Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Countering the cost of pugging

Pugging damage to Beef + Lamb New Zealand’s Northland demonstration farm is costing owners Grant and Christine West $30,000 a year in lost pasture production alone. The Wests and Grant’s mother Joy are busy building a 20mx30m covered stand-off pad in time for this winter so they can simply remove up to 110 rising two-year-old steers off the pasture, as required. They farm 446ha (403ha effective) at Tangiteroria, halfway between Whangarei and Dargaville. The property is winter wet and spring dry with heavy clay soils and a lot of kikuyu grass. And it is this combination of kikuyu and heavy soil that keeps the Wests awake at night – literally.

In autumn, the kikuyu grass needs the grazing horsepower that comes only with larger cattle – so it can be knocked back sufficiently for the ryegrass and clover to build up cover into winter.

Grant and Christine West with Tip and Code (Huntaway).

Why a stand-off pad?

Grant says building a stand-off pad is something they have wanted to do for a while because of the property’s heavy clay soils.

“We average 1250mm of rainfall. It’s not uncommon for rain to fall for five or six days in a week through winter here. Once the clay soils get wet, it doesn’t take much to keep them wet. It’s a big issue.

“The kikuyu is a godsend this year but is usually something to be managed because of its sporadic growth and rapidly declining feed quality during the warm season. You can’t get rid of it. You can try, by cropping and re-grassing but it will be back within four years.”

But this experiment is not just about the health of the soil and animals. It’s also about the health of the Wests.

“It’s not nice hearing rain on the roof at night during winter. I’ll sleep better knowing the cattle are comfortable and well fed, not ploughing up the ground.”

Grant describes the stand-off pad as the “poor man’s” version, costing $125,000 and consisting of a clear roof and rolled limestone floor which slopes down to a concrete-covered effluent collection pit.

“The more expensive we went, the harder it was going to be to make it stack up. We were going to build big enough for 200 animals but decided to go half way for a start.

There were two reasons. One, we wanted to see how it goes and be able to carry on and build a second elsewhere on the farm, making improvements based on how the first home goes. And, two, you have to have the supplements on hand for up 110 animals for 80 days and that was just going to be too expensive. At around $300 an animal, that’s making your margin pretty lean so there has to be a reasonable amount of on/off grazing involved.”

The Wests have grown and harvested – for the first time – 80t DM of maize silage ready for winter on top of 120 bales of grass silage already on hand.

The steers will go into the home mid winter – around the shortest day of the year – then be moved in and out of the space as the soil dictates until early September.

Grant is planning to try using a penetrometer (soil compaction tester, as used on building sites) to objectively measure the soil’s susceptibility to pugging on any given day over that period – then decide if it’s a cattle inside or outside day. 

Using the extra pasture

Grant and Christine are already planning how they will use the extra feed.

“We are slow to get going in spring and can top out at 40kg DM/ha/day growth rates, which is well behind most other parts of the country.

“The ewes will really benefit from more and better pasture. They’re like a plague of locusts in the spring and it would be great to get more grass under them in the lead-up to and at lambing. Then we can work on getting more lambs off to the works, straight off mum.

“I’m not too worried about increasing lamb weight so much but would like to consistently get 60% of lambs away at weaning. The best we’ve ever managed is 43%.” 

Environmental impact

There is also a wider environmental consideration.

“Our big problem on hill country is the loosening of soil by trampling then having it washed away, causing sedimentation in our waterways.

“You could ask why we don’t just sell and buy cattle on the seasons instead of trying to winter them. It’s a very fair point but as environmental restrictions increase, that is going to be the default position for many farmers. And we simply can’t all sell in the autumn and buy in the spring.

“I want to put the farm ahead of the game, as much as possible – before the restrictions our dairying mates already face come home to roost on our doorstep too.” 


B+LNZ farm general manager Richard Wakelin says while kikuyu has been an issue in Northland for a long time and there have been many grass specific projects, there has not been such a radical approach to the problem as the Wests are testing.

“They are reducing the pasture damage and putting themselves in a position to decide what to do with the extra feed. For the Wests, it’s a dual focus – reducing pugging by cattle and generating an opportunity to feed extra grass to lambs.

“For B+LNZ it’s about taking an issue that is particular to Northland, looking at work done in the past then doing something totally different about it.”

Wakelin says B+LNZ does not have a view on the role of covered stand-off pads or “herd home” type sheds on beef farms. “It hasn’t been considered an option for beef and this is part of the reason behind the trial. What are the costs and benefits?”

– Supplied by Beef + Lamb New Zealand

About kikuyu

Kikuyu grass was introduced to New Zealand with the best of intentions. The perennial grass originates from Africa and NZ’s Department of Agriculture brought it in during the early 1920s as a pasture suitable for poorer soils in hot, dry areas.

By the mid 1970s it had spread to about 10% of Northland and was dominant on most Northland farms. Kikuyu grows in thick mats, preventing other species from holding their own in the pasture mix.

However, farmers recognised the grass could be used to their advantage. It is drought resistant and has a low facial eczema risk. Its nutritional value varies significantly but is highest when the plant is young, slow growing and leafy.

If controlled by hard grazing during its peak growth period, autumn and early winter, then higher-quality species can still come through for winter.

Being almost impossible to eradicate anyway – due to its rhizome root system and above-ground stolons, which can establish new roots – farmers and kikuyu have developed a mutual understanding and it is an accepted part of farming in Northland.

Source: Ministry for Primary Industries and Northland Kikuyu Action Group. 

Feed scenarios: what’s possible?

Grant and Christine West’s demonstration farm consultant Bob Thomson has been busy crunching the figures around the feasibility of the covered stand-off pad.

“The modeling was reasonably involved because the mix of stock classes needed to change.

“The need for breeding cows reduced as the need for kikuyu control duties reduced. And the extra spring pasture production from reduced pugging was converted into lamb weaning weight, plus spring and early summer bull trading – both profitable options.

“The steers were finished off the stand-off pad from August to November, when the beef schedule is at its best. That all converted into more profitable returns, emphasising that winter and spring pasture growth is like gold.”

The table shows the additional profit which is possible when policies are able to be rejigged and when one third of the farm is protected from the 29% decrease in pasture production from pugging.

A 10ha maize crop was grown with an 18T DM yield and this was fed along with pasture to the stand-off pad steers. NB. The gross margin does not include the cost of the pad, nor feeding out the silage.

“It’s early days yet but Grant is determined to tackle what he and many other Northland farmers believe is our Northland Achilles heel – too much lost pasture production from pugged soils,” Thomson says.

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