Monthly Archives: February 2016

A milking buffalo at Whangaripo Buffalo farm, north Auckland.

Water buffalo make a splash as rewarding all-rounders

By | News | No Comments

Source: Stuff

Getting started in farming water buffalo in New Zealand today will be about as exotic as a trip to the gas station compared with the Wills-Armstrong family’s journey of discovery to these endearing great grey creatures.

The family, who operate Whangaripo Buffalo in north Auckland, started farming water buffalo eight years ago after a quest which took them to Germany, Italy and Africa.

While water buffalo are still not exactly thick on the ground here, you could, if you fancied cashing in on the growing demand from restaurants and discerning and health-conscious food buyers for their milk, cheese and meat, buy some without taking on a tangle of import red tape. (Whangaripo Buffalo has enough animals now to sell you a complete herd.)

But when Chris and Pam Wills, their daughter Annie Wills and husband Phil Armstrong, and then-toddler son Marin, set off overseas about nine years ago, few Kiwis had ever seen water buffalo unless they happened to pass AgResearch’s Ruakura campus in Hamilton while a trial was under way.

The back story to the family’s travels and subsequent importation of 17 in-calf buffalo heifers and two bulls from Australia starts with Waikato-born Annie, (birth name Andrea) who has an agriculture degree from Massey University and worked for some time with big tented safaris in Botswana.

Her husband Phil grew up on a dairy farm at Maketu, on the Bay of Plenty coast. He went to sea straight from school and spent 17 years on deep sea trawlers and two-man fishing boats, meeting Annie in 2000. Buying the boat Phil was working on then was a stretch for the couple, so he went into the building trade.

Meanwhile Chris, an engineer in the waste industry and wife Pam, who had long farmed cattle on a small scale, were looking for a retirement business that could support the family in future.

Urged by Annie to see Africa, they set off initially for Europe where they saw buffalo being milked for Italy’s famed mozzarella cheese industry. Later it was on to Mozambique where they had thoughts of buying land and establishing a fishing business. But Chris became ill and without confidence in that country’s health system, the family came home.

Unable to afford a viable dairy or sheep and beef farm, they bought 20 hectares in the postcard-pretty Whangaripo Valley between Matakana and Wellsford, and started thinking hard about the buffalo they’d seen in Italy.

With Annie’s mantra “how hard can it be?” and a bit of research spurring them on, the family imported buffaloes from Queensland.

This involved a five month quarantine rigmarole but the rest has been easy, and the returns rewarding.

“We don’t advertise, but we sell everything we make,” says Phil.

The family’s original intention was to sell milk, recognised for its higher levels of crude protein, fat, calcium and phosphorous, and slightly higher level of lactose, compared to cow’s milk, to a local dairy company. The high levels of total solids make the milk ideal for processing into value-added products such as cheese and it can be tolerated by people allergic to dairy cow’s milk.

But they also had an eye to farming buffalo for meat. The animals don’t store fat in their meat (marbling) which has about one-third the fat content of chicken, says Chris.

What the family didn’t plan to do was make cheese – now a significant part of annual revenue.

This side of the business came about when the initial milk sales plan fell through and the family had to learn to make cheese – fast.

Today the company sells a large range of buffalo cheeses, including Marin Blue (named after Marin, now 10) and a hard cheese called St Malo, named for youngest son Malo, (who isn’t a saint, says Phil) and a brie rolled in ash called St Benedict the Black.

The company produces 6-8 tonnes of cheese a year for sale around the country as well as bottled fresh pasteurised milk and milk for other cheesemakers.

Whangaripo Buffalo prime meat – sold mostly as burgers from the herd’s R2 year bulls killed at Ruakura, Hamilton – is in demand at north Auckland’s Matakana market, organic shops in Wellington and Auckland, and top restaurants, selling for up to $40a kilogram.

While the family’s aim is never to lose the artisan food production touch, this is no cottage business.

