LIC | Robust and agile: Optimising energy, water and nutrient use on farm


Robust and agile: Optimising energy, water and nutrient use on farm

The majority of dairy farmers are good at growing and harvesting pasture.  The real trick is to harvest the very best possible pasture – at the highest energy and quality.  There is a need to move away from just harvesting dry matter towards harvesting energy.  While a smaller proportion of farmers have moved into more intensive dairying systems, the foundation for most is nearly always pasture.

Here in the Top of the South, special emphasis in the last 3 seasons has been on lifting pasture quality with the appropriate use of strategic mowing and topping (as per the LUDF guidelines).  The reasons for this are several – limitations on stocking rate, weed infestation (i.e. giant buttercup and pakihi rushes) and marked fluctuations in pasture growth in any given month.  

Cows paddock

Too many times I have seen cows that are over-dry mattered and under-energised – and they don’t reach a decent lactation peak (>2.0 MS/cow/day).  Strategic mowing can certainly cut that problem down to size.  I have seen the average MS/cow production for these strategic mowing farmers rapidly increase to 410 MS/cow by 2015.  This compares to the remaining farmers’ district average of 345 MS/cow (refer Keoghan Kellogg Paper 2015: “Why do the All Blacks need a Coach when 76% of farmers don’t”). 

The focus on maximising the harvest of energy, nutrients and water sees other big changes currently underway in our region.  This includes the further integration of water efficient high ME crops such as summer chicory under our K-Line irrigation systems (and the continued use of turnips on dryland).  Irrigated chicory is used where our pasture struggles and growth slows, and is unable to match cow demand in our hot summer temperatures.   

These farmers are now rotating these irrigated chicory crops with short term annual ryegrasses to get recorded (on MINDA Land and Feed) annual dry matter production up to 25 t/ha (compared to 14 t/ha off the existing pasture).  Soil nutrient uptake by the chicory plant is excellent with its deep taproot.  Incorporating chicory on the effluent area is also smart use and harvest of nutrients (growth rates of >200kgDM/day in the heat of summer have been recorded with chicory on these areas).

The use of autumn fodder beet for lactating cows is also increasing.  Yields are more achievable with fodder beet on our dryland; with better utilisation – typically giving a utilised cost of less than 15c/kgDM vs 30c/kgDM for maize and the fodder beet has higher metabolisable energy (ME) for lactation.  Intensification of wintering has also occurred on the dairy platform and runoffs with the use of fodder; improving water and nutrient harvest.  The long-term sustainability of these intensive wintering programmes will need further assessment as soil damage and sediment issues become a problem.

Regarding milking frequency, gone are the days of simply milking twice a day all season.  An increasing number of farmers are integrating 3in2 and OAD milking into their milk harvest regimes.  The same milk – with less energy used.  This can include OAD for the first couple of weeks of lactation; 2AD from then till Christmas; then 3in2 from Christmas till mid-April (often when summer crops come into the round); then OAD for the last grazing rotation till the end of May.  Or a mix.

The fact that there are now farmers achieving close to 500 MS/cow from fewer than 500 milkings is a great saver of time and energy.  For a farmer milking from the start of August to the end of May, (and having on average 3-hour milkings including getting cows and wash-up); you will save 120 milkings and 15 days of your life.  These are big energy savings for you and your staff physically, on your shed costs; and for your cows’ longevity (think better repro, reduced laminitis and better condition score at dry off too).  And typically you won’t sacrifice cow production.  

Another important change is the drive to continue to build robustness and agility in the farm business.  To be resilient and sustainable, the farm business must have the ability to take the knocks when the going is tough, and bounce when things improve.  The ongoing payout variability means that systems must be robust enough to produce milk solids at the optimal cost for that business – with pasture as the first line of feed. Get your profit from your pasture first.  To maximise pasture use I recommend that you set the stocking rate so that cows can produce at a minimum 90% of their liveweight from pasture.

Debt levels need to be sustainable for that business.  This means working the margins of costs and returns and producing enough milk solids to satisfy the financial lending institutions criteria of debt loading, and prove to them that your business is robust even in low payout years.  Too high a debt reduces the agility of the business if any opportunities arise – some tough decisions may need to be made.

Spending large sums of capital to build a business that is only viable in times of high payout is not sensible, and again reduces the agility of the business.  Maximising energy, nutrient and water harvest inside the farm gate at the cheapest possible cost gives robustness.  If an input does become economic to feed (and you can produce more milk) then a marginal analysis needs to be undertaken to verify profitability; and per cow performance (not cow numbers or stocking rate) can be increased.  The agility to take advantage of any fresh opportunity without having to introduce significant amounts of debt is critical to long term success and robustness.

Summary

The changes outlined above are quickly building resilience into the farming systems in this region.  Concentrating on maximising resources inside the farm gate (harvest of energy, nutrients and water); and being robust with stocking rate, debt and capital gives the farm the agility to take advantage of opportunities when they arise.

This has a positive impact on the farm business bottom line.  In turn, it can provide financial lending institutions the confidence that a pathway to system change or improvement is viable and profitable; and their clients’ businesses should be more robust and sustainable in both the short and long term.

Brent Boyce, FarmWise Consultant - Nelson/Marlborough

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