Schuler Brothers Ltd | Te Aroha, New Zealand
Making use of existing assets to enter the dairy sheep industry.
Diversification and sustainability underpin the unique dairy operation run by brothers Kevin and Paul Schuler in New Zealand.
Working under the business name, Schuler Brothers, the two men are third generation farmers on their family property in Te Aroha West in the Waikato region
“My grandfather came out from Switzerland in the early 1900s and worked here. After a while he was lucky enough to be able to buy the farm,” Kevin said.
“My parents bought it off him and we bought it off mum and dad.”
The 230-hectare property was traditionally a cow dairy but about seven years ago Kevin and Paul looked for opportunities to diversify.
The higher payouts and lower environmental footprint of small ruminant dairy farming began to look appealing.
“This has been a cow dairy since its inception but about seven seasons ago we introduced goats and 2020 was our first year with sheep.
“The goats provided good, strong cash flow and we saw the same opportunity with sheep.
“So it’s a good mix, it gives us sustainability, diversity to provide a strong dairy operation for the future of our families and the future of our land.”
Schuler Brothers has had a long relationship with Waikato Milking Systems and its dealers, Paeroa Farm Services and Qubik, through its cow and goat milking systems.
“So when we looked into bringing sheep on the farm, we worked with Qubik, in this case, and Waikato Milking Systems, to recommission an old cow shed we hadn’t used for many years, to make use of our existing capital assets.
“We wanted a milking platform that was efficient and offered quick milking for two people, that had good animal flow and that would lead on to good milk quality.”
Waikato Milking Systems and Qubik worked on converting the old herringbone shed into a 40 aside Agili Rapid Exit parlour to handle the farm’s 640 milking ewes, and to give it room to expand the flock in the future.
Working around the Covid-19 alert levels in 2020 was a challenge and there was no time to get used to the new milking system before lambing.
“We didn’t have the advantage, because of Covid, to run the sheep through before milking.
“The shed was up and running and the sheep arrived ready to go. So there were a few hiccups at the start as we had no time to familiarise the sheep.
“They were a bit hesitant at the start but were motivated by the feed in the shed and once they learned where to go, they settled really well.”
The sheep now moved into the yard without any problems. The self-indexing gate automatically sorts the animals into their individual bails ready for cupping.
Kevin reckons it’s about 8 or 9 seconds from opening the gate to putting the cups on the first ewe at the start of milking.
Towards the end of the season two people are milking 550 sheep in 45 minutes.
“So with two people we will be able to milk around 750 sheep an hour which is really good. With three people we could get close to 900 an hour, which would be outstanding.”
Kevin said milking time was easy on the staff which gave them more time to pick up any health problems and milk quality issues with the sheep.
“We rely on our staff and if milking time is quick and efficient, they’re more likely to identify problems with the ewes’ udders for example, and make a decision to sort it out.
“It’s much more difficult to do that when they’re fatigued because they’ve spent long hours in the shed.”
Kevin and Paul haven’t fitted a lot of automation into the parlour because they wanted to keep the system simple while staff and animals were getting used to operating it.
“We are looking at automatic cup removers as an option for the future but at the moment it’s working well as a basic system.
“The shed has a really good flow and it’s a good environment to work in.
“Sheep, goats and cows, they all require different pulsation, different vacuum settings and the new shed has been set up well to get the best out of our ewes.”
The rapid exit feature was a standout for Kevin.
“It is really quick and efficient, the down time of not cupping is very low.”
Kevin said managing three types of dairy animals and learning how to customise sheds for each had been an enjoyable learning curve.
The Schuler Brothers property now milks about 350 cows supplying to Fonterra, 1400 goats supplying to dairy Goat Co-operative and their ewes supply to Maui Milk.
The property is divided into 105ha for cows, 70ha for goats, 40ha for sheep with the balance used for growing crops and raising young stock.
Kevin said they’ll look to increase the area for sheep to 60ha in 2021, for room to expand the milking flock.
There are about 10 staff working across all three dairy types and Kevin had some advice for others looking to enter the dairy goat or sheep industries.
“I think certainly sheep are a different animal to goats and different again to cows and understanding their behaviour patterns is important when it comes to designing your shed.
“The rapid exit has been really good, in the shed the feeding system works well, cupping is efficient and milking times are quick, which means we can get on to other work around the farm.”
Kevin said he would definitely recommend Waikato Milking Systems to other farmers.
“From our experience they’ve been reliable, adaptable and worked with us.
“Building a new shed is great but there are always a few hiccups and the after-installation support has been outstanding.”
Brownes Farm | Cambridge, New Zealand
New milking parlour giving the farm scope to expand the flock in the future.
Allan and Toni Browne are “career sheep farmers” on their family’s combined 570-hectare property near Cambridge in the Waikato.
But a few years ago they began to diversify and move into dairy sheep milking.
“We have about 450 cows but dairying is still new to us as a business,” Allan said.
