Barn system 'definitely not for the faint-hearted'

While the conversion of a dryland sheep farm into a dairy farm where cows are housed in barns has been an amazing journey, owner Willy Leferink readily admits the change is not a silver bullet for the industry.

Mr Leferink, Federated Farmers' national dairy section chairman, acknowledges that housing cows is not for everyone.

He points out that it is capital hungry and New Zealanders have not yet reached the skill level needed.

''This is definitely not for the faint-hearted. It falls well outside the parameters for the banks, but thanks to the banks for trusting us.''

Mr Leferink said a conversion to a conventional dairy farm could cost between $10,000 to $12,000 per hectare but the conversion to barns could be $25,000 to $30,000 per hectare.

A higher return on capital, comfortable cows, low nutrient leaching, total control over operations and a work-life balance for staff were the opportunities and strengths of the operation.

Pannetts Dairies, just north of Ashburton, hosted a group of young arable farmers last week, giving them the opportunity to see the barns in operation.

While the farm had irrigation consents when purchased three years ago, these could not be activated because of restrictive nutrient rules on the groundwater take, Mr Leferink said. An equity partnership was formed in January last year.

Development started in March, the first cows were milked on May 19, 2013 and the first cows went into the barn on June 30. The project had come in on time and under budget.

The development of the barns was delayed because of district council bylaws, planning issues and objections from neighbours over the size of the barns, Mr Leferink said.

The four key components for the barn conversion was that it be environmentally sound, animal-friendly, a nice environment to work in and profitable.

''This year, with the fantastic payout, we will manage all four.''

The two curved free stall barns provide beds with 50mm rubber matting for the 950 cows, along with a covered calving and dry cow area. The largest barn is 165m long and 40m wide. Cows are milked up to three times a day in a 60-bail rotary shed.

Cows spend the first 150 days after calving inside, but at the end of lactation are free to go outside.

Calving occurs all year round, with 90 to 100 animals calving each month. The aim is to milk 950 cows all year round.

Mr Leferink said the cows produced a lot more milk than anticipated. Cows were culled on production criteria.

While milk production has dropped off on conventional farms with recent wet weather, production has risen in the housed cows as the temperature dropped.

The barns' thermodynamic design draws stale air up to a large vent, keeping the air fresh in the open-ended barns. There is no forced ventilation and even in summer the barns never get very hot.

Feed makes up 60% of the farm's cost. There is no feeding in the dairy shed; instead, cows always have access to feed in the biggest barn. Some feed has been sought locally but, with the purchase of neighbouring land, it is hoped the farm will become self-sufficient.

Mr Leferink encouraged the young arable farmers to consider establishing dairy barns on a corner of their property, running them in conjunction with a cropping operation rather than converting the entire farm.

- by Maureen Bishop