Friday, April 19, 2024

How far could Halter take hill country farms?

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Recent trials in some of Northland’s toughest country open up a world of opportunities.
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Virtual fencing of beef cows and finishing cattle is a game-changer for hill country farming, opening many possibilities for farm development and livestock management, Northland’s James Parsons says.

Parsons, the former chair of Beef + Lamb New Zealand (BLNZ) and co-owner of Matauri Angus beef stud and 600 hectare Ashgrove Farm, has been trialling Halter collars on breeding cows and heifers for the past three months.

Along with business partner and farm manager Travis Pymm, he is excited by the cattle adaptability, grazing pressure, calf growth rates and the hands-on farm work improvements.

And with Parsons’ governance background, Nuffield scholarship and part-time farm advisory work, the advantages for virtual fencing in hill country seem to stretch out before him.

He has already shown Kaipara Moana Remediation representatives some options for retiring steep and shaded slopes from cattle grazing, planting with natives and mitigating sedimentary loss to waterways.

“Would KMR put money into virtual fencing infrastructure rather than the costly hard fencing? Which requires ongoing maintenance,” Parsons asks.

“Will the proposed Northland Regional Council stock exclusions on steep slopes become redundant?

“Do we rethink all fencing and subdivision on our 600ha farm. Is a 30ha or 40ha paddock now the optimum paddock size, meaning less fencing maintenance?

“What is the optimum sheep to cattle ratio, how many breeding cows do we need to get the utilisation benefits whilst still running a high-performance ewe flock?

“Instead of setting up costly 0.5ha cell systems on our easier sections of the farm with two-wire electrics using two daily shifts, do we put collars on our finishing cattle and move to daily shifts?

“The big question running through my mind is, how do we really systemize this grazing technology to make the most of it?”

Ashgrove Farm co-owner James Parsons and his farm manager Travis Pymm confer on grazing block boundaries for their Matauri Angus cows and calves.

Parsons has spreadsheets that ask the financial questions, and he will be sharing them at a BLNZ Farming for Profit field day on March 13.

He estimates his farming operations currently use 59% of their pasture. He is hopeful once they improve water infrastructure and land on the optimum grazing system they could go to 80%, an extra one to two tonnes a hectare dry matter annually, and generate tens of thousands of dollars more in gross margin.

With more natural water during winter, and some water lines and troughs, collared cows can be pushed higher towards the ridge lines and held there to eat pasture that is currently sub-optimally grazed and this time of year ends up rank.

But better utilisation is only one of three big potential gains – the others being growing more grass and growing better quality.

The installation cost of Halter communication towers, farm mapping and Starlink service is around $40,000 and the annual rental of collars is $96 per cow.

Parsons has no doubt that the initial set-up cost and ongoing collar rental will be covered by better pasture utilisation, before the added benefits of improved pasture growth and feed quality improvements.

Pymm says the current crop of calves are three to four weeks ahead of usual, growing at 900g/day instead of 800g, notwithstanding this drier summer compared with last summer’s soaking.

Calves are not collared and are free to graze ahead of their mothers, not confined to competing with them for feed. They can wander back to Mum for a drink whenever they want.

The cows stand at the virtual boundary before shifts, waiting for the audio cues to tell them to move forward.

They learnt very quickly that a beeping sound after crossing a live boundary told them to retreat before a pulse would follow.

The virtual boundaries and the shifts are controlled by Pymm, Parsons and stock manager Dan Keay using their mobile phones and the Halter app.

The app can be viewed offline, but new breaks can’t be drawn or initiated without cell or WiFi reception. So shifts are generally programmed the night before and scheduled to initiate at 5:30am the next morning in the cool of the day.

The Halter towers have solar panels and batteries and communicate via a LoRa network up to 3km line of sight.

Continual updating of the app from all collars produces a grazing “heat” map history and enables quick retrieval of a lost collar – only two collars have fallen off the Matauri cows in the past three months.

The 535ha-effective Ashgrove farm at Tangowahine, near Dargaville, has nine towers including the home tower back at the yards and selling centre.

Matauri cows with collars and their calves rest up in the heat of the day near the water source.

It is currently running 269 collars across 92 R1 heifers and 177 breeding cows.

During mating the cows were confined to one or two hectare zones and the bulls did not have to range far, reducing the possibilities of injuries.

Being an Angus stud, all cows and heifers are single sire mated and therefore had to be split into smaller mobs, nine in total.

“The shift sequence is all carrot and no stick,” Parsons says.

“The cows are not forced to shift, the incentive is more grass in the new break. Shifts average about one hour before the whole mob is across and locked in the new break.

“They only receive a pulse after a 30 second warning if they try to leave their break.

“We also had the added advantage of grazing mating mobs in the easier areas of some paddocks that we traditionally would never use for mating because they were too big or too steep.”

Ashgrove is 70% hard hill country and about 30% kikuyu pasture content in the summer.

Uncollared calves grazing over the perimeter that holds the cows. Back in spring the Matauri cows and calves were new to the virtual fencing and had plenty of lush grass to eat.

When Parsons spends time away from the farm he can follow all collared cattle on the Halter app. 

“It’s great knowing exactly where everything is and makes planning and discussing grazing plans with the team so much easier.” 

The workload has changed to more time spent planning daily shifts and pasture management, instead of physically moving cattle weekly or fortnightly.

“But these shifts don’t require physically shifting cows, so it’s redirected effort with more benefit,” Pymm says.

“Our farm is some of Northland’s steepest hill country and if the technology can work on our hills then this can work anywhere.

“We are just three months into this new technology and only scratching the surface – once we systemize our grazing and improve our water infrastructure we will get a lot more out of it.”


BLNZ Northern North Island Farming for Profit field day, 10am start, Wednesday, March 13, Ashgrove Farm, 585 Murray Rd, Tangowahine.

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