A focus on cow condition helped Jessica Willis almost halve the empty rate on a dairy farm she managed for four years.

The 31-year-old ran a 48-hectare farm, milking 150 Holstein Friesians at Opotiki in the Bay of Plenty until May 2020.

The flat property was below sea level and got extremely wet during the winter and spring.

"It was a constant juggling act to ensure cows didn't pug paddocks and damage pasture when it was wet," said Willis.

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"Fortunately, the farm didn't flood. It had pumps to remove excess water, but full drains kept the water table high."

Willis moved to the farm in June 2016, when it was bought by Alan Baird and Sandie Redpath-Baird.

Alan and Sandie, who own Wai-Moa Holstein Friesians, live in Rotorua, where they milk 380 cows on a 120-hectare property.

Jessica Willis' herd consisted of 150 Holstein Friesians. Photo / Supplied
Jessica Willis' herd consisted of 150 Holstein Friesians. Photo / Supplied

"I had worked for Alan and Sandie on and off since I was at high school. It was an amazing opportunity to run my own farm," said Willis.

She spent the past four seasons increasing production and improving the genetic make-up of the herd.

"The herd came from a farm where they were only milked once a day. They were producing 280-300 kilograms of milksolids (kgMS) per cow," she said.

Willis milked the herd twice a day from the start of calving in mid-July, until dry off in May.

Production climbed to 60,000 kgMS in the 2018-19 season, or 410 kgMS per cow. The farm's target last season was 64,000 kgMS.

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A focus on ensuring cows hit body condition score targets and on feeding, overhauled the herd's reproductive performance.

The herd's empty (not in calf) rate in the 2019-20 season was 11 per cent. It usually sat between 18-20 per cent.

"It was my best result ever. I was stoked. It was a great feeling to see tweaks in the cows' feeding start to pay off," said Willis.

The herd's important six-week in-calf rate, which is the percentage of cows pregnant in the first six weeks of mating, was 76 per cent.

The result was just two per cent shy of the sector target of 78 per cent, but well above the industry average of 65 per cent.

"Our six-week in-calf rate usually sat at around 60 per cent," she said.

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Willis attributed the good result to changes in cow management and feeding during the winter and spring months.

"Last winter was the first time we split the dry cows based on their body condition. We had a mob of fats and a mob of lighter cows," she said.

"The heifers calved in better condition than previous years and held that condition longer into the spring."

The herd was part of CRV Ambreed's sire proving scheme. Photo / Supplied
The herd was part of CRV Ambreed's sire proving scheme. Photo / Supplied

The farm bought in 100 tonnes of maize silage and 175 tonnes of a palm kernel expeller (PKE) blend annually.

Willis usually fed the maize from March to May to help put condition on cows ahead of dry off and the winter.

But in 2019 she kept feeding the maize until the start of mating at the beginning of October.

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"Continuing to feed the maize through the spring helped the cows keep condition on their backs after calving and gave them an energy boost," she said.

Willis milked the herd through a 16-aside herringbone shed.

Cows were tail painted when they left the colostrum mob, which enabled her to monitor pre-mating heats.

The herd's six-week in-calf rate in 2019-20 was 76 per cent. Photo / Supplied
The herd's six-week in-calf rate in 2019-20 was 76 per cent. Photo / Supplied

The farm played a crucial role in helping to evaluate the performance of young breeding bulls through CRV Ambreed's sire proving scheme.

Each spring the farm was provided with 100 straws of semen from about 10 new, young unproven bulls.

"We could use the straws to inseminate any cow," said Willis, who is also a trained artificial insemination technician.

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"I enjoyed being part of the programme because it helps highlight the best bulls for the industry."

The 2019-20 season was Jessica's first year milking the first progeny testing daughters born on the farm.

The herd was milked twice a day from the start of calving until dry off. Photo / Supplied
The herd was milked twice a day from the start of calving until dry off. Photo / Supplied

"There were some really good heifers in the group," she said.

She preferred the heifers born as the result of nominated matings. The business started using overseas genetics from World Wide Sires two years ago.

It also sourced semen from other bulls through CRV Ambreed.

Jessica and Alan had a goal of breeding capacious cows with strong udders and high milk production.

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The sires they used included Waihou Thadius Murphy S3F, Lornlace Rupert Dunstan, Maire Mint Geronimo, HSS Mint Rivington, Oakura Oman Overdrive and HSS Format Pascal-ET.

"They produced beautiful daughters, with good, well-attached udders," she said.

Being a sire proving herd meant all two-year-olds were scored for traits other than production (TOP) each spring.

Jessica Willis managed the 48-hectare farm for four seasons. Photo / Supplied
Jessica Willis managed the 48-hectare farm for four seasons. Photo / Supplied

About 50 replacement heifer calves were reared each year. Any surplus heifers would end up at Alan and Sandie's Rotorua dairy farm.

It has been six months of change for Willis.

In mid-December last year, she married Andrew Willis, who is an agri-business banker with ANZ.

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A month earlier they bought a house in Rotorua where Andrew lives.

Willis moved to the geyser city in late May, leaving behind the farm she had called home for the past four years.

"We're keen to start a family, and that's hard to do if we both lived in different parts of the Bay of Plenty," she said.

Willis is still undecided about her next career move, but as a proud member of Holstein Friesian NZ she aspires to one day own her own herd of Holstein Friesians.