Friday, April 19, 2024

Arable farmers eye dairy grazing profits

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Fewer seed crop contracts may mean a drop in lamb finishing numbers this season.
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Cropping farmers are steering towards dairy as they look for improved winter grazing profitability this season.    

Poor lamb returns and a reduction in contracts for ryegrass seed crops is driving some Canterbury mixed cropping and livestock farmers to reduce lamb finishing numbers in favour of dairy grazing. 

This was the key message from a panel of four Mid Canterbury mixed arable farmers when outlining their drivers for profitability at a combined Foundation for Arable Research (FAR) and Beef + Lamb New Zealand winter grazing seminar at Rakaia. 

Methven farmer John McCaw told the seminar his arable farm is focused on cocksfoot and ryegrass seed production as well as growing vegetable seeds and cereals.

McCaw would normally trade 4000 to 5000 lambs a year, but these numbers will be back this year. 

“We buy lambs based on our ryegrass seed crop area for the following spring, at 35 lambs a hectare.”

Lambs are bought in autumn, after harvest, and initially graze autumn-sown cocksfoot before being wintered on greenfeed oats, rape and fodder beet. 

In early spring, lambs are used to graze ryegrass paddocks before these are shut up for seed production. 

“Every paddock on the farm, apart from two last year, had stock across them, so we are an arable farm, but we are very much a mixed farm.

“We find the system works well for income generation as well as crop management, particularly the cocksfoot in the autumn and the ryegrass control in the spring.”

For dairy grazing, the farm has had an arrangement with the same dairy farmer for 15 years with up to 300 heifer calves arriving pre-Christmas and staying until they are 18-month-old in-calf heifers and ready to return to the dairy farm. 

The farming system also winter-grazes up to 750 dairy cows.  

Methven farmer George Lilley said in the past couple of years lamb numbers on farm have dropped by 1500 to 2500-3000, while dairy cow numbers have lifted from 400 to 600. 

This is largely for profitability and to reduce the risk of holding so many lambs.

The farm is largely ryegrass based, with wheat, barley and break-crops in a four-year rotation.   

While the return per kilogram of drymatter is better with dairy grazing, Lilley said this needs to be balanced against the damage the dairy stock can do to paddocks and the potential difficulty in establishing crops in these paddocks the following spring. 

Simon Lochhead runs a mainly no-till farming operation at Rakaia, where he aims to limit soil damage and in recent years has been exclusively lamb grazing. 

However, the farm has historically done dairy grazing, and cows will be returning this year to improve profitability and to diversify and spread risk.

Lamb numbers are purchased to suit the grass seed area.

“As there are fewer contracts for grass seed I will be reducing lamb numbers to match.” 

The leaving date for the last lambs is determined by the closing date of new season grass with the last load having to go then, irrespective of whether it is fully finished or not.

Lepoutre-Kroef farm arable manager Lachlan Angland said that its system is arable and vegetable production with grazing used for seed crop establishment and grazing cover crops during winter. 

They only use lambs and occasionally the neighbour’s hoggets and ewes. 

FAR senior environment researcher Abie Horrocks told the seminar that New Zealand arable growers have some of the most diverse crop rotations in the world. 

In comparison to arable soils overseas, the degree of livestock integration means arable soils are in better condition because rotations that include livestock can support inclusion of restorative crops, such as ryegrass, that build soil organic matter. 

In addition to soil quality, nutrient cycling and cashflow, there are other reasons why arable growers have livestock. 

These include weed control, natural tillering managing height and bulk of grass seed crops, crop residue management and rotation fit.

As new environmental and greenhouse gas emissions regulations come on-stream, Horrocks said regulators need to be well-informed of the role livestock plays in an arable farming system. 

“If soil quality declines, more fertiliser and irrigation may be required. 

“Removing livestock from mixed rotations may have an unintended consequence of increasing pesticide use and if weeds become more problematic as a result it could introduce a risk to the production of weed and disease-free pure seed lines. 

“Quality seed lines are the ultimate driver in an arable business,” Horrocks said. 

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