Waimate West Crops and Dairying

August 2015

An investigation into the benefits of combining cropping and dairying on a dairy farm

The 36ha Waimate West Demonstration Farm was established in 1917 and since the 1960s it has had a science as well as a demonstration focus. The land is owned by the South Taranaki District Council and the stock and plant owned by a trust. It is run as a commercial unit and is self funding except for the inputs and monitoring by scientists and technicians.

The land is flat and divided into 40 equal sized paddocks. The dairy herd currently consists of 127 Jerseys.

A 5-year trial ending in 2012 looked at how best to introduce crops into a dairy platform in Taranaki as a means of increasing dry matter production, milk production and profit. Two farmlets were established – a cropping unit and a non-crop control. The project looked at species, cultivars, drilling, cultivation and how best to manage establishment and integration of crops into the farming system.  Soil carbon, nutrient and mineral losses were monitored and profitability determined. The main conclusions were:

  • It takes time to integrate crops successfully into a farm system
  • Growing crops takes paddocks out of grass and reduces feed availability until the crop is ready for harvest or grazing. Growing maize reduces dry matter availability from early October to May
  • Growing oats or ryegrasses between maize crops can provide valuable winter feed
  • Chicory and turnips provide valuable summer feed. Chicory can produce an even better crop in a second year, around 17 tonnes DM/ha
  • Profitability of the cropping farmlet was less in the initial years but subsequently the extra feed, about 2 tonnes per ha, resulted in an average of 20% higher profit.

These results begged the question: “If the area in crop were increased to 25% would that be even more profitable?”

A trial putting 25% of the whole farm (no control area) into crops was started in mid-2012. Joe Clough, a farm consultant with PGG Wrightson Consulting, says that in some ways the new trial has been significantly different from the earlier one.

“We are now milking 127 Jersey cows (142 in the previous trial), which is just under 3.7 cows per hectare. That’s quite a low stocking rate for Jerseys but when 25% of the area was put into crops it works out at about 5 cows per hectare on the remaining grass,” he says.

“We have also changed emphasis from being a high stocking rate unit with moderate to low per-cow production to achieving higher production per cow. People in our management group who have gone down that path say it takes two or three years to get the cows to a high condition score and better body weight, so we set production targets of 340kg per cow in the first year, 360kg the next year and this year we are targeting 390kg.”

“In the first year there was a drought but we still made about 328kg per cow. Last year we had some serious management issues that caused problems during the spring but we still managed to get to our target of 360kg. This season, as long as we keep getting some rain we are fairly confident that we can get to 390kg per cow.”

Farmax FarmTools Dairy has been used to model the all-grass control, and in the first year despite a poor season, profitability was about the same as the control.

“Last year we did very well production-wise but we were a bit of down in profitability compared to the control because we bought in feed. This year with a lower payout it will be interesting to see how well we do,” says Joe.

“We’ve tried to make the farm self-contained in terms of feed, and buy in only in extreme circumstances. This season we have plenty of supplement on hand and I can’t see us having to buy any more.”

“The main extra costs are in the establishment of the crops, there isn’t a huge extra amount in crop maintenance apart from a bit of spraying so hopefully the extra production will cover those costs. We will see.”

Typically four crops are grown – maize, turnips, chicory and oats/annual ryegrass. Each year three paddocks come out of grass and are sown in maize, and three that have been in crops are re-grassed. At any one time there are seven paddocks of maize, one of turnips and two of chicory. After harvest most of the maize paddocks are sown in oats and annual ryegrass to provide what has proved to be excellent winter feed for the farm.

“We grow two varieties of maize – a medium-maturing one and a longer maturing variety. With the limited space on the demonstration farm we want to try to have enough maize from the previous season to keep us going until the medium variety is harvested,” says Joe.

“We have a pit that holds about three paddocks and the rest goes into long bags. We fill the pit up and give it a couple of weeks to mature then start feeding that and hopefully by the time the late one is harvested the pit is clear to put the new lot in. We’ve done that for the last two years and that has worked very well.”

“Last year FAR suggested we also sow a paddock of whole-crop barley silage in the autumn to harvest by the end of October before we sowed turnips. Unfortunately a delay in seed supply meant that the barley was very late sown and not harvested until early December.”

“We did get a good yield of around 12 tonnes per hectare and the quality was quite similar to maize but the late harvest meant that the turnips were late sown and so that crop is light.”

The farm has a feed pad, which Joe says is essential to make best use of the crops without pugging and soil damage. Effluent and manure from the pad are spread around the farm, which is highly fertile. Only a little N is necessary on the maize crops at sowing and none during the growing season. For the past few years only “half rates” of P and K have been needed but this year about 35kg of P, 60 kg of K and 200kg of N have been applied.

“The reason for both the 12% trial and this one is that most of the previous production increases in Taranaki have come from bringing feed in. However, only about 30% of farmers have run-offs and many farmers don’t like to be exposed to the vagaries of the market place for feed, so if they can to improve their lot by growing it all on farm and having it under their own control it is worthwhile,” says Joe.

“Some farmers are concerned that palm kernel may not have a great future and that the whole industry has become so dependent on it. If supplies suddenly got turned off what would farmers do?”

“We’ve shown that cropping 25% of the area is feasible and can work well, and the farm can become self-sufficient in feed. While you can certainly get the extra production, you have to make certain that it is going to be profitable, and because of the difficulties we had in the first two seasons we are not sure about that, so we want to extend the trial for another year.”

Steve Poole is a well established dairy farmer and a member of the Demonstration Farm’s management team. He milks 800 cows on 210 ha plus a run-off. He generally has about 10% of the farm plus some of the runoff in crops, mainly maize with some fodder beet. He uses crop rotation as a pasture renovation tool and also to utilise the high K levels in areas where effluent has been applied.

“The value of the Demonstration Farm is that you can take things a bit further and be more extreme than you would normally do on a commercial farm, and it shows you how far you can push the boundaries,” says Steve.

“Because my farm is much larger I haven’t gone to 25% cropping, but I do use a lot of other feeds such as PKE and distiller’s grain that I buy in. I am not so opposed to buying in feed if I can source it at the right price.”

“If you buy in feed you know what you are going to get and you pay for it only when you get it in the gate. If you grow your own crops you are limited to what yield you can get in a particular season so although it is cheaper. it is not as certain.”

Steve says that both trials have demonstrated the sorts of crop yields that are possible in Taranaki, and the recent trial has shown the benefit of raising the condition score of cows through better nutrition.

“Our climate is such that we seem to be having a dry spell every other year, and so the crops do allow you to milk right through those dry periods and not be so much at the mercy of the weather and have to dry cows off, which is quite a benefit,” he says.

“You need to pay particular attention to detail in establishing the crops, you can’t take any shortcuts, and you may have a percentage of your farm out of production at any one time, so it is prudent to have a backup plan for stock nutrition until the bank of feed from the crops becomes available.”

“However, the feed I grow on my milking platform is the cheapest I can get because of the nutrients that are already there on the effluent-irrigated areas. A figure of at least 10% of the farm in crops seems to be a good aim for a Taranaki dairy farmer. It has certainly worked for me.