“I tell people you can teach an old dog new tricks,” he laughs.
“We thought we were doing pretty good. We did 96,000kg milksolids in 2007 (from 300 cows) on grass and silage alone. But I think the wheels started falling off then, because I think we carried the cows on far too long, they lost condition and the in-calf rate started to deteriorate.”
Before the programme, the Candys' best year was 96,000kg MS, with a three-year average of 73,000kg MS.
But last season Alister and wife Lyn produced 112,000kg MS and their profit was up $200,000 (assuming a $6/kg MS milk price) from when their property became a focus farm three years ago. The improvement is down to the changes they’ve made.
With advice from DairyNZ staff and a focus farm committee of local farmers, the Candys set about improving their pasture management, cow condition, in-calf rates, days in milk before Christmas, young stock growth, budgeting and financials.
Having broken in their 103ha (effective) Northland farm themselves 37 years ago and now carrying no debt, they didn’t bother with farm budgets. But that was one of the first things to change when they became focus farmers.
“Lyn sort of baulked at Cash Manager but we’ve got the hang of that. We’re budgeting and following the budget, and things seem to be going very well,” says Alister.
They’d never weighed their stock before either - that’s also changed.
“Now we’re weighing the cows once a year, we’re weighing young stock every month and we’re measuring grass every 10 days. It is a wee bit more work but it’s interesting work that we enjoy.”
Plate meter proves valuable
DairyNZ animal husbandry specialist Bruce Eyers taught the Candys how to condition score their cows, which Alister says resulted in a shorter calving and more days in milk before Christmas.
But he reckons getting up-to-speed with pasture management has made the biggest difference. Alister hadn’t used a plate meter before but is now convinced it’s one of the best investments he’s ever made. “It cost $700 and we ended up with another $200,000 profit.”
Not that the plate meter earned all the extra income - Alister says weighing stock and condition scoring were important too. “I think it’s just doing a whole lot of things better and it’s worthwhile.”
On the advice of AgFirst consultant Gareth Baynham, Alister subdivided their 90ha support block into paddocks as small as 1ha to get the best out of the pasture and grow better heifers.
“He said we need sticks and strings down there. We said ‘what are sticks and strings?’.”
So using fibreglass standards and polywire fencing, the original 15 paddocks are now 60 paddocks. “We put the fencing in where a tractor wouldn’t go. There’s also kilometres of alkathene, tanks, a new pump and new troughs.”
Young stock management
The young stock are followed around the support block by a herd of 60 “bits and pieces” - a collection of hereford-cross cows, empty cows, a Belgian blue bull and a few steers, to clean up the pasture.
“We’ve got a nice cover coming behind them now,” says Alister. “We’re now getting bigger, better grown animals and we’re weighing them every month, so we know what we’re doing. If there’s a deficit coming, we can put in PKE.”
Alister has a new enthusiasm for farming since he’s improved management, productivity and profitability. And to farmers who think they don’t have time to weigh stock, measure grass or run a budget, he has a simple message.
“I think you’ve got to make time.”
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This article was originally published in Inside Dairy February 2015