Surviving a calving season nightmare

Cows calving can be a stressful time on-farm but Andre Meier says having fine-tuned clear systems in place is crucial. Photos: Supplied.

Calving is not the easiest of times on-farm. But if you’re up against it, Te Puke farmer Andre Meier says having fine-tuned clear systems in place and ensuring all staff can perform all duties and work independently, when required, is key.

And he’d know. Andre, who is 2020’s Bay of Plenty Dairy Manager of the Year and Te Puke Young Farmers Club president, had a nightmare situation unfold before spring calving last season.

The 30-year-old farm manager on Ao Marama Farms’ 250ha Te Puke farm had multiple staff injuries as calving approached – but while they were a huge challenge, they made for a successful season.

At the time Andre was managing the 800-cow farm on Bush Rd he’d worked on for seven seasons, and also overseeing another 350-cow farm on Allport Rd for his employers that has since been sold.

“My manager, Lindsay Williams, at Allport Rd broke his ankle a week before calving. Ao Marama Farms owners went to Allport Rd and I stayed at Bush Rd with three young guys.”

But in August one guy hurt his shoulder in a bike accident. “That afternoon the other guys, who were brothers, came to me and said: ‘We realise we’re going to have do more work now, so we’re leaving as well’.”

In 24 hours the two young men were gone, reducing Andre’s calving workforce from three to zero.

“I rang up the farm owners and they decided – because they’d put Allport Rd on Once-A-Day milking – that they’d give the 800-cow farm the opportunity to go OAD as well.”

Andre also asked semi-retired farmer, Steve Dobbs, to help him for Bush Rd’s calving season. “Between the two of us we pushed through the whole calving season and got the best mating performance in the Te Puke district.

“The in-calf rate was 86 per cent and the empty rate was seven per cent. We had no deaths or calving problems – and there was no sacrifice because of staff numbers dropping.”

Calving is usually 11 weeks at Bush Rd. “But last season we’d calved 94 per cent of the herd in the first six weeks, including the rising two-year-olds.”

Andre admits they were extremely busy for the first three weeks “but we found with our systems in place, everything works”.

He says it’s also key to delegate the correct jobs to staff members. “And all staff should be upskilled as quickly as possible so anyone can do a job – if required. That makes it easier to delegate jobs.

“I also work beside my staff every day – so I lead by example.”

Andre and Steve also ensured they had time off to recoup from their big workload where they could. “Especially after mating, you can nearly run the farm as a one-man show if you really have to. So you can run it with two people, but with the second person knocked off at 9am sort of thing.”

Andre says his staff also work with efficiency. “For example, when I set a task for the day and think it will take four hours – if the staff member finishes it in three hours and he’s done a good job, I don’t throw him another job. He can knock off. We don’t muck around here; we get it done.”

Another huge strength to the business is OAD milking, says Andre. “We’ve seen an improvement in animal health, mating and staff morale. And because you’ve got no afternoon milking you’re not pressured to get jobs done beforehand. This keeps everything low-stress.”

Plus with the farm being steep, OAD has benefitted cows by keeping their condition on, and with mating. “This year our six-week in-calf rate is 76 per cent with an eight per cent empty rate – with no intervention used at all,” says Andre.

For the upcoming season Andre and his partner Natalie Cameron are moving to a contract milking job on her parents Bruce and Gillian Cameron’s 400-cow dairy farm at Otamarakau, east of Te Puke, and will also manage a 350ha drystock farm for them. “We want to build a good foundation and grow our business to achieve our long-term goal of farm ownership.”


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