The buffalo herd currently numbers 115 which includes 50 milking cows, 20 in-calf heifers and the remainder bulls and calves. Cows are milked once a day all year round and are producing about 6000kg of milksolids annually.

The business is operated over three properties – a leased 50ha block at Dairy Flat, on leased 20ha at Leigh Road, Matakana, and at the family-owned land at Whangaripo Valley.

The bulls and calves are farmed at Dairy Flat, where the family is living until a new house is built at Whangaripo Valley, and where cheese making is done in a converted container.

When heifers are a year old they go to the Matakana property and then on to Whangaripo Valley to join the milking herd. A bull is run with the females year round and Phil is expecting 70 to calve in the next 12 month cycle. He’s currently milking 26 cows every evening for about 80 litres of milk.

Bulls are sent for processing aged 18 to 22 months and when hooked, can weigh up to 300kg. Ruakura is one of only two buffalo processors in the country approved by the Ministry for Primary Industries.

There’s nothing not to like about farming water buffalo, says the family.

The animals are good natured, smart, easy calving and very hardy. Phil says he’s had the vet out only twice in eight years. They’re great converters of what dairy farmers would call “unimproved pasture”, says Annie, and clean up the rushes on the properties.

They’re long-lived – a cow can be expected to milk for 20-25 years. This means herd numbers build up fast and Phil says he could easily spare up to 30 cows today for someone wanting to enter the industry.

The family sells week-old calves for about $400-$500 and would expect to get up to $6000 for a milking cow, which can produce up to $3000 worth of milk in their first year plus a calf annually.

Water buffalo can be run with any other animal except for sheep and goats, which carry a disease fatal to them, he says. They don’t get facial eczema, probably because of their tropical origins which condition them to heat and humidity.

They can jump a standard wire fence but are very respectful of a single or two-wire electric fence.

“They’re a big solid, well-grounded animal and a little bit of electricity goes a long way,” says Phil.

“They’re easy to handle, you can pack them into the yard for milking and walk through them and never get a knock. We tie a foot down in the milking shed because they take the cups off. They don’t kick at you, and most will lift a foot for you (to tie). They can get very protective with a new calf.”

Phil milks in half a herringbone shed but is building an old-style walk through dairy shed.

“I know it means getting up and down, but it will be good particularly at this time of the year when I have new cows coming in which take a while to milk out while others that have been (milking) in for a while milk out quickly.

“The walk-through will mean they each have their own stall and can’t play with the neighbour.”

Phil milks with an old duo-vac system which starts at a low pulse and vacuum rate and builds pace.

“They hold their milk differently to a dairy cow. They hold it right up so it looks like they have a very small udder. When they start to let down it (the duo vac) changes to a higher pulse rate and higher vacuum. It gives them that time.”

The herd is fed entirely on grass. The family cuts about 70 bales of baleage a year. In the new dairy shed cows may get molasses “as a treat”, Phil says.

The herd is not drenched or vaccinated because with their broad diet of rye grass and clover, tropical-type grass, some plantain and rushes, it’s unnecessary, says Annie, a passionate advocate of the nutritional value of “unadulterated” buffalo milk and strongly critical of the dairy industry’s use of palm kernel extract as a cheap feed supplement.

Mum Pam agrees: “If cows were meant to eat PKE they’d be born with sharp teeth.”

Early lessons about farming buffalo included not offering them large water troughs – they climb in – and to make sure trees are protected.

“We always offer trees for shelter but they need to be on a fence line because they sharpen their horns and ring bark them,” says Phil.

Water buffalo need wallowing space. They will dig their own in wet ground, and in winter Phil makes available to them areas that are too wet to graze.

He’s been subdividing paddocks for easier break fencing so that in winter the big heavy animals can be moved daily to limit pugging. A stand-off pad is planned.

Chris says the family has invested about $300,000 so far in the business, including the cheese making facility. Annual revenue is $120,000 to $150,000, he says.

The aim is to utilise every part of the animal, and the next challenge is to find a New Zealand processor for the thick hide, valued overseas for handbags and shoes.

