Where are the gains to be made when production costs need to be cut?

Pasture to Profit consultant Sean Chubb talks through what the plans are for Walford College.

Like all farms out there, Walford has been looking for ways to reduce the cost of production to offset the increase in fertiliser and feed, as well as take advantage of the removal of BPS payments. Being an autumn block farm, the need for concentrate through the winter months is something they cannot avoid, but other decisions can be made to reduce the impact on profitability during these uncertain times.

At the beginning of the financial year the cost of fertiliser was already on the rise. Luckily the farm had already purchased its needs for the 2021/22 season, so there was already a degree of mitigation in the system. While having this fertiliser on hand was going to save the farm costs during the season, there was no guarantee that the cost of fertiliser would reduce to ‘normal’ levels before the farm needed to purchase fertiliser for the 2022/23 season, so a plan was put in place to save as much of this fertiliser as possible.

To reduce the level of nitrogen we looked to utilise the natural growth of the plant. As grass grows there’s more leaf area to capture sunlight and through doing so the growth rate increases. The plan was to increase the pre-grazing height of the sward from 2800KgDM to around 3200KgDM.

We didn’t want to graze covers any higher than this as we’d be risking canopy closure, which would stimulate stem elongation and lower the feed value of the sward and make it harder to achieve residuals of 1500KgDM.

We were still aiming to grow the same amount of grass for the year, but with less nitrogen. The exact level of nitrogen reduction is unknown and will be largely dictated by the weather, but we are hoping for a reduction of 50 to 70 kgs of nitrogen per ha. The confidence in this approach was taken from Lincoln University dairy farm in New Zealand, where in 2014 with nitrogen regulations coming into effect, the university dairy had to make changes.

They reduced their nitrogen applications from 325kg per ha down to a four-year average of 167kg per ha, this level of reduction in nitrogen was forecasted to reduce growth by 3 tonnes of dry matter per hectare but through increasing their entry covers they managed to reduce the loss of growth to 1.5 tonnes of dry matter per hectare.

LIC bred crossbred cows at Walford College Farm

Spring rotation

The spring rotation was managed as normal, but instead of finishing on a 21-day rotation we finished on a 23- day rotation. Leading into the heading date the entry covers were to be lowered slightly to ensure quality and to keep the required rotation speed as cows would be starting to be dried off through this time as well.

Through the summer months with the transitioning cows on standing hay, high growth rates are not needed so entry covers would be back to 2800KgDM. This would ensure top quality grass for when the cows calve.

In autumn the covers will stay at 2800KgDM to ensure all of the farms can be grazed out well leading into housing. The fully housed date is going to be the end of October so the cows will stay on a 21-day rotation through this time period, giving a flat wedge for turning out.

Since the beginning of the monitor farm process, Walford has had the goal of getting to 6000L from forage.

This year the farm is set to exceed 5000L from forage which is helping to keep the concentrate usage low.

This level of milk from forage is being driven from two places, forage quality and days at grass.

Forage quality needs to be maintained not only for grazed grass, but also grass and maize silage. While there’s still room for improvement in the quality of the silages, the area where gains can be made easier is through days at grass.

The farm benefits from two thirds of the farm being sand and loam soil which enables early turn outs. This year the cows were turned out during the day from January 14 and the farm achieved 100% of the farm grazed by March 25.

Helping earlier turn outs

While this winter and early spring did have above average growth, the farm is going to continue to target turning out mid to early January to drive days at grass and milk from forage. Through having a fast final round in the autumn and achieving a f lat wedge, this will enable the farm to turn cows out early and keep a higher level of grazed grass in the diet even in low growth years.

To help facilitate the earlier turn outs and to reduce the risk of low growth through the early period of spring, the milking platform is going to have the grass species changed over time. Currently the farm has perennial ryegrass and clover lays on the milking platform with some hybrid ryegrass (Italian and perennial) on the silage blocks.

The plan is to reseed the milking platform with these hybrids along with clover. As these hybrids have greater growth in colder weather the farm will be better situated to handle early turn outs through cold springs when growth is supressed. The downside to changing to this grass species is that the natural lifetime of the plant is 4 to 5 years, this lifespan means that 20% of the farm would need to be reseeded each year.

This level of reseeding would put pressure on the grass growth/ demand no matter what time of year it would be undertaken. To overcome this, the plan is to under sow or direct drill seed into the lays at year 5 and have the paddocks fully reseeded at year 10. This will hopefully see the paddocks stay productive through to the end of the 10-year period without having to take out large areas for reseeding.

A topic that has had much discussion around the future of the farm, is the growth of maize on the farm. As the farm sits in a NVZ area they are limited in the number of cows that can be milked through the growing of maize, if the maize was not grown on the farm it would allow for an additional 50 cows to be milked. As there is currently no prospect of taking on more land nearby, this would mean that the farm would need to buy in additional feed to meet cow requirements, opening them up to price fluctuations.

Under the current environment the farm is going to continue growing maize but this will be revisited as new norms are established post BPS removal, along with fertiliser and feed prices stabilising.

If you are interested in how the farm has performed on these topics, please feel free to join us at our next open day.

by Michelle Lamerton
International Marketing Coordinator
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