“We became interested in dairy sheep because we had some skills, land and experience which led us on to look at it a bit more seriously.”
In 2018, they leased some Southern Cross Dairy rams from Maui Sheep Milk to set up their dairy sheep operation.
“It was more about access to the new European genetics to be able to produce more milk than anything else in the country. To extract the value out of those genetics we needed to have a milking parlour that could do that for us.”
They decided a rotary system was needed to milk 1200 sheep in the first season with scope to move up to 2000 later on.
Waikato Milking Systems stood out as the preferred supplier because it could design and manufacture the new plant locally, in the same region as the Browne’s farm.
Another bonus was knowing that service and support would never be too far away, Allan said.
The 70-bail Ultimo Internal Sheep Rotary was a prototype for the company.
“We knew it was a novel design for Waikato Milking Systems but we took them for their word, that they were going to deliver for us, and they have.”
The Brownes worked with Waikato Milking Systems Small Ruminants Specialist Andy Geissmann on the concept and installation.
The rotary system was constructed from stainless steel which means its longevity was a key point of difference compared to other sheep rotary systems. Rubber mats fitted to the deck ensure the animals are comfortable at milking time.
The platform’s bolt down option means there is minimal pre-concrete work needed at installation, which speeds up the process.
It’s an internal platform which means the operator is standing inside the rotary and can easily observe all of the sheep, all of the time.
Allan said Covid-19 inflicted some delys but the new parlour was completed in June, training of the farm’s hoggets began in July and milking started in August.
The rotary was “cranking out” between 600 to 700 sheep an hour, with three staff used during the milking process.
“I can see that once the sheep are fully educated about how to use the rotary, we’ll be able to reduce labour from three to two people.”
The Ultimo rotary is fitted with ECR-S (automatic cup removers) technology. Firsty, the cups can be set to come off if the milk flow drops below a certain level. Secondly, the cups can be set to come off at a preset time after milking starts.
Allan said the farm is supplying milk to Maui Milk and the new milking parlour gave the farm scope to expand in the future.
“It has been a bit of a journey, from gaining access to the European genetics for our sheep, breeding, construction of the new parlour through to the first tanker collection,” Allan said.
Green Park Sheep | Te Awamutu, New Zealand
Dairy sheep venture helps family achieve its diversification plan.
Waikato dairy farmers Paul and Dianne White were looking for an opportunity for their sons, Brad and Kieran, to enter the farming industry.
Paul and Dianne already had their youngest son, Andrew, contract milking on the home property. They wanted to diversify from the dairy and drystock operation as part of their family succession plan.
“We looked at what opportunities were available and then we discovered dairy sheep milking,” Paul said.
The couple visited several sheep milking and breeding properties, including Maui Milk in Taupō. “It ticked many boxes for us, like profitability, environmental impact. It looked very much like the way of the future.”
The family didn’t want to convert their existing 520-cow dairy farm near Te Awamutu so went looking for a new property. They purchased a farm at Kio Kio, between Ōtorohanga and Te Awamutu and then signed a contract with Maui Milk to supply.
The family already had a 44 aside Waikato Milking Systems plant built by dealer, Qubik, on their home dairy.
“So we started to plan a Rapid Exit System for our new sheep property through Qubik, and that led on to Waikato Milking Systems.”
Waikato Milking Systems Small Ruminants Specialist Andy Geissmann was able to lead the project to convert an existing 18 aside Herringbone cow parlour, to a 40 aside Agili Rapid Exit Sheep Milking System, the first of its kind for the company.
That involved keeping the existing building but installing new plant equipment and technology.
The family sourced their milking ewes from Maui Milk. Kieran and Brad quit their corporate jobs to focus on the property and Paul works in an advisory role.
The property, now called Green Park Sheep, is stocked with 850 sheep.
“With Andy’s help, we’ve been able to shave an hour off milking and we’re getting about 500 through an hour.
“In the near future, I reckon we’ll be able to do better, and get it down to just two people milking.”
Technology on the plant to improve efficiency included the Milking Control Unit which automatically removes the clusters. The User Switch at each cluster uses LED lights to signal the operator when milking has started or finished.
The sheep enter the parlour in a single file, managed into their bails using a self-indexing gate system. As the lead animal turns to enter the first open bail, its body triggers the gate of the neighbouring bail to open, allowing the next animal to enter. It’s an easy and fast way to load the animals.
The big advantage of the plant is its Rapid Exit System which maximises throughput. The gate uses a pneumatic system, compressed air, to lift and close quickly, quietly and safely. The exit gate on the Green Park Sheep plant is in two sections, which gives the operator the ability to release some of the animals, while keeping others in their bails.
Paul said the milking parlour and property has been set up to allow the farm to expand in the future, up to 1200 ewes.
The new plant was commissioned in September 2020 and Paul had some advice for others thinking of the move to dairy sheep.