EXPANDING their effluent irrigation system was a “no brainer” for Mark and Nikki Atkins.
He says being proactive to address problems with soft hooves and lameness in the dairy herd, particularly during wet winter months, has paid dividends.
“If the cows are distressed with sore feet, it has all sorts of ramifications from impacting on milk production to getting back in calf,” says Lester who farms at Herrick, in the state’s north east.
An improved physical environment has been part of the equation with a big effort put into keeping laneways maintained and in good condition, with extensive use of gravel sourced from on the property.
Also having the laneways correctly cambered, so they shed water, keeps the herd from churning through mud walking to and from milking.
This has not only been beneficial to herd health in terms of foot soundness, but also reducing exposure to bacteria that cause infections such as mastitis.
Lester has taken a dietary approach to promoting good animal health with the inclusion of a mineral additive to the grain ration fed at milking. It includes copper, cobalt, magnesium and zinc. He has also introduced the B group vitamin Biotin to improve hoof hardness during the early part of the herd lactation when conditions are often wet.
When treating animals with soft hooves and lameness, Lester has also found good results by gluing a wooden block to the claw on the hoof which is not affected. This stays on for about two weeks, taking the weight of the animal and helping to promote healing.
Attention to herd health and condition is also paying dividends with improved fertility.
Lester believes having cows that are sound and contented improves the prospects of them getting in calf.
Feeding management is also geared to keeping the herd in optimum condition. He aims to keep the herd with a condition score 5 as the lactation ends when the cows are moved to a runoff block for about six weeks.
“It is easier to maintain their condition rather than having to build it back up again as the cows get closer to calving.”
Hay is mainly used as a dry cow ration and the herd goes onto a pellet feed about two weeks before calving.
The farming area of 385 hectares is in an 1100mm annual rainfall area, with most falling during the winter months. The milking herd has been steadily increasing since Lester and his father Trevor returned to dairying in the early 1990s.
“Dad went out of the industry for a number of years to focus on lamb and beef production,” he says. “When we made the decision to come back, we began a pasture renovation program and started milking the following year with 110 cows.”
They made do with an old milking shed until investing in a 27-a-side herringbone eight years ago. The milking herd has now been built up to about 350 cows, predominantly Friesian with some Jersey and Jersey cross, with milk supplied to Fonterra. Payment is on a solids basis.
The herd averaged about 420kg last season with the potential to push production to 450kg.
The dairy enterprise is complemented by growing potatoes annually in the pasture rotation. They regularly produce a crop of 850 to 900 tonnes from 13 hectares. After harvesting, the cows are strip fed across the cropped area, eagerly cleaning up waste potatoes.
Annual ryegrass is sown straight after the potatoes are dug in March. Rather than spend a lot of time on soil preparation, the focus is on a quick turnaround to protect against soil erosion while generating valuable winter feed. The following year more time is taken to prepare a seedbed for sowing perennial ryegrass and clover pastures.
A rotation cycle of eight years gives the ground time to recover after a heavy yielding potato crop of 60 to 65 tonnes a hectare, which takes a lot of humus out of the soil.
The family enterprise is set for a major productivity boost with the area under irrigation to be substantially increased through access to a new supply scheme. They are installing a new 40 hectare centre pivot to make the most productive use of extra water availability. The area under the pivot will be divided into quarters with a pasture and potato crop rotation.
The piped water will also bring added security to the existing irrigation system of about 55 hectares currently fed from farm dams.
Regular pasture measuring shows the dramatic feed supply difference irrigation makes – with production of 11.8 tonnes dry matter per hectare compared to 6.6 tonnes from dryland.
Lester says the new irrigation system will reduce grain and silage requirements and he hopes they won’t need to cut and cart silage from their run-off block.