Waikato farmers Rex and Sharon Butterworth is one of the 20 high-performing farms the Primary Industries Ministry has studied as part of its Farm Systems Change initiative. Sheryl Brown reports how a key system change on their farm increased productivity, lowered costs and reduced the environmental footprint.
Located 10 minutes from Matamata, near Walton, Rex and Sharon Butterworth’s 113-hectare flat dairy farm is typical of the area.
However, when <italics> NZ Dairy Exporter <end itals>visited in August at the tail end of calving there was plenty of lush green grass in sight with little mud or pugging damage to show as evidence of how wet the Waikato has had it this year.
That’s down to the forgiving sandy loam soil and the two 250-cow Herd Homes where the 480 Friesians were happily chewing their afternoon feed of maize silage.
Since building the Herd Homes five years ago, Rex has increased production to almost 500kg milksolids (MS)/cow, dropped his farm working expenses to under $3.35/kg MS and reduced his nitrogen leaching to below 30kg N/ha.
“Dairy farmers can have their cake and eat it too,” he says.
Rex can sleep at night knowing he has a resilient and sustainable system that works for his farm and location. But he knows he can’t rest on his laurels and is always looking at ways to improve his system even further.
At $75,000/ha for dairy farms in the area, Rex knew he had to find a way to make dairy farming pay within the growing environmental pressures.
“It’s good land, that’s one of the reasons it’s so expensive. We want to live here so we’ve got to make it work. If we were milking 2.5 cows/ha on a DairyNZ System 1 we wouldn’t be able to afford to farm and get a return on asset.”
When Rex and Sharon bought the neighbouring dairy farm 1.2km down the road 10 years ago they initially combined the herds and tried to run 500 cows on the home farm with the smaller farm as the support block growing maize.
‘I didn’t know if twice the investment would have given us twice the return. But it became immediately clear when one herd needed to be in the Herd Home, so did the other herd.’
The first season they got away with it and reached the combined milk production of both farms. The next two seasons they dealt with dry summers and the system fell well short.
“It was clear we were going to lose money.”
At the same time, their lack of effluent storage was becoming an urgent issue. Rex and Sharon built a herringbone in 1999 and installed a sump with 1.5-3 milkings’ effluent storage, which met council requirements at the time.
A few years down the track the regional council wanted 42-day storage for their farm and they were labelled a high-risk operation.
They looked at different scenarios from a storage pond for their current system costing $40,000 to an uncovered feed pad where the storage pond cost would have increased to $200,000.
After looking at those figures, the investment in a covered feed pad started to look more affordable to Rex.
They hired Headlands to complete a feasibility study and decided to build one Herd Home, and increased the effluent bunker underneath by 25% to store more effluent.
“I knew building one would solve some of our problems, I didn’t know if twice the investment would have given us twice the return. But it became immediately clear when one herd needed to be in the Herd Home, so did the other herd.”
They commissioned the second Herd Home to be built six months later, paid for with the cash flow from the $8.40/kg MS payout. The total cost for both was just shy of $1 million which they’ve paid back in under five years.
“We hit our three-year production target in the first season. The net cash return has always been greater than the cost of interest.”
The benefits of adding covered feed pads to their system have been multiple and ongoing. Milk production went up more than 50,000kg MS in the first season while the farm’s nitrogen leaching has decreased from 37kg N/ha to between 23-26kg N/ha.
“It proves you can run an intensive unit responsibly.”
They use the effluent from the Herd Home bunkers on the maize paddocks and have halved their fertiliser costs and irrigate more than 55ha on the milking platform when the weather suits.
In the first season with the covered feed pads it became clear the cows needed less feed to go toward maintaining body condition. They were in a comfortable environment and were under less stress.
“We didn’t realise how much of the feed was being used to maintain body condition, they were using a lot of energy to keep warm in winter. They maintained their condition and lifted their production.”
The cows have been eating more every season as they’ve grown with the system, but are starting to plateau now. They aim to feed a minimum of 21kg DM/cow/day.
