Land Flipping for Productive Dairy Farm Land

November 2015

Johno O'Connor has used land flipping to aid drainage on the heavy soils of his dairy property

Johno and Kate O’Connor own two neighbouring farms running 900 cows on 600 effective hectares. The local pakihi soils have low natural fertility and a solid iron pan that renders them boggy and difficult for livestock farming. Through flipping of substantial areas plus adoption of a “soil friendly” approach to fertilisers plus use of daily profit measures as a guide to stock numbers and pasture management, they are making a return on investment consistent with those enjoyed by dairy farmers in areas such as the Waikato and Manawatu.

Johno O’Connor was brought up on a West Coast dairy farm, learnt fencing and shearing after leaving school and spent five years contract milking and fencing.   Kate met him on her OE and they subsequently married.

Johno and his brother took on lower-order sharemilking on their parents’ farm. Two years later Johno and Kate moved to a nearby Landcorp dairy farm as 50:50 sharemilkers.

Soils in the area are termed “pakihi” – acidic gley podzols that are nutrient poor and waterlogged because high rainfall (2-3m annually) over a long period forms an impervious iron pan that inhibits drainage.

On a neighbouring farm Johno encountered “flipping” – the use of large excavators to dig down 2 – 3 metres and invert the topsoil. This breaks up the iron pan, mixes the soil and improves drainage. To make the soil productive, heavy dressings of lime are needed along with “pakihi mix” fertilisers that may include serpentine super (for Mg), S, K and the trace minerals Bo, Cu, Co, and Mo.

In 1999 after seven years of sharemilking the O’Connors bought the farm. Some years before, Johno had also bought an adjacent 800ha property that had largely reverted to gorse and scrub and was running beef cattle. Using the dairy farm for income Johno and Kate also began to convert the beef property, borrowing heavily to begin flipping the ground, establish races and build the cowshed. Johno says that flipping resulted in good drainage but a lot of topsoil was lost.

“We tried to leave the topsoil in place but we also wanted to bury the manuka and gorse, so a lot of soil got buried too,” he says. “Underneath there was gravel, so that ended up on top. We went from a bog to a river bed.”

Over the years they have improved much of the property. Today it supports 600 cows on 440 effective ha. Some of the cleared area has yet to be flipped although many of the paddocks have strips of flipped ground across them allowing stock access. While being very susceptible to pugging the unflipped ground produces well in dry weather and so provides a feed buffer when the improved paddocks dry out.

A herd of 300 on the other farm (160ha effective) is managed by sharemilker Nick Jordan.

Getting the best from flipped ground on both properties has proved a significant challenge. While some areas can produce 8-10t DM/ha other areas may yield only 5t. The ground is very hungry for fertiliser, says Johno. Despite pouring on large quantities of N, P and K the response was disappointing at times and he became disillusioned with conventional fertiliser recommendations.

“I got fed up with putting urea on paddocks. The grass would grow and then it would stop so I would have to put on another lot of urea. That wasn’t what I thought farming was about and I started looking at other ways of improving fertility,” he says.

“There was lots of literature around and some of it seemed logical but when I tried the products they just didn’t seem to work. I spent a lot of money on alternatives over the years and much of it was wasted.”

After reading about the work of American soil scientist William Albrecht and talking to people who were successfully using his concepts, Johno opted for the Albrecht approach.

“The aim is to get base saturations of cations and minerals up to levels where the soil can start performing. It’s not practical to do it immediately but we are getting there slowly by prioritising the elements we need to put on – starting with calcium, magnesium and potassium, and then down to micro-nutrients,” he says.

“It’s a matter of spending what you can because you still have to make a living along the way, and pastures need nitrogen, phosphorus and sulphur so you are putting them on as well. Testing has shown that some paddocks don’t need more P and there it’s a matter of allowing other elements to build up and release the phosphate.”

“There hasn’t been a big change in the products I use, but I’m focusing more on calcium and magnesium, so we make sure we put on enough lime and dolomite.   Nitrogen is applied in the form of ammonium sulphate.”

“We get recommendations based on soil tests, but the budget determines how much we can put on.”

Johno is critical of regional councils who insist on measures such as riparian planting to protect the environment but miss the “big picture” by continuing to allow wasteful fertiliser applications that are detrimental to soils, livestock and the environment.

“When it comes to stock husbandry, we take care and pride in what we do with our stock, but we may not be appreciating that it is the health of the soil and subsequently the grass that is a large driver for animal health,” he says.

“We have these fantastically bred cows that we get only four lactations from and they could be giving us 10. We’re stuck in the mindset of producing as much as we can as cheaply as we can, and that needs to change, starting from the soil up.”

Johno and Kate certainly have made changes and are pleased with the progress being made.

“We’re starting from a very low base of fertility and so we have a long way to go but the stock are definitely in better shape and they are quieter,” says Johno.

“Grass growth and sward diversity are improving and the colour is better despite the fact that we are using a lot less nitrogen. In the past we have at times put on 200 units of N annually but now we are down to 60 units and I feel confident that we lose little to the environment. We also don’t drench as much as we used to but I’m still putting out licks to give the stock minerals that are not yet available in the grass.”

“Our production is still quite low. A couple of years ago we did 360kg/cow and I increased cow numbers but then we had a dry year, got caught in a feed pinch and ate pasture covers down too low and production dropped to 315kg. We’ve reduced herd size and this year we hope to achieve 360kg again.”

To help him make good management choices Johno uses the Profit Focused Farming system in which all production, income and expenditure are input monthly along with weather and pasture data. The resulting analyses indicate current profit levels in cents per kilo of dry matter eaten by stock, and predict profitability up to 18 months ahead.

These figures allow Johno to look objectively at important questions like herd size, supplementary feeds, fertilisers and capital investments, and make decisions based on profit rather than production.

“Changing farming practices can be risky but this programme has helped us get back on track financially by evaluating different management options. For example, it gave me the confidence to reduce herd size by predicting that it would be more profitable, and it was,” he says.

“It has also focused me on soil carbon because it is a great measure of how sustainable your farming business system is.”

Soils samples down to 1m taken over the past four years have shown an increase in carbon of about 20%. Although there has been some variation between paddocks, possibly because of pugging or differences in soil moisture, Johno sees it as heading in the right direction. As he puts it: “If you are building the soil then you’re doing the right things for the whole farm business.”

Milk solids production at around 500kg/ha is lower than farms in more favourable dairying regions and reflects the very difficult climate, terrain and soil conditions on the West Coast. However, concentrating on profit rather than production for the past four years has paid off for the O’Connors. By using a “soil-friendly” fertiliser regime, reducing herd size, reducing bought-in supplements and basing management decisions on comprehensive profit analyses Johno has maintained the farm’s daily profit level at 15c/kg of DM eaten by stock. At the same time he has doubled the farm’s return on investment to almost 7% – as good as achieved in some of the better dairying areas.

He expects to maintain those returns despite the predicted fall in dairy payout. Farm working expenses at $3.69/kgMS last year were 60% of net trading income, but this year Johno has reduced that ratio to around 51%.

“I am very satisfied with the direction we’re heading in. I look across the fence and see farmers that are doing better than me but I’m still satisfied. You can put on lots more NPK fertilisers and grow lots more grass but we can be just as profitable producing less so what’s the point if you’re buggering up the environment?   Our aim as farmers should be to leave the land in a better state than we found it.”