A hybrid system is step change from what has become the norm in a production hungry dairy industry. Sandra Taylor reports. Photos: Emma McCarthy.
A line of 14-month-old Angus cross steers on Adrian and Pauline Ball’s Tirau farm represent so much more than next summer’s prime beef.
These cattle represent a whole new way of doing business for the couple, a way that meets the animal welfare, social and environmental expectations of an increasingly discerning and critical society.
Not so long ago these cattle, a by-product of their dairy operation, would have been put on the “bobby truck” at just one week of age, worth little more than $20/head, Adrian says.
By the time these steers are finished in early summer, they will be worth around $1800/head, but these cattle have also enabled Adrian and Pauline to reduce their farm’s total greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient losses while giving them a farm business that would stand up to the scrutiny of regulators and the general public.
The couple who won the supreme award at this year’s Waikato Ballance Farm Environment Awards (BFEA) and the Gordon Stephenson Trophy at the BFEA National Showcase run a business that encompasses a dairy and dairy beef operation – or as Pauline describes it “dairy with a side of beef.”
This hybrid model is step change from what has become the norm in a production-hungry dairy industry where farmers are driven to maximise milksolids production both per cow and per hectare.
Adrian and Pauline know what’s it is like to be constantly striving to intensify and increase production because it is a model they were part of in the early 2000s, but in Adrian’s view, it is a model that has let the industry down.
While their business, Dennley Farm, has evolved to include dairy and dairy beef, there have been seminal moments along the way that have changed the couple’s way of thinking and operating.
One was meeting the late Gordon Stephenson and being inspired by his passion for onfarm biodiversity. Another was when Adrian completed the gruelling Coast to Coast One Day multi-sport race in 2009.
“I think we’ve got a great opportunity to present our grass-fed brands, if we do it well and have a bit of courage around quality assurance. I believe we can have the most believable story in the world.”
It was during this personal development that Adrian began to re-think what they were doing and the long-term sustainability of their high-input dairy system. They wanted more balance in their life and less time in the milking shed.
About the same time, they were having to put their week-old autumn-born bobby calves on a truck for a long trip to the closest processors.
This simply did not fit with their personal values or animal welfare ethics and was when the decision was made to put an end to all bobby calves.
“We just couldn’t do it anymore, it just didn’t make sense,” Pauline says.
Rethinking their business
In 2014 Adrian and Pauline bought a 74-hectare dry stock block, just 3km from their home farm and this is where they grow out their dairy heifers and finish their beef cattle – although there is a lot of integration between this and the 122ha dairy platform depending on feed supply and seasonal variations.
The couple now milk 300 autumn-calved Friesian cows, back significantly from a peak of 420 more than a decade ago, but this decrease in cow numbers is offset by their dairy beef cattle and the premium they receive for winter milk supply.
In keeping with their philosophy of adding value to what they produce, they are trying various beef genetics – including short-gestation Belgium Blue and Charolais over their non-replacement cows, and Angus bulls over their heifers and as a follow-up bull for their cows.
They source their Angus bulls from a nearby Takapoto stud and select on EBVs for calving ease and 400 and 600-day growth rates, as well as phenotype.
The couple speak highly of these bulls and the progeny they leave, especially Pauline who finds the calves are great feeders and grow consistently well, at an average of 900g/day over a year, in their pasture-fed system.
They have had no calving problems using beef genetics and as the couple run a recording system, they know the sire of every calf born and tag each animal at birth, so there is no confusion between Angus cross and Friesian calves.
All calves are reared together and under Pauline’s care, the calves are given colostrum for as long as possible-usually six to seven days. Cows are given a colostrum rating of gold, silver or bronze, with the “gold” cows producing the freshest colostrum.
The calves are weaned at 100kg but continue to be fed a calf meal supplement throughout their first winter. All the Friesian bull calves are sold to a finisher (they have had the same buyer for several years) and these calves attract a premium as they are from a closed operation.
The remaining calves stay on the dairy platform, acting as a valuable pasture management tool over their first spring and early summer. In December they are taken to the dry stock block and the first-calving heifers are brought back to the dairy platform.
The beef calves are grown out and finished on a mix of ryegrass, Ecotain plantain, chicory and clover. and the couple aim to have them finished before their second summer, before facial eczema becomes an issue.
Adrian says they target a 260kg carcaseweight (CW) in their beef cross heifers, which are finished at 18 months. The steers are carried through to heavier weights and they aim for 320kg CW in their Angus-cross steers and 340kg CW in the exotic crosses. Adrian says the Friesian component stops them getting too fat.
In July, the couple’s 13-14-month beef cross steers and heifers weighed an average of 400kg liveweight (LW), so were well on target for finishing before December.
Trying genes on for size
Adrian and Pauline have been working closely with Samen, who supply their Friesian and beef genetics for their artificial breeding programme.
