Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Fewer cows for a brighter farm future

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This Western Bay of Plenty dairy and drystock unit – in a particularly sensitive part of a sensitive catchment – has undergone a transformation in the past three years.
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Cutting back your milking herd by 40% in two short years may not be for the faint-hearted, but it is a leap now starting to pay dividends for Pongakawa couple Ann and Will Nettleingham.

The couple’s Western Bay of Plenty dairy and drystock unit has undergone a transformation in the past three years. That is from a high-input farm system pushing hard on 250ha of country that includes about 60ha of Land Use Capability (LUC) 6 with slopes over 30 degrees, some facing in a southerly direction.

They opened their farm up for some close scrutiny on a field day run through the Wai Kōkopu catchment group, a farmer-led initiative that covers 35,000ha of land between the Waihī estuary and the hill country separating Bay of Plenty and Rotorua Lakes district. 

As members of the catchment group, the Nettleinghams are in the midst of a land use transition held up as an example of how such moves can be made to lower farms’ environmental footprint in the catchment, while they still remain economically viable.

“We were milking twice a day, over two cows a hectare, no youngstock and the only environmental pressures all those years ago were limited to having a resource consent for your effluent discharge and keeping stock out of waterways. There was no limit on nitrogen, and ‘more milk’ was the catch cry,” says Ann Nettleingham.

Over the years the stocking rate increased and nitrogen was used to fill feed holes on country that was very susceptible to summer dry conditions.

“It worked when the planets lined up – it required a high payout, rain, and good interest rates. It was high pressure a lot of the time, on the cows, the people, and the environment.”

Five years ago an unplanned move to once-a-day milking in springtime prompted them to re-evaluate the farm operation, and take a more holistic view of how they could continue in a more sustainable fashion.

They were introduced to the Wai Kōkopu catchment project. It now has 69 dairy farms and 220 orchards in its catchment area, which drains into the environmentally degraded Waihī estuary near Maketu on the coast. 

“The Wai Kōkopu project really started us on a journey and a heightened appreciation of what we could be doing in our environment,” says Ann. 

The Wai Kōkopu catchment group includes some well-known names leading farm environment transitions. From left, BoP farmer John Scrimgeour, farm environment consultant and vet Alison Dewes and Katikati farmer John Burke.

Their farm is in a particularly sensitive part of a sensitive catchment, alongside the Pongakawa River, one of three that flow into the damaged estuary. With about a quarter of their farm on steep land classed as fragile LUC 6, they could see the benefits of retiring that country and just focusing on the higher quality top and valley country for milking.

Wai Kōkopu operations manager Alison Dewes says the steep, vulnerable land was only harvesting about half what the better flatter land was doing.

“They knew that as a result they would to better to constrain their milking platform to probably about two-thirds of the area, make more profit, have it easier on the cows, the people and themselves and at the same time retire that most vulnerable land, which was going to help the estuary and the Pongakawa River.”

Drawing on Wai Kōkopu’s access to a range of experts meant they could use the skills of long-time forester Graham West to help determine the “right tree in the right place” within the boundary. 

This now includes 32ha of pine, 8ha of redwood, 8.5ha of planted native and 18ha of existing native, in total 67% or 20% of the farm’s total area. West’s input has meant the pines have been planted in a more aesthetically pleasing contour-matched pattern, in contrast to the ridge-to-valley approach commercial foresters usually adopt.

He says were it not for constant government meddling and adjustments to the Emissions Trading Scheme, more farmers would be inclined to pick up on plantings the way the Nettleinghams have.

The natives have been planted using the “Timata” planting method, which emphasises good ground preparation, intensive weed control and planting forestry grade mānuka or kānuka at lower-than-usual densities of about 2500 stems a hectare. This is about a quarter of the usual density, lowering the cost of planting and encouraging rapid growth, subject to good ongoing weed and pest control.

With the valley milking areas now very clearly defined against the fenced tree areas, the couple say they are aware of the shading effect the pine plantings are likely to have in coming years, and the impact this may have on future milking viability for those paddocks.

Their future planting plans include more native plantings. Far more frequent sightings of native birds including the native falcon is a strong incentive, says Ann.

“We have been dropping the cow numbers from over 700 to 450, and basically reinvesting the cow dollars back into the trees.”

Economic modelling by agricultural economist Phil Journeaux shows the transition will deliver a positive outcome.

Total milk solid production drops from about 215,000ha off the original 308ha and 740 cows to 154,000kgMS off 238ha, milking 450.

Against the original milking platform, average earnings before interest, tax and depreciation is up 33% a hectare to $1359, while greenhouse gas emissions have been modelled as declining by 33% to only 5.2t/ha. This compares to most systems emitting about 12t/ha.

Similarly, nitrogen losses have also dropped, down by 35% in leached N per hectare.

Dewes says the Nettleinghams have managed to define their farm’s “sweet spot”, stepping back from the higher input, high-pressure system that still relied on favourable conditions to fully hit its optimum, meaning the risk of carrying higher marginal input costs was always hanging over the farm operation.

“This challenges farmers to reconsider if putting stock on steep country like this was the right thing to do.”

This article first appeared in the December edition of our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.

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