Saturday, December 2, 2023

The quest to be outstanding in my field

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Steve Wyn-Harris has seen the tech and theories of pasturage come and go.
The rising plate didn’t last long in Steve Wyn-Harris’ toolkit, soon replaced by Dooney Sticks – which in turn were soon copied by a smart consultant, who created the plastic sward sticks in wide use now.
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We farmers all like to think we are top stockmen. Most are and I thought I probably was as well.

Then about halfway through my farming career, around 20 years ago, I started to have some self-realisation that it wasn’t my core competence at all.

I was actually a better pasture manager than a stockman, but having adequate quality feed at the right times does lead to good animal performance so it’s no great sin.

And of course, there is that tension between stock performance and stocking rate.

There’s a sweet spot there somewhere.

Limited to farming just 320ha, I kept my stocking rate up to maximise the net profit but would have to compromise on not having the biggest sheep or the very best per-head production while chasing good per-hectare returns.

And because of an annual rainfall that has ranged between 500mm and 1300mm, I’ve had to develop a flexible farming system that can cope with the vagaries of nature.

I’ve had the big advantage of being well benchmarked against my peers in my land class (Class 5 NI Finishing East Coast), having been a participant in Beef + Lamb New Zealand’s Economic Service survey for 25 years.

This has allowed me to see where my business strengths and weaknesses lie and address them in the quest for continuous improvement.

A group of us who began farming in the 1980s formed a discussion group.

We were fortunate to get the opportunity to farm but beginning during the tough years of a farming recession with high interest rates meant the support of the discussion group was extremely useful for financial survival as well as moral support. Several went on to become Hawke’s Bay Farmers of the Year. We remain good friends all these years later.

Under the tutelage of our discussion group’s farm consultants, Alan Barr and Ray Guilford, our group had begun to learn the art of feed budgeting in the 1980s.

It was basic as we grappled with how to use spreadsheets and estimate feed levels.

I got myself a rising plate and later a probe but in the end marked onto four rulers, one for each season, the dry matter levels from the tables out of the MAF book written by Mulligan that we used as our feed budgeting bible.

Chris improved on this and made little wooden sticks with a season on each side. We copied them and called them “Dooney Sticks” and then a smart consultant saw them and created the plastic sward sticks we all use now.

The last time I saw the numbers, there were relatively few who did formal feed budgeting, but many of course do it instinctively in their head and trust their gut.

I’ve been a Farmax user for 23 years since it evolved out of the old Stockpol, which I’d used during the 1990s.

I used to print the annual feed graphs and Sellotape them together and it showed that, for much of the time, I was pretty good at keeping my pasture covers in the optimum zone for each season as recommended by the model.

Well, that ability has gone well out the window over the past three years.

Given the two autumn droughts in a row and now two boomer autumns, I feel like my covers have been either 1000kgdm/ha or 3000kgdm/ha and very little time spent in the middle.

Two of the driest autumns and winters I’ve recorded followed by the wettest last year and an extremely wet start to this year thanks to a couple of cyclones have made pasture management difficult.

Over the past 12 months we have grown a large amount of feed with plenty of clover, but stock performance has been average at best. A combination of poorer quality pastures and being wet much of the time. And also I don’t think my management has been as good as in the past.

Pasture and stock management will be even more difficult for the many properties that have suffered extensive damage to their fencing infrastructure from the cyclones, and they will be doing everything they can to get things back to some order before the onset of winter.

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