But the same storm was also the catalyst to prompt Opotiki sharemilkers Jared and Sue Watson in the Waiotahe Valley to seriously reconsider their farm system, the environment they operated in and their own farming expectations.
The couple were only in year two sharemilking on Jared’s parents’ property in the picturesque valley 20 kilometres south east of Whakatane when the storm struck.
“We ended up having to truck three unit-loads of cows off the property, with 60 percent of the farm covered in about 20 centimetres of river silt and completely un-grazeable,” says Jared.
“We had also just had our first child, so it was a pretty intense and stressful time for all of us.”
Setting the scene for change
While a relatively small catchment, the Waiotahe area can be assaulted by significant rainfall events that pass neighbouring districts by, with river flat properties like the Watson’s particularly vulnerable downstream of the small, steep catchment.
“We had wonderful support from people who looked after our cows. But that storm was a bit of a wake-up call, causing me to have something of an epiphany about how we were farming, and how we should look to farm into the future.”
It came at a time when the sector was collectively pushing hard for production and growth.
Jared says as young, keen sharemilkers they were no exception milking 360 cows on 103 hectare (ha) supported by significant volumes of palm kernel, nitrogen inputs and a feed pad.
“We had very good production at 480kg MS a cow and were stocked at 3.5 cows a hectare. There was very little flex in the system for when events like that came along, and not a lot to spare to help you cope with those events.
“We realised, and had been told, these events were going to be more frequent and more intense. We needed a farming system that was gentler upon the environment, and could handle the inevitable impacts these events would bring.”
Almost by default, they were forced to opt for a system change to adapt to the storm’s impact upon the farm, but also one that has now become an integral part of their management – once a day milking (OAD).
“We had the younger cows and heifers left on the farm, and to take the pressure off them went OAD pre-mating. We found that when the older cows came back after the flood and silt had gone, they did not look as good as the younger ones, submission rates at mating had also been lower.”
They had also appreciated on a personal level the flexibility OAD had given them at a particularly stressful time, and decided to stick with it as a post-Christmas practice.
“This was just the start of being given the opportunity to think ahead about the entire system and whether we wanted to stay pushing hard for every kilogram of milk solid production in a pretty conventional system, with an approach that did not feel that sustainable on a personal or environmental level.”
At about the same time, they had entered in the Sharemilker of the Year competition, opening their eyes further to the environmental impacts of some of the practices they had regarded as par for the course. That included crossing cows over the Waiotahe River regularly to access 13ha of grazing land on the other side.
This prompted them to reconfigure the farm, dropping that area out of the milking platform and leaving it as a base for wintering cows and growing crop.
“We knew at the time our ability to continue to access it via the river was going to be limited and it’s far better to deal with that change before it becomes compulsory.”
Also looking beyond convention, the couple took stock of how much nitrogen (N) fertiliser they were putting into the farm system, determining 280kg N/ha a year was too high and needed to come down.
“We had issues with pasture palatability and were not happy with conception rates. Things were not looking at all like the ideal farm operation many people imagine farming is about!”
Greater performance/lower costs
They moved to a regime that applied greater quantities of lime, addressed soil micro-organisms and significantly reduced N applications to about 80kg N/ha, applied in liquid form.
“We have seen more robust, palatable pastures develop with better organic matter levels within the topsoil.”
Jared says he has come close to converting to organic production, and felt the gains they have made in other areas make an organic conversion something he would still like to consider in the future.
Meantime they had been dropping cow numbers from their original 360-head herd, down by this time to 270, when Jared decided to renew his focus upon breeding worth (BW) to develop a herd that was genetically better calibre, and by default more efficient within the farm’s footprint.
The moves to increase pasture performance and cow BW had contributed to the farm lifting total production from 120,000kg MS to 136,000kg MS, whilst still pursuing OAD post-Christmas.
“We also put it down to less stress on the cows, and managing to achieve a high peak in the spring time of up to 2.6kg MS a cow a day.”
Now they have switched to OAD all season, the herd is down to 270 head and is in the country’s top five percent for BW and production per head is averaging 351kg MS a head.
