7 Jun 2024

NZ's top milking herd is small, but mighty

From Country Life, 7:28 pm on 7 June 2024
Cliff has a herd of 30 Jersey cows

Cliff's herd of Jersey cows numbers just 30 Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

When Cliff Shearer is not on his milking stool, you might find him poring over antique books for tips on how people farmed more than 200 years ago.

The hobbies and practices of this South Taranaki dairy farmer may seem old-fashioned, but they have helped him lay claim to the highest-producing Jersey herd in New Zealand.

"That's what I get up for, to break records if you like."

He has thousands of antiquarian farming books, alongside his collection of Jersey cow production registers dating back to 1902.  

Shearer showed Country Life his "pride and joy" - a book, dating from 1798, written by the first minister of agriculture in England. He in turn was a student of Robert Bakewell, “the greatest cattle breeder in history (who) founded the modern system of animal breeding”.

Shearer says the books and records reaffirm what he has found in more than 40 years of milking Jersey cows, such as always breeding the best cow to the best bull and spreading dolomite on the pasture to prevent mastitis.

A selection of vintage farming books in Cliff Shearer's collection

A selection of vintage farming books in Cliff Shearer's collection Photo: Supplied/Cliff Shearer

Just beyond a rose-covered fence from the house is another pride and joy, his 30-cow Jersey herd.

It may be small but it is mighty in terms of production, nearly double the New Zealand average.

"I've got the highest-producing Jersey herd in New Zealand history.

"My cows average 701kg of milk solids, and they've done over 650 kg/ms for the last 14 years."

The Glenbrook Jersey herd

Cliff can look out at his cows from his living room window Photo: Supplied/Cliff Shearer

In the 2022-23 season, 59 percent of New Zealand herds recorded milksolids production of between 300 and 450 kg per cow.

The cows are fed on just over 11 hectares of pasture and each gets a 16kg top-up of extra feed every day, a muesli including soya hull, palm kernel and molasses.

Shearer points out his highest-performing cow, standing in the shade of some tall trees. 

Her claim to fame: "1062 kilos of milksolids, over 10,000 litres in 300 days."

A herd of Jersey cows

Cliff lays claim to the highest producing Jersey herd in Aotearoa Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

All of his cows can be traced to one mammoth milker, Lamorna Rovers Brenda, which he bought in 1980, a year after he started farming.

While most New Zealand cows are milked in herringbone or rotary sheds, Shearer’s cows stroll over to an eight-bail walk-through. He says it is one of the last remaining walk-through milking sheds in the county. 

He sits on a milking stool to put the cups on, milking twice a day, single-handedly.

He hasn’t missed a day's milking in 14 years, even working with six broken ribs at one stage.

That is "some 10,250 consecutive milkings", he says.

"The day that I don't want to get out of bed and milk the cows is probably the day that I'll retire."

Taranaki Jersey cow breeder and dairy farmer Cliff Shearer

Taranaki Jersey cow breeder and dairy farmer Cliff Shearer Photo: RNZ/Sally Round

On the wall in the milking shed is a board covered with notes about rainfall and milking – evidence of the record keeping which Shearer loves.

"I can look up and see what the cows did in a March herd test last year or a March herd test 20 years ago, or 30 years ago just out of interest to see how they track over the years.

"I like the records and the production and seeing how much milk’s in the vat after each milking and how much milk each cow’s giving.

"That's my reason for getting out of bed."

Glenbrook Jersey stud near Hāwera

Glenbrook Jersey stud near Hāwera Photo: RNZ/Sally Round