No place for prima donnas!

Low milk prices and rising input costs are putting many farmers under financial pressure. Elsabé and Andries Badenhorst, the winners of the Overberg Jersey Championships, spoke to Glenneis Erasmus about weathering the storm and wringing greater efficiencies out of their land.
Issue date : 06 February 2009

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Low milk prices and rising input costs are putting many farmers under financial pressure. Elsabé and Andries Badenhorst, the winners of the Overberg Jersey Championships, spoke to Glenneis Erasmus about weathering the storm and wringing greater efficiencies out of their land.

A fine eye for detail and a no- nonsense approach are the ingredients of a successful dairy farm, say Elsabé and Andries Badenhorst, the third generation on Langverwacht farm outside Napier in the Overberg. At the Overberg Jersey Championships in October 2008, they were the overall winners and also came first in the division for best

First Lactation Cow.
This is reflected in the husband and wife team’s attitude to the current dairy crisis, where production has almost become unprofitable due to low farmgate prices and high input costs.

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Elsabé explains that they’re handling the situation by streamlining the herd. “We cull all poor-performing cows such as heifers producing less than 4 500 and cows producing less than 5 000 over a 305-day lactation period. Also, we cull any cow skipping a lactation or with reproduction problems or a defect, especially an udder defect or foot problems. A cow has to earn her right to stay on this farm.”
Although predominantly a grain farm, Jersey cattle have always helped diversify the enterprise and reduce risk.

At only 500ha, Langverwacht is quite small for a grain farm. “So we had to augment our income and the dairy was a good idea, because it secures a monthly income and it complements grain production,” explains Elsabé. A Dohne flock completes the diversification.

Launching the stud
The couple upgraded their herd in 1986 by buying 40 stud cows and starting the Soutkloof Stud. At the time, they had around 40 commercial cows.
“We decided to go this route because there was more information available about production statistics for a stud than for commercial animals, which enabled us to take a more scientific approach to animal selection and breeding strategy,” Elsabé says.
“You can also sell stud animals for more than commercial animals.”

Selecting genetic material
The Badenhorsts started using a SA Jersey programme this year as a tool in their genetic selection programme. The programme selects two bulls for each cow based on the cow’s genetic qualities and the farmer’s breeding objectives. Cows are artificially inseminated from April to May. Those that don’t conceive are put with a stud bull from the Sienhoe Stud, belonging to Samuel Walters from Riebeeck West. One bull is used for every 20 cows or heifers and is with the cows for up to four months. Cows and heifers that don’t conceive after being artificially inseminated and being with the bull are culled. “Heifers are either put with a bull or artificially inseminated. We decided to put all the heifers with bulls this year, but it might be different next year,” says Elsabé. “The calving season runs from January and with an intercalving period of around 390 days, the cows are usually dry from November.”

Langverwacht crops
Most of the feed is produced on the farm. “We look at the condition of the land. If it’s very dry, we might put out some Voermol lick,” Elsabé says. Silage is made primarily from oats produced on 50ha. A crop rotation programme is employed consisting of lucerne for a few years followed by wheat, barley, canola and oats, depending on the soil and market conditions.

Manure used to be given away to neighbouring wine producers, but this year the Badenhorsts have decided to use it on their own land to improve the soil.
Cows graze the stubble after the crop has been harvested.
About half the farm (220ha) is under cash crops, while the other lands are either marginal or under lucerne pasture.

The “no-prima donna” approach
Cows and heifers don’t receive any special feed. “The cows have to adapt to our farming conditions – we can’t afford to have prima donnas here,” Elsabé says. The cows only get additional feed in the form of silage, but are given hay during lactation. The couple has won various awards and their cows are walking testimony to the success of their management style.

The Badenhorsts sometimes allow cows to continue lactation if they produce exceptionally high amounts of milk. One of their cows, BVJ 0339, produced 22,8â„“ of milk per day for 503 days. BVJ 0655, the cow that won the first lactation division, was still producing 22,8â„“/day until she was dried after 272 days in lactation. Their best producer (BVJ 0275) is producing around 11 580â„“/year.

Identification, record-keeping and analysis
Elsabé points out that there aren’t any fancy electronic identification systems at Langverwacht. “We researched whether we should buy the new technology, but found that it wasn’t economically viable for our small herd, which has now reached full capacity at 120 cows in milk a year.” Therefore most of the record-keeping, from animal health to reproduction, is still done by hand. Milk production is measured by the Alpro DeLaval milking system. This information is physically recorded and then typed into a Mircrosoft Exel spreadsheet from where it’s exported to the Dairy Information and Manager Systems South Africa (DIMSSA) computer programme.

 “The programme is user-friendly, provides a range of information and I can easily import and export data. It’s also updated annually,” says Elsabé. The programme helps Elsabé monitor herd performance in terms of production per day and per lactation, while providing a strong base for important managerial decisions. Elsabé explains you can set your own herd operation parameters. “I can ask the programme to identify cows that produce less milk than the goal for the herd. It also helps identify animals that might be sick by indicating a significant drop in milk production. In addition, it helps the Badenhorsts create milk forecasts and plan for budgeting purposes, based on individual lactation curves and herd figures,” she explains.
E-mail Elsabé Badenhorst at [email protected].     |fw

Milk analysis & what it means

Milk samples from each cow on Langverwacht are analysed every five weeks to monitor animal health. The results are returned in an e-report and imported into the Dairy Information and Manager Systems South Africa (DIMSSA) computer programme.
The analysis contains information about butterfat, protein, milk urea nitrogen, lactose and somatic cell counts in the milk. Gerrit Hattingh from Taurus Cooperative, which focuses on livestock improvement, says the lactose measurement component measures “cow happiness”.

“A lactose reading of under 4,2% is an indication that something’s bothering the cow – she could either have mastitis, a sore foot, or she could be bullied at the feed buckets. And a high somatic cell count means the udder could have an infection,” he says.
Gerrit says the milk urea nitrogen measurement is especially beneficial to farmers because it shows whether the animals are using feed efficiently.

“The urea content should preferably be between 10mg/dâ„“ and 18 mg/dâ„“. A reading above this means the farmer is feeding too much protein and/or energy feed. This means the feed isn’t being utilised efficiently, resulting in financial loss. It can also lead to fertility problems.” Meanwhile, readings below this ratio mean that the farmer isn’t supplying enough protein and/or energy feed, compromising milk production.

Looking after the workers
The farmworkers on Langverwacht are accommodated in beautiful two- and three-bedroom houses with electricity and warm-water showers. Elsabé says she prefers the seasonality of the dairy, not only because there’s an abundance of feed when the cows need it most, but also because it allows her and Andries to give their workers leave for a month during November/December.

“Our workers make a huge contribution towards our success and they must be treated with dignity and respect. Without it, they won’t be motivated,” she concludes.