West Otago dairy farmer Jonathan Verkerk and his partner Marloes Levelink have learnt a lot about animal behaviour since converting a specialised cropping farm to dairying in 2001 and building a 490-cow free-stall barn in 2007.
They have also learnt a lot about the added responsibilities on a farmer’s shoulders when cows are moved from a natural pastoral setting to a man-made environment, such as a wintering shed or a free-stall barn, where the cows are totally dependent on human input every day for their survival.
As Verkerk explains, once farmers house cows indoors they are directly responsible for the environment created and the impact it has on the health and welfare of their animals.
“That’s a big responsibility and if you get it wrong you make the animal pay for it,” he says.
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“You solve one problem by building a barn to house cows in winter, but you create other problems around animal health and welfare that you’ve got to keep on top of.”
Under a pastoral system, generally cows will always survive because they can adapt to their environment, especially in New Zealand’s temperate climate.
The other big responsibility for housing cows indoors is dealing with more contained effluent from a wintering barn and associated concreted areas such as silage pads.
“Really, if you poorly manage nutrient and effluent, you’ve probably got a worse situation than you would with cows on the paddock or on crop,” he says.
With a background in cropping and specialist seed production, Verkerk converted his 180ha cropping farm to dairying in the Kelso district of West Otago in 2001.
His partner Marloes Levelink is an independent dairy adviser and trainer who also worked with DairyNZ to develop best-practice guides and training for dairy farmers housing cows indoors. She recently returned from a stint teaching dairy industry trainers in Sri Lanka with Fonterra.
In 2007 the pair built a 490-cow free-stall barn and since then have been constantly fine-tuning their management to find a system that suits their cows rather than forcing their cows to fit the system.
They milk all-year-round but, since the lower payout, have reduced their herd size to 400 cows to remain self-contained for feed. Their focus is on feeding cows well for optimal production at an economic cost price.
The farm is largely self-contained, grows its own grain and straw and in an average year produces all its own feed requirements without buying in anything through the gate.
Their friesian cows are larger-framed animals averaging about 580kg in liveweight. Most calve in spring to match the surge in pasture growth and the rest calve in February in a traditional split-calving system.
Any empty cows are remated rather than being culled from the herd, providing they produce well and have no other issues.
Verkerk says since building their barn, their observations of animal behaviour have been “an education” and they have had to be very flexible to make their cow barn work for them.
As one of the first free stall cow barns built in West Otago, he says they didn’t know enough about cow behaviour when they built it.
“If you can get cows lying down for 12 to 14 hours a day, you’ve really cracked it,” he says. “They can fill themselves up eating for two and a half hours behind the barrier and then sit down, chew their cud and ruminate.
“If you want to milk out of the barn, you’re getting somewhere if you can achieve that.”
He says it is hard to justify building a barn just to house cows in winter or to feed dried-off cows. They have to produce more milk to justify the cost, he says.
“If we had designed this better, we would probably run with a few less cows and do at least the same or better production,” Verkerk says.
“For us the barn was never just a wintering solution. It was more about feeding, milking and retaining good animals that don’t get in calf,” he says. “We’ve always incorporated the barn in a grazing system. I feel that is important, especially in times of lower milk prices.
“When unexpected bad weather has resulted in cows standing in the corner of a paddock, after milking they’ll come into the barn and lie down because they’ve been standing all night.
“They will lie down and rest, even before feeding. That’s their preference.”
Cows are fed indoors as pasture growth tails off around Easter. Spring calvers are dried off in June for an average of 55 days and remain indoors for this period.
The other major investment on the Verkerk farm was an umbilical effluent pumping system in 2013.
The system was developed in Northern Ireland, which gets between 1.6 and 2 metres of rainfall annually, so dairy farmers there often have a narrow window to empty their effluent ponds quickly.
The Verkerks’ farm has two effluent storage ponds of about 5000 cubic metres each, one on either side of a road through the farm. The umbilical relies on a large pump capable of moving 180 cubic metres of effluent an hour with up to 4 per cent solids.
The pump is driven by a 200hp tractor and needs every ounce of that power to push effluent through 125mm hose pipes to the far corners of the farm up to a 1.4 kilometres from the ponds.
A second tractor runs out the hose coils and then uses a GPS to spread the effluent through a “dribble bar” mounted on a 12-metre wide beam, which leaves a trickle of effluent in rows around the paddock.
Under the previous system using a slurry tanker, effluent was broadcast over pastures. The dribble bar reduces odour and loss of ammonia.
Verkerk says the dribble bar gives about a three-fold increase in available nitrogen and results in less contamination of pastures than broadcasting effluent through a slurry tanker or irrigator.
“We bring a lot of feed on to the dairy platform from our run-off. With all this nutrient coming in, it has got to go somewhere and you have got to do it in a way that is conducive to pasture growth and also looks after animal health.
“That’s why we’ve gone to this system,” he says. “I liked the principle of it. It’s not perfect, but we can now shift a lot of effluent quickly.
“It means we can graze paddocks out and follow the cows around the farm. Then we can go in a couple of days later covering the whole paddock with our umbilical and pump out the effluent ponds. Thirty days later the cows can graze it again.
“The tractor is set up with a GPS and we know exactly how many cubic metres we’re putting on.”
For placing fertiliser where you need it, he says there is no comparison for growth. The system has “probably halved the farm’s fertiliser bill from $80,000 to $40,000” and could pay for itself in savings alone in four to five years.
The downside of the umbilical system is that it requires a powerful tractor and pump to push effluent around the farm and staff who are capable of handling mechanical equipment.
“If one of the couplings blows, you’ve got a lot of effluent going somewhere quickly, so you’ve got to manage it carefully,” Verkerk says.
But it is a lot easier to manage than using an irrigator or slurry tanker and gives him some peace of mind from the days when the farm’s effluent ponds were full and he heard rain on the roof at night.
After 17 years of dairying, the couple have just sold their dairy unit and are looking forward to a change of lifestyle to pursue other interests, such as spending more time as a family. In Levelink’s case, it is to devote more time to her job as a dairy adviser.
“All the knowledge we’ve picked up about dairy farming and having cows indoors has kept it interesting all the way through,” Verkerk says. “It’s been a great industry to be involved in. I’m at the stage now where I’m looking forward to the next thing on the horizon.”
“I’ve done what I wanted to with the whole place and it’s time for someone else to take the baton really.”