A cow barn has enabled a West Otago family to increase their milking herd and make a big jump in production. They talk to Rob Tipa.
If you are milking cows all year round in West Otago, it makes sense to build a barn big enough to house all stock under cover during the cold, wet winter months. Ken and Nancy Eade, their son Bruce and his wife Tanya, from Kelso in West Otago, bit the bullet when they built a 138 metre x 37 metre cow barn four years ago. "It was a big investment, but at the end of the day you've only got to build it once, so you may as well do it right," Bruce says. "You work out how much it's going to cost to send your cows out grazing these days and how far you've got to send them and that's a continuing expense, "The family looked at seven different sheds all over the South Island and talked to the people using them before they decided what they wanted to build.
Bruce drew up some rough plans and measurements and they asked for prices from four contractors. They won't say how much the shed cost but say the difference between the cheapest and dearest quotes was $750,000. They accepted the tenders of two Invercargill contractors, who did a "fantastic job." "I'm not saying it's the best barn in the country but it's the best for us and that's what matters," Bruce says. "Once you've built it you can't change it."Ken says there have been so many benefits for their family dairying operation they wondered why they didn't build it 10 years ago.
The barn is big enough to winter Fairleigh's 550-cow ayrshire and holstein friesian milking herd under one roof while their in-calf heifers are also wintered under cover in a smaller barn they built several years ago. The only stock wintered outdoors on this 263-hectare property this winter were three bulls. With a heavy blanket of snow on the Blue Mountains and surrounding ranges last week, the Eades say the barn is worth every cent of its cost for peace of mind on stormy nights, particularly during calving.There are now between eight and 10 sheds between Gore and Tapanui alone they say, so more dairy farmers in the region have seen the advantages of wintering cows indoors. "You can't put a price on all the benefits," Bruce says. "It changes the way you farm for the better I think. The cows are in better all-round condition and they don't take as much work to keep them in that condition." They stay clean and dry, don't have to eat to keep warm and they're not standing in mud up to their knees all winter, he says. "They only have to walk about 100 metres from [the barn] to the shed and back. The most weather they see is standing in the yard waiting to get milked. "He says there are many flow-on effects in terms of increased days in milk, general cow health, fewer calf losses and pastures saved from pugging, particularly in autumn and spring.
The cows are housed indoors from mid-May through until spring and won't go back outdoors permanently until September. After calving they graze pastures during the day, returning to the barn at night until September 1. They continue milking through most of the winter and are only dry for 60 days. "There's no wastage in here. Everything you feed - balage, straw and wheat and grass silage - is utilised. The minerals go through the mixer wagon so you know they're getting their allocation because it's fed on the concrete and every cow gets a fair crack at it."
On one end of the barn are two multi-purpose calving pens, big enough for 60 cows each side or up to 120 cows calving at any one time."Our aim is to get the cows off the pastures earlier and hold them under cover longer, which means we can grow all our own silage on farm," Bruce says."All cows are indoors from May 15 so you're not wrecking those paddocks trying to get those last few weeks of production. Often it does more harm than good trying to squeeze the last 10 days out of them," he says. "You get a bit of production but you wreck half the farm and they eat half of the next season's grass." With two full-time staff, the Eades make all their own silage with their own equipment in between milkings. The only stock feed they buy in is pellets and straw that are fed in the cow shed."We do all our own cultivation for the wheat we grow," Bruce says. "I plough it, sow it, spray it and the only thing we don't do is chop it at the moment but we're working on that too."
Breeding and showing ayrshire and holstein friesian cows is a big part of the Eade family's business. They have always supported regional A and P shows and regularly exhibit stock on the South Island show circuit. Recently Bruce was awarded an achievement award at Ayrshire New Zealand's annual conference in Invercargill. The family also hosts an on-farm heifer sale every second year and usually sells all stock offered to repeat buyers from both the North and South Islands.
"Bruce is as passionate about breeding as I am so that makes it all worthwhile," Ken says. "We've always gone for good functional cows and are always striving for higher production. We milk our cows so we know what we are looking for." At 65 years old, Ken still enjoys milking cows and is pragmatic about the challenges dairy farmers are facing with the drop in dairy payout this season. Dairy prices have always been cyclical, he says, but the payout over the last 10 years has averaged $5.65 a kg/ms. Luckily the Eades locked in half their production at $5.25 at the start of the season, giving them a slight buffer on prices. "We're looking at everything we do and the aim is to do everything ourselves so we can keep our costs in-house," Ken says. "We have a very good relationship with the bank and our accountant and they go along with that philosophy. "We're confident we'll farm through it," he says. "When we started here originally in 1995, the payout was $3.10 a kg/ms and we're just about back to that. "When you look at the amount borrowed, we're probably not as bad off now as we were then. We've borrowed more money, but we've got so many more cows and we're doing much better production than we were."
Production has gone from 70,000kg/ms from 300 cows to 220,000kg from 500 cows. Having all the stock in one place under one roof is "the ultimate really," he says, and in that environment it's not hard to get up in the morning to milk the cows.