Joanna Grigg advocates why the humble beef cow should rightly hold her place on New Zealand hill country.
Some say the environmental impacts of animal agriculture are extremely concerning.
But a sustainably-farmed beef production system is an ideal use of hill country.
With improvements to winter grazing, lower artificial nitrogen fertiliser use, more-efficient feed conversion and low emission technologies, they will become even more sustainable.
During the Covid-19-era, earnings generated from food production, with the ability to function during social distancing, are worth gold to New Zealand.
This period of disruption could be the ideal time to press home the worth of the beef cow and the food safety and sustainability of NZ’s systems to consumers.
Since the 1990s, the sheep and beef sector has made major productivity and eco-efficiency gains and is now producing more from less. Beef cattle numbers have declined 23% (4.59 million in 1990 to 3.73m in 2014) but production grew 20%.
Absolute greenhouse gas emissions from sheep and beef farms are 30% below 1990 levels while the sector’s contribution to GDP has doubled to $5 billion, reports Beef + Lamb New Zealand. Greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram (kg) of saleable product have dropped by 40% and nitrate leaching per kg of saleable product has declined by 21%. This is due to faster growth rates, increased finishing weights and increased meat yield per hectare (ha).
Modelling of greenhouse gases (GHG) on 32 sheep and beef farms (AgFirst study, 2019) showed an average of 3.1 tonnes/GHG/ha with a range of 0.9 to 5.1. When turned into kg C02 per kg of product produced, the average was 16kg of C02 emitted. The emissions intensity figures were reported by AgFirst as good by international standards, reflecting the efficiency of NZ farming systems.
Success in the low-methane sheep breeding programme (PGgRc) has led to the establishment of a NZ Dairy Genetics collaborative working group, to develop breeding options for low-methane emitting cattle.
Stud breeders that select for cow longevity, high in-calf rate and higher growth rates are all helping produce a cow with lower emissions over her lifetime. Using dairy cattle to produce beef helps both meat and milk industry emissions.
A beef cow is able to convert poor-quality, low-energy pasture on steep hill country, without irrigation, to a product with 21% protein (typical protein found in manufacturing beef). Beef is a good source of zinc (important for immunity) and iron (red blood cell production). Beef is harvested off the hills with dog energy, not fossil fuel.
Mobs of cattle can control long dry grass which poses a serious fire risk. Burning or eating grass both release greenhouse gases but cattle are far more targeted and pose less risk to infrastructure and lives. Plus beef is a handy by-product of their fire risk reduction work.
Prime steer and heifer returns averaged $5.40/kg in 2018/19 (B+LNZ Economic Service average of all classes) and brought in $162,000 of revenue/farm. While this is about 26% of total farm revenue, they also add value to other enterprises. Cattle improve pasture quality for sheep, having a direct link to lamb growth rates in particular. The ideal breeding cow number for pasture control is estimated at 80 mixed-age cows per 1000 ewes on hill country farms.
Cattle consume sheep parasite larvae from pasture. Changing the sheep/beef balance would increase the need for drenching sheep, and increase parasite resistance to anthelmintics.
Beef co-exists with indigenous biodiversity. Sheep and beef farms have 24% of NZ’s indigenous habitat (2.7 million hectares). Farmers’ possum control work, for reducing TB risk to cattle, also improves the health of shrub and forestland. Farmers privately fund weed and pest control work – a huge saving to public coffers.
Sheep and beef cattle production are the dominant land uses in terms of land area, utilising 76% or 8.3 million ha of NZ’s grazing land. About 71% of beef cattle are in the North Island.
Is converting hills to plant-based agriculture the answer? The hills are steep, a mosaic of pasture and shrub and trees and unnegotiable for most tractors. What crop grows on dryland hills, in amongst other species, and can be harvested readily with a dog?
Pine trees can create useful timber but you can’t eat timber. The humble beef cow should rightly hold her place on NZ hill country.
Cattle set-up big lambs
It holds the national record for the driest three month and six months on record but there is still a place for cattle.
