Auckland “transplants” Donovan Croot and Sophie Cookson are living the dairy farming dream in Taranaki as 50/50 sharemilkers of a Holstein Friesian herd.
The couple is passionate about breeding, thanks to the influence of several mentors they have met along the way – starting with Donovan’s uncle, Colin Foley.
“He was an integral part of sparking my love for farming, as I visited him on farm as a child and accompanied him to breeders’ days early in my career,” Donovan says. “He really stoked my love of farming.”
At 22, Colin found Donovan an opportunity as a dairy apprentice in Taranaki and 14 years later, he hasn’t looked back.
By his fourth season Donovan was herd managing a large corporate farm and working towards an agribusiness diploma, while Sophie completed a vet nursing diploma at Otago Polytechnic and worked for a few years for Coastal Veterinary Services in Kaponga.
In Donovan’s fifth year farming, the couple went contract milking for three years with Bruce and Honey Grindlay. The Grindlays allowed them to rear their surplus heifers on-farm, which they then leased out, helping to grow Donovan and Sophie’s equity.
“That is what allowed us to consider sharemilking, because we owned 80 cows ranging from yearlings through to in-milk cows by that time,” Donovan says.
They both considered it a worthy investment to buy cows from established profile herds and then build on those bloodlines so in 2019, they bought 100-head of cattle from Jim and Sue Webster’s Waiau/Taramont herd. The Waiau Trust stud was all registered Holstein Friesians and the former top BW and production herd in the country.
The couple met the Websters while they were sharemilking in Tikorangi.
“Our runoff neighboured their farm and we developed a relationship through the local discussion group and mutual love for cows and breeding,” Sophie says. “Jim took Donovan under his wing and shared his passion. When they eventually sold us the herd in 2019, we not only purchased an exceptional herd but we made great friends in the Websters and still continue to share our genetics (Taravalley) and family time together, often catching up for a good yarn and romp around the farms.
“We are forever grateful to them and consider them a part of our Clovalley Family.”
Donovan and Sophie’s herd is still in the top 1% nationally for BW & PW.
Today, Donovan and Sophie – with children Estelle (7), Penelope (5) and Thomas (3) – live at Manutahi, between Hawera and Patea in South Taranaki. They are sharemilking for the Taumaha Trust, owned by Neil and Helen Walker.
They peak milk 190 cows on 61ha through a modern 30-a-side herringbone; the farm is a “good little self-contained unit”, with plenty of support land in close proximity to the milking platform.
They run a system 4-5 farm, which is new territory as sharemilkers.
In their first season they relied on grass, silage and limited palm kernel (PK) through a drought. It yielded a 400kgMS/cow average production, which was a record for the property at a total MS of 83,000kg.
However, with the introduction of maize grain, canola meal, tapioca, distiller’s grain, soy meal, soy hulls, vitamins and minerals, last season the herd pushed to 118,481kg MS (620kgMS/cow).
The couple has noticed, since being on their fully feeding journey, that conformation and udders are becoming increasingly important.
“We can’t have cows that cannot carry the milk,” Donovan says. “This season we are aiming for 680kgMS/cow and our end goal is to get over 700kgMS/cow.”
For the last two years they have used some overseas genetics, focusing heavily on udders. Mating starts October 10, which includes 10 weeks of AI and no intervention. AI is done by Sophie, as she is a qualified AB tech with LIC.
Donovan and Sophie have well-thought-out breeding objectives.
“Our AI strategy is to pick a line-up of our favourite Holstein Friesian bulls that offer the traits we are breeding for and use them selectively over the majority of our herd,” Sophie says. “A handful of smaller-framed cows will go to crossbred, as well as a number of contract-mated cows, if we like the matings.”
They use crossbred over the majority of their yearlings to ensure a smooth transition into milk.
“Hopefully, once our heifers get bigger through breeding we can use some easy calving Holstein Friesian semen over them,” Sophie says.
Holstein Friesian bulls that have produced great cows in their herd include San Ray FM Beamer-ET S2F and Mourne Grove Hothouse S2F, and they have recently used Meander Shot Alibi-ET S3F, CRV Delta Everton, Dicksons GF Go-Getter-ET and Buelin BM Equator S2F but are yet to milk any of these.
