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.”