Richard Brewer is often found running through his maize paddocks and pasture, multi-tasking while keeping fit. He might describe it as winding down, but he’s also monitoring his stock, crop and pasture at the same time.
“You’ve got to go into the paddock – not just look over the fence,” he says.
That focus is typical of Richard and his third-generation dairy farming family, who own and run farms near the Taranaki coast. They’ve also been using a ‘no-till’ approach to pasture and crop sowing since the 1980s. Richard was on the spot at Massey University in 1982 during the development of the Cross Slot No-Tillage System. Originally designed by Richard’s lecturers, Dr John Baker and Bill Ritchie, it was built in Feilding, Manawatu. Richard’s been part of the machine’s journey and development ever since.
The Brewer family business is co-owned by Richard, his wife Jenni, his brother William and wife Lisa. It includes two dairy units plus sheep, beef and maize production. They’re also one of 15 shareholders in Coastal Spring Lamb (now growing markets into Southeast Asia and Vietnam).
One 70-hectare (ha) dairying unit is on the main farm at Manutahi, managed by sharemilkers Owen Clegg and Hollie Wham, and herd manager Guy Cowan. The other dairying unit is at Kakaramea, 10 kilometres down the road. It’s an 80ha equity partnership, formed this year with their previous Manutahi sharemilkers, Chris and Tina Harvie.
Cropping and pasture approach
Each year, on average, Brewer Farms grows 30ha of maize silage – feeding 15ha to their dairy herds and selling the other 15ha. Their no-till approach involves direct-drilling all their crops: maize and brassicas (turnips for the cows and Hunter brassicas for the sheep), chicory for the lambs, and pasture. They seldom use palm kernel expeller (PKE) for feed, and when they do, it’s just as an extra top-up.
Maize silage is direct-drilled in 30-centimetre rows in late October. Annual ryegrass is sown into the maize silage stubble in late March and used to finish the beef during winter. Brassica crops are used to supplement the dairy herd and sheep during dry periods in the summer. New ryegrass/clover pasture is established after two crops of either maize or brassicas.
"We average 17,000 kilograms per hectare of dry matter (kg/ha DM) grown annually, aiming to harvest 85 percent of that. Our turnip yield averages around 18,500kg/ha. We aim to harvest 90 percent of that, although turnip yield can vary between 17,000 to 21,500, depending on season.”
‘No normal’ here
“In the last 30 years of my farming career, there’s been no real ‘normal’,” says Richard. “We can have really good springs and dry summers. We need to be resilient to be able to handle those climatic changes.
“The first thing would be to take some areas out to plant summer crops to control the spring growth. Growing maize to feed cows in early spring also balances the high-protein spring growth we get.” (Maize is low in protein, high in carbohydrate.) The Brewers also use maize feed (and turnips) to buffer the dry summer pasture deficit, which helps them to extend lactation in autumn to get more days in milk.
“You can have a 300-day lactation.”
Using a feed pad and a feed bunker takes stock off the paddocks, minimising pasture damage from pugging and cows’ exposure to facial eczema spores in the autumn grass. Richard’s crafty re-purposing of some simple and cheap clips to make his bunker’s edge-coverings airtight reduces feed wastage too.
“I saw them being used to secure coverings in an orchid shadehouse.”
Location, rotation and pasture renewal
The Brewers place turnips close to the milking shed (more accessible for daily grazing) and maize further away, in a crop rotation.
“We’ll grow a crop in a block for two years and then move on,” says Richard. “We’ll have a crop, then a winter annual or an Italian ryegrass, then we go back to a crop again, then it goes back to permanent and then we move onto a new block.”
This spreads the cost and eliminates old grass species and resident weeds.
“Over a period of eight years, we actually end up re-grassing the whole farm. That’s very important, because pasture is king. Pasture will always be your cheapest feed.“
New cultivars making a difference
Richard is right on top of the development of new cultivars and DairyNZ’s Forage Value Index (FVI – dairynz.co.nz/fvi). He’s also aware of DairyNZ’s long history of research in the Taranaki region (see dairynz.co.nz/taranaki).
