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Speed milking

Published on 20 April 2016

A FORESTRY conversion in the Central Plateau is creating new benchmarks for efficient project management by commissioning a new state-of-the-art dairy platform every six months.

Three 1500-cow dairies are already in operation, while another two will come on line by August. Ata Rangi Pastoral Ltd is owned by Taupo district dairy producers, Gerard and Vanessa Donald, and Brent Cook. The company purchased 5732 hectares of century-old forestry land near Taupo in December 2014 and has since converted about half of this into five dairy platforms. A further 500 ha have been cleared for a common support and run-off block.

Working six days a week, an army of contractors managed to have each block cleared, pulled and sown to pastures within three months. Other teams then constructed kilometres of laneways and fencing, connected utilities and poured hundreds of cubic metres of concrete for the 60-bale rotary sheds, 80 metre feed pads, feed bunkers and farm houses.

Director – Farm Operations, Ged Donald, is utilising every ounce of experience gained in building up his own 7500-cow enterprise at Taupo over the past 20 years. “We’re turning forestry into working milking platforms in about six months,” Ged says. “We’re spending at least $15 million to establish each dairy, and wherever possible, this has been spent with local businesses for the betterment of the local community. At the moment, we’ve got about 130 people working on the sites at any one time.”

Despite the scope and speed of development, the entire project is being run by a relatively small management team, comprising General Manager, Stephen Veitch; Operations Manager – Atiamuri Whakamaru and Twin Lakes farms, Kynan Thomsen; Operations Manager – Burnside, Tokoroa Downs and Mangakino farms, Mark Drysdale; and Farm Development Support Manager, Hamish Bryant.

The five farms will produce more than three million kilograms of milk solids by 2019. “This company was set up to meet growing demand for quality protein and the changing tastes of consumers, particularly in Asia,” Ged says. “We’re taking a long-term view in regards to supply, demand and demographic trends but we have to remember where we are and control input costs. “We’re confident prices will bounce back by the time the farms reach full production. In the meantime, we are reviewing our management systems and cutting our discretionary spending, the same as every other dairy farmer in New Zealand.

“We are currently using a Category 2 or 3 production system and this won’t change because the cheapest feed will always be the pasture you grow yourself. The Central Plateau has free-draining pumice soils so we can graze cattle over winter. In the long term, we’ve still got another 2400 ha of forestry which we can convert.”

Each farm is equipped with a JCB Loadall 526 telehandler, tractor and feed wagon, which is used to feed out a mix of maize, lucerne and pasture silage and palm kernel. “We purchased our first Loadalls second-hand in 2010,” Ged says. “One of them had 5500 hours on it and it just kept going and going. We ended up running it out to 9500 hours – you can’t complain about that and it’s probably why we’ve got eight of them now.”

The Loadall 526, which is capable of lifting up to 2.6 tonnes to a maximum height of 5.6 metres, features a turbocharged 114 horsepower EcoMAX four-cylinder engine, four-speed powershift transmission and hydraulic capacity of 80 L/minute. Each machine is equipped with a range of implements, including a 2.5 metre bucket, buckets, pallet forks, bale feeders and scraper. “The Loadalls are our ‘go-to’ machines – we use them for everything,” Ged says. “They’re fast, simple to operate and incredibly reliable. They have been pivotal in the construction process – unloading trucks, moving concrete troughs, transporting concrete and installing water tanks. Now that the farms are operational, they are used primarily to load the mixer wagons, scrape yards and lift cows if necessary. “We don’t bother putting front-end loaders on the tractors any more because the telehandlers are so useful.”

Ata Rangi Pastoral also operates one of the first JCB TM320 articulated telescopic loaders in the country. Boasting a lift capacity of 3.2 t, a forward reach of 3 m and a maximum lift of 5.2 m, it combines the capacity of a wheeled loader with the versatility of a telehandler. Powered by a super-efficient 125 hp JCB EcoMAX engine that produces high torque at low revs, it features permanent four-wheel drive, six-speed powershift transmission with torque lock and an on-demand hydraulic system.

“We use the TM320 to load heavier materials, such as gravel, lime and fertiliser,” Ged says. “In the past 12 months alone, it’s loaded more than a million cubic metres of pumice for the laneways and more than 4500 t of lime.”

The Ata Rangi project has been implemented in accordance with a strict environmental plan developed in consultation with local councils, regulatory bodies and iwi. “We know we’re in the public eye and we have gone to every length to meet or exceed our obligations,” Ged says. “We’ve set all development at least 25 metres back from the Waikato River and lakes and 10 m from significant waterways, as well as constructing 0.5 m bunds all round to prevent sediment and nutrient run-off. “We’ve planted about 233 ha of riparian land to native species, while steep contours of more than 25 degrees have not been disturbed.”

Nutrient applications will be mapped by GPS, while water usage will be monitored using advanced telemetery systems. The dairy features a water-efficient design, with ‘green water’ recycling for yard cleaning. Each farm has a ‘weeping wall’ effluent management system that separates solids and liquid before the latter enters the lined 9 ML effluent ponds. Liquid effluent is spread at a rate of eight hectares per 100 cows, twice the national recommendation to minimise nitrate leaching.

“This project was never about being big for big’s sake,” Ged says. “It’s about being smart. We had the opportunity to do a lot of ‘big picture’ things and utilise every available resource to make sure this is sustainable and profitable, balanced by a farmer’s eye for practicality.”

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