Green team's pasture first focus
7 min read
7 min read
Will’s first full-time position was with Leonie and Kieran Guiney, a couple he’d read about and respected for their ability to run low-cost, efficient dairy units, and to motivate teams of young staff.
“I quickly came to see that, with irrigation, you almost have a guarantee of grass growth, and from that income, and you’re able to really leverage that to move ahead.”
This gelled well with his personal goal to own a farm, itself driven by his experiences back home in the United Kingdom. His own parents lease land on a large estate, running dairy cows, beef, and cropping.
All I can recall I ever wanted to do was be a farmer and own my own farm.
“Pretty much everyone there is a tenant on someone else’s estate. The opportunity to own what I work on is the key reason I am here. All I can recall I ever wanted to do was be a farmer and own my own farm.”
If tenure was a motivator, he quickly saw that learning to manage high-quality, low-cost pasture was the pathway.
“In the UK, I’d seen how hard it can be to run a high-input system – you’re making costly changes for relatively small gains.”
47% sharemilker for Dairy Holdings
Will’s success since arriving here has not gone unrecognised.
In May this year, he won the New Zealand Dairy Industry Awards’ Share Farmer of the Year title. That came after winning Canterbury/North Otago Dairy Manager of the Year in 2018, and national runner-up in that section that same year.
He is now three years into a 47% sharemilking position with Dairy Holdings, poised to move to 50:50 next season with almost 100% equity in the herd.
... it’s about feeding good grass, holding the round length, and adding just a few mineral supplements.
“We have been able to achieve a lot, and it’s partly also due to Dairy Holdings sharing the same philosophy as me when it comes to farming. That is, it’s about feeding good grass, holding the round length, and adding just a few mineral supplements,” says Will.
“It’s a simple approach, and one that means you can focus on other stuff like managing a large team well.”
His focus on pasture and its production, quality and management is so singular that he considers himself “a pasture farmer who happens to turn grass into milk”.
“But at the same time, we’re concentrating on breeding high BW animals to ensure pasture is converted into milk as efficiently as possible.”
1. Keep it simple
Provide staff with a couple of key things to focus on, such as allocation area and grazing residual.
2. Round length is king, clover is queen
We tend to run a slightly longer round than most to ensure both ryegrass and clover have time to recover kilo for kilo. Clover is a superior feed to ryegrass, and you need to look after it too.
3. Put up a back fence with a portable trough when grazing
Preventing cows grazing outside their allocated area means the pasture grazed yesterday will start re-growing today, with clover recovering more quickly. Back-fencing is fundamental when we have smaller mobs, especially during calving when they can be in the same paddock for up to two weeks.
If irrigation provided greater certainty about pasture growth and ultimately production, low milk prices have reinforced the importance of making the most of that low-cost feed.
“It was a good lesson early on. When I arrived, the payout in year one dropped from $4.25 to $3.90/kg MS. It fortified my decision to stick with pasture as much as possible.
“While the milk price has gone up since, we have stuck to that approach.”
Pasture is 100% of the herd’s feed input during lactation, with cows wintered on Dairy Holdings’ blocks on fodder beet. The only addition is minimal straw fed to springers and dry cows in late winter.
There is no ‘get out of jail – pull the string for more lollies’ option here. That means I have to also instil the discipline in my team to learn to manage our pasture.
“There is no ‘get out of jail – pull the string for more lollies’ option here. That means I have to also instil the discipline in my team to learn to manage our pasture. The easiest way is complete transparency and good communication,” says Will.
Pasture planning for the following lactation starts the summer before.
“Come January/February, as grass starts to go to seed, we push the round out from 25 days to 30 days. To help do that, we apply nitrogen at slightly higher rates than usual and drop out our empties as soon as they have been scanned.”
He knows from the DairyNZ Spring Rotation Planner (SRP) he needs to open at calving with an average cover of 2800kg DM/ha.
“We grow 15kg DM/ha/day over winter, eat 5kg DM/ha/day with the heifers that stay on.
“We have 50 days of winter, so we can grow 500kg DM/ha. So, at May 31, we aim to have an average cover of 2300kg DM/ha to be sure of hitting that 2800kg DM/ha cover target.”
Typically, Will runs a team of four plus himself on the farm, with smartphone-based technology playing a big part in communicating grazing decisions, paddock allocations and feed demand forecasting.
“We use AgriNet, an Irish-based pasture recording system and app for all our recording and forecasting.”
Staff are indoctrinated by Will over time to learn to judge pasture cover by eye, something he learnt himself and finds is quick, simple and accurate with practice.
The team communicates through a WhatsApp group chat, giving all team members the ability to see a screenshot of the farm’s feed wedge as developed by the SRP, along with allocation areas for different mobs.
They all have an allocated area of the farm that is their responsibility, so there’s a nice bit of competition in there to see whose area is looking the tidiest.
“With the DairyNZ SRP feed wedge, we know what our daily allocation of area is. We divvy it up according to the different mobs, prioritising colostrum cows, then milkers, down through the springers, dry cows and late calvers. That defines your maximum area for the mob, you can use less, and that’s great, but our aim is to avoid using over that.”
If the team does end up needing to allocate more area than planned, they’ll discuss why, and how to avoid it happening more often.
They aim for a consistent post-grazing residual of 1500kg DM/ha for much of the season, with residuals the signal for whether they’re heading into a genuine farm feed surplus.
“If that residual is over for two to three days consistently, past balance day, we know to drop our allocated area, increase the area we set aside for re-seeding, or make more silage.
”Every year, the pressure eases early in spring, thanks to the team’s ability to lift the 6-week in-calf rate, which now sits at 78%. That is well up on the national average of 65%, and Dairy Holdings’ average of 75%, thanks in part to Dairy Holdings’ focus on high-fertility sires lifting herd fertility.
“And with our pasture management focusing on milkers, they go onto a genuine rising plane of nutrition, getting cows flushed for fertility at mating time.”
While tech is important for farm communication, Will turns a weekly farm pasture walk into a team-building exercise. His entire crew walks the farm, having a chance to catch up and discuss all and any aspects of the week’s work.
“And they all have an allocated area of the farm that is their responsibility, so there’s a nice bit of competition in there to see whose area is looking the tidiest. They each have a sense of ownership in the place.”
Managing pasture well goes beyond simply making more milk and more money, says Will. He’s turned it into a means of keeping in touch with each staff member, helping them learn to be better grass farmers, and gaining skills that fit well within the Dairy Holdings family.
“Basically, what we are doing is what was done in Taranaki 30 years ago: keeping it simple and very focused on allocating the right amount of pasture to the right mobs of cows.”
8 min read
5 min read
2 min read
6 min read