Working with nature

David and Karen Cole have found a winning recipe for soil health.

Northland dairy farmer David Cole will tell you there is no better sight than a green paddock full of black and white cows.

On his family’s Te Maire farm, which traces its history back 105 years, those green paddocks may also contain bright yellow sunflowers, peas winding themselves up stems of sorghum or faba beans drilled directly into sandy paddocks and buckwheat added to release phosphate tied up in the soil.

“I’m a big fan of the idea that different plants can do different things to your soil without having to get into a tractor and burn diesel,” says David.

He has been “dipping his toes” in regenerative farming practices over the last two seasons on the family’s 220 hectare farm and 40 hectare run-off. While the farm is not fully regenerative, he is now an advocate of what regenerative practices can do for farming soils.

“We experimented last year with a paddock that we call the duck pond, for obvious reasons. We had tried everything with it. I had done a lot of reading on sunflowers and millet and their ability to break up tight soil, so we planted that mix in the paddock and the results were amazing.”

The sunflowers and millet broke up the soil and it is now one of the best paddocks on their farm. The crop they cut from the paddock was mixed with molasses and a bit of baleage for their Holstein Friesian herd which thrived on the high protein mix.

“The product that we took off to feed the cows was incredible. If you were growing that you would never grow maize to feed to your cows again,” says David.

David and Karen average 400kg/MS per cow from their Autumn calving herd and David says it was the hot dry Northland summers they have experienced in recent years that made them realise the yield they were getting from their maize was too low and it was proving too expensive.

“I started doing a lot of reading and the regenerative approach seemed to make a lot of sense.”

Now they make up to 1,000 bales of baleage both from traditional pasture and from paddocks they are regenerating using their newfound crops.

This season they added peas to their regenerating paddocks to increase nitrogen in the ground and Sorghum because the peas yield better with something to climb. Buckwheat was added to release acids into the soil and free up phosphate to also help with growing better crops.

“It’s not a fully regenerative system because the cows aren’t feeding directly off it. We cut the crop then let the paddock go back to grass once the other plants have done their job to restore and rejuvenate the soils.”

David says the resulting hay and baleage yield a high protein crop however which his cows absolutely love.

“Protein is very expensive to bring in. In the past we have brought DDG meal, but we’ve found the sunflowers can replace that and we’re hoping by adding the faba beans and the peas into the hay, we’ll eventually be free of having to bring any protein in the farm gate,” says David.

“The girls certainly let us know when it’s run out.”

David is the fourth generation of his family to run the farm with its pedigree Holstein Friesian herd which can trace most of its genetics back to Pukeroro.

In the days well before AI, his grandfather Colwyn used to go to the Pukeroro sale in his Bedford every year and buy a cow and bull and bring them home. That was where the herd started. When AI was introduced the family continued to use Pukeroro bulls.

He describes them as cows that “know how to milk” and over the generations he and wife Karen have managed to breed out their tendency to kick in the shed.

The couple are milking 200 cows this season, sightly lower than their normal 225. David says they have been fully Autumn calving since 1990 when they realised the Northland weather didn’t work for their operation. They dry off on December 24 and the cows are out for about eight weeks.

“We calve in March now. It’s a bit counterintuitive because it’s very dry up here around that time, but it gets us into mating well before the shortest day of the year and we find our cows get in-calf easier if it’s before the shortest day.”

The couple mainly use bulls from World Wide Sires with Seagull-Bay Supersire-ET featuring strongly in their herd. They aim for a live weight of around 600kgs and cows that have good fertility. They were also impressed with Supersire’s son, the now deceased Welcome SS Peterpan-ET, that produced two crops of daughters for them.

They have also used Top Deck KO Pierre, a bull produced as part of the Holstein Friesian/CRV Genetic Leaders programme, and Maple Wood Brewmaster from World Wide Sires to give a bit more size and volume to their herd. This year they were looking forward to seeing what Melarry Josuper Frazzled-ET and Woodcrest King Doc would throw for them.

“We are trying to get to a live weight of around 600kgs with good fertility. We’re not after extreme production because it’s very hard to do in Northland, unless you’re bringing a feed truck in the gate all year round,” says David.

