This article first appeared in our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.
Lincoln University researchers are trialling a new way of dairy farming, one that makes the health of the cows, environment, staff and the milk the farm produces more important than production rates – and addresses many of the issues dairy farming faces.
The Integral Health Dairy Farm has been set up with 100 cows on 43ha of Lincoln’s Ashley Dene research property and at a recent open day, farmers and rural professionals were given a taste of the work going on there.
“Something has to change in our pastoral livestock production system,” research manager Dr Anita Fleming told visitors.
“We know the climate is changing and things are becoming more and more variable, so it’s really exciting to be part of this project, looking at some possible answers to how do we cope with some of these really big challenges that we’re facing.”
The trial farm has been designed by a multidisciplinary team using systems and design theories, the effectiveness of which will be rigorously tested by Lincoln scientists. Among the components are adjacent multiple swards and multifunctional browsing sites.
Fleming says while New Zealand’s predominant perennial ryegrass and white clover pastures is good for milk production, it’s not necessarily the healthiest diet for cows. However, just adding other species to pastures mixes doesn’t always address that.
“When we make mixed pastures, it’s really hard for cows to selectively graze the things they want to, so we’ve developed the concept of adjacent pastures, putting together a mixture of key plants we know grow well together or function well from a seasonal perspective.
“By putting them next to each other, the animal is able to distinguish those pastures and makes decisions around, ‘I’ll graze this now and have a little bit of this later’.”
Not only will the effectiveness of mixed pastures on cow health be studied, but also what changes the mixed diet has on the profile of the milk produced. Humans have used medicinal plants for thousands of years and the research will build on that knowledge.
“We know there are a lot of really cool compounds in plants that can do some really cool things but we haven’t really thought about how we integrate that into agriculture effectively in a way that not only benefits us a consumer of those products, but also can benefit the animals that eat those products.”
The “striped” pastures consist of ryegrass and white clover with alternative mixes alongside, including plants such as chicory, plantain, lucerne, vetch and a variety of annual clovers.
Multi-functional browsing sites have also been planted with shrubs and low-growing trees that provide not only shelter but are also a source of forage.
“That will actually provide some of those biochemicals we’re really interested in using to change our milk profile,” Fleming says.
“We’re also looking at plants that are a little bit more potent and will have a bigger effect in terms of the potential for anti-oxidants, anti-inflammatories and that sort of thing.”
Project leader Professor Pablo Gregorini says the World Health Organisation’s definition of health is one of the guiding principles of the research project.
“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.
“We have designed and are implementing a new dairy system at Lincoln University. This farm is not aimed to produce milk, it is aimed to produce health, the health of the whole system. We will look through many lenses at soil health, vegetation health, animal health, which includes us, and only when we overlap those lenses can we really see the multidimensionality of health.
“We cannot talk about one without thinking about others. We need to talk about the whole holistically.”
Gregorini says one of the aims of the project is to re-engage with consumers who view modern farming as environmentally unsustainable and bad for animal welfare.
“Obviously something is going on in society. Maybe we need to start thinking about how we can re-engage with people.
“We want to change how our farm looks, feels, smells and tastes. It aims to be visually different and utilise aesthetics as an antidote to notions of alienation generated by conventional dairying.”
In 2020-21 the Ashley Dean research farm was depopulated because of Mycoplasma bovis and since then a new research programme has been developed. Lincoln University Vice-Chancellor Grant Edwards says the integral health project is a good representation of what the university is trying to do.
“It brings together the key aspects of soils, forages, animals, production systems and farm management to address some of those big challenges that we have, health and wellbeing, not only of our livestock but through to our people, the health and wellbeing of our land and water as a consequence of that and really striving towards some of the key issues around climate change and climate change adaptation.”