The horns are popular with bone and knife carvers and for jewellery, especially earrings.

After eight years the family can start to think about consolidating the operation.

Phil says that means focusing on genetics and being able to cull animals.

“At the moment we’re bringing a lot of young ones through. It would be nice to have four or five replacement cows a year to deal with instead of 20.”

There are two types of water buffalo – swamp and river.

The family’s herd foundation imports were a mix but breeding now leans to the river species.

Expanding the farming operation is not on the agenda.

Finding good sized pieces of land in the highly subdivided district is challenging and more animals would mean establishing a second herd just for milk production, says Phil, who is aiming to be in the milking shed less, not more.

“I don’t want to milk more than 40 at any one time. That’s a good amount of milk for cheese while remaining artisan.”

The family is keen to move more into high quality meat production which means a greater focus on bull genetics, the possibility of importing semen instead of using sire bulls, and less cheesemaking.

The aim is have calving only three months of the year. The family is keen to see Whangaripo Buffalo meat stocked in supermarkets.

They’re committed to encouraging and supporting new entrants to water buffalo farming.

“They’re an amazing animal,” says Annie.

“Buffalo milk is the way of the future, the export potential is huge including for milk powder.

“The meat is good and lean, and totally organic. You get a lot of bang for your buck.”


  • Contribute 72m tonnes of milk and 3m tonnes of meat a year to world food supply
  • More than 130m domestic animals
  • Depended on for food more than any other domestic animal
  • Recommended by conservation scientists to manage uncontrolled vegetation and open clogged waterways for wetland life
The a2 Milk Company's managing director Geoff Babidge expects the significant growth in Platinum formula to continue.

The a2 Milk Company profit and share price soars on infant formula growth

By | News | No Comments

Source: Stuff

Shares in the a2 Milk company have rocketed 24 per cent after it announced huge growth rates in infant formula sales.

The NZX-listed company hiked its guidance for the full year after turning in what it called an “outstanding” result for the six months to December 31.

The record half-year profit of $10.1 million in the six months to December 31 compares to $125,000 previously.

Shares immediately climbed 24 per cent to $2.51.

The company’s share price is now five times higher than it was 12 months ago, with investors taking a keen interest in opportunities to export to China.

Its latest market capitalisation of $1.8 billion puts it in the same ballpark as market stalwarts such as Sky TV, Infratil or Xero.

Total revenue of $139.1m was up 86 per cent compared to the same time last year.

Sales of a2 Platinum formula across Australia, New Zealand and China contributed $73.9m to that figure, a growth rate of 340 per cent.

The company said it now expected full-year operating profit to be in the range of $45m to $49m, with revenue of $335m to $350m.

The China and Other Asia business unit made an operating profit for the first time, with significant growth in formula sales.

Managing director Geoffrey Babidge said the company expected the Platinum infant formula to continue as a driver of growth.

The majority of sales took place in Australian grocery and pharmacy stores, while direct sales into China increased significantly.

The company said the infant formula business was being well supported by New Zealand manufacturing partner Synlait Milk.

After experiencing stock shortages, the company had increased its production schedule with Synlait to meet demand.

It said it was in the process of further building milk supply in New Zealand to prepare for increases in infant formula production.

Besides the Platinum product, Babidge said there positive prospects for growth of a2 whole milk powder, which was launched in the last financial year.

In Britain,the company said its fresh milk business was improving after repositioning into specialty milk.

A Federated Farmers poll shows worrying levels of stress over mortgages.

More dairy farmers under pressure from banks as prices fall

By | News | No Comments

Source: Stuff

As world dairy prices continue to slide, dairy farmers are increasingly feeling the pressure from their banks.

World dairy prices at the overnight GlobalDairyTrade auction fell 2.8 per cent to an average of US$2235 a tonne, after a 7.4 per cent fall at the last auction two weeks ago. New Zealand’s major export, whole milk powder (WMP), fell 3.7 per cent to US$1890.

