LIC | How to have a successful grazing dairy farm

How to have a successful grazing dairy farm

The four pillars of a successful grazing dairy farm are: animals, people, profitability and environment (land). All these pillars have to be as strong as one another or the system will not be successful.

We need to put equal time and effort into the factors we can control in these four pillars of the dairy farm system we run. The factors that are controllable are outlined below and include the following: 


Ensure that animal welfare is understood by all people on the farm and that animal performance targets are met. 

Young stock targets are:

Mature cow live weight (kg)         J  400     XBRED 450  F 500 
3 months fully weaned     80 90 100
6 months (30% mature live weight)        120 135 150
15 months (60% mature live weight)      240 270 300
22 months (90% mature live weight)      360 405 450

Weigh the animals – don’t guess the weights. 

The benefits are:

  • More heifers in calf 
  • More compact calving 
  • After calving, more heifers cycling early

Other young stock targets are: 

  • A 2% or lower death rate in calves being reared 
  • A 6% or less empty rate in heifers being mated [12 week mating] 

Mature Cows Targets 

Calve at Body Condition Score (BCS) 5; heifers BCS 5 plus 


  • Calving to first service 57 days 
  • 42 day pregnancy rate 63 days

You can target a three week submission rate of 90% with a six week in-calf rate of 78% and an empty rate of 6% or less. 

Higher production when mature cows and heifers reach the body condition targets. 

For a 500kg animal, production gains that can be expected for BCS changes are 15 kgMS for a BCS change. 

Herd Fertility 

Ensure you put equal emphasis on all these areas: 

  1. Calving pattern 
  2. Body condition and nutrition 
  3. Heifer management 
  4. Heat detection 
  5. Cow health 
  6. Genetics and AB practices 
  7. Bull management 
  8. Dealing with non-cyclers


It is essential that all employees have an employment agreement that they understand. 

It is essential the farm has a health and safety agreement that employees read and sign off. It is also important that this agreement is discussed at farm meetings and this discussion is minuted. 

Ensure there is a training system in place for staff.

Employ people that suit your system.

Keep improving your facilities to ensure farm safety and continually think of ways to make the work easier and more profitable, e.g.  once a day feeding of calves, once a day milking for all or part of the lactation, or 3 milkings in 2 days.

Profitability [Cost Structure]

Whatever farming system you use it is important you know how much it costs to produce a kilogram of milk solids. You can then compare your costs with the Dairy NZ Economic Survey

The main costs under your control are: 

  • Feed costs 
  • Fertiliser costs 
  • Animal health costs 
  • Labour costs 
  • Personal drawings 

Using the Dairy NZ Economic Survey you can benchmark your farm against other farms in the industry

Environment [Land]

Ensure your land meets the best practices of environmental standards in your area. 

It is important to have a nutrient budget for your farm. 

Ensure all environment record keeping is kept up to date. For instance, fill in your Supplier Farm Diary on days effluent is spread, including what areas and how much. When a fertiliser contractor is used, keep a copy of the maps they have - showing what type of fertiliser is used, how much and where it is applied. 

Ensure all staff know their responsibilities in environment record keeping. Discuss in your staff meetings. 

Know your soil types on your farm so you know the limitations the soil type has on your management system. For instance: 

  • Winter growth rates 
  • Winter wet [pugging soil damage] 
  • Summer dry [over grazing]


In these years of volatile milk payments, it is essential to concentrate on the factors you can control. Do not put all your energy into factors you have no control over.

Things you can’t control include:

  1. Milk Price 
  2. Climate 

The controllable factors you need to put your energy into are the four main pillars of the dairy business:

  1. Animal Factors 
  2. People 
  3. Farm business profitability 
  4. Environment (land).

Ken Bartlett, FarmWise consultant

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