Getting the basics right

Mark Faulks and Graham Carr have enjoyed a pioneering journey which began when Mark took on the management of Graham's deer farm at Mt Somers. The pair are now equity partners under the Lindale Farming Company banner.

Their focus on the basics of feeding and breeding is evident in everything they do; from wintering cows well to breeding from the best, identifying product opportunities and treating their people with respect.


For Mark and his equity partner Graham Carr, preparation is essential with two dairy farms, a support block and a deer milking venture, all run under the Lindale Farming Company banner in mid-Canterbury.

Their seasonal preparation is done and dusted as they look to sustain their 1,800 milking cows over the winter.

"It's all pretty easy to monitor. There are so many distractions out there it is easy to get side-tracked and we prefer to stick to the basics. If you look after the stock, they will look after you.

"There is a lot of technology out there and that can be handy, but we have a more traditional  approach to farming that is based off good feeding and breeding," he says.

A recent addition, and key part of their seasonal planning, is the 230ha Pembroke pastoral block at Mount Somers, which was bought 2 years ago, plus a 90ha neighbouring lease block, with both properties supporting the Lindale stock.

"Pembroke has reliable spray irrigation that supports our ability to grow winter crops. It has enabled us to have a completely closed herd and given us more options; we don't buy in or graze any outside stock," Mark says.

The support block is ideally located with road, river and double fenced boundaries. Mark believes these act as an insurance against Mycoplasma bovis and gives the farming operation independence.

"You never know where there is Mycoplasma bovis, or anydisease, so it's just easier to fence it out."

"I like being independent, this gives us control of the business and means we can look after the stock well and to the standard we want. Really, it's about trying to cover everything off, so we are not reliant on anyone else."


Winter Feed

Mark says most of their winter preparation is done by early February.

"By then we have finished scanning so we know how many cows are in calf and how many we are culling, what numbers we will be wintering and measuring our winter feed crops to predict how much feed we are going to have. This gives us a chance to purchase extra feed if we need to.

"To get top production out of the cows they need to be wintered well. Our focus is on putting the best into the cows so we can get the best out of them."

The herds are wintered on fodder beet baleage and straw with cows wintered in their calving date mobs for priority feeding. Around 500 of the earliest cows are wintered on the Ashburton milking platform at Bishopdale Farm.

"High-production cows don't get a lot of rest, they are milked for around 300 days, then only have a couple of months off so they need to be well looked after."

"During the milking season our preference is for the herd to eat all grass and we only add supplements when they are needed, to enable us to fully feed the cows every minute of the day."

"When we do supplement, we feed crushed barley and palm kernel through the shed with the automated cow tags, meaning the cows that are producing more milk get more feed."

"We don't feed a lot of silage as there is a lot of wastage involved."

"Seasons vary and this year we haven't grown as much grass, probably because we had a colder spring, so we have had to counter that with supplementary feed. Because the pay-out has been good it has been viable to feed more supplement to maximise production."

"We are fortunate as we have good water – we're part of a big irrigation system with water delivered under pressure, so we have the ability to grow plenty of grass by keeping soil moisture at the optimum level," Mark explains.

To reduce carrying extra stock, this season around two thirds of the best R2 heifers have been artificially inseminated. Half of these were done with sexed semen as a trial. Mark says it means they are "breeding from the best and only carrying the stock we need."


Passionate pair make the switch

Mark and Graham have enjoyed a pioneering journey which began when Mark moved to mid-Canterbury and started working for Graham, managing his Lincoln Hills deer farm, a 720ha property at Mount Somers, in the foothills of the Southern Alps.

The pair complemented each other and bonded over their deer farming passion, and in 2006 formed an equity partnership.

Back then, Lincoln Hills was used solely for deer breeding and the Bishopdale property, just out of Ashburton, for weaner finishing. In 2008 the pair made the decision to switch to dairying and converted 300ha of Bishopdale, with the remaining 200ha left for deer and dairy support.

Mark had done a lot of deer development work in the past so he immersed himself in an intense development regime building a 60-bale rotary cowshed, three houses and 300ha of new spray irrigation including a 5ha storage pond.

"For our original herd we were very focused on buying good genetics but because there were a lot of dairy conversions on, good cows were hard to source. We ended up buying 1,200 well-bred heifers, and while production suffered in the first year due to the young herd, we had long-term sustainability and a good genetic base," he says.

A couple of seasons later they converted the remaining 200ha to dairy, naming the second dairy farm Normanton. A second 54-bale rotary dairy shed was built and initially a young couple took on the two manager roles with each one in charge of a dairy shed, which produced some friendly competition.  Mark says they then leased an additional 80ha next door and went on to buy that, which gave them two dairy farms, one of  350ha and one 250ha.


