Ellen Sands can vividly recall the moment that ignited her passion for genetics and breeding Holstein Friesian dairy cattle.

She was 14 and helping family friends Vince and Sheridan Steiner with their show team at the 2014 NZ Dairy Event.

Ellen's parents, Kevin and Lisa Sands, had asked her to have a look at a heifer being sold by Waipiri Holsteins at the event.

"We'd been buying pedigree bulls from Waipiri since 2009. They'd produced some amazing daughters, so we thought why not buy a heifer," said Sands.

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The yearling heifer the Sands' had their eye on was Waipiri Destry Liza-ET VG88. Her dam (mother) was Waipiri Oman Liza-ET EX2.

"I remember feeling quite nervous during the auction, but we were the successful bidders. We paid $12,700," said Sands.

Ellen Sands checks Holstein Friesian heifer calves on her family's farm. Photo / Supplied
Ellen Sands checks Holstein Friesian heifer calves on her family's farm. Photo / Supplied

"We'd just felled and sold some pine trees, so Mum said it was ok."

"It was the first time we'd ever bought a pedigree Holstein Friesian heifer or cow. It was quite exciting."

"Prior to that moment I wasn't interested in breeding or genetics, but everything changed with that purchase," she said.

Fast forward six years, and Sands, 21, now plays a crucial role shaping the genetic direction of her family's dairy herd.

The Sands milk 500 cows on 220-hectares near Rotorua in the Bay of Plenty. Three quarters of the herd are Holstein Friesians, the remainder are Ayrshires.

In 2018-19, one of their cows Kapu HGD Abe Jenessa VG86, was the top fat producing registered two-year-old Holstein Friesian in the region.

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"Jenessa was our top heifer for that season. She produced 595 kilograms of milksolids (kgMS)," she said.

The Sands' bought Jenessa's dam, Waipiri Doorman Jenisa VG87, at the Waipa Holstein Friesian Club sale in 2015.

Several of the Sands' top cows eating grass silage during the drought. Photo / Supplied
Several of the Sands' top cows eating grass silage during the drought. Photo / Supplied

"Jenisa holds our herd record for being the highest-producing two-year-old heifer. She did 615 kgMS in 305 days," said Sands.

The Sands' milk year-round. The autumn herd starts calving in mid-March and the spring calves begin arriving in mid-July.

The milking platform is a mix of rolling to steep land. Running the large business is a true family affair.

Sands' dad Kevin handles milking and feeding, her mum Lisa does calf rearing and administration. Sands takes charge of breeding decisions and helps with the calves.

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Her brother Jack runs his own agricultural contracting business and oversees silage harvesting and cropping.

The farm has one full-time staff member Hayden Sturgess and two backpackers.

"I think what makes our farm a little different is we rear every calf that's born. We haven't produced any bobby calves for several years," said Sands.

Young stock are run on a lease block five minutes down the road.

"All our calves are reared until they're 100 kg, then we decide whether to sell or keep them," she said.

"Our rising two-year-old heifers are all mated to low birthweight Angus bulls. In the autumn, our Friesian bulls are all sold on a contract at weaning."

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"Angus and Holstein Friesian calves are worth significantly more than a crossbred bobby calf," she said.

The Sands' reared 157 replacement heifers in 2019-20. Twenty-four were sold for export in February. It is likely more will be sold prior to mating, or as in-calf heifers.

The herd is milked through a 48-aside herringbone shed.

The Sands' produced 177,000 kgMS in the 2019-20 season. That figure does not include the 24,000 kgMS taken out of the vat to rear 550 calves.

"The herd's diet consists of grass, palm kernel, and both grass and maize silage," said Kevin.

"The grass and maize silage are grown at the runoff. We harvested 300 tonnes of maize in the 2019-20 season."

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The Sands' began using North American genetics over their herd in 2010. Photo / Supplied
The Sands' began using North American genetics over their herd in 2010. Photo / Supplied

About one tonne per cow of a palm kernel/molasses blend is fed in the milking shed.

The Sands' bought the dairy farm in 2006 and started off with a herd based on LIC and CRV Ambreed genetics.

In 2010, they began using North American genetics over half the herd. The first calves hit the ground the following season.

They slowly transitioned to 100 per cent overseas genetics.

Semen is sourced from bulls marketed by Semex, World Wide Sires, Samen and Genetic Enterprises.

"Big-framed Holstein Friesians don't suit the hilly country we milk on, so we try to avoid using tall statured bulls," said Sands.

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"I look for sires that produce daughters with excellent udders, and great capacity and production."

"Additional consideration is given to temperament, pin setting (we prefer level to sloped) and somatic cell count (SCC)," she said.

Sands believes the herd has desirable type. Her focus now is on lifting production.

"Dad reckoned last year's line of heifers was the best we have reared. They were stunning heifers," she said.

"I'm now trying to increase the fat and protein percentages in our milk. If we can breed cows with higher components and lower volumes of milk they should live longer."

The Sands' favourite bulls are Ammon-Peachy Shauna sons Seagull-Bay Senate, Supersire and MVP, along with Gen-I-Beq Brawler and Carse-O-Fern HGD Abe-ET.

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Abe, who sired Kapu HGD Abe Jenessa VG86, is a bull the Sands bought from Doug and Lorraine Courtman at the national bull sale in 2015.

The Sands milk 500 cows on 220-hectares near Rotorua. Photo / Supplied
The Sands milk 500 cows on 220-hectares near Rotorua. Photo / Supplied

His sire is Heavenly Golden Dreams and his dam is Carse-O-Fern Lead Amber EX2.

"Abe has consistently left good type daughters who are exceptionally quiet. It's really easy to pick his offspring," said Sands.

The Sands' get all their two-year-old heifers and a selection of cows scored and classified for traits other than production (TOP).

"Having access to the TOP scorecard for each cow is really useful when making mating decisions," said Sands.

The Sands' rear 550 calves a year. Photo / Supplied
The Sands' rear 550 calves a year. Photo / Supplied

"I try to pick bulls which will hopefully correct the faults of each cow. Fore udders are an area we've been looking to improve over the last few years."

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In 2019, the Sands had four cows they had bred classify as excellent.

The family's efforts were rewarded this winter when they received the Sherriff Memorial Trophy.

It is awarded to the Holstein Friesian NZ member (they must have been a member for less than 10 years) who achieved the highest average classification score for two-year-olds in 2019-20 season.

Sands was excited at the prospect of doing further embryo transfer work this season.

"I've got 29 embryos sitting in storage that I'm keen to implant in recipient cows. Several are from Waipiri Destry Liza-ET VG88," she said.

Liza has one daughter in the herd, Kapu Shot Lizzie VG87, who was born in 2015. She also has two ET Doorman daughters due to calve this spring.

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The Sands' are proud members of the Bay of Plenty Branch of Holstein Friesian NZ.