Cows on owl farm.

RESEARCH WRAP: Farm system evolution

Waikato’s demonstration Owl Farm has taken its stocking rate lower, reduced bought-in feed and increased profit, while cutting environmental losses. Louise Cook reports.

As a demonstration farm we must demonstrate things. This seems rather obvious, it’s written in the title. If we look back on the 2017-18 dairy season at Owl Farm we’ve demonstrated a lot of things that have worked out reasonably well and sometimes something didn’t work out as we expected – but that is an equally important part of any journey.

The 2017-18 dairy season saw a step change in farm system where we moved stocking rate a little lower, with a reduction in the total amount of purchased feed taking us firmly into System 2 territory. We’ve demonstrated it can increase our profit and reduce our environmental losses, but we’ve also demonstrated it sure isn’t an easy system to run and is fraught with grey-hair-making vulnerability.

So let’s look at the year in numbers and when you gather them together like this, it does makes all the hard work seem worth it:

Nitrogen loss to water has reduced 15% dropping to 35kg/ha from 41kg/ha last year. With a smidge less N applied (150kg/ha compared to 167kg last year), changes to the timing of N applications and a move to direct drilling crops we have seen a pleasing shift in this important KPI.

We’ve also found that your post-emergence weed sprays are seriously limited with the mega herb in the sward, so next season we will look at autumn establishment of clover and grass only and ensure we get to grip with the weeds.

An important point to note here is that this does not reflect the potential impact of sowing plantain around a third of the farm.

Through various techniques; under sowing in spring, sown with new grass, broadcast onto paddocks pre-grazing and broadcast on to paddocks post-grazing we’ve found that plantain just grows!

Louise Cook.

Our highest plantain counts of 120,000 plants/ha were from paddocks sown into new grass in spring. These paddocks are now plantain-dominant, and we probably want a little less of it in those paddocks.

We’ve also found that your post-emergence weed sprays are seriously limited with the mega herb in the sward, so next season we will look at autumn establishment of clover and grass only and ensure we get to grip with the weeds. Then in the following spring we can broadcast plantain into that paddock and voila –our perfect weed-free, mixed sward! Hopefully a new technology development will come along and solve this problem for us.

Our N loss result also doesn’t reflect the efficacy of our constructed treatment wetland – which, as we’ve reported before, is doing a stirling job of removing all forms of nitrogen from the water, sending much cleaner water out to the Waikato river. We’ve got to keep monitoring though as there are two schools of thought on whether a more mature wetland will remove more or less nutrient as it ages.

More interestingly phosphate loss to water has reduced 31% on last year now down to 0.8kg/ha principally due to the small area cropped and changed from conventional cultivation to direct drill.

Profit between the years has many variables. Let’s assume both years had a farmgate milk price of $6.00/kg milksolids (MS). At that point we have a profit increase of 15% or $44,000 this season over last year.

We also see a 6% reduction in operating expenditure with our cost/kg MS down to $4.51/kg MS down $0.29/kg MS from last year (this includes all costs except interest).

In real terms with a higher payout this year we are likely to see our final profit more than $120,000 higher than last year.

Average work hours for the team are down 9% to 49 hours/week. Interestingly having been on OAD since New Year the team have still been averaging a solid 45+ hours/week but have done a lot of maintenance and prep-work for the upcoming spring meaning a calmer winter.

The farm had 32% less bought-in feed consumed (150 tonnes DM).

We still brought in the same amount of supplement in silages and hay from neighbouring blocks, and we used a little more palm kernel than the year before. Principally, we didn’t include 220t DM of maize silage in our feed budget any more.

The reason for this was in line with our targets of improving profit and efficiency – which was not happening well enough with; no feed infrastructure, expensive bought-in silage fed in-paddock with an average of 60% utilisation as it was fed late autumn, all winter and spring.

Homegrown feed harvested increased by 6% (100t DM) though this was aided by a rather phenomenal summer of rain.

Before Christmas there was 16% more homegrown feed, however this is a sign of things moving in the right direction as we continue to drive our output from pasture.

More than 4000 visitors have come through the gates to see us this year from all over New Zealand, and around the world and ranging from nine months to 90 years of age.

Production down 5.7% on last year. We budgeted to be down 3% on last year without the maize silage in the system – but missed target by 3000kg MS largely due to a lack of total energy intake to cows during summer.

Homegrown feed went into 2% more of our milk this year and ultimately this is what we know will drive our farming profit.

Six-week in-calf rate slipped back to 64% from 72 in the prior season. This disheartening result has at its core a poor conception rate from start to finish. We’ve looked under all the rocks and there is no clear answer, except that at a herd level our body condition score slipped noticeably in September and a solid portion of the herd wasn’t at target for mating. Plus, the wet weather then heat onset challenged the amount of energy we were able to get into cows.

We are now body condition scoring the herd at an individual level, to add detail to the discussion to ensure we know which cows, if any, are at most risk and can be treated as required if possible. This might be preferential feeding, once-a-day milking or some other as-yet-undefined solution we might need.