This AI programme has allowed the Balls to play-around with different genetics and so far, the short-gestation Belgium Blues are outstripping any other breed in terms of growth rates.
But it is the carcase attributes that the couple target and this includes yield and intramuscular fat or marbling.
Adrian sees no reason why, with the right genetics and management, their crossbred cattle cannot hit the premium beef grades, such as Silver Fern Farm’s EQ grade.
“There is a real misconception out there that if it’s out of a dairy cow it is of poorer quality.”
Improving the quality of their dairy beef is of real interest to the couple who, as part of their BFEA prize, will be visiting closed dairy beef systems in Europe.
Adrian says NZ’s dairy beef industry needs to build more credibility by having the ability to produce a premium product.
“We are hoping to get that out of the Angus, but we need to invest in those genetics.”
As the couple’s autumn-born cattle are finished earlier than their spring-born counterparts, they also attract a premium for out-of-season beef supply.
This year Adrian and Pauline are finishing 120 of their beef cross calves and they hope to increase this to 130 in the near future. They run a low stocking rate across their whole business but this means they have grass and stock growing and thriving throughout the year.
While the couple strive to add value to what is essentially a by-product of their dairy operation, they believe beef cross cattle represent a huge marketing opportunity for New Zealand’s red meat industry.
“I think we’ve got a great opportunity to present our grass-fed brands, if we do it well and have a bit of courage around quality assurance.
“I believe we can have the most believable story in the world,” Adrian says.
He admits he has always been keen on assurance-type programmes and is hoping to complete the Red Meat Profit Partnership-developed New Zealand Farm Assurance Programme audit soon.
“The audit process will create value for us if we are brave enough and look the past the cost.”
Adrian and Pauline talk beyond triple-bottom lines in their business-and say bottom lines should now number six or seven and include factors such as greenhouse gas emissions, animal welfare and consumer expectations around ethical food production.
Environmental footprint reduced
By reducing the number of milking cows and incorporating dairy beef in their business, the couple have been able to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to 10.6 tonnes/ha – the average on a Waikato dairy farm is 16t/ha- and reduce nitrogen (N) losses from 75kg/ha in 2003 and 45kg/ha in 2013 to 25kg/ha. Improved infrastructure and including lucerne and Ecotain plantain in their rotation has also helped reduce N losses.
The Balls do use N fertiliser, but very strategically and just trickle it on. No single application exceeds 15 units/ha.
Lucerne is grown on their dry-stock block and this crop – along with maize silage – is cut and carried for use as a supplement in the dairy operation. Last year, they got seven cuts off their lucerne stands and as the plant fixes its own nitrogen (N), it has minimal N loss in the Overseer budget.
The lucerne and maize can be fed on a covered feed pad when dry conditions limit pasture growth on the dairy platform.
Another N-reduction tool they use on their drystock property is Ecotain plantain which reduces N losses. Grown in conjunction with clover, this mix generates a high-quality finishing-feed. Bloat has not been a problem, but bloat oil is added to the troughs at high-risk times.
The couple say beef has allowed them to reduce their environmental footprint by diluting the emissions from the higher-intensity dairy part of the business.
“Beef has allowed us to achieve our targets, it has been really good.
“What we’ve tried to do is understand what the footprint looks like and understand what the consumer is looking for.”
By producing dairy beef, they have moved their supply-chain closer to the consumer and this has given them a greater understanding and appreciation of some of the regulations facing the industry.
Adding to their dairy beef story is the biodiversity they have been building into their business over the years. What began by building a couple of ponds to shoot ducks out of, has turned into a real interest in creating habitat for birdlife and improving the aesthetics of the farm.
Since 2014, they have planted more than 6000 trees, predominately natives, helped along by grants from the Waikato Regional Council and South Waikato Environment Initiative fund.
They have also fenced off 1.7km of river boundary on their drystock block and this is where a good proportion of the trees have been planted.
Pauline says the planting has also helped their farm health and safety plan, as it has taken high-risk areas such as sidings out of the equation on their dairy platform.
Financially, the business is generating a $3500/ha surplus. The dairy platform is producing $4500/ha while the beef side of the business is producing about $2500/ha.
But for the Balls, it is not all about the money, rather the dairy beef has allowed them the generate a profit while meeting their environmental, social and personal goals and enabling them to meet the dairy industry’s Dairy Tomorrow targets.
“The beef has given us the tools to achieve all the targets the dairy industry has set.”
“We, as an industry cannot afford to be making long-term decisions based on individuals’ debt loading, we need to be thinking about the good of the dairy industry.”
From a personal level, Adrian and Pauline are farming with more enthusiasm than they have in years.
Before they converted Adrian’s family farm into a dairy operation in the early 1990s, the farm was a cattle finishing operation-so Adrian is essentially returning to his roots.
They believe they can show that with the right genetics and management, the dairy industry can produce top quality beef and meet the environmental and animal welfare expectations of an increasingly critical society.