Back on track

After two seasons of extreme flooding Taieri dairy farmer James Aitken says he is finally on track to have his best season ever. 

He and wife Celia have been on their 90-hectare dairy farm for the past 10 years and have battled the region’s often wet conditions and the heavy soils. 

“Twice in the last few seasons we have been under water or have had serious floods come through. It’s an ongoing battle to keep the drains clear and pumped out but it’s just part of where we farm.” 

Just 30 minutes from Dunedin, the couple farm 240 cows just over half of their herd Holstein Friesians and about 100 of them registered. 

James says after doing around 430kg/MS per cow they are on track to deliver 460kg/MS per cow this season. He puts it down to a kinder season weatherwise. 

“I’d love to be able to say it’s the cows but after the last two seasons it really is the weather. This year we got a good soaking in early January, but it has stayed pretty dry since then. We’re in a bit of a green drought at the moment.” 

The couple moved onto the farm 10 years ago. James had been working in hospitality on the Gold Coast and knew he wanted to return home and give dairy farming a go. 

Celia moved back to New Zealand and initially worked for a software company in Dunedin before they started having children. 

The couple have two boys, Harvey 9 and Carlos 6 and Celia has since launched an online fashion store for women, Harlos.co.nz. 

James says when he came back to New Zealand, he initially picked up work at Busybrook Holsteins with Nathan Bayne and it was there he was reintroduced to dairy farming and the breeding that went along with the passion for herd improvement. 

“It’s nice to be getting up at 5am now to go milking instead of going to bed at 6am when I was working  nightclubs on the Goldcoast,” James says. 

Their herd was put together with cows purchased from throughout New Zealand back in 2011, with carry over cows and R2 heifers bought from various herds both north and South Island, slowly James says he has focussed on continuing to breed from some of his better Holstein Friesian lines. 

“We collected them from all over and it was enough to get us started in those first couple of seasons.” 

The herd is twice a day milking all season, and they move to three milking in two days around March and by May they are once a day then dry off usually mid to late May. 

The main herd is wintered at a family runoff in Middlemarch and his R2s are brought home to winter on the milking platform.  

James and Celia have about 100 registered Friesians and James says his breeding decisions have been directed towards breeding from Holstein Friesian bulls, but he adds he has started finding it harder to find New Zealand bulls he wants to use. 

“I think a lot of the bulls on offer are all starting to go back to the same families. I’m having trouble understanding why there isn’t more outcross options available among New Zealand bull teams. with rump angles becoming a trait I’m working on improving, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to find New Zealand bulls with positive rump traits. 

Some of the best cows in his herd are still from Mint Edition, some of them now nine and 10-years-old. 

“You go through the catalogues and it’s hard to find anything now that doesn’t go back to Mint Edition, Firenze or Beamer. The options seem to be quite limited now. I’ve started using a small amount of overseas bulls now to bring in some new genetics.”  

This year he will use Viking Red over his lower BW cows as he tries to improve fertility, rump angles, components and efficiency rates in his herd. He will continue to use Holstein Friesian semen across is pedigree animals but says he is looking more towards using bulls from outcross families.  

A small amount of Mogul and Super Sire were used in his herd this mating season and he has recently started a new red family using, Rager Red and Zimmerveiw Lucky Pp Red over his red carriers. 

He has one red cow milking in his herd Airdrie Brekem Lacie S2F and he has one Rager Red R2 and a couple of calves this year by Zimmerview Lucky Pp Red. 

“It’s a bit of a change in scenery. I don’t know if they will milk any differently but it’s something different to look at in the milking shed,” he says. 

The herd starts calving the last week of July and will be all done by first week of October. James says this year they completed five weeks of AI and then put his own Friesian bulls out for another five weeks, reducing his calving spread to 10 weeks. 

He rears all his replacement heifers, and any bull calves are reared through to 100kgs for the beef market. 

James says they classify their three-year-olds every year, his father Denis is a TOP Inspector with a passion for breeding Holstein Friesians. 

The herd has about six Excellent cows, most of them older cows, by Mint Edition or Firenze. 

“I guess you do it to try and get the perfect cow, that’s what everyone wants isn’t it?” 

James says he classifies his heifers because as it helps him identify where the faults in his herd are and helps him to make breeding decisions based on that. 

I know I have a problem with rump angles and front teat width so that’s something we’re focussing on, along with fertility and production. 

He says many of his Excellent cows were descendants of animals he brought as carryovers when he started on the farm. He registered them using Holstein Friesian New Zealand’s record recovery service. 

“I guess it’s interesting to see what you’ve got in your herd. Everyone wants an excellent cow doing 600kg/MS, but you have to look at the numbers and be aware of what it’s costing you to produce those figures.” 

He got his whole herd DNA tested five years ago for the same reason and now he also gets all his calves DNA tested too. 

“It’s for breeding basically. It helps you make sure you’re making the right mating and culling decisions and I think it’s crucial to have that information,” says James. 

For his better cows that fail to get in calf he has chosen to do embryo transfer work with’ Advanced Genetics, in Otago. 

“For any of my good cows that turn up empty I’ve tried to flush a few embryos out of them before I make the tough decision to put them on the truck.”  

This has produced some variable results, with the last one being a successful flush. He got six frozen embryos, four held and provided three heifers and a bull. 

“It all helps in that end goal of finding ‘the perfect cow’,” says James. 

James, Celia, Harvey and Carlos Aitken.
The Aitken's have battled the region's wet conditions.


OwnersJames & Celia Aitken trading as The Poplars Dairy Co Ltd
LocationTaieri Plains, Otago
Farm size90 hectares
Cows240 cows about 60 percent Holstein Friesian
Production460 kgMS average
Stud nameAirdrie

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