Right now, Tony and Briar are gearing up for another busy season ahead. They're not planning any major changes to their set-up, but that’s only because of the lessons they’ve learned and changes they’ve made over the last five seasons.
Tony and Briar are 50:50 sharemilkers for Tony’s parents, who bought the farm 10 years ago. It’s one of only a handful of dairy farms in territory that’s more suited to sheep and beef farming. Tony’s brother Paul sharemilked on the farm for the first five years, before Tony and Briar took over as 50:50 sharemilkers in the 2011-12 season.
The farm contour is rolling – around 14 percent flats and some steeper areas – and the farm dairy lies at the front of the farm. That means long walks for the herd (up to 2.4km) and access to most paddocks via a 50 metre climb.
When Tony and Briar first came on board, they faced several big problems: lame cows, a poor six-week in-calf rate and 30 percent empties.
“We had to do something,” says Tony. “That high empty rate and spread-out calving cost us days in milk and replacing empty cows came at a cost.
“Another frustration was low milk production during summer and autumn, caused mostly by poor pasture quality. Exceptional growth in November meant our cows were eating bad feed throughout much of the autumn.”
Tony and Briar believe getting the right support is vital and they found that support through the Partner Farm Project. Partner farms are locally-led projects supported by DairyNZ which provide dairy farmers with regionally-relevant information and resources. The Lunjevichs' farm was selected as the Far North partner farm in May 2014, with a ‘profit from pasture’ focus.
As a partner farm, the Lunjevichs are supported by a management team of Northland farmers and their accountant Charmaine O’Shea to make decisions which improve profitability. In turn, they share their results with other farmers in the area.
“We’ve learned a lot as a partner farm,” says Tony. “We can ask questions, seek advice and get moral support. The team shares their knowledge and we really appreciate how generous they are with their time and ideas. It's been great getting advice from such an experienced bunch of farmers. There’s no problem too challenging for them.”
In May 2014, the couple bought an adjoining 94ha block of run-down land. Tony got stuck in developing 45ha of it through fencing, fertiliser, logging and weed control. The plan was to use it for grazing but they did such a good development job that they added 18ha to the milking platform in 2015-16. As they head into the new season, Tony and Briar are planning to bring in another 5ha. They say adding extra land to the the milking platform has contributed to an increase in equity through cow numbers, and an increase in land value.
Grass roots approach
The biggest change on-farm has been Tony and Briar’s approach to pasture. Since the end of the 2013-14 season, they’ve seen a year-on-year increase in production of 10,000kg MS (a 10-15 percent lift each year) which is largely due to their pasture management. Pasture will continue to be a priority in the coming season.
“Historically, pasture wasn’t something we’d focused on,” says Tony. “Now we monitor pasture levels to get target covers using a plate meter and farm walks every 10 days. We use DairyNZ’s Spring Rotation Planner to manage our feed allocation and round length through spring. We also use the Forage Value Index to choose ryegrass cultivars suitable for this area.”
Only 50 percent of the farm can be cropped due to the steep terrain. The couple has tried a variety of crops with mixed results, but settled on chicory as a crop with high feed quality which complements summer pasture.
“We’ve planted 22ha which we break-feed over summer. When stocking rates increase and chicory runs out, we use PKE (palm kernel expeller) strategically. The large proportion of land we use for cropping allows us to get better pasture species in a lot quicker,” says Tony.
On the rest of the farm, Tony and Briar have learned to manage kikuyu grass using a combination of regrassing, mulching, sowing annual/Italian ryegrass, grazing and strategic nitrogen applications. In the coming season they’ll continue with this regime.
In Northland, young stock have problems with weight gain over summer when pasture quality diminishes and kikuyu takes over. Tony and Briar counter this by moving their rising two-year-old stock daily and feeding PKE if needed.
“In periods of high growth, we find mowing and mulching after the cows have been through helps to get the residuals right,” says Briar.
DairyNZ consultant Gareth Baynham, who runs the Partner Farm Project, says what the Lunjevichs have achieved with their pasture is nothing short of spectacular.
“Since they started, they’ve made huge gains, not only in the amount of high quality feed grown, but also in the way they manage it. Pasture and crop eaten have improved from 7.9-8.1 tonnes dry matter/ha (t DM/ha) to 9.7t DM/ha in 2015-16 which is key to the ’profit from pasture’ focus,” he says.
Gareth says a farmer would typically harvest 8-8.5t DM/ha from that farm, which shows Tony and Briar are doing very well on challenging land.
Loss of production vs cow condition
Last season, the Lunjevichs had to weigh up loss of production versus a low in-calf rate. Cow condition won out. Tony says good cows are difficult to find but he and Briar have increased their herd from 220 cows in 2011 to 320 now, with most of the new animals being brought in as heifers. In the last few years they’ve turned low milk prices into a positive by lifting stock numbers and improving their equity by $500,000.
“We’ve used low cow prices to gain equity. We don’t mind training heifers and, in fact, it’s something I enjoy,” says Tony.
Pregnancy testing helps them plan dry-off based on the in-calf rate. Tony and Briar scan the entire herd. Based on calving date, cows are colour-coded into mobs, which enables body condition score (BCS) to be monitored and feed adjusted to maximise BCS at calving.
“Our focus this coming season will be on compacting calving and bringing late calving cows forward,” Tony says. “We’re looking at new heat detection aids and I’ve also visited other farms to see how they pick heats. It helps me to get my eye in. This season we’re aiming for the industry target 78 percent six-week in-calf rate.”
Because it gets so wet in winter, the Lunjevichs look for suitable grazing in the district. This protects their pasture and removes stock from the dairy platform so they can set up feed for winter/spring.
Balancing the books
Gareth says one of Tony and Briar’s biggest achievements has been their budgeting and financial planning.
“Their increase in milk production has diluted some of the costs because they’re making more milk from less expenditure,” he says.
Because the Partner Farm Project is about getting more profit from pasture, financial performance is a key focus. Briar is in charge of the books and runs a lean system. She uses tools like CashManager and DairyBase. The Lunjevichs set themselves a challenging budget and monitor their actual expenses against the budget.
Right now it’s autumn, which is an opportune time for Tony and Briar to catch their breath and prepare for the new season. Between spending plenty of time with their 20-month-old son Abel, they’ll hit the coast for some diving and fishing, and take a few long naps in the hammock.
“After a long year, it’s really important to have some downtime and get ourselves recharged for another busy season,” Briar says. “It can’t all be about work! We all need a bit of rest and relaxation.”
Keys to the turnaround
- Strong focus on increasing pasture harvest through pasture monitoring and management.
- Managing the money through financial planning and budget monitoring.
This article was originally published in Inside Dairy March 2017