In the past, many farmers have relied on feed supplements over periods of low pasture growth. However, that can be a complex and costly solution, which is why Waikato-King Country farmers Ben and Tim Watson have turned their attention back to pasture, adding a few modern tweaks and tools along the way.
For Ben, it’s been a journey back to the grass-based principles New Zealand dairying was founded upon. For his dad Tim, it’s a reassuring endorsement that the basics of good grass management, developed at the Ruakura Research Centre in the 1960s, are still sound today.
The Watson farm business comprises three dairy units, two in eastern Waikato near Walton and a larger dairy and beef unit near Piopio in the King Country. Despite the regional differences, each property has shared in a re-focus on pasture and profitability over the past five years.
On the bigger Piopio property, the Watsons have lowered their milking herd from 1400 to 1000 cows. They’ve also dropped from 700 to 550 cows at one of the Walton farms. The farms are stocked at a relatively low rate of 2.95 Jersey cows/hectare (cows/ha) in Walton, and 2.3 Jersey cows/ha in Piopio, which sits at 400 metres above sea level.
“Our farms are very tough contour, where most people wouldn’t milk cows,” says Ben, who’s managing equity partner of the family business. “Making milk isn’t easy here, so supplements add another variable and are almost always marginal during lactation.”
Ben estimates his cows under this system would produce an extra 90 to 100 kilograms of milksolids per cow (kg MS/cow) on a flat farm. “Last season, they were the highest Breeding Worth (BW) herd in New Zealand. They’re very efficient converters.”
Supplements not always simple
Ben says the re-focus on growing more pasture at lower stocking rates came after some years of grappling with the rapid increase in feed costs that occurred around 2008, which failed to fall despite the slide in the milk payout that came a few years later.
The supplement they’ve used most has been palm kernel expeller (PKE). In the past four seasons, they also grew fodder beet for use during lactation. However, after rediscovering his pasture’s potential, they’ve decided to simplify by concentrating on pasture production and harvest.
“Fodder beet’s high dry matter (DM) yield is attractive, but it also has some significant up-front costs to establish. It requires careful weed management and on-farm expertise once it’s ready to be fed out,” says Ben.
Meantime, they now use nitrogen (N) fertiliser more strategically and apply it by bike spreader rather than by plane.
Ben estimates they’re getting a 20 to 30 percent better response from N, with less being lost from the system by correct timing of application, combined with the right round length.
Getting pumped on pasture
When Ben heard about ‘Tiller Talk’, a DairyNZ initiative to upskill farmers in pasture management, he leapt at the opportunity to register himself and Tim.
“It was perfect timing as we looked to reduce bought-in feed,” says Tim.
A year on, the pair talk confidently about understanding the mechanics of ryegrass growth, particularly in relation to what they call the grass’s ”battery pack” sitting near the base (the bottom five centimetres where leaves sprout from).
“We re-learned how, if you’re on a short round, you’ll be grazing only two leaves instead of three,” says Tim.
“Doing that means you’re reducing potential growth, and continuing to use a shorter round can remove the battery pack of energy used for rapid re-growth after grazing. We’ve also learned how grazing too hard in summer will have the same effect, really slowing recovery when rain arrives after dry weather.”
Tim says being gentler on pasture over dry periods, and running cows off to prevent over-grazing, can result in an additional 1.5 tonnes/ha of grass production in the following 60 days.
Body condition drives supplement use
Ben says cow condition and pasture cover are still key determinants at drying off. His team of nine full-time and five relief staff use N strategically, and some PKE, to lengthen the round during autumn, with the aim of having a pasture target of at least 2200kg DM/ha average by calving.
“This year due to high late-summer and autumn growth, we found ourselves concentrating heavily on harvesting pasture to low residuals to clean up summer grass and increase regrowth. This came at the expense of normal gains in cow condition,” says Ben. Ben intends to regain this condition during the dry period, and he views cow condition as being essential.
“We’re happy to use PKE for dry cows at whatever level required – it’s a very efficient cow conditioner,” he says.
On each of the Watsons’ farms, every cow is condition-scored and the results are downloaded to Minda. At drying off, cows are then drafted into mobs for targeted feeding.
“It’s now even more important her body condition score (BCS) is at five by the time a cow starts milking because your ability to fix that or pasture cover issues next season will be limited due to the Fat Evaluation Index,” says Ben.
