Risk-taking has been part of the job for Ron Pellow, but only risks that were backed up with sound research.

Taking risks for farmers

South Island Dairy Development Centre leader Ron Pellow tells it like it is to those inside and outsisde dairying. Anne Lee reports.

He might have donned high viz rather than a cape but there’s no doubt outgoing South Island Dairy Development Centre executive director Ron Pellow has been a champion for the dairy sector over the past, almost, 10 years.

He bravely led a high-profile, somewhat risky, but ultimately successful shift in farm system for Lincoln University Dairy Farm (LUDF), the jewel in SIDDC’s crown, that’s given guidance for farmers in search of ways to lighten their environmental footprint and protect their business’ financial sustainability.

The Southern Dairy Hub opened last year, and heavily backed by local farmers and two of SIDDC’s partners – DairyNZ and AgResearch – is another project he’s been significantly involved in.

But he’s also worked tirelessly behind the scenes with regulators and regional councils bringing well-reasoned, science-backed arguments to tables where discussions could all-too-easily have been hijacked and rules imposed without a full understanding of the wider consequences.

He hasn’t been afraid to tell farmers how it is either, warning them about the reality of nutrient loss reductions and gently but firmly stipulating their responsibilities.

But at the end of July Ron is leaving SIDDC to take up a role with AgResearch as national manager, farms.

‘We’ve aimed at positioning the farm in terms of “next practice” not just best practice.’

He’s still to be based at Lincoln and says, with his 10-year anniversary at SIDDC coming up later this year and SIDDC’s strategy newly refreshed, the time felt right to now hand over the reins to someone else.

LUDF’s elite performance, showing what can be achieved on a pasture-based system, has been vital to Ron’s influence on behalf of farmers, particularly with environmental policy changes.

“It’s been our ticket to the table so we can be part of the conversation.”

Lincoln’s principles for looking at how to reduce environmental impacts is one all farmers should follow and follow at pace, Ron says.

Ron’s quick to attribute the high level of operational excellence to the skills of long-time farm manager Peter Hancox.

“He’s been able to take the system designs and objectives we’ve set and manage the farm within that framework which hasn’t always been easy.”

And while not every aspect of the farm’s performance is perfect, the farm’s openness and willingness to share and dissect what went wrong using experts from all parts of the industry has only added to its success.

So too has the willingness of the farm to look ahead and embark on management changes early that tackle impending issues.

“We’ve aimed at positioning the farm in terms of “next practice” not just best practice, continuing the principles that saw LUDF operate without inductions many years ahead of the wider industry.

“The aim is to drive harder in the next practice direction and that’s going to take more focus on things that should work but might not.”

Part of the farm’s benefit to the industry is its willingness to tackle risks on farmers’ behalf.

He says the scaling up of the Pastoral 21 research studies is a classic example of that when, with the writing on the wall in terms of nutrient loss reductions, LUDF took the bold move mid-season to cut stocking rate and reduce its inputs.

It sold the bottom 10% of the herd as it cut cow numbers to reduce stocking rate to 3.5cows/ha – a risk in itself because if it had failed and they’d have to buy those cows back they would have been paying top dollar for good animals compared to the cull price.

“The bigger cost though, would have been to our credibility and reputation but we did it on the basis of research findings and that it should work.”

The move meant cutting imported feed and fertiliser nitrogen inputs almost in half with the challenge then how to make that work.

It’s resulted in the farm using a higher pre-grazing pasture cover than the previously typical 2800-2900kg drymatter (DM)/ha.

“That was a credit to Peter because he felt he needed to carry more grass in front of him.”

Ron Pellow and Peter Hancox.

It was something Peter felt comfortable with given the good percentage of tetraploid ryegrass species in the mix enabling the cows to hit residuals even with higher pre-graze covers.

With the shift in pasture management came an appreciation of the three-leaf grazing principle.

It was well understood but typically not adhered to under the 21-day or even shorter round length system.

“What we found is that actually we’d been missing out on some pasture harvested.”

Many commentators suggest the (revised) grazing management system requires more skill than the previous, more prescriptive, round-length based system that was widely followed by farmers based on LUDF’s lead.

But Ron disagrees and says it’s a matter of mind-set and understanding what the aim of a pasture-based system is.

It’s about managing animal demand to harvest as much home-grown pasture across the year as possible and that’s about having cows with appetite across the whole season, he says.

“Too often when we hit peak pasture production we have cows with suppressed appetite.

“At a lower stocking rate, we theoretically might get to balance date a little earlier but from calving till then we’ve been a little less short of feed than we were in a higher stocking rate system and therefore have operated with a little less pressure on cows and staff.

“We’re able to drive appetite by not restricting their intake. We used to work on intakes of 16-17kg DM/cow/day which made sense with the milk production we were doing at peak but now we believe they must be eating 18-20kg DM/cow/day based on their milk production. It means demand per hectare remains similar at balance date.

While proponents of a higher stocking rate may say the recent LUDF system has moved away from a proven Kiwi grassed-based approach, Ron offers no apologies.

“We’ve moved away from using our cows (and cow condition) as a feed reserve or supplement and limiting their productive capacity to where we’ve got fewer animals in the catchment producing the same amount of milk.

“So we’ve got lower greenhouse gases over their lifetime and over the catchment and we’ve got lower nutrient losses for the same amount of milk which means New Zealand still receives the same export dollars.”

Lincoln’s principles for looking at how to reduce environmental impacts is one all farmers should follow and follow at pace, Ron says.

For each farm the options may be different but there’s no excuse for waiting till the last minute to make the changes that can bring about reductions, he says.

“If we can stand firmly on credible data, showing genuine reductions in our environmental footprint, I believe the public will support us. Most dairy farmers are economically, environmentally, socially and culturally responsible – we can be proud of this contribution to our wider community.”

Eye to the future

New technology and the combination of technologies could offer further step changes in dairying productivity, Ron Pellow believes.

Heat detection systems such as heat cameras or rumination and activity collars combined with breeding technologies such as short gestation length semen are a prime example, he says.

With heat detection and breeding technology, a no-bull policy is a lot more realistic because the onus comes off staff for detecting heats over the duration of mating.

“And if we are willing to have a longer mating period we can start mating earlier with long-gestation beef semen over early-cycling cows that we don’t want to keep a replacement out of. That gives us cows calving when we want them to be and a valuable calf without affecting our genetic gain in the overall herd.”

Short-gestation semen could then be used from the middle to the end of mating to bring later cows forward.

Combining technologies can lead to more precise farming.

Technologies such as rumination and activity collars combined with condition scoring and daily liveweight recording can ensure the right cows are in the right herds at the right times, and offered the right feeding levels.

Pastures from Space information combined with hyperspectral imaging too could greatly enhance the understanding of what’s behind pasture variability across a paddock and help manage that, he says.

“What LUDF can do on behalf of farmers is use some of these technologies and see just how the data they provide can be used – is it useful or not to make more informed, more timely decisions that benefit productivity on farm.”