Rob and Sally Peters’ coastal Marlborough property, Cape Campbell, can go months without rain but the Peters see cattle as easy traders. It makes them ideal for the boom:bust growth pattern.
Cattle stocking rate at can range from “one cow per square kilometre” at the worst to five per hectare (ha) fully stocked, Rob Peter says.
Despite the challenge to produce cattle feed, cattle have increased in portion on the 1320ha farm to 40% of total stock units. The balance is Corriedale/Poll Dorset/Texel-cross ewes, bringing total winter stocking rate to around 4.5/ha.
“Last year we built up to seven hundred cattle, including buying in 96 Friesian/Hereford heifers in-calf to an Angus bull.”
“I can sell the young cattle and get back to my 200 base cows.”
“Buying in sheep is tricky as new sheep aren’t trained to avoid our dams. Our flock know to keep clear in droughts and avoid getting stuck.”
They run two cow herds – one with autumn calving, the other spring, to spread the risk in dry years. The annual in-calf rate is a tidy 96%.
Typically, either one of the Fielding and Canterbury markets for store cattle is strong. This autumn Rob is waiting for rain in the North Island before marketing his store stock. It’s a waiting game but one made easier by access to a small area of the 490ha Windbreaker Stone Pine plantation/orchard next door.
“We were really grateful for a chance to graze the Pinoli pine nut block this March, following the drought.”
Pinoli is the only producer of pine nuts in the Southern Hemisphere.
It’s a win-win for both. Cattle eat down the long grass, allowing the pickers of the cones to access the trees in winter and help them see where they are walking on country. Cattle turn the standing flammable grass into protein and deposit nutrients back for trees.
Andy Wiltshire, of Pinoli, said the trees in this block are nine years old and able to handle cattle grazing around them. The key is not leaving cattle in too long, keeping them with grass ahead of them and distracted from nibbling on the top branches, he said.
“We will be watching them closely.”
Cattle have been grazed at another site before successfully. The Cape Campbell site grew 820 lambs out as two-tooths, grazing on rotation through the trees.
“These trees provide shade and shelter for stock and, as their root system is so much deeper than a pinus radiata tree, they don’t suck the water from the top soil.”
“They reach harvest peak around 27 years and can live to 100 years, and they don’t act like wilding pines as the cones fall straight down and are removed.”
Wiltshire sees huge potential for integration of the orchard/plantation with livestock and carbon sequestration, bringing benefits on many levels. He would like to see them accepted in the Emissions Trading Scheme. Currently they are considered orchard trees and ineligible.
“These trees have the remarkable ability to adapt their form to different sites. On this site the trees are smaller and bushier because of the wind.
“Underneath you find green grass because of the microclimate they create.”
At home, the Peters use cattle to eat down long dry grass over summer, to allow the annual clovers to access sunlight and flourish following germination with autumn rain.
“We are very reliant on cattle to open up our sub-clover hill country.”
The farm blocks range from 40ha up to 120ha. Pastures are typically danthonia, ryegrass, cocksfoot and sweet vernal pastures with Mt Barker subterranean clover, and some plantain and white clover in the wetter areas.
Last season Cape Campbell averaged 96% of single lambs weaned prime off the ewe at 90 days, averaging 21kg CW. This is the long-term average now, rather than the exception.
“This is at least four hundred grams a day growth rate in spring.”
The twins were sold at 100 days and averaged 19kg CW.
Rob Peter credits his outstanding lactation growth rates to annual clover on hill country, set-up by his cattle over the previous summer. Of 700 single lambs reared, only 30 didn’t make the grade.
Rob said his cows can soak up surplus feed in summer, getting to condition score (cs) four out of five, then lose weight over winter to 2.5 as the lowest, without affecting their production.
“What else can do that?
“Our finished two-and-a-half-year steers have returned over $2000 a head, two years in a row.”
Rob and Sally respond to comments about cows being bad for the environment as saying stocking rates to match the property and soils is key.
“We don’t break feed crops, choosing to put five calves per hectare on a 20ha crop, and letting them have the run.”
