Dairy Heifer Grazing

September 2017

Dairy grazing for improved profitability in Taranaki

With lower dairy payouts, farmers are increasingly looking for ways to improve their bottom line. In Taranaki, farm consultant Greg O’Byrne of ‘High Performance Farming’ (HPF) is achieving great results in tandem with his diverse range of clients including Alan Ancell, who has moved from dairying to fattening heifers under contract, alongside sheep and beef production on his Taranaki farm. 

Greg spent 10 years as a 50:50 share-milker and has equity in a farm. Greg eventually moved from the farm to the rural banking sector and trained as a consultant with Intelact, a company he’d worked with as a farmer. He then opened his own consultation business, High Performance Farming, which offers a number of services from consultation and investment advice to farm management. 

Greg knows his practical experience is an important factor in building rapport with his clients. He’s also a key middleman between research and farmers – scouring recent research to cherry pick the best ideas for his individual clients. As one farmer on a small but highly productive 36ha farm says, “Being able to talk through ideas, new research etc., with Greg on our farm walks has been really good, and far better than walking around the farm talking to myself.” 

Greg says the key to his work is selecting new clients to avoid time wasting for all parties by assuring those farmers he takes on are forward thinkers and straight up about the details of the farm finances. His consultation work usually involves a farm visit and ‘walk-about’ every month. From this ‘on the ground’ work Greg is able to work with farmers to assess their needs for the coming season and to plot out a plan for achieving the desired results. 

Clients, while all in the dairy industry in some way, have differing needs. Greg works with 3rd and 4th generation farmers to young couples on their first farm, as well as farm investors. 

The results of Greg’s collaborations speak for themselves, for example one farmer with a small 36ha holding has seen milk yields hit 84,000kgsMS from 165 cows in 2010 and in the current season this same farmer is on track to make a profit when many others are struggling to survive. 

Greg is in his 3rd year working alongside Stratford farmer Alan Ancell – a relationship that has seen Alan achieve a key point of difference in his operation. Alan grazes heifers – around 650 from May to May, picking up an extra 200 calves after Christmas and wintering around 100 steers (alongside his sheep and dairy operation). He runs a 385ha hill country farm on the wetter side of the Mountain. 

Alan was running a sheep, beef and dairy but switched over from dairy to grazing in 2003. He says he loved dairying but found it difficult getting good staff to work across the whole dairy/sheep/beef operation and he likes the guaranteed payments from grazing. He is quick to point out that grazing is not an easy out – you need to do the numbers to get the returns. 

Three kilometres from Alan’s place, Mark and Jacqui Muller run a 167ha dairy farm with a leased 35ha run-off. The Mullers began working with Alan when he moved from dairy farming to fattening heifers and grazing under contract in 2003. The Mullers had half their yearlings with Alan last year and this year they’ve sent all 150 across to Alan. 

Alan’s a driven and savvy farmer with a perfectionist streak but he made the decision to bring in a consultant to help him make the transition. He tried a few but eventually settled with Greg, as Greg had both the know-how and was able to make the time commitment that Alan needed. 

Alan would chat with others in similar work down at the pub and the topic of charges would come up. He could see many charging similar to him but without the same results, so he made the decision to move to weight gain payments as opposed to flat rates. 

Greg’s core work with Alan was fine-tuning the contract for the weight gain system. There were a number of grazing plans already available but nothing quite fitted for Alan’s operation. Together they’ve developed a weight gain system for the heifers that has resulted in more money for the farm every Spring. The contract was further fine tuned by Alan’s own clients who he brought in for a round table discussion on an early draft. 

Alan and Greg have developed different rates for jersey, 11/16 cross breeds and 13/16 jersey or Friesian cows based on each breeds weight gain averages. So an incoming herd is divided out and counted in terms of breed.

Weigh-ins are conducted five times across the contract. Greg plays an important role as an independent operator who tallies up the final gains for end invoicing. 

Greg also consults on other decisions such as where they channel the extra money the operation is now bringing in. For example, Alan has been applying nitrogen with a helicopter to improve grass growth in Spring. 

Alan said the key thing Greg brings is reassurance and says he’s good to bounce ideas off. Alan said he told Greg, “If I’m talking shit, tell me - and he does”. With a laugh, he said it also happens in reverse sometimes and he is comfortable to disagree with Greg.