with Peter Burton
Functional Fertiliser Ltd
I remember my father’s comment regarding my assertion that the quantity of pasture grown now in the Central Waikato may have declined since the late-1970s early-1980s.
His comment was that milk production per hectare had climbed markedly since then, with the inference being that so too had pasture production.
However, the MAF data I have shows a 20-25 per cent higher level in annual drymatter production then compared to now. High quality permanent grazed pastures were recorded at a number of sites as growing in excess of 18,000kgDM/ha without N being applied.
Today 14,000kgDM/ha is a figure often talked about as a good result with an average of 230kgN/ha being applied.
If that is correct, then dairy farming as carried out today has a fundamental issue, as there is seldom a static situation, things are either getting better or worse.
If the decline in pasture yield is real, then, as pasture is the cheapest and most nutritious form of feed for dairy cows, how is it that the amount of milk per hectare has risen significantly?
In the early-1980s most dairy farmers took genuine pride in being self-contained. Run-offs were quite common, particularly for smaller properties, however grazing young stock at home for the first 12 months was common.
‘Milking only platform’
I remember discussion around the then-novel idea that the home farm was a ‘milking-only platform’, and young stock were grazed off property as soon as they were weaned.
At that time it also became fashionable to focus on high utilisation of pasture by the grazing herd with any pasture not grazed being regarded as wasted. To achieve that, more animals were required and the inevitable feed gaps were then filled with bought in supplement.
So, things have changed, and will continue to do so. However, it doesn’t counter the argument that pasture growth, and persistence, in many instances is inferior now to 40 years ago.
How many farmers now have a realistic idea of the quantity of pasture grown each year and use this as the basis for their feed budgeting? My experience is in many cases the supply of bought-in feed is the primary consideration with pasture seen as a ‘filler’.
In those situations, pasture growth is also seen as unreliable and variable, and because it is not as easily manageable as bought in feed, the principles underlying maximising the growth of it have been largely lost.
Pasture is the ideal feed for grazing ruminants, which is what a cow is. Multi-species clover-based pasture is what they were designed to consume, and the meat and milk produced is unique with health-giving properties that cannot be replicated in any other way.
Pasture is also the lowest cost feed available – therefore any loss in production must be compensated for by purchasing more expensive feed. The economics of declining pasture yield long-term leads to an inevitable conclusion.
A return to an appreciation of the importance of pasture and how it is best managed to maximise growth each year is essential for the long-term viability of not only dairying, but all pastoral farming.
The best operators, in all respects, are skilled observers. They spend time with their animals and in the paddock.
Decision-making is based on experience and increasingly they are able to anticipate what is about to unfold and make the appropriate decisions, with a willingness to trust gut feel.
They also have a network of people with knowledge and skills that they don’t have, consult and discuss issues regularly with them, but realise the responsibility is theirs alone, make decisions quickly and accept responsibility for the outcomes.
Farming then becomes a science-based artform. Everyone experiences and therefore does things a little differently – however the fundamentals of soils, animals, and climate are understood and respected.
At the base of all successful pastoral farming is soil and a sound soil fertility system ensures carbon is continuously sequestered, providing the potential for increased pasture production each year.
Summer is the ideal time to consider alternatives and explore options as there’s time to do the background checking necessary to ensure this autumn’s inputs provide the results that meet longer term goals.
For more information, call Peter on 0800 843 809.