by Izak Hofmeyr
The Dairy Mail
Stuart Mackenzie farms on the farm Loskop in the Karkloof Valley where around 400 ha is used for his milk production unit. The remaining 224 ha consists of wetland areas and mountains. He currently milks around 400 Holsteins and 230 Ayrshire cows, each group in its own parlor.
He grew up on the farm where his grandfather built the first milking parlor in 1925. His dad took over in 1967. In 2001 Stuart bought the farm from him and soon after left behind his career as an investment banker in Johannesburg, to become a dairy farmer.
“About three years ago I was in an aggressive expansion phase. For me to get a good quota, I had to get my cow numbers up quickly. When I got the chance to acquire an Ayrshire herd, I not only could up my milk production, but it also offered me the opportunity to differentiate a little bit in terms of the price I receive for my milk, Ayrshire milk being regarded as different from Holstein milk.”
Although both his Holstein and Ayrshire milk go to Fairfield Dairy, it is kept strictly separate. From there the necessity to use two parlors and two milk tanks for the two herds. Fairfield processes their Ayrshire milk for Woolworths, and the Holstein milk is packed for Pick ’n Pay and their own brand.
There is a downside to running two separate herds and parlors, he points out: “Everything you do now has to be done twice. This has a definite impact on my management inputs. The positive returns, however, outweighs this, so I do it gladly.”
“Until now my main focus on the farm has been to develop strong systems in all the aspects of my business. I started with the macro aspects of the business, such as getting a proper infrastructure in place. This included the dairies, the roads, the irrigation system and pastures.
“Also included in this macro approach would be staff management, animal husbandry and food security for the stock. From there I could move on to some of the more micro aspects, such as our feeding system where we focus on the best utilization of our resources to get the best possible output.
“The marketing of our product I would consider as another pillar of my business. As an industry, I believe, we have allowed ourselves to be cornered into a position where we have ceded control of our product over to other role players, namely our buyers. This makes no sense to me, for they have the greatest gain in keeping our product prices as low as possible. We need to take back ownership of our product and take an active interest in selling this product at a market related price.”
As his herd grew over a relatively short space of time, he relates, he realized a few things. The first was the potential for growth.
“This is a very intensive business, making very high demands of dairy farmers. The days are gone when a dairy was just a side-show to earn a monthly cash flow. We can expect quite a few farmers still to leave the business, and coupled with the increase in demand the world over, the opportunity for the rest of us to grow is basically limitless.
“Which brings me to the second realization: for anybody to run a herd of 800 plus cows, he would need to utilize dedicated technology to keep his fingers on the pulse of every aspect of the business.
“For example, to heat spot a herd of 150 cows is relatively easy, but the moment the numbers go beyond 500 or so, it becomes increasingly difficult. In a large herd, cows just become numbers and the same type of attention is not possible, so you need technological aids to help you monitor each cow. You need fail-safe systems to drive the crucial aspects of your management.
“I also realized that, compared to the gains you make when using technology, it is actually very cheap. People are scared off by the cost of installing technologically driven systems in their milking parlor, but these costs have to be looked at in the context of the savings it will allow you to make over the long run.”
After some research Stuart decided to settle for the Afikim management system. Not being an experienced stockman, by his own admission, he realized that there is a lot going on out there on the pastures that he has very little control over.
Initially he focused on two aspects that he identified as having the biggest potential to make a significant difference to his business, namely effective feeding and heat spotting.
“Providing supplementary concentrates to each cow according to her specific needs, I realized, would save me money on the biggest budget item on the farm, while effective heat spotting would allow me to keep my average days-in-milk at a manageable level where I can maximize the lactation curve.”
“To get the cows pregnant, I realized, I needed to have two systems in place. Firstly, I had to condition the cows properly to get good conceptions. The second aspect is an effective heat spotting system to put these properly conditioned cows in calve at the right time.”
These two factors, he says, were the main motivation for his choice of the Afikim system. The additional benefits the system offers, he believes, will come into their own increasingly as he gains experience and his management systems begin to run smoothly,
“The immediate savings I made on my concentrates bill after installing the system, was at least 20% per month. Calculating the cost of the system against the gains just in this one aspect of the dairy. I realized that the correct question is not ‘how can I afford it?’ but rather ‘how can I afford not to do it?’.
“When I started milking, the average amount of days that the cows were open was in the region of 150 days. With this management system I have been able to bring that down to about 97 days. I want, however, to get my milk flow curve as flat as possible – in other words to supply an even volume of milk to my buyer throughout the year.
“This meant that I had to try and spread the calving dates of the cows as evenly as possible through the year. So, at the moment my average days open has gone up again, but I am comfortable with that. It is something that I can rectify as time goes on.”
“The point is that I now have the ability to control specific aspects of my business, something that I was not able to do without the aid of the technology. This gives me confidence in my systems and enables me to concentrate on hands-on things such as properly executed day to day activities.
“The control I have over my systems is extremely important. It is based on up-to-the-minute information I have on every single cow in the herd. I am also able to, at the click of a button, single out the individual cows that need specific treatment. This happens automatically, without the added stress of people putting pressure on the cows. Again, I have control over my systems.”