Waikato family fine-tunes feed management
Denser pastures and better yields – these have been the two major outcomes of Tiller Talk for the Bunnik family.
Colin and Anita, with children Liam and Rachel, were already pretty sharp on pasture management when they joined a Tiller Talk group in spring 2017. But they wanted to take things up a notch on their 225-hectare farm in Tauwhare, Waikato.
Owners: Colin and Anita Bunnik
Location: Tauwhare, Waikato
Herd size: 750 Kiwi-cross
Farm size: 225ha (effective)
Stocking rate: 3.3 cows/ha
Production: 350,000kg MS
“I think we were reasonably onto it with pasture management, but what we’ve learned from Tiller Talk has enabled us to fine-tune and refine it,” says Colin.
“We always do weekly farm walks during the growing season and we’re careful with getting good residuals. But now, we pay more attention to getting ryegrass growing optimally and to survive and persist better. In my opinion, our pastures are denser, and yields have improved over the season.”
Jen Corkran, a pasture systems agronomist from Barenbrug Agriseeds, facilitated the Tiller Talk group the Bunniks participated in.
Over the past two years, she’s helped the family to hone their knowledge of ryegrass and pasture management. “It all comes back to getting the most out of home-grown feed,” says Jen.
“Any fine-tuning, no matter what system you are, is going to help you make more money because pasture grown from the land you're already farming on is going to be the cheapest form of feed for your animals.” The Bunniks have learned more about the physiology of a ryegrass tiller and the optimum time to graze to achieve the biggest yield, says Colin.
“Jen introduced us to ‘daughter tillers’, which we knew about, but not to the extent we do now. She simplified it for us and helped us to understand the importance of growing daughter tillers.”
Anita says that they’re more aware of getting pasture to the three-leaf stage, utilising it better and making it last. Liam, who manages the farm, says Tiller Talk has helped them learn about the benefits of controlling weeds at critical times. The Bunniks now spray buttercup in late spring and keep on top of Californian thistle by mowing it twice in November, over a couple of rounds.
“This seems to work well,” says Liam. “Obviously, the less weeds, the more pasture. I believe most farms in the Waikato have 10 to 20 percent weed content, so if you can knock that in half, the benefits are significant.”
New strategy for summer grazing
Liam says, during the dry summer months, Tiller Talk helped them focus on protecting the ryegrass, so that when the rain arrived, it recovered easily.
“Our strategy last summer was to feed as much supplement as we could – maize and grass silage – to take the pressure off the grass so it wasn’t grazed too hard. We also extended the round length. We fed maize and palm kernel on the feed pad so the cows weren’t damaging the paddocks and kept a residual of about 1500 kilograms of dry matter per hectare (kg DM/ha) so that, when it rained, it recovered quickly," says Liam.
“After the first period of dry, I looked at the pastures and even though they were short, we had two to two-and-a-half leaves, so that told me it was safe enough to graze.”
Another thing the Bunniks have learnt from Tiller Talk is to move to a longer round and reduce the grazing intensity when it’s dry.
“In previous years, we’d stick to a 30-day round in summer, whereas during the last couple of dry periods, we’ve gone to a 60-day round,” says Colin.
Backing off in winter
The Bunniks have also adjusted their winter grazing strategy as a result of what they’ve learned at Tiller Talk.
“We don’t graze the grass as hard as we used to over winter. We target our residuals at around 1400kg DM/ha during the winter,” says Liam.
“To minimise pugging, we use the feed pad and the yards to feed the cows in the morning, so they go back to the paddock full, which helps them to get settled. If you did it the other way around, they’d spend all day camping in the front of the paddock. If it’s wet, we juggle our three mobs between the yard and the feed pad.”
Overall, the Bunniks say hearing from the experts at Tiller Talk has been beneficial.
“For us pasture management is important, and we’ve refined that. I hope Tiller Talk continues. There’s always something to learn from the specialists who have technical expertise,” says Colin.
Bunnik's top tips
- Maintain consistent, even residuals to encourage daughter tillers and their survival.
- Graze at the three-leaf stage for maximum yields.
- Control weeds to optimise pasture.