The Watson farms also calve slightly later than the district average. This is so they can better-match their pasture growth with demand and not force the need for imported feed.
“We aim to get the herd to BCS five, then use the Spring Rotation Planner (SRP) and stick to it, working on an 80-day round here at Walton and 130 days at Piopio,” says Ben.
"Also, we use the expertise of local consultant Katrina Roberts (from Anexa FVC Matamata) to aid us with BCS. That puts checks and balances in place – there's no hiding from reality."
Rotation planner sets pathway to spring
Ben describes DairyNZ’s SRP as “our Bible from calving to balance date”. The tool is critical for helping the Watsons drive their grass renaissance.
Prior to calving, Ben sits down with his managers to work up each farm’s SRP from the DairyNZ website, and he emphasises the need to stick to it. He monitors the rotation twice a week, knowing every extra hectare or day will add up to much more than most staff think, affecting when balance day actually arrives.
“If it’s been wet and we’re under pressure to increase the area, we’ll use supplement tactically, and we’ll run cows off after they’ve had their allocated area. We must stay fixed on the planner’s allocation.”
Conversely, once balance date is reached and Ben has paddocks lengthening too quickly, he’ll open up those areas, juggling residual levels and the need to graze paddocks that don’t lend themselves to silage harvesting.
Residuals reinforce planner
Being part of Tiller Talk has also helped the Watsons gain a better understanding of using pasture residual as an indicator of effective grazing management.
“We tend to graze to a slightly lower residual, down to about 1400 to 1450kg DM/ha, looking to harvest as much grass as possible,” says Ben.
“We don’t have the ability to mow our farms to fix poor management, or try to feed cows better. Only about 15 to 20 percent of the farms’ areas is easy contour, so the pressure is there to hit the correct residual every time – we don’t get a second chance.”
The Watsons’ cows are now accustomed to going back onto pasture that’s already grazed, to get that residual nailed.
“There’ll be times when they go back in the morning to the paddock they had the night before, just to clean it up, and be shifted when residual is reached. We’ll stick to that residual level regardless,” says Ben.
Pasture focus shared
Due to the tough contour of their farms, the Watsons don’t carry out plate metering. Instead, the team records each grazing in the Fonterra dairy diary, and from that Ben can soon see which pastures are performing – and which are not. With the target residual, round length and estimated pre-grazing cover, it’s easy to calculate how well they’ve performed over time.
“We now spend more on grass seed to improve pasture yields and have our own seed drill,” says Ben. “We focus on late-heading diploids rather than tetraploids due to our hard contour and summer dry.” (Diploid ryegrass has two sets of chromosomes per cell while tetraploid ryegrass has four.)
Ben says the SRP’s ability to set clear, measurable grazing goals makes it easier for his staff to follow the pasture-focused programme.
“I feel they’re getting a skill not all young farmers have these days. Pasture management knowledge is something they can take with them to their next job or level of responsibility.”
Ben’s also found it rewarding to see how quickly a pasture-focused feed system can respond to management changes.
“From our first Tiller Talk meeting, we saw our round at home was too fast. We added some supplement to slow it down and we saw the results – it came right in only 10 days.”
Better use of proven resource
Ben says his shift to a pasture-first focus hasn’t so much been a journey from a high-input system to a low one, but more about learning to use his valuable pasture resource smarter and allocate supplement on a tactical basis.
“So, it’s been more a change in approach than a change in system. We’re just more focused all the time now on pasture first. It has involved a level of re-education for me because, for most of my dairy career, supplements have been a common and easy ‘go to’ option.”
He laughingly talks about the ‘1990 rule’ he tries to follow. “I joke with my father, Tim, that if farmers only had available what was around in 1990 – no PKE, no meal, no ProGibb, no maize silage – then most farmers would probably make more money. But cows are a lot more efficient now than in 1990, and we then need to make up BCS pre-calving by strategically using some of those options, if need," says Ben.
Ben's top tips for pasture management
- Never use supplement to feed cows – use it to grow more grass to feed cows.
- Don’t be afraid to stand the cows off when conditions get tough and the alternative is to open up pasture allocation – stick to the SRP’s plan!
- Use N strategically, up to three days in front of cows on a short spring round (21-30 days), or behind the cows on the autumn round (35-50 days) when moisture allows.
This article was originally published in Inside Dairy August 2018