A2 Milkers

The commercial recognition of A2 milk provided another opportunity.

Most cow herds produce a mix of both A1 and A2 beta-casein in their milk but there is a select group of cows that naturally produce only A2 protein, which is where A2 milk, promoted for its digestive qualities, is sourced from.

Mark and Graham knew about 40 percent of cows produced A2 milk.

"Our side-by-side dairy farms naturally lent themselves to supplying that product. We DNA tested all our cows and the A2 milkers went into one herd. We had been totally supplying Fonterra but switched the A2 herd to the Canterbury-based dairy processing company, Synlait."

"We now have 1,050 cows in the Fonterra herd producing 530 milk solids per cow and 750 in the Synlait herd producing 510 milk solids per cow."

"It's good to have a foot in both camps and it spreads our risk," he says.


Nourishing hind's milk opens doors

With the dairy conversion under control the duo then took on their next challenge – milking deer.

"Everyone told us we wouldn't be able to milk deer which was probably the reason we decided to give it a go! We thought we knew a bit about deer and a bit about milking cows so why not?

"I had worked with deer most of my farming career and figured even though a hind's udder is no bigger than a sheep's udder,the fact that a small volume of milk could nourish a large and fast-growing fawn meant the milk must contain something pretty good."

The deer milking side of the Lindale partnership was separated off in 2015 and a new company formed, Deer Milking NZ Limited, owned by Mark and Graham.

The dairy unit is on the Lincoln Hills deer farm with the purpose-made dairy plant built into the deer shed. 3

Mark converted an existing building to a 20-bale herringbone milking shed and bought a secondhand goat milking plant which he adapted using sheep milking teats. This year the operation is heading into its fifth season and will be milking 150 hinds. Again, breeding is key. The herd has been selected and built from a large pool of breeding hinds, sourced from Graham's Peel Forest Estate, plus bought-in animals with similar bloodlines.

"The hardest part of the project was selecting the right deer to milk. After assessing well over 1,000 hinds we've found about 400 that are capable of being milked," Mark says.

Managing and feeding the deer milking herd is reasonably straightforward. A milking platform feeding area was upgraded with high-legume pasture mixes. Hinds are rotated around the area and cattle are used to keep the pasture in check.

"We've tried all types of feed options to help if pasture quality drops off and have found the hinds respond well to magnesium and calcium mineral supplements."

The season of around 100 days starts after weaning in February and finishes in May. Last season, 120 Red hinds were milked once a day.

Mark describes deer milk as very concentrated and smooth. "It takes 10 litres of cow's milk to make a kilo of cheese but because deer milk is so much more concentrated, with 25 percent of the milk comprising of milk solids, while you don't get the volume, it only takes 3.5 litres of deer milk to make a kilo of cheese."

The deer milk is supplied to Talbot Forest Cheese in nearby Geraldine which uses the milk to make cheese under The Deer Milker brand. Frozen milk is also supplied to a cosmetic company.

The milk is being tested at Callaghan Innovation in Wellington to identify the composition and qualities of deer milk. Initial trials there have shown unique health-giving properties that have considerable potential in the growing nutraceuticals industry.

"There's been lots of learning and recording to get benchmarks and systems in place and we have had to invest a lot of time into research and development, and building up the milking numbers.

"My focus is more about getting milk into the vat whereas Graham is good at following through with the research and development side of things."

Mark says they now have enough scale and momentum to take the project to the next level.

"Now we have proven we can do it – it's time to crack the right market. We're confident we can make a commercial and sustainable business from deer milking and we see it as another way of adding value to a deer farm.

"Consistently milking more than 100 deer is a huge achievement but working out how best to add value to the milk is a costly and evolving process."


People management

Originally from Wanaka, Mark was raised on a farm and spent 10 years managing the vast Minaret Station on the western side of Lake Wanaka.

While Mark now oversees the farming operation, his experience means he is very conscious of letting the managers do their thing.

"We involve them in setting the budgets and all aspects of running the farms. We offer incentives for sticking to budgets and for production and our figures are realistic because the managers have sat with us to prepare them."

"For a business of this size it is all about the people. We have a total of 13 staff of different nationalities. We make an effort to find the right people for the job and treat them well."

"We find it's easy to get reliable staff because we are only 6km from Ashburton, so their partners can work in town and we are not so isolated."

"We're fortunate we have quality farms with reliable irrigation, in a handy location, a high standard of infrastructure and plant, and we combine that with good people," he says.

Looking forward, the partnership is always open to opportunities but Mark says this needs to be balanced with consolidation.

"Dairying has given me the opportunity to build equity and it's certainly been an interesting journey so far."