The Mathieson family farms in Longwood, west of Riverton, on a farm established by Ewen’s grandparents in 1947 with 27 sheep and seven cows. Ewen was born and bred on the property. With his farm team of four and a couple of casuals, he’s continuing a family tradition of caring for the animals, country and environment.
For South Island farmers who winter stock on-farm, like Ewen and Diane, the priority is to keep cows well-fed during the cold, wet times when pasture growth is low. Accordingly, the couple pay a great deal of attention to establishing and managing their crops to keep the cows well-fed. Ewen says successful cropping involves many factors, from paddock selection and establishing the crops, to grazing management.
Doing the groundwork
The Mathiesons’ planning process starts 18 months before planting, when they identify suitable areas for planting crops. It’s important to understand the farm’s soil profile before plants go into the ground, says Ewen.
“We have four physiographic zones, with two different soil types. Some of these areas have strong denitrification and other areas have risks associated with phosphorus and sediment loss, so it’s important for us to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each soil type. Not only does soil affect the health of the crop, it can also affect the health of the animals that feed on it. These considerations have an impact on where we decide to plant,” he says.
Every year, the Mathiesons carry out soil tests to assess overall trends. Before planting a crop, they dig deeper on four specific areas of the farm to see what nutrients are available and if fertiliser is required to achieve best results. They use effluent on 190 hectares (ha) of the farm – a significant cost saving, as this means a lot less fertiliser is needed on those paddocks.
“We also run a one-, two- or three-year crop rotation, so some paddocks may be cropped only once every 10 to 12 years, and others may be cropped twice during the same period,” says Ewen.
Ewen, Diane and the team plant 25ha of fodder beet in November, then 20ha of kale and swedes in early December.
Over the years, the Mathiesons have changed their cropping practices relative to shelter, the class of stock that’s been wintered-on, and the risks associated with wintering. This is in line with DairyNZ’s best practice guidelines, which encourage farmers to ensure stock are well cared for, and that damage to soil and runoff to waterways is eliminated as much as possible.
“We assess the areas of risk and, on slopes or in critical source areas for example, we either leave buffer zones or leave them uncultivated to reduce the risk of runoff during bad weather,” says Ewen.
“We do our best to limit soil damage as much as possible by regularly moving the break fence, back fencing and using portable troughs.”
The weather dictates how many times a day the animals are shifted – it could be as many as three times in bad weather. If necessary, the Mathiesons add in extra baleage, straw or hay to keep the cows’ rumens functioning optimally.
“This creates warmth and comfort for the animal, so we get to see what sort of lying times we’re getting to gauge if they’re comfortable and that there isn’t too much mud. They don’t like to lie down on a surface that’s too wet,” says Ewen.
“There’s nothing more enjoyable than seeing animals lying down and chewing their cuds. That’s when they’re relaxed and comfortable. At the end of the day, how our animals perform is critical to our farm wellbeing. We love to see happy, contented animals.”
Changes to pasture
The farm’s pastures are ryegrass/white clover but, this year, the Mathiesons are looking at incorporating different grass species (fescue, chicory, plantain and other varieties of clover) into their pasture mix, to better manage the rapidly changing environmental extremes that are becoming a challenge.
Taking stock of animal care
Ewen and Diane are applying some strategic thinking to their wintering practices. They’ve become more focused on animal performance, relative to running stock numbers, by reducing the stocking rate and looking at the calves they rear.
“Our whole system is based on acknowledging the fact that animals have feelings and rights and that animal welfare is the heart of any farming business,” says Ewen.
“We’re looking at ways we can eliminate bobby calves from our system by using sexed semen as it becomes a more viable option. But at the moment, we calve 890 cows, of which 190 are bobbies. We rear 245 replacement heifers and the balance are beefies and bulls, which we sell locally.”
Environmental focus – on and off the farm
One of the Mathiesons’ aims is to create a sustainable farm business that will perform comfortably at a high level without adverse environmental impacts. This interest is replicated off-farm too – Ewen is involved with two local catchment groups at Pourakino and Colac Bay/Orepuki.
The catchment groups are working to increase awareness of water quality issues and the farming policies outlined in Southland’s Water and Land Plan. Information is communicated to farmers, the community, and Environment Southland.
“Initially, it was about farmer advocacy in our local community and working on submissions to the Southland Water and Land Plan. But, since then, we’ve progressed to the on-farm space, with actions that focus on wintering, fertiliser management, planting and pest control,” explains Ewen.
“One of the key things the catchment groups have done is develop a relationship with our local rūnanga, who’ve got a plant nursery up and operating commercially and are doing planting in the catchment as well. The nursery is in Colac Bay and thousands of plants are grown each year and used in restoration projects.”
Ewen also participates in the Aparima Community Engagement Project, which represents six local catchment groups looking at ways to improve land management practices to benefit the environment and local communities.
In partnership with Great South (formerly Venture Southland), the Ministry for Primary Industries, Landcare Trust and other farming groups, Ewen is helping to lead a cross-sector project called Thriving Southland to help farmers understand the changes they’ll need to make in future. This project supports and enhances the catchment group model by looking at farmer wellness, financial systems, greenhouse gases, carbon emissions and the adoption of new techniques, methods and practices in response to change.
Managing public perception
Ewen believes some farmers have yet to make the connection between their on-farm practices and the consumers who buy dairy products in the supermarket.
“It’s important to understand that what we do on-farm is being judged all the time. Our clean, green image has significant export value and our overseas markets will continue to challenge us in this space. If we want consumers to eat the food we produce, best-practice behaviour on-farm is important. The image we project needs to match reality.”
Southland’s future challenges
Ewen believes there are still challenges ahead when it comes to winter grazing management. Changing from the current system, where brassicas are the cheapest way of taking summer feed surpluses into winter, is going to require some thought, he says.
“Our capital value has been built around the present system, so how we transition into something different that still protects our ability to produce and maintain capital value is going to be one of our biggest challenges.
“We also have to bear in mind that if we make changes to our systems, we have to ensure it doesn’t have a significant impact on nutrient loss and carbon emissions. At the same time, we also have to remain profitable and competitive, otherwise there will be an economic impact on our rural communities.”
Ewen and Diane's top tips
- It isn't always about producing more milk.
- Understand why we need to change, whether it's for animal welfare or environmental reasons. Our market access depends on it.
- To quote Socrates: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but building the new."
Words: Christine Hartley Photos: James Jubb
For more information about wintering visit dairynz.co.nz/wintering
This article was originally published in the South Island edition of Inside Dairy September 2019