Since building the Herd Homes Rex noticed the cows were eating up to 8kg DM/cow/day extra in summer because they were more comfortable.
“We were offering the feed to them in the paddock during summer, but they would stop eating it once the temperature got up. We have quite a few trees on the farm and the cows would be mobbed under them, not drinking or eating.”
It’s typically eight degrees cooler under the shade cloth and the cows are eating more and their water intake has doubled.
“We had to increase the water lines from 40mm to 103mm to the Herd Homes and bought an extra water storage tank.”
Once they stopped feeding out in the paddock their feed wastage dropped from 2.7kg DM/kg MS to 0.4kg DM/kg MS.
By not feeding out in the paddock they also weren’t killing the grass during the season. They are now harvesting an extra 1.5t DM/ha and they have significantly reduced spending on renewing pastures.
Rex used to undersow up to 90% of the farm every year with 1.2 tonnes of top-cultivar grass seed. He now only undersows 3-6ha every year.
“The farm would go from looking a picture in autumn then over the season the damage would be repeated and we would have to spend that money all over again.”
In the first season they had to refocus on pasture control because the cows weren’t over-grazing paddocks like usual.
As a solution Rex now pre-mows 50-100% of every paddock from September onwards.
“We mow to the level we want them to graze to. Our philosophy is for the cows to be eating the best-quality grass possible.”
When they started pre-mowing they gained an extra 34,000kg MS in the vat with the same cow numbers.
Rex is still trying to find the balance between pasture, grass silage and maize. He wants to decrease the amount of palm kernel in the system and just have it on hand for any season pinches.
“We could do more production per cow if we put different feeds into them. But we are trying to find the balance between cost, the best return and looking after the animal properly.”
One of Rex’s key focuses is on the transition period for the dry cows leading into calving. Three weeks prior to calving all springer cows are fed like milking cows and brought into the Herd Homes for a feed of silage and palm kernel once a day. Once the cows have calved the focus goes onto maintaining body condition leading up to mating. A key part of that is milking the colostrum cows once-a-day for one week after calving to give them enough recovery.
One of Rex’s passions is animal welfare and taking the stress off the cows so they can perform.
People make the argument cows are meant to be outside, but seeing their increased comfort level in winter and summer and the impact on their performance has been eye-opening for Rex.
“I used to stand them off on the yard and I used to think that was okay. In order to save the pasture, we made the cows pay the price. Then we’d feel sorry for the cows because they’d get sore and the pasture paid the price and we had leaching issues.”
His next step is to install rubber matting for the next level of cow comfort.
“Looking back I’m a bit embarrassed – I feel mean. I didn’t realise the pressure we were putting on our cows.”
It’s easy to justify the business investment by looking at the financials, the drop in nitrogen leaching, or improved cow performance, but it’s harder to quantify the feel-good factor.
When Rex comes back from checking the cows at night, seeing them under shelter and happy, knowing he doesn’t have to get up in the night to stand them on the yard, knowing the pasture isn’t getting pugged, he feels he is looking after his cows and the environment.
“I do feel we are in a good place, but you can’t stay there, you’ve got to keep progressing.
“We have always tried to stay ahead of the regulations, to try and future-proof ourselves.”
Rex was happy to see MPI take an interest and look at farm systems in more depth.
“The great thing about the MPI study is it goes across the whole range of systems and soil types and all of them are working in their own way. You don’t have to all go down one path.”
Owners: Rex and Sharon Butterworth
Location: Walton, Waikato
Milking Platform: 113ha, 104ha effective
Runoff: 52ha effective
Farm dairy: 36-aside herringbone
Cows: 480 Friesian/Friesian crossbred
Production: 236,000kg milksolids
Maize: 600t (grown on runoff)
Palm kernel: 450t
Pasture harvested: 15.8t DM/ha/year
Pre Herd Home Post Herd Home
Cow numbers 430 480
Production kg MS/ha 1644 2269
Production kg MS/cow 400 491
Empty rate 8% 6%