A recent poll of members by Federated Farmers showed more than one in 10 dairy farmers (11.1 per cent) are now under pressure from banks over their mortgage. That is up from 6.6 per cent in August and 7.6 per cent in November.

Prices fell for the fourth consecutive auction.

Prices fell for the fourth consecutive auction.

Dairy chairman Andrew Hoggard said that while banks were continuing to support farmers, it was a “worrying statistic” that one in 10 farmers were feeling the squeeze.

The poll was conducted at the beginning of February, with a sample of 1225 members representing all 24 provinces and seven industry groups.

“There’s now a question over the viability of lower order workers such as sharemilkers. I know of some who are switching to contract milking,” Hoggard said.

Commenting on an analyst’s description of dairy prices presenting farming with the worst crisis since the 1980s, Hoggard agreed that expansion had put pressure on farmers.

“We were leaner and meaner in the days when I entered the industry in the late 90s,” he said.

Hoggard called on the Government to hold European farmers to account for the subsidies they received, which were fuelling production.

“This is something our government needs to take up through direct diplomatic channels and the World Trade Organisation, and if next season is going to be any different to this one they’re going to have to move quickly,” he said.

“It’s concerning that some European countries are wanting to move backwards to more regulation. Instead they need to keep moving forward to more market orientated structures. The more farmers around the world live with the economic realities of the decisions they make, the more stable a market we will get for all farmers.”

Rabobank analyst Emma Higgins said the price fall was not surprising and “could have been worse”.

“All eyes will now be on whole milk powder and skim milk powder. This is where the bulk of the volumes are sold and they are the key indicators of the farmgate milk price.

“We’re sitting in a bit of an ugly mix at the moment where there’s modest powder demand combined with high inventory levels as well as strong global growth, especially from Europe,” Higgins said.

Rabobank was preparing to do its forecast milk price but that would not be ready until March.

Westpac economist Anne Boniface said the auction result was “broadly in line with our expectations and leaves us comfortable with our recently updated payout forecasts”.

The bank was now forecasting a Fonterra farmgate milk price of $4 this season and $4.60 in 2016-17.

Agri HQ’s Susan Kilsby said prices were higher than anticipated, judging by futures market indications, which had foreseen a drop of 4 per cent in WMP.

“Overall market sentiment still remains very bearish meaning a sustained price recovery is unlikely to occur until the later part of 2016,” Kilsby said.

There were 151 bidders trading 22,021 metric tonnes of product.

Dairy farmers may lose $1.50 for each kilo of production capacity they have over the next two seasons.

ANZ forecasts more pain for dairy farmers

By | News | No Comments

Source: Stuff

ANZ is forecasting a longer, deeper trough in dairy prices.

The bank has dropped its forecast price for milk solids this season by 30 cents to $3.95 a kilo.

It now “tentatively” expected a price of $5 a kilo in 2016-17, which is 50c to 75c less than it had previously been predicting.

Farmers would be losing about $1.50kg on their production over the two seasons, it said.

The bank said there appeared to be “simply too much supply for the market to handle”.

Milk production in Europe was increasing and the cost of production was coming down, it said.

“Both these factors are expected to continue to supress prices and delay expectations for a rebound.”

Chris Lewis, the Waikato chairman of Federated Farmers, said the ANZ report was probably correct but it wasn’t good reading.

“You can’t argue with where the market is and what it’s telling you,” he said.

However, it cost farmers about $5 to $5.50 a kilo just to break even, and they needed more than that for capital such as new fencing or replacement stock.

“You need to be earning well above $6, to be fair.”

The saving grace had been that the predicted drought had not been as bad as expected in his region.

“We’re still having to spend money feeding cows but it’s not as bad. Our crops of maize are looking fantastic at the moment.”

ASB lifted its New Zealand milk production forecast for the season by 3 per cent earlier this week saying fears of a summer drought had largely receded.

