Pahoia farm owners Nick and Mary Dowson have long used 3-in-2 milking (three times in two days) as a summer strategy. But in July 2020, they decided to make the switch to full season.
Apart from dry summers, Nick says there were various reasons for making changes. Improving cow repro performance for their 214-cow herd was high on the list, along with having the flexibility to diversify into avocados.
The Dowsons own 46ha but the rest of the farm has several leased pockets, so the future is uncertain, especially when land around Tauranga is fetching $100,000/ha. With an eye to the future, Nick decided to plant an initial 4ha of avocados in 2018. Changing to 3-in-2 gives him time to tend the orchard while Rick Phillips manages the dairy operation.
“The avocados are a way to subsidise the dairy operation in the future if we need to, because the farm’s not big enough to support two full-timers,” says Nick.
DairyNZ milking expert Josh Wheeler, from QCONZ, suggested the Dowsons should have a crack at 3-in-2 milking as a summer dry strategy.
“Initially, we did unsociable hours, trying to do 16-hour intervals, so we were milking at 7pm to 9pm,” says Nick. “Although it was nice and cool during the summer, it wasn’t much fun, so as summer went on, we started tweaking the hours to be a bit more sociable.
“Research by DairyNZ scientist Paul Edwards made us realise that the hours aren’t that critical, so we’ve adjusted our intervals to 10-19-19 at 5.30am-3.30pm-10.30am.”
Getting grazing sorted
Nick says one of the hardest things to get his head around was the grazing.
“Some people in the pilot group (DairyNZ’s Flexible Milking Project) are working on how many kilograms to feed per hour. We were going to try and have the cows on three set rotations, on different parts of the farm depending on the milking time. But Rick decided that it’s better for pasture management to treat the whole farm as one.”
As a result, Nick and Rick are feeding the cows 2ha on the 19-hour interval, and 1.5ha on the 10-hour interval. They figure out how much feed they’ve got, and if they need to, they move cows to another break (if available) or top up with PKE.
“The grazing system requires up to date pasture measurements, so Rick is in charge.
When I come on, he tells me where to send the cows.”
Nick says feed allocation through the transition period was the hardest part.
“It took a bit of adjustment to think about feeding over a 48-hour period, rather than 24-hour, and we inadvertently ended up on a longer rotation than the Spring Rotation Plan target.
Rick says it can be tricky geographically if they need to split the cows into two mobs and use two different paddocks.
“Our paddocks are, on average, 1ha to 1.1ha – they were made for a smaller herd,” says Rick.
“We feed 2ha for the 19-hour milkings and 1.5ha on the 10-hour milking. That puts us on a 25-day round. When it gets dry in late December/early January, which is almost an inevitability these days, that gets pushed out.”
For Rick, grazing management is more involved on a 3-in-2 system, but he has more time to monitor it. They have found that better pasture management has significantly reduced the need for PKE.
“Pasture walks are more frequent than they were a year ago (every 14 days). Last year, during calving and mating, that was difficult to achieve due to workload.
“A 25-day round is a good base for covering slow growth during a dry or cold period. And we can easily speed it up by cutting paddocks for silage.”
During summer, Rick feeds green feed maize and silage. If everything goes according to plan, they use green feed maize from the beginning of January (season depending). That keeps them going until the beginning of April. After maize, they grow 4ha of oats as a catch crop for the springers to calve on. This year, for the first time, they’re also growing maize for silage as a late-lactation feed.
As well as changing to 3-in-2, Nick and Rick have implemented MaxT (milking to a maximum time) so that milking is standardised.
‘When I milk, I’m doing it exactly the same as Rick,” says Nick.
“The timer Josh (Wheeler) provided takes the pressure off,” says Rick. “Our teat spraying technique is so much better because we’ve got time to do it properly. I also have time to strip the herd once a week. I’m not rushing, so I can quite comfortably use the black paddle to strip onto.”
So far so good
One of the biggest surprises of 3-in-2 has been the vast improvement in somatic cell count (SCC), says Nick.
“Because we were worried about SCC, we’ve focused on improving our teat spraying, and the MaxT milking routine helped with this. Weekly stripping of the herd has also been beneficial for identifying clinicals early and improving shed temperament.
“It was completely the opposite of what I thought would happen. This time last year, (early October 2019) we were at 180,000 and now we’re sitting around 60,000 to 70,000. It will be interesting to see how we go this summer, because last summer we were around the 200,000 mark.”
Rick says cow flow has improved too.
“I’ve noticed a real change in behaviour. They’re definitely calmer.”
Improved repro results
Repro rates on the farm have traditionally been poor and were one of the main reasons for making the switch to 3-in-2. Nick says they had a high not-in-calf rate, and cows struggled to get back in calf. A few years ago, half the herd was receiving hormone treatment.
This season (2020/21), mating is looking good. They mated at 6pm on day one and 3pm on day two. The cows aren’t walking as much, they’re in better condition, and there’s less lameness. Pre-mating heats were around 70%, and while still below target, are 10% better than last season. The three-week submission rate was 89%, and with only 12% intervention, is the best they’ve ever achieved.
“While it’s still not a great result, I can see that figure improving as we hopefully tighten our calving pattern due to the improved submission rate,” says Nick.
“It’s probably too soon to know if we’re making progress because of 3-in-2, but either way, it’s encouraging, so I’m cautiously optimistic that it’s is going to improve our herd’s fertility.
“I know that milking once-a-day has a massive impact on submission and in-calf rates, so somewhere in-between there’ll be benefits for 3-in-2.”
Nick says that one of the bonuses of the 3-in-2 and MaxT combo is that there’s a world of time in the routine now to check if cows are on heat.
“When you finish cupping, you can look at the clock, and with five minutes to go, you don’t have to hurry the cows into the bails. It takes all the pressure off. Rick has only been farming for three years, but with MaxT I’m confident that he has the time to do a decent job on heat detection. Whereas, if he was flat out, I’d still be down there helping in the shed, especially when we know we have a fertility issue.”
Nick says last season they had the best start they’ve ever seen in terms of production, because Rick’s grazing management really “cranked it up”.
“Herd production is about the same. “We’re currently tracking 2% ahead for the season to date (October 2020) which has surprised us, but we have an extra 20 cows and we’ve reared less calves.
“Kilograms of milksolids per cow per day are just 0.2kg lower at 1.9kg, although that figure may be influenced by having more cows. We’ve never been a high peaking farm – normally between 2kg to 2.1kg. If we have a lower peak, but hold it longer, we’ll get the same result.”
Nick says something they didn’t think about was milk storage and cooling. Two 19-hour milkings won’t fit into the vat, especially during the peak period, which can mean twice daily pickups.
When the tanker picks up after the 5:30am milking, it means the next day’s 10:30am (19-hour) milking gets added to the much smaller volume from the 3:30pm (10-hour) milking. This makes it difficult to keep within blend temperature limits.
Nick and Rick are discussing their options with Fonterra, whether that’s a bigger vat and chiller to go to skip a day collection, or a different pick-up schedule, so the 10-hour interval is added to the 19-hour interval.
Nick says they wouldn’t change back to twice-a-day. “We’re locked in.”
Rick agrees: “I’m on board 100%. There’s a lot less pressure and the early finish every second day is nice. There’s more time to spend with family and friends.”
To learn more about milking to a maximum time (MaxT), see the Milking Duration page.