“I use the FVI to try and select the best pasture cultivars available at the time. Maize cultivars are now better and mature more quickly in less sunshine hours – great for Taranaki and Manawatu,” he says.
“We use new grasses with AR37 endophytes which are more tolerant to Black Beetle and Argentine Stem Weevil. So, we’re getting a production advantage there by getting those new grasses in. They’re also more efficient, particularly the tetraploid grasses, as they’re high-metabolisable energy feeds.”
Timeliness and planning
“For cropping, you need a good planning process – you’ve got to being doing things at the right time. Make use of new technology as it comes available. For example, ‘Ultrastrike’- coated turnip seed protects against aphids spreading a virus that causes soft rot in the bulb. There are also softer insecticides that are kinder to ‘good’ bugs while destroying the 'bad' ones."
He keeps on top of insect pests, such as springtails, which damage germinating and newly emerged seedlings. Richard uses a little bit of insecticide to get rid of the springtails at spray-out time, with a second spray around the 18-day mark to get rid of the next lot. (These tiny – one millimetre – brown-to-black insects cluster around plant roots in the soils. They’re easy to spot: just place a piece of paper on the ground and they’ll jump on to it.) After the second springtail spray, “… it’s pretty much a spray every three weeks to control both Diamond Back Moth and Leaf Miner in the crop," says Richard. “In between times, you’re monitoring – and that’s very, very important.”
“Selecting crops, and timing when you sow them, are also very important. With turnips, you’ve got a 90-day maturity. To sow, we go back to 75 days from when you want to start grazing the crop, and split-sow, with three weeks between the two [establishment phases].” This means the Brewers’ cows can be grazing the first, mature turnip crop until the next one’s ready. Given the farm's impressive turnip yield, it’s no surprise to hear that Richard has won Taranaki Federated Farmers’ turnip-growing contest twice: once in its first year (2017) and again this year (no contest was held in the year in between due to drought).
The Cross Slot No-Tillage System enables the Brewers to produce above-average yields while looking after the environment. Richard says with little soil disturbance from the drill, they get very high germination emergence and less soil degradation. They also maintain soil structure and organisms, get better weed control and reduce soil runoff and carbon emissions.
Residue also protects the seedlings from wind and soil moisture loss. Fertiliser use is better targeted and reduced, as it’s placed near the seed at the same time. Richard applies nitrogen when he sows the seed. Residue broken down by the bugs in the soil is then cycled through the system over eight weeks, before being re-released for the growing plants to use.
“So, there’s very little nitrogen losses in the system, which is good for the environment.”
The Brewers’ no-till methods also sit well with New Zealand’s Good Farming Practice Action Plan for Water Quality (produced by a multi-partner governance group which included DairyNZ).
This Plan (see fedfarmers.org.nz) emphasises the importance of paddock selection, establishment and grazing in minimising sediment and nutrient loss from Critical Source Areas during cropping. It also recommends farmers keep soil exposure to a minimum between cropping and pasture rotations.
Aware that different approaches have different advantages, Richard’s equally keen to acknowledge that more traditional approaches also have their place.
“You’ve got to hand it to the many companies and farmers who’ve had a system that’s been working for them with cultivation, getting a good crop.”
Nevertheless, he remains sold on no-till and his Cross Slot No-Tillage machine, adding that the $300,000 he invested in the drill and tractor set-up 10 years ago has been well worth it. It looks likely that the Brewers’ no-till methodology will remain at the heart of their cropping and pasture approach for another three decades.
Richard's number-one recommendation is to view cropping and pasture as part of your whole farm system. Here are his other tips:
- Plan and prepare – and pay attention to detail: soil testing to crop grazing.
- Get your timing, input, ordering and monitoring right.
- Actually GO into the paddocks to monitor, don't drive past.
- Use technology as it becomes available.
- Use a good mentor and have good spray and drill contractor relationships.
- Utilise your crops well - feed pad, bunker system, etc.
Words: Kaye Whittle Photos: Brad Hanson
This article was originally published in Inside Dairy September 2019 - Lower North Island edition