But Lewis believed that if prices were as ANZ forecast next season, there would be casualties.

“There’s 12,000 dairy farmers all in the same boat as me. If it gets any worse, it’s a national issue.”

Manawatu/Rangitikei dairy chairman Mat Hocken says farmers will try to keep going.

Dairy payout hits farm and regional businesses

By | News | No Comments

Source: Stuff

Dairy farmers have tightened their belts as the impact of the lower milk payout hits.

Manawatu, Whanganui and Tararua economies have lost $42 million as a result of Fonterra’s latest farmgate price plummeting from $4.60 to $4.15 a kilogram of milksolids for this season.

The lower payout has put a dampener on an already subdued dairy industry.

Blair Worsley from Gary Worsley Motorcycles in Feilding said dairy farmers were bringing in quads bikes for repairs.

“They are not buying new machines, they have no money, but fixing the existing machines.”

He was unsure whether that was cost effective as buying a new machine was sometimes cheaper in the long run.

Worsley said about 70 per cent of the company’s work was maintaining quad bikes and at least five staff worked as mechanics in the workshop.

He said the company was busy selling side-by-side all terrain vehicles and could not get enough. As a result of the additional work the company, which had nine fulltime staff, was thinking about putting more people on.

“About half our clientele are sheep and beef farmers, and half dairy farmers. The sheep and beef people are buying side-by-sides to comply with health and safety regulations”

He said the company had done a deal on side-by-side all terrain vehicles for AgResearch, and was looking at contracts with Fonterra, Landcorp and the Department of Conservation (DoC).

“People want to have seat belts and roll protection. The vehicles we sell have those things and people want to have that under the new health and safety laws.”

Adding more staff was not on the minds of dairy farmers.

The latest announcement of the fall in farm gate milk prices was expected, but unwelcome news.

DairyNZ regional manager James Muwunganirwa said farmers were doing cashflows to try to see what the lower payout would mean for them.

“They look at income and costs, and costs are the only thing they can influence.”

He said farmers were cutting feed costs by getting rid of cows (sending cull cows to meatworks) that were not in-calf, or producing well.

“That will reduce feed demand as things become even tighter.”

Farmers were also concentrating on using pasture, as it was the cheapest feed available, Muwunganirwa said.

“And some people are switching from twice-a-day milking to once-a-day. It allows them to put more condition on cows and get them in good nick before calving.”

Farmers were keeping staff, but they were talking to them to make sure everyone on-farm was on-board and aware of the cost cutting, he said.

Muwunganirwa said farmers were feeling that the industry had more volatility now and were thinking and planning long term.

“Farmers have become more resilient and they think about keeping their business more sustainable now.”

Federated farmers Manawatu/Rangitikei dairy chairman, Mat Hocken said many farmers had made decisions earlier when the payout was $4.60/kg.

“Even that was hard, now it is lower price. In the meantime, dairy farmers just have to be patient and keep going.

“But we had a hard start to this season, after a wet winter and spring. It took a long time for the soil temperatures to come up and for spring growth. I think the milk production in this region is down about 10 per cent this season.”

Hocken said farmers were now looking ahead to next season’s production and they were thinking about what next season’s payout might be.

“I think farmers are optimistic about the future. New Zealand dairying is a lower cost producer. And long term, the dairy price should go up internationally. We just have to ride this low price out and keep cool heads.”

He said dairy farmers remained confident with some farmers building new dairy sheds.

Taranaki organic dairy farmers Stephen and Janet Fleming say the new payment system should encourage more farmers into organics.

Fonterra to pay organic milk farmers at market rates

By | News | No Comments

Source: Stuff

Fonterra’s organic farmers are set to cash in on potentially higher prices for their milk amid a “dramatic rise in interest and commitment to organics”, according to an industry rival.

The dairy co-operative has announced that from June its organic suppliers will be paid by one of two different systems: through an independent organic milk price linked to market returns, or – for possibly only the next two years – the current top-up system.

