Making a profit from milk production these days can be quite challenging which leaves some farmers in a dilemma whether to increase cow numbers or boost milk quality to bring in more money.
English couple Tim and Katy Button run and own Port Molyneaux Dairies Ltd in South Otago, New Zealand, milking a mixed breed herd of 350 cows.
The duo left England after getting married in 1996 to gain experience on New Zealand farms and worked their way up from being farm assistants to sharemilkers and now sole owners, making the country their permanent home.
It’s a spring calving herd with 320 cows due in the spring months of September to November in New Zealand. The Buttons insist on producing as high a quality milk as they possibly can in order to maximise profits.
Katy said: “Producing high quality milk is very important to us to meet the standards set by our milk company Fonterra. We also believe healthy cows leads to good milk quality which attracts higher payment premiums and pays the bills,” she said.
Tim and Katy started looking to buy their own farm in 2002 and initially entered into an equity partnership at Port Molyneaux before buying it outright four years later.
Today the farm extends to 445 acres and the herd consists of mainly black and white Holstein Friesian cows, with some red and whites also. In addition there are a number of Ayrshire and Brown Swiss cows in the mix as well.
Looking at the land type on the farm, 75 per cent of it is silty river flats flanking the Puerua River and the remaining 25 per cent is on Waitepeka clay soils on surrounding hills. This can present its own challenges as much of the river flats can go under water in a wet season.
Katy said: “When it comes to discussing milk quality statistics, New Zealand agriculture doesn’t talk about butterfat, litres, or average yields per cow, like systems in the UK and Europe do. It’s all about the levels of milk solids produced, and the total kilogrammes of fat and protein that the cows produce.
“While our focus is on producing high quality milk, we are not typical New Zealand dairy farmers as we enjoy our strong Holstein Friesian style cow.”
The Button cows are all registered pedigree and, along with their kids, Tim and Katy enjoy exhibiting their animals at local agricultural shows.
“Our total milk solids production is running at 400kgs per cow or 5,500 litres per cow per year,” said Katy. “The herd mainly calves from August to October and we carry out all our own AI.
“Our dry cows are wintered off the farm at NZ$32 per week for a total of eight to ten weeks. They are wintered on a crop of kale, swedes or fodder beet and supplemented with silage.”
The farm grassland is subdivided into paddocks of five to six acres each and the herd is rotational grazed with new grass after each milking. Usually, with favourable weather, the paddocks are rotated every 21 days.
“We also try to maintain good grass quality as that, in turn, affects the quality of the milk we sell,” said Katy. “Any pasture that is not fully grazed gets topped and we do make surplus grass into silage as well. All cows calve on pads bedded with a mix of woodchip, sawdust and coal, and do not receive any grass until they calve.”
There are two silo pits on the farm each consisting of just a rock base floor and earth bank walls. A purpose made pond nearby, with 100 days storage capacity, collects all the effluent from the silos and stores it there until it is used to irrigate the land using a mobile irrigation system.
Tim and Katy work on the farm themselves and employ one full time staff member and part-time labour, usually from backpackers.
Cows are milked by a 40 aside herringbone parlour with feeding system. The calves are reared in a converted woolshed that dates back to the early days of the farm when it was a sheep unit.
All the calves are vaccinated for Lepto and Rotovirus and have their navels dipped in iodine when they are born.
Katy added: “The calves receive enough colostrum, usually 10 percent of their bodyweight, when they are born and then two or three litres of milk twice per day until they are three weeks old.
“After that they are fed four to five litre per day in one feed. We normally wean them at eight weeks of age when they usually weigh around 100kgs plus. “The calves are then moved to a grazier at Christmas time and we are paying NZ$7 per head per week until April after which it increases to NZ$10.50 per head per week,” she said.
As previously mentioned producing high quality milk is extremely important to the Buttons who consistently are recognised for having low somatic cell counts (SCC).
Indeed they have also received certificates of achievement and excellence from Fonterra for having milk with a low SCC averaging 69,039 during the 2019/2020 production period.
This plays an integral part of the Buttons achieving the milk price they do which during the 2019/2020 period was an average NZ$6.95 per kilogram of milk solids.
But the reasons for producing high quality milk don’t end there as the family also produce their own cheese for home consumption.
“We are quite self-sufficient on the farm as we raise our own pigs and beef animals for our own consumption,” said Katy. “As well as drinking our own milk I make soft cheeses, halloumi, ricotta, feta and quark. I also separate the cream to produce clotted cream so having top quality milk as a raw ingredient is a real bonus,” she added.
Ayrshire cows are included in the breed mix at Port Molyneaux Dairies.jpg
The Buttons’s farm is only 50m above sea level and liable to flooding in some parts.jpg
Fonterra buys the milk from the Buttons based on total milk solids produced.jpg
Katy and Tim Button receive certificates for their quality milk.jpg
Milk prices fluctuate but have been good but the Buttons.jpg
Text and pictures: Chris McCullough