier.
“We’re trying to cater to the cow and be more selective to improve the herd, maximise returns through diversification and eliminate wastage through bobby calves.”
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