The couple have tried to increase production in previous seasons, spending up to $200,000 on feed, but David says it made very little difference to their bottom line.

And while they used to dabble in raising beef, David and Karen now sell off any excess calves and use the land to make their crops.

“You have to accept it for what it is up here, it’s not an easy environment to farm in,” says David.

He has been on the property for 32 years alongside Karen who he met in 1996. They now have four children, Thomas, 12, who is at Dargaville Intermediate. Stephanie, 21, has completed Agriculture Science at Massey University. Victoria, 19, is studying law at Auckland University and, Carolyn, 17, is at Dargaville High.

David’s great grandfather Herbert, won the original 78 hectare block in a WWI ballot.

Back then the farm was tea tree as far as the eye could see. His great grandfather moved his wife Marian and their six children from their home in Nelson to the block of land in 1915. They came to a single man’s quarters moved down from the Tataarariki Sawmill and a four bale walk through shed.

“This was originally a WWI ballot farm. My great grandfather Herbert had his name drawn out of the ballot and he had no idea what he was getting.”

Cole Road which they now live on was named after David’s great grandmother.

“There were a number of families that lived up the road and the butcher used to do the run every Tuesday, bringing mail, meat and bread. He eventually said it was getting too hard to come up the track, so he was going to stop and make the families walk an extra 1.5km to meet him.”

David’s great grandmother corralled all her children and got them cut the tea tree down and laid it down in the mud so that the butcher could keep delivering to the area.

“The butcher called it Mrs Cole’s Road, but somehow it eventually became Cole Road.”

David’s grandfather Colwyn initially took over the farm sharemilking alongside his brother Mostyn. When Colwyn married, he moved and bought about 78 hectares adjoining the home farm. Mostyn continued milking on the home farm and Colwyn established what became the Cavelands Stud, named after all of the caves that were dotted across the dairy farm.

David’s grandfather Colwyn was also behind the establishment the Northern Wairoa Branch of Holstein Friesian NZ.

“He was probably ahead of his time. Everyone was farming Jerseys at that point. The thing that swung his thinking was he purchased an extra piece of land that we still have. There was no access because it needed a bridge, and it was all scrub. He let his cows in there and within half an hour all the Jerseys were back at the gate bellowing while the Friesians wouldn’t come back until it was 3pm and time for milking.”

David’s uncle Maitland, Colwyn’s eldest son, also went into dairy farming in the early 1970s establishing the Driftwood Stud. He used Colwyn’s Caveland’s herd as its basis.

“I was at school in Whangarei at the time and every chance I got I’d come out to work on the home farm where Maitland was. I got the bug for breeding from him.”

In 1989, when his uncle Mostyn, who had no children, was looking to retire, the opportunity for David to take over the family farm presented itself.

“I had a chance to come back on the home farm here. He didn’t have any family and it was a chance to do something that I had always wanted to do.”

His other uncle Maitland also eventually retired from farming in 2003, and David and Karen bought his farm, talking on most of his herd.

“My uncle Maitland helped me out and got us started with some good cows. We had a lot of space fillers, but he gave us a herd that did pay the bills. We bought his farm when he retired, we also bought his Driftwood herd and it really got us on the way. We got rid of the balance of the also rans,” says David.

Today the home farm straddles a gully and rolls down onto peat flats. There is still a significant amount of marginal wetland, but where previous generations would have dug them out, David says they are replanting them again in tea tree, flax and cabbage trees.

“They are more use to us as a wetland than as a paddock that won’t really produce. I think the pendulum has swung one way for a few years, and I’d like to think we’re bringing it more back into the middle again.”

Very steep areas on the farm were regenerating back into native bush anyway, so they have just decided to let it carry on.

“I think each generation of our family have pushed different things a little bit. We’re just the latest version of that.’

David and Karen Cole and their children.
Extreme production is hard to do in Northland. The Cole's aim for a live weight of 600kgs and good fertility.
Carolyn Cole.
Thomas on the farm during baling.
David Cole.

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