Encouraging potential dairy farmers into an agricultural education has seen Northland sharemilker Michael Rope set up a university scholarship. Glenys Christian reports.
Michael Rope is well aware of the opportunities dairying in Northland presents. So much so that he has set up a scholarship for youngsters to attend Lincoln University and complete their practical requirements on his parents’ Te Kopuru farm.
“I had such a great time at university,” he says.
“You don’t realise how much fun you can have and what you can learn being away from your family.”
Keen to see other youngsters have to chance for a similar experience he set up the $3000 scholarship a few years ago. Two students have since taken it up, both from Whangarei, spending time working on the 400 hectare effective dairy platform which also has a 180ha support block eight kilometres away.
“Northland isn’t seen as a dairying region and people will often look at the Waikato or Canterbury for jobs,” Michael says.
Location: Te Kopuru, Northland
Area: 400ha effective
Farm owners: R P Rope
Lower-order sharemilkers: Michael and Jessica Rope
Production: 2015/16, 409,000kg MS, 2016/17 predicted, 400,000kg MS
Support block: 190ha
Herd: 1000 Friesian cross, Breeding Worth 64/43, Production Worth, 81/64
Dairy: 60-bail rotary
Supplements: 300 tonnes palm kernel, and 20-30ha of maize silage,150t grass silage both made off-farm.
But both he and his wife Jessica firmly believe there are lots of chances to fast track a dairying career in their region, with it just being a case of looking at all the options available.
Michael’s father, Ted, is the second generation of the family to farm locally with the family moving to this farm in the 1960s. They bought the neighbouring farm in 2001 and put in central 60-bail rotary dairy, replacing two herringbones. They also built an adjacent feedpad, allowing them to increase numbers towards the 1000 cows they now milk.
Michael completed his Diploma of Farm Management at Lincoln later that decade after having “a whale of a time”. He worked on the large-scale Rakaia farm of John and Fiona McCarthy then moved to the Waikato as farm assistant then manager on Mike Davison’s 550-cow Te Awamutu farming operation.
“I was keeping my options open but the opportunities were too great on the family farm,” he says.
Before returning home he travelled overseas for a year, following the 2007 World Rugby Cup and spent three months in Chile working for a Chilean-New Zealand-owned farming operation.
He managed his parents’ farm for five months before he went lower-order sharemilking. Jessica trained as a primary school teacher and worked both in the Waikato and in Northland before the birth of their three children; Lachlan, three and a half, Florence, two and Jasmine, seven months. Now she helps out with calf rearing and book keeping, with Michael’s mother, Pam, still very much involved.
There have been a number of changes since Michael has been on the farm which has seen the stocking rate lift from 2.5 to 2.8 cows per hectare.
The Friesian-cross herd is moving more towards a crossbred animal, with the Ropes using LIC Premier Sires. After 20 years of running a split-calving system they’re now moving to full autumn calving.
“We’ve thought about it for a couple of years,” Michael says.
Some reasons very much in its favour are simplicity of just one calving a year which it’s hoped will improve both staff retention and increase time off for the two families.
“Also, the winter milk contract is a nice cherry on top,” he says.
This season 300 spring-calving cows have been carried over but next season will be their first with full autumn calving.
‘I hope that the Northland region sees the benefits that this research work can have onfarm and the improvements that can be made by using the information that’s provided.’
There’s also been an increased emphasis on pasture management since Michael’s return to the farm and this has resulted in a move from a DairyNZ System 2 to System 3 as they’ve fed out more palm kernel on their feedpad.
“We would use 300 tonnes as a good average,” he says.
They also grow 20 to 30ha of maize each year, mainly on their support block. The area in this crop was dropped back due to the low milk price but is likely to be increased to the higher level in the future. Michael is particularly proud of a no-till crop which was looking good despite dry conditions in mid-January.
No hay is made but around 350t of grass silage is put in the pit by contractors each year. It will be fed out along with the maize silage in autumn and winter through to August.
