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Jeff Curtis & Dawn Dalley - Dry Stock Manager - Mr Gingerbread - Mid Canterbury: 

from the NZ Dairy Exporter November 2007

The story of Mr Gingerbread

A huge South Canterbury property irrigated by two giant centre pivots is home to 14,000 youngstock over a year, presenting unique challenges to its managers.

By Anne Lee

Owner: Dairy Holdings
Area: 630ha
Irrigation: Two centre pivots with corner arms
Animals reared annually: 3500 rising one-year-olds and 3500 rising two-year-olds
Total supplements used: 650 tonne dry matter (DM)
Pre-grazing covers: 2500-2900kg DM/ha
Post-grazing residual targets: 1450-1500kg DM/ha
Pastures: 70 percent new grass.



Rearing 14,000 replacement heifer calves and yearlings a year is bound to present some challenges.
How do you keep tabs on them all and how do you ensure they're well grown and achieving their growth targets?
Canterbury-based corporate Dairy Holdings (DHL) has set up three large-scale purpose-designed heifer grazing blocks in an effort to address just such issues.
Around 20km west of Ashburton is its largest grazing block, the interestingly named 630ha Mr Gingerbread, so called after a remark by an employee.
At its peak stocked months of the year, it is home to around 7000 animals grazing under two vast, sweeping centre-pivot irrigators.
DHL also owns the 530ha Alford Park, also in the Ashburton area where 5000 youngstock are reared and the 240ha leased, King Block at Carew where a further 2000 replacements are reared.
As summer approaches on Mr Gingerbread, 3500 calves will begin to arrive from 17 of DHL's 38 managed and lower-order dairy farms spread from West Otago, throughout Canterbury and across to the West Coast.
All up, the company owns 57 farms, 19 of them run under 50:50 sharemilking agreements.
Ready to receive each delivery of calves is Mr Gingerbread manager Jeff Curtis and his two staff, Corey Heaven and Hayden Hurley.

Massey background
Jeff is an experienced dairy stockman, having most recently held the senior farm manager position at the Number One and Four dairy units at Massey University. Before his three years there, he worked in Australia for eight years for Bonlac Foods as farm operations supervisor at Warragul, Victoria.
From 1992 to 1995 he had worked at the Dairy Research Corporation (DRC) at Ruakura managing the Number Four Dairy, now home to Dexcel's Greenfield robotic unit.
Jeff is married to Dexcel scientist Dawn Dalley. They arrived in Canterbury last year just before the "big snow" that dumped around a metre on the property. Continuing cold meant the white blanket froze and took more than three weeks to thaw.
At that point there were 2000 rising one-year-olds on the farm and with the 80ha of winter crop buried, Jeff had only enough silage on hand to get them through for four days.
Luckily roads were cleared sufficiently to get trucks and trailers close enough to the farm to allow for delivery of balage.
"It wasn't a great start," he said.
"It made it a pretty long first winter. The tractor pretty much went continuously."

Spring surprise
Although exhausting, they made it out of the winter and once spring came Jeff was pleasantly surprised to see just how much compensatory growth the young animals could achieve as they recovered to target weights.
All of the calves are given permanent electronic identification (EID) tags as they enter the property. They are weighed and given a beneficial health check, a quick once-over for anything of concern, such as signs of pink eye. They also have a check to ensure any dehorning has worked well and receive their seven- in-one vaccine and a drench if due.
Jeff tries to keep stock from each farm together as much as possible with mob sizes around 300.
Dairy farm managers are expected to have all calves up to their target 10-week weaning weights of 80kg for Jerseys, 90kg for crossbreds and 100kg for Friesians with one delivery/farm.
Once each mob is out on Mr Gingerbread they are intensively grazed just like any dairy herd.

Techno fencing
Pasture management and stock health are the two top priorities.
All of DHL's heifer-grazing blocks employ the "techno fencing" system developed in Feilding, involving a reel attached to the front of a four-wheeler so farmers can move electric fences without getting off the bike.
When you have around 23 mobs of cattle to move every day and each requires the shifting of three fences, every minute saved is important.
Pasture management and allocation is as on a dairy farm, with weekly farm walks using eye and platemeter assessments. A whiteboard in the main shed shows where animals are and weekly meetings are held to discuss the main activities for the next few days.
Feed allocations are established for each growth stage to ensure animals reach the industry weight targets promoted by Dexcel for nine months, 15 months (mating) and 21 months.
High-quality grass silage is used to supplement animals if available pasture is not enough to allow grazing rounds also similar to those aimed for with a milking herd.

Oral drench
Calves are weighed and drenched orally every three weeks for their first year with Jeff and DHL drystock farm supervisor Tina O'Sullivan working closely with veterinarian Adrian Campbell.
With no mature cows for calves to follow, worms present the greatest risk factor for animal health and potential risk to achieving liveweight targets. Jeff aims to extend round lengths from late summer to not only reduce the parasite challenge, but to also maximise pasture growth rates and covers to ensure the farm is well set-up for winter.
From one year on, the rising two-year-olds are drenched six weekly with a pour-on.
The animals are brought into purpose-built yards which can hold 2000 animals. A circular race is designed with a raised platform to make drenching easier. As they enter the race, animals run through the EID reader and then onto electronic scales with weights recorded onto a computer.
The information is used by Jeff to monitor actual weights against targets. Tina puts the data onto a spreadsheet and graphs it. Data from animals from each supplying dairy farm is grouped together and the graphs are then emailed on to managers so they can see how their stock are progressing.
DHL general manager Colin Glass likens the reporting system to a dairy farmer checking milk volumes in the vat.
"The farms are run along the same lines as a dairy operation except that instead of milk in the vat they're putting weight on youngstock," he said.

Data invaluable
Jeff and Tina say the amount of data collected is invaluable given the scale of the operation.
Even though staff are seeing each mob every day, the three- and six-weekly weighings leave nothing to chance.
Jeff sorts mobs into light, medium and heavy animals so that feed can be targeted more accurately and easily. Animals are always being moved between mobs according to their comparative status.
Bloods are taken regularly and minerals are distributed via dosatrons to troughs and, because of the EID, any additional treatment required by any animal can be billed back to the supplying farm. The rearing is done on a commercial basis for accounting purposes.
All rising two-year-olds are mated with Jersey bulls over eight weeks and with no intervention or synchrony carried out, in-calf rates are around 92 to 95 percent.
Mr Gingerbread is still in a development phase although it has been running as a replacement unit for several years. It has one of the last water consents granted beforer the regional council's red zones being implemented and all consent conditions were not decided until last year.This finally allowed both centre pivots, one covering 260ha and one 300ha, to become fully operational.
Colin said the company was now well set up to get the full benefits from its heifer rearing system.
Having designated large-scale properties meant it was able to be in control of its stock, reducing the risks of dealing with a multitude of graziers.
"It's put us in charge of our own destiny so we're not exposed to the vagaries of the market to the extent we would have been," he said.
Costs of rearing their own youngstock are comparable to the average prices that would be paid to have animals grazed elsewhere, but the control and flexibility tip the scales well towards DHL's system.

Payout tempting
With newly established pastures taking off in spring and glossy new ryegrass waving gently in the breeze under the giant pivots, the farm looks ready to be set up as a couple of large dairy farms - particularly given the temptation of this season's payout.
But DHL's owners and managers can see the huge value of having a dedicated youngstock operation of this scale and for Jeff, who fiercely defends his territory, that's good news. D


© Copyright NZ Dairy Exporter November 2007

 

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