Winter Beef Farming in Northland

September 2014

Options for reducing pasture damage in winter on a Northland beef farm

The West family invested $125,000 in a covered stand-off pad for beef cattle in order to take them off saturated paddocks in winter during heavy rainfall occasions and feed them supplements. Pasture growth measurements in pugged versus non-pugged paddocks has been part of a two-year demonstration farm project by Beef + Lamb New Zealand.

Grant and Christine West farm with Grant’s mother Joy on 446ha (404ha effective) of hill country and river terraces at Tangiteroria, Northland, on heavy clay soils with a kikuyu-dominant pasture. The property is wet in the winter and the soil profile is prone to pugging. Pugging damages the pasture cover and root system and depresses dry matter production over the following 12 to 18 months by up to 30%. A single pugging event in winter can reduce livestock production for a long time thereafter, even when soils have dried out and pasture growth conditions are good. That means a loss of income for the Wests of around $30,000 annually when pugging affects about one-third of the property’s effective area, which was a common occurrence in the past.

The provision of a covered stand-off pad for beef cattle is radical in Northland, although relatively common in wet, cold countries in the northern hemisphere. In New Zealand hard-pan stand-off areas are usually provided for dairy cows, which are often fed with supplements during winter as they have to walk longer distances between the farm dairy and grass paddocks. Dairy farming is usually carried out on land with less slope, which is generally heavier and wetter in winter, and therefore prone to pugging. The cost of covered yards, sheds and stand-off pads is usually prohibitive for beef farmers, who work on much smaller gross margins than dairy farmers.

The Wests are expecting a 10 to 15-year return on their investment.

During autumn 2013, the West family built a 20m by 30m covered stand-off pad for beef cattle, the first of its kind in Northland. It has a crushed limestone base, timber posts, steel spans and clear plastic roofing, plus a concrete effluent catchment and storage pit, also covered. The pit has a weeping wall to let liquid through and retain solids, but that has not been needed much as yet, according to Grant. The dried solid effluent is taken out in spring and early summer and used as base fertiliser on maize paddocks. The barn does not require a consent to discharge effluent.

The installation cost $125,000 and the capacity is 120-130 rising two-year steers. The original idea was for a capacity of 200 animals but the more expensive the installation, the longer the investment return time. Making and storing the required feed was also going to be prohibitive. A second version might be built at another farm location in future.

Grant West is entering his second winter of stand-off pad use, somewhat constrained by the drought between those winters. He was able to make maize silage but very little grass silage was baled and penned cattle cannot live on maize silage alone. All supplementary feeds are costly compared with pasture and so the profitability of the farm and the stand-off pad use depends on making as much use of pasture as possible. “We need to maximise the time on grass, without pugging,” Grant says. “Last winter was dry and really only September was wet enough with long rain events to raise the risk of pugging.” Steers spent up to seven days at a time in the barn and consequently, there was no pugging damage last winter. “But so far it has been hard to prove the hypothesis of what we set out to do here.”

“The barn works fantastically and I love having it here. It is going to take me more time to work on the on-off grazing aspects and to monitor soil moisture levels and know when to take the cattle off.”

Grant used the barn to put 1kg/day on cattle last winter, whereas on pasture they would be lucky to do 0.3-0.5kg. Also the pasture saved by feeding cattle supplements in the barn contributed towards an extra 7kg LW on his ewe hoggets over winter, and he was able to keep each livestock class on its prioritised pasture round, rather than having to rob paddocks off sheep because of low pasture covers. “We grew more grass in the spring because the pastures hadn’t been damaged in winter and the ewes lambed on to the best pastures ever.”

It has been used to finish Wagyu-cross steers by feeding them maize to raise the marbling score. An increase of 2 score would bring another $1/kg CW.

This winter Grant intends to use it for Friesian bulls as well as crossbred steers. It was all steers last year. There was no damage done to the structure.

“How we winter big cattle, whether a dairy or beef farmer, on light land or heavy, is going to come under more and more scrutiny. We are trying to take a technology commonly used in the dairy industry and adapt to a more cost conscious beef situation.”