“Some summers we will use it but some we won’t,” he says.
“We’re very happy with the system because it’s quite robust.”
Around 100ha has been planted in annuals with Tabu working well. And there’s a regular pasture renewal programme of putting around 20ha of the better-quality paddocks which have been cropped back into permanent pasture.
“We used to grow 15ha of sorghum but now we put in around 20ha of chicory,” he says.
“We were looking for a better-quality crop for our autumn-calving herd.”
While 12-15t of drymatter per hectare is produced Michael says it’s a case of seeing how the crop performs when it comes to decisions about the area planted in the future.
He takes the advice of consultant, Paul Martin, from Headlands in Whangarei who visits the farm 10 times a year.
“He’s out and about and seeing what works,” Michael says.
“It’s important to be self-critical and there’s always a discussion so we can work forward together.”
An N K S fertiliser mix goes on from April through to September with the frequent applications seeing a total of around 150kg of nitrogen per hectare used. There’s a 90ha effluent area from a three-pond system with a weeping wall which was put in six years ago. The Ropes also have a cart which allows them to spread solids elsewhere on the farm, effectively dealing with one of the ongoing challenges of autumn calving.
Priorities going forward are increasing production efficiencies as well as creating greater flexibility for Michael’s parents as they get older.
“And we want to keep whacking down debt.”
Last season production hit 409,000kg milksolids with them pushing carryover cows to keep milking for longer. The forecast for this season is 400,000kg, with hopes Northland’s dry summer conditions will be broken by more rain.
Michael’s also changed staff rosters for the four staff who all live on the farm, giving a more even work flow. A handyman is also employed who spends half his time on the property and the rest on another 470-cow property 10km south of Te Kopuru. The Ropes bought the farm in 2014 and have run it since then as a self-contained unit.
“It just needed management,” Michael says.
A feedpad has been added to replicate the farming system they were already running, with a manager employed there along with two staff.
In 2012 Michael was placed second in the Northland Sharemilker/Equity farmer contest, winning $3500, as well as the Rockgas North Innovation Merit Award. This was worth $13,500 and included a hot water system run on LPG, said to be 20% more energy efficient than electricity.
And for the last five years he’s been a committee member of the Northland Agricultural Farm (NARF) just north of Dargaville.
“It’s an extremely valuable resource,” he says.
“The committee members are all good farmers in their own right and that’s been a huge benefit to me as I’ve got to know them.
“The information coming through from the trials there is useful for application onfarm and it’s great to see the financials behind the research. It’s all recorded and done by the books so it’s the most credible information around. So there’s no argument because that’s what it is. It’s not wishy-washy.”
But he says it can sometimes be difficult to get across to all farmers that there’s credible information being produced, backed up with numbers.
“Northland is a strong family farming area and it can be challenging to get people’s buy-in to new ideas,” he says.
“But I hope that the Northland region sees the benefits that this research work can have onfarm and the improvements that can be made by using the information that’s provided.”
He believes all farmers can get a lot out of looking at research results and thinking about the implications for their farming operation.
One possible future move which Michael thinks could be a good move would be getting NARF discussion groups moving around Northland to meet a greater number of dairy farmers.
When it comes to NARF’s bought-in feed trial, where last season the cropping farmlet produced most milk but the pasture-only farmlet showed the greatest profit, he says it will be interesting to see what this drier season will show.
“It will be interesting to see if pasture struggles.”
There could be other tweaks with no-till cropping possibly having advantages if the opposite occurs and the ground is too wet for conventional crop establishment.
“Northland is a land of extremes,” he says.
“It’s all or nothing so you have to have a system that copes.”
At present with three young children his ability to do as much as he’d like to with NARF is restricted mainly to attending monthly financial meetings.
“But I have intentions of doing more and I have committed to being the chair by 2020,”he says.
“But this depends on Sean Bradley who is currently doing an outstanding job.”