Dairy with a side of beef

Waikato dairy and dairy beef farmers Adrian and Pauline Ball won the Supreme Award at this year’s Waikato Ballance Farm Environment Awards and the prestigious Gordon Stephenson Trophy at the Ballance Farm Environment Awards National Showcase.

Adrian and Pauline Ball

The couple utilise beef genetics to add-value to their calf crop and in doing so have changed their business to incorporate beef finishing.  In the first of this two-part series, we look at what drove them to change their business to a hybrid dairy/beef operation.  

A line of 14-month old Angus cross steers on Adrian and Pauline Ball’s Tirau farm represent so much more than next summer’s prime beef.

These cattle represent a whole new way of doing business for the couple, a way that meets the animal welfare, social and environmental expectations of an increasingly discerning and critical society.

Adrian points out that not so long ago these cattle, a by-product of their dairy operation, would have been put on the “bobby truck” at just one week of age, worth little more than $20/head.

By the time these steers are finished in early summer, they will be worth around $1800/head, but these cattle have also enabled Adrian and Pauline to reduce their farm’s total greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient losses while giving them a farm business that would stand up to the scrutiny of regulators and the general public.      

Pauline describes their business as “dairy with a side of beef” and this hybrid model is step change from what has become the norm in a dairy industry where farmers are driven to maximise milk solid production both per cow and per hectare.

Adrian and Pauline know what’s it is like to be constantly striving to intensify and increase production because it is a model they were part of in the early 2000s, but in Adrian’s view, it is a model that has let the industry down.

While their business, Dennley Farm, has evolved to include dairy and dairy beef, there have been seminal moments along the way that have changed the couple’s way of thinking and operating.

One of these was meeting the late Gordon Stephenson and being inspired by his passion for on-farm biodiversity. Another was when Adrian completed the gruelling Coast to Coast One Day multi-sport race in 2009.

It was during this personal development that Adrian began to re-think what they were doing and the long-term sustainability of their high input dairy system. They wanted more balance in their life and less time in the milking shed.

At around the same time, they were having to put their week-old autumn-born bobby calves on a truck for a long trip to the closest processors.

This simply did fit with their personal values or animal welfare ethics and this is when the decision was made to put an end to all bobby calves.

“We just couldn’t do it anymore, it just didn’t make sense,” says Pauline.

In 2014 Adrian and Pauline bought a 74ha dry stock block, just 3km from their home farm and this is where they grow out their dairy heifers and finish their beef cattle- although there is a lot of integration between this and the 122ha dairy platform depending on feed supply and seasonal variations.

The couple now milk 300 autumn-calved Friesian cows, back significantly from a peak of 420 over a decade ago, but this decrease in cow numbers is offset by their dairy beef cattle and the premium they receive for winter milk supply. In keeping with their philosophy of adding value to what they produce, they are trying various beef genetics – including short-gestation Belgium Blue and Charolais over their non-replacement cows, and Angus bulls over their heifers and as a follow-up bull for their cows.

They source their Angus bulls from a nearby Takapoto stud and select on EBVs for calving ease and 400 and 600-day growth rates, as well as phenotype.

The couple speak highly of these bulls and the progeny they leave, especially Pauline who finds the calves are great feeders and grow consistently well, at an average of 900gms/day over a year, in their pasture-fed system. 

They have had no calving problems using beef genetics and as the couple run a recording system, they know the sire of every calf born and tag each animal at birth, so there is no confusion between Angus cross and Friesian calves.

All calves are reared together and under Pauline’s care, the calves are given colostrum for as long as possible-usually six to seven days. Cows are given a colostrum rating of gold, silver or bronze, with the “gold” cows producing the freshest colostrum.

The calves are weaned at 100kg but continue to be fed a calf meal supplement throughout their first winter. All the Friesian bull calves are sold to a finisher (they have had the same buyer for several years) and these calves attract a premium as they are from a closed operation.

The remaining calves stay on the dairy platform, acting as a valuable pasture management tool over their first spring and early summer. In December they are taken to the dry stock block and the first-calving heifers are brought back to the dairy platform.

The beef calves are grown out and finished on a mix of ryegrass, Ecotain plantain, chicory and clover. and the couple aim to have them finished before their second summer- before Facial Eczema becomes an issue.

Adrian says they target a 260kgCW in their beef cross heifers, which are finished at 18 months. The steers are carried through to heavier weights and they aim for 320kgCW in their Angus-cross steers and 340kgCW in the exotic crosses. Adrian says the Friesian component stops them getting too fat.

Next week we look at the genetics they use and the way incorporating beef has allowed the Balls to reduce their environmental footprint.