On new turf: dry stock to dairy
Northland farmers Janet and Noel Higham leapt at the opportunity to join their local Tiller Talk group when the call went out for participants. The Highams, who farm at Helensville, northwest of Auckland, were hungry to learn as much as they could about Kikuyu pasture management.
Owners: Janet and Noel Higham
Contract milker: Shane Mitchell
Location: Helensville, Auckland
Herd size: 240 Friesian, 60 Kiwi-cross
Farm size: 150ha (effective)
Stocking rate: 2 cows/ha
Production: 80,739kg MS
Janet and Noel are relative newcomers to dairying. Seven years ago, they bought a dairy farm down the road from their dry stock property. Janet says it’s been a steep learning curve getting to grips with a different approach to pasture management.
Janet and contract milker Shane Mitchell found Tiller Talk helped them to learn about the options available for improving their farm’s pasture, which is predominantly Kikuyu undersown with Italian annuals, clover and some plantain.
“One of the things we learned from our facilitator agronomist, Kyle Gardyne of PGG Wrightson Seeds, was that in Northland, ryegrass gives up when temperatures get over 26 degrees Celsius. He suggested other options and, as a result, most of us in the group have made changes. We’re planting more cocksfoot, which is more tolerant of dry conditions, and its dry matter yield is similar to perennial ryegrass. Others in the area are growing tall fescue,” says Janet.
Janet and Shane also found the advice on pest control very helpful, including discussions about the significance of cricket populations.
Other topics discussed included drainage solutions for marine flats and managing poor-performing paddocks.
“Being part of Tiller Talk has helped us to clarify the decisions we make about our pasture and we’re now on the right track with our pasture management,” says Janet.
Janet's top tips
- Consider different species suited to your regional climate.
- Understand the physiology of what you plant to improve pasture management.
- Prioritise residuals for good pasture utilisation.
Pasture set for Southland wet
For Southland sharemilker Blake Korteweg, taking part in Tiller Talk was a way to make the farm as profitable as possible through getting more value from his pasture.
Owners: Stephen and Rhonda Korteweg, James and Nikki Hall
Share milker: Blake Korteweg
Location: Hedgehope, Southland
Herd size: 500 Friesian
Farm size: 175ha (effective)
Stocking rate: 2.8 cows/ha
Production: 227,000kg MS
Blake says Tiller Talk has helped him to make better decisions about what grasses are suited to different areas of the farm so he can grow as much good-quality feed as possible and reduce the need for bought-in supplements.
“We grow a variety of ryegrasses – perennial, short rotation, Italian and annual – and we’re also trialling cocksfoot. We now monitor better by doing a weekly farm walk with a plate meter. That’s given us more information to help us decide when and how much urea to apply and which paddocks are poor performers so we can target them for re-grassing.
“I’ve also learnt more about the lifecycle of ryegrasses, which is not something I’d really covered before. So, learning about the technical aspects has been useful.”
Aeration promotes growth
Aerating existing pasture in spring and autumn has been worth its weight in diesel, says Blake.
“We’ve gone ahead in leaps and bounds, particularly on soil that’s been pugged and has come off crop. This has promoted growth, absorption of rain, urea and fertiliser, and we’ve seen a big return of worms too,” says Blake.
“What I’ve learned most from Tiller Talk is to manage pasture from an early stage and to graze at the right time to prevent damage, particularly during spring and autumn, when it can be quite wet in Southland.”
Blake says that while it’s difficult to quantify gains from a dollar perspective, his pastures have definitely improved.
“The cows now get the same amount of feed each day and the quality’s better, which is reflected in a more consistent milk graph. Overall, the cows are in better condition.”
Blake's top tips
- Establish young grass properly – and look after it.
- Measure and monitor your pasture regularly.
- Maintain quality grass all year round.
- Avoid pasture damage to prevent loss of production.
What is Tiller Talk?
DairyNZ’s two-year Tiller Talk pilot project, which finished in May this year, involved 17 farmer groups around the country. In each group, one lead farmer and five to eight others worked with an agronomist (from Agricom, Barenbrug Agriseeds, Cropmark or PGG Wrightson Seeds) to increase their profit through better pasture management. Farmer-to-farmer learning is at the core of this project.
You can read about the lead farmers' progress and look out for future pasture groups at dairynz.co.nz/tillertalk
This article was originally published in Inside Dairy August 2019