The Peters are prepared to lose some utilisation for lighter impacts on soils and possible sediment loss.
“Our beef profits have gone into extensive pest control along the beach and lighthouse area. We’re establishing a Little Blue Penguin habitat area to try and get them back and have three QEII covenants and one DOC covenant.”
“It all goes hand in hand.”
Grazing stops fire risk
The beef cow is a mobile fire warden. Standing dry pasture is a fire risk that can be reduced through eating off and squashing down – speeding up the regenerating process.
In Western Australia, savannah management is around burning early with lower intensity. These early burns typically emit 52% less methane and nitrous oxide per hectare burnt, compared with late dry-season fires (Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development Australia, 2020).
New Zealand has the luxury of higher stocking rates so can better control feed surplus with an army of hill country cows and calves. Cattle can move over steep summer hills (unlike tractors and mowers) and remove the growing fire risk. They turn it into milk for calves, and beef worth about $5.70/kg (2019/20).
Modelling shows the average sheep and beef farm produces three tonnes of greenhouse gas CO2 equivalent per hectare (AgFirst, April 2019). A Report for the NZ Fire Service Commission (2010) quantified possible emissions from different types of vegetation fires (tonnes of gas emitted per tonne of dry f burned it gives the total emissions of a fire incident (excluding suppression actions like helicopters).
Emission figures for a tonne of dry grass fuel are 1.5t of CO2, 0.0068t methane and 0.004t nitrous oxide. Over a one-hectare paddock, carrying five tonnes of pasture fully burnt, a fire would release 7.5t of CO2, 34kg methane and 20kg nitrous oxide. That’s well above cattle emissions from the model sheep/beef system.
Biologically speaking, feeding grass to stock versus burning grass both involve combustion. One happens in the atmosphere, the other in cells.
However, compared to stock grazing, fire leaves nothing behind and the amount burnt would likely overwhelm the biological mechanisms to re-sequester the carbon. Careful management of cattle grazing allows plant regeneration as well as protection of soils. For these reasons the cow should be promoted on farms, council land and lifestyle blocks – think the Port Hills.
Farmers should hire out a small mob to control grass on lifestyle blocks and council land, including roadsides, and be paid for the service they provide.
Greenhouse gases emitted from savanna fires average 3% of Australia’s emissions. uel burned). When combined with a total amount of fuel.
Bow to the humble cow
James Murray has 900 beef cows and said if he didn’t have them, his sheep flock performance would be “stuffed”.
“Our halfbred flock lambing percentage would drop as we couldn’t manage pasture quality.”
Matariki operates a Hereford stud with 500 stud cows, at Clarence River, north of Kaikoura. It is one of three properties run by the Murrays’ as part of the wider 15,000 stock unit operation. The 1400-hectare hill and flat country carries 60% of the stock units as cattle but they earn 70% of the income.
“We’ve farmed them for years and they are still paying the bills and still paying well.”
When it comes to answering critics that beef on hill country is unsustainable for the environment, James said he can’t think of any alternative protein crops or food to grow there that would be better than a mixed meat and wool system.
“I can’t think of any crops that could be planted and harvested on this country, that would generate the returns and not affect the soils.”
The Murrays have stepped up their efforts to protect soil and water in their beef system. The 80ha of Clarence River flats are irrigated via two center pivots and K-line. This flat area winters 80 rising-two-year bulls and 300 calves.
“We definitely watch out for pugging on heavier flat soils and move heavy bulls off these risk areas after rain, up on to the free draining hills.”
“We put up temporary wires along waterways when grazing intensely and don’t overstock cattle on crops, and always have a dry runoff.”
All mixed age cows are wintered in the higher Gillings country. These 50ha blocks are steep with manuka patches and predominately unimproved browntop/ danthonia pastures. Cows with heifer calves summer here after mating. Ewe mobs rotate through this country after weaning.
James questions what other animal could be as efficient as a beef cow on hard hill.
“They come in light at the end of winter, then only need a rising plane of good feed after calving to get back in calf.”
“A 550kg cow weans a 260kg calf off hard hill country.”