The further drop in numbers was accompanied by dropping palm kernel inputs, another change Jared could see coming.
He is looking forward to a third full season of OAD to have some solid numbers for comparison against twice a day.
However, he believes he has achieved at least a 15 percent reduction in farm costs, lowered pressure on the effluent system and enjoyed a more flexible approach to their farming business.
To further cushion against intense rain events, Jared has been running two loafing pads for on-off grazing over wet winter months, along with the original feed pad.
He also maintains a strict ‘no pugging’ policy, knowing the effects will be felt well into summer through reduced pasture quality and weed incursion. The couple have planted several thousand trees around waterways in a blend of exotic and natives that have added considerably to the property’s visual appeal.
Last year the couple were awarded the Bay of Plenty Ballance Farm Environment Supreme Award. The accolade is a proud achievement, one that has underscored much of their quiet efforts since the big flood of 2004 to have a sustainable farm model, on a personal and environmental level.
Taking the lead
Jared admits he has been prompted to take more of a leadership role around environmental practices since winning the award with Sue, and he is becoming more comfortable with the profile it brings.
In his role as chairman of the newly formed Waiotahe Water Care Group, he is helping leverage off DairyNZ and regional council resources in this farmer-led initiative to improve riparian plantings and water quality in the district.
This has included sourcing advice from DairyNZ environmental extension specialist Logan Bowler on on-farm effluent systems and helping farmers become more proactive in managing effluent challenges.
DairyNZ’s advisor on riparian planting, Dr Tom Stephens, has addressed the group with input from local DairyNZ consulting officer Ross Bishop.
After E.coli alerts were detected at regional council monitoring sites last year, farmers are now working with the council to collect regular water quality data and build a better picture of what the triggers for elevated E.coli levels are in the catchment.
“We also met with other farmers to help the Waiotahe Estuary Care Group pick up rubbish around the estuary, and it proved an invaluable means of connecting with the non-farming community, showing them we, like them, do care about our local environment,” says Jared.
He urges all dairy farmers to be open to the interest people in their community may have in farming.
“We have to be transparent; people will believe us, but we no longer have a social licence to farm and we can’t take it for granted.”
He admits he has been touched by people’s interest in how farmers are approaching environmental management, and their preparedness to talk to him about it.
As a Dairy Environment Leader, he has also learnt much by attending the Dairy Environment Leaders' Forum, a DairyNZ initiative bringing together leaders in the sector from around New Zealand, sharing ideas and inspirations for approaches to environmental management.
In the medium term, as the sector completes its efforts around waterway protection, Jared can see greenhouse gases as the next challenge for the sector to address.
Forest plantings, including riparian plantings as carbon sinks, alternative crops and improved genetics will all help to reduce emissions, while also making the sector more efficient in the process.
For Jared and Sue, the challenges that 2004 storm brought prompted them to revisit how they farmed. Ultimately the changes they have made gave Jared the boost he needed after more than two decades of dairying, helping him rediscover his passion for the sector and in the process leave a legacy that was more sustainable, and personally rewarding.
Jared's top tips for environmental wins
- Aesthetically pleasing plantings become self-motivating - if you like how they look you'll want to plant more of them.
- Invest in wintering-off capability - the impact of pugging on soil remains for months after the event, with knock-on effects on pasture quality and weed levels - it's best avoided with loafing facilities.
- Consider alternative options to conventional nitrogen application - using foliar-applied nitrogen helped reduce the amount required as part of a revised fertility programme.
- Have a 'Plan B' or back-up for effluent i.e. investing in more storage or having a good relationship with a contractor that can take a load off.
- To shift to once-a-day milking you need to have a high BW herd and a good supply of high protein feed in summer (plantain/ chicory, red clover crop, or lucerne) and it helps to get involved with a DairyNZ OAD discussion group or like-minded farmers.
- Increase the range of species into the pasture – a sward that can create synergies that can access different minerals but also promote micro-organisms to get deeper root development.
This article was originally published in Inside Dairy May 2018