Three notable factors could summarise our views of the local landscape when out for our first look at the NZ countryside on Tuesday morning – empty Christchurch streets, clean and tidy properties, and bulk green grass.
Virginia Serra from DairyNZ was able to give us a decent overview of the NZ industry as whole before venturing out to see it for ourselves. In comparison to Australia, farmers seem to be far more enthusiastic, engaged and connected with what is happening at DairyNZ, with information days enjoying crowds of up to 200 people. Dairy Australia enjoys both a higher levy rate and higher co-funding than DairyNZ, whose co-funding is only about a third of their levy revenue. Perhaps due to the greater diversity of regions, seasonality and production systems seen in Australia, it is far more expensive to conduct research and broadcast information.
A trip to Marshdale to see the PGG Wrightson Seeds trial farm gave an insight into the production side of the seed industry. For many of us it was our first look at the current it-crop, fodder beet and there was certainly a healthy showing of feed. With a high establishment cost to match the yield risk factor of the crop, you really need to be in prime growing areas – ideally with irrigation, to nail a bulk crop. It would be fair to say a fair bit more will be used in NZ than back in Australia due to our poorer growth seasons.
Grazing cattle and sheep over the site, it was reassuring as consumers to see that all crops being trialled at the site were subject to real animal growth rates rather than just raw yield data and feed tests.
Final stop of the day and first farm visit of the tour was at the Lincoln Demo Farm. Farm Manager, Peter Hancox and 2IC, Matt had plenty of time to show us around and answer questions while they waited patiently with an idle platform full of cows for their power to return to the dairy.
It’s pretty safe to say that the following couple of hours left tour participants thinking the grass is pretty green over the Tasman fence as Peter explained that with almost 12 months of growth, a healthy home grown pasture base of 18-22 t/Ha dry matter was enjoyed on the farm. To optimise pasture utilisation and growth, paddocks are topped ahead of grazing every second rotation and this was visibly effective. Each grazing is followed by an N application conducted weekly, while irrigation delivers 6mm of water daily.
The farm is run as a very low input system with cows receiving just 300 kg each year of fodder supplement as winter feed replacement, with zero grain in the diet. Wintering cows off farm means the pasture platform is looked after over the June-July winter period. This system is realising a cost of production around the $3.80/kg mark, meaning they should be able to ride out the season – despite the current lows of a $4.15 payout – comfortably.
A healthy season of summer rainfall has meant the region is enjoying one of the best growing seasons in recent memory. This has been greatly beneficial to business in the current season of poor milk price. The area is highly geared up with irrigation infrastructure, mainly centre pivots, yet farmers have been able to leave the power switch firmly in the off position as they have tipped up to 5 inches of rainfall from the gauge over the past six weeks.
It was interesting to find that there is no transition program in place for calving cows down on the farm. Peter had about 60 cases of milk fever, or more than 10% of the herd which suggests that a lead feeding program could be greatly beneficial. Despite this, they are enjoying a six week in-calf rate of more than 70% so it is hard to argue with the system he has in place. Perhaps one of his greatest tools for cow health was permanently running not just a hospital herd, but a third herd as a preference group of mainly the new heifers and low condition cows which have first access to paddocks ahead of the main herd in order to enjoy a season of lower competition and greater weight gain post-calving.
Due to the forthcoming N limitations, the herd has been reduced from 650 back to 550 over the past couple of seasons. Interestingly, with the culling of passengers and improved efficiencies, production per hectare has held throughout this period. Resultant improvement in average cow quality has seen the herd climb to a ranking within the top 5% for breeding worth and production.
The visit was a great way to finish the day, and inspired a healthy dose of bus conversation to see the group back into town. It was an insight into a production system which was rarely seen on our own shores, yet represents around a third of operations across the ditch. Largely, I think all were enthused to see a Demo Farm leading from the front and genuinely setting a bar of success both for farmers of that system particularly, and industry-wide.