“We strive to produce quality Holstein Friesian cows of a medium size, with good capacity and udder strength with dairy type and style,” Donovan says. “We love a feminine cow with a will to milk, that can harvest grass and is a good converter of blended feed, too. We are breeding our cows to be resilient and have longevity.
“We are aggressive when it comes to mastitis and lameness and are extremely proactive in our animal health approach. It starts with our breeding and is reflected in our cows and their progeny. This standard also extends to the bulls we are breeding alongside the breeding companies.”
Calving start date is July 18, with around 42 heifers chosen as replacements annually. Sophie says they are loving seeing the young progeny coming through the herd, as they use more Holstein Friesian genetics than ever before.
“Some of our stand-out calves thus far are by Meander Shot Alibi-ET S3F, Meander SB Alias-ET S2F, Meander S Armando-ET S3F, Buelin BM Equator S2F, Dicksons GF Go-Getter-ET, CRV Delta Everton, Tronnoco MH Samba-ET S3F and Ambzed Grand Lennan S1F,” she says. “We are looking forward to mating where I can put my skills to good use, and we get to play matchmaker and improve families within our herd. This year we have chosen our bull team from LIC, CRV and Samen and hope to move towards using sexed semen.”
Among the herd, the ‘N’ cow family is one that stands out for Donovan and Sophie.
“The matriarch of the N family was Waiau Sovereign Nugget (a very nice Turepo Sovereign daughter) purchased from Jim Webster’s uncle,” Sophie says.
“The late Waiau Hot Nataska S2F GP84 (Natasha) of this family passed on her genetics and temperament to her daughters and sons.”
These include four-year-old Waiau Granite Natalie S2F GP84 (BW 298, PW 521, LW 538, A2A2) who is by Moorbys FM Granite S2F, and two-year-old Clovalley BBO Nora S2F (BW 325, PW 544, LW 537) who is by Busy Brook Omah-ET-OC S2F.
Clovalley TH Nala S3F (BW 327, PW 360) is out of Natalie and by Tanglewood GL Hardy.
Clovalley Mohaka Naomi (not registered) (BW 311, PW 393) is out of Nora and by a crossbred bull. Nora’s ET daughter by Tronnoco Stell Sentry-ET, Clovalley Sentry Nancy-ET S3F (BW 263, PW 292) is Estelle’s school calf who won Overall Champion calf at Kakaramea School. The two also won first for leading in their group for Calf Club NZ.
Another of Nora’s ET daughters by Meander S Armando-ET S3F, Clovalley Arm Naveya-ET S3F (BW 304 PW 317) is Penelope’s 2021-born school calf who won second at Kakaramea School. Naveya is part of the CRV Elite ET programme this season.
The N family has produced some excellent bulls as well: Waiau Master Nicco-ET S3F is out of Waiau Hot Nataska S2F GP84 and by Woodcote FI Mastermind. Another Clovalley Holstein Friesian bull in Progeny Testing is Clovalley Chuck Hino with CRV.
“He was out of a great cow we purchased from the Fraser Dispersal Sale around six years ago,” Donovan says.
Donovan and Sophie have some exciting goals for the future.
“We just bought our first bit of land from our incredible farm owners and are building our dream home nearby. We are excited for the future,” Sophie says. “Our plan is to stay here and continue to farm and deepen our roots within our community, encouraging our children and others to succeed. Donovan has recently taken on a role as a tutor for Dairy Training Ltd and enjoys sharing his knowledge with others. I am following suit and jumping on board with the team at Cow Manager. We hope our roles outside of farming will help give us alternative perspectives outside of our farming endeavours.”
Clovalley Farms has also taken on an exciting new role this season – silver sponsor and organiser of Calf Club NZ.
“We hope to share the passion of calf care and showing with children all over New Zealand, and we are in the process of choosing some Holstein Friesian calves to campaign this year, too,” Sophie says. “We love the trainability of the calves and their nature as well as their variable striking coats.”
Donovan says their breeding focus has changed a lot over the years, with Holstein Friesian now being their preferred breed for their farm and system.
“We love the friendly docile nature of the Holstein Friesian breed and just really enjoy working with them.”
|Neil and Helen Walker
|Donovan Croot & Sophie Cookson trading as Clovalley Farms 2014 Ltd
|61ha (plus 30ha runoff)
|190 cows (40 registered Holstein Friesian)