Climbing the dairy farming ladder to reach their land ownership goals is a very satisfying path for Canterbury farmers Hayden and Mara Fletcher.
Having worked his way up from farm assistant to equity partner in the Craigmore Group of farms, Hayden has clear goals in mind and the couple is hitting targets year on year.
“We are taking the herd in a certain direction,” Hayden says. “As an equity partner, we drive the decision-making on-farm; our role is essentially farm owners, without owning the farm.”
Hayden grew up in Southland around sheep and beef farming. He went to Otago University and studied finance and accounting before going overseas to work: he was employed on a merino stud farm in Australia, and worked with beef cattle in Montana, USA.
Mara grew up in upstate New York, USA, where she raised show sheep, goats and chickens as a hobby before leaving home to study Animal Science at Cornell University.
She spent a few years working in research on dairy cattle in New York before heading to veterinary school at Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine. Prior to having their first baby last August, Mara was working as a dairy vet with a particular interest in young stock and calves.
Hayden moved to Culverden in 2013 and started dairy farming in 2014.
“I knew the only way I was going to achieve my land-ownership goals would be to go dairy farming,” he says.
Hayden says Craigmore owns four dairy farms in the Culverden area.
“I’ve worked on all of them in some capacity, at one time or another,” he says. “I have only ever dairy farmed on Craigmore farms. I started as a dairy assistant and worked my way up from there.”
Today Hayden and Mara are contract milkers and equity partners on a 260ha effective farm. It is all spray irrigated, milking 900-920 cows, with the herd averaging an F12 Holstein Friesian rating.
“The foundation of the original herd was from the Fermoy Holstein Friesian stud in Southland,” Hayden says. “There are a handful of these cows still around, but the rest are newly-bred.
“In 2021 we registered 90 animals with Holstein Friesian NZ, but the majority could probably be registered.”
Hayden says they also classified for the first time in 2022, with a handful of cows going in front of the inspector.
“I put up a few cows in order to test my eye versus the classifier’s eye,” he says. “Going forward, we will look to classify all heifers.”
Mating on farm begins October 14, with the heifers starting a synchrony programme. All heifers are mated to F12 bulls for ease of calving, and to breed a useful replacement heifer.
On October 23, the milking herd begins mating. Hayden puts together a nominated bull team that meets his breeding criteria, starting with the longest-gestation bulls and working his way through.
The couple’s breeding objectives include breeding a moderately-sized cow with high components.
“My ideal cow would not look too pretty in the showring,” Hayden laughs. “I like a short, square cow with a wide rump. rather than a big, rangy cow. She also has to be structurally sound.”
Hayden says bulls they have used include Tronnoco Inca Shakir S3F.
“He has bred some really nice heifers in the herd,” he says. “The Meander ‘A’ family has also provided a lot of options for us lately.
“Nothing impresses me on paper – they have to perform to prove their worth – but I do like the look of Hillbrae Gaunt Chuck-ET, Busy Brook Overdraft S2F and Symes SB Checkbook S2F.”
Hayden says they undertook some TVR work in December, using Semex bulls.
“Busy Brook Overdraft S2F was used quite heavily this year, and we are looking at outcross options going forward,” he says. “But not giant outcross bulls breeding cows that weigh 800kg!”
Calving start date for heifers is July 20, with cows following on August 1.
“We are 80% finished by the end of August,” Hayden says. “The number of replacements we keep is dependent on the season, but we shoot for 250. I think we have bred more than that this season, so we will send the extras to the other Craigmore farms.”
Hayden says the Holstein Friesian breed fulfills several of his requirements for a successful farm business.
“I come from a beef background so when I look at a cow, the first thing I see is the structural integrity of the cow. I like a more robust cow, not frail, and the Holstein Friesian breed is known for being a robust cow. The herd is pushing 600kgMS so we only need a moderately-sized cow to do that.
“Secondly, I want saleable calves in order to future-proof the business.
“I want to develop the herd to such a quality that they are sought after for their bull calves. I have no desire to breed bulls for the industry myself, but to breed cows that are sought after for their bull calves is a real goal of mine.
“We pride ourselves on the quality of the herd already, which is better quality to that of most the other farms in the group.”
|Equity partners/contract milkers
|Hayden & Mara Fletcher trading as Darnley Dairy Ltd
|920 cows (90 registered Holstein Friesians)