At present they receive the Fonterra price that all other farmers receive plus a bonus premium.

In the case of this season, that equates to $1.75 added to the farmgate forecast of $4.15 for a total of $5.90 per kilogram of milksolids.

It will be up to farmers to choose which payment system they want.

Fonterra’s global business manager for organics, Craig Deadman, said the price would be announced in late April-early May, at the same time as the farmgate price for conventional milk was announced.

He said there was increasing demand for organics and prices were higher and more stable than for conventional milk.

Per tonne, organic milk powder sells on the international market for more than NZ$14,000. By comparison, conventional milk powder prices languish at NZ$2900.

Fonterra launched a new organic policy last March and offered incentives for farmers to convert to organic systems, reversing a 2011 decision to concentrate its organics business in the Waikato.

Since then, it had achieved above its target for growth, although Deadman would not say what that was.

The company was hoping to process an extra 600,000 kg/MS during the next year.

The new payment system had come at farmers’ requests.

Fonterra’s decision to introduce a separate organic milk price is likely to prompt more Taranaki farmers to convert to organic farming, says one organic dairying champion.

Janet Fleming, a member of the new Fonterra Organic Farmers Advisory Group which provides feedback to the co-operative, has received lots of inquiries in the last three months from farmers considering adopting organic farming.

“This decision means the top level of Fonterra is recognising the importance of organics to the co-operative,” she said. “Organic milk creates profit for the whole co-operative, not just for organic farmers. The whole co-operative benefits.”

Organic farmers had been seeking a separate milk price for some time and she said it could be as much as double the price paid for conventional milksolids.

Fleming said Taranaki was one of the fastest growing regions for organic farming. About 15 Taranaki organic farmers supplied Fonterra and another five were converting their farms. Organic milk was collected daily in Taranaki and transported to the Waikato for processing.

Fleming said products to assist organic farmers were more readily available now than when she and husband Stephen started the conversion process in 2004, before there was an organic milk premium.

The couple milk 540 cross-bred cows on their two organic dairy farms comprising 184 effective hectares in the Pihama-Oeo area. They turned to organics because they wanted to be proud of the milk they produced and because it brought benefits to the environment, to their own health and to the health of their herd.

“Supplements are harder to get because we can’t use PKE, proliq or urea. But there are good options available for fertiliser. We still use fertiliser,” she said.

The chairman of the rival Organic Dairy Hub Co-operative of New Zealand, Bill Quinn, congratulated Fonterra on the move.

He said it would not take suppliers away from the hub because it was giving them a per kg price in the “mid-$7 mark” and critically that was paid in full the month following production.

“In the event Fonterra gets markets we haven’t got access to and end up paying a higher value, that’s good competitive growth,” Quinn said.

The hub is the principal supplier of organics to Lewis Rd Creamery. Its farmers are throughout the North Island and it does not operate any plant itself but uses contractors.

While Lewis Rd does not manufacture milk powder, the hub was in negotiations with a number of powder processors for the international market.

There had been a “dramatic” rise in interest from farmers.

“The hub has projections of in excess of 3 million kg of milksolids export grade product over the next three years, and we have in excess of 1 million kg of MS currently lodging paperwork with certificating agencies which also want to supply the hub,” Quinn said.

He said many of New Zealand’s farmers operated as system 1 or 2, which with minimal change could become organic.

To achieve full international market access, it usually takes three years to convert from conventional, but if farmers have not used palm kernel or urea, or other prohibited practices they can make the switch sooner.

Different markets also had different entry requirements for organic products “so we can target milk to processors that meets their requirements”.

Deadman said by linking the organic milk price to organic market returns, more farmers would become organic.

Fonterra had undertaken a series of measures recently to enhance the attractiveness of organic farming for current and prospective organic farmers.

“A recent initiative is the establishment of the Organic Farmers Advisory Group, a representative group of organic farmers who provide an additional feedback channel between organic farmers and Fonterra. They also had provided feedback on the new organic pricing system,” Deadman said.