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Pasture management in New Zealand

Alisa Raty Published on 27 February 2012
Colin Grainger-Allen and his wife, Hazel

New Zealand is known for sheep, exported dairy products, green hillsides and The Lord of the Rings.

It also has an ideal climate for grazing livestock. On average, New Zealand receives approximately between 25 and 59 inches of rain, evenly spread over the year except for two dry months in the summer.

Because of the mild climate, where the lows in winter average 50°F, grass grows all year round. The volcanic soil drains well, making it less likely to damage a wet pasture.

These are some of the reasons why sharemilkers, like Colin Grainger-Allen and his wife, Hazel, are moving to New Zealand.

Sharemilkers are dairy farmers that rent land and facilities by paying a percentage of their milk check, and then provide the cows, the machinery and the labor, according to Grainger-Allen.

The Grainger-Allens moved from the U.K. to New Zealand in 2001. Since then, they have been building their herd and managing their pastures. As is common for dairy farmers there, they have a low-input system that is pasture-based. Grainger-Allen says one of the reasons for his success is this system.

New Zealand

“It doesn’t require huge capital cost to do it. You need the cows, the farm and the equipment to milk the cows, and other than that you don’t need a lot of capital cost to get the system up and running.

So, for us coming in with little capital, we’re able to work up through the system from management into buying cows and a little extra machinery and equipment to go with it. It’s an easier way of getting in,” Grainger-Allen says.

The Grainger-Allens milk twice a day, moving their 550 cows to a new pasture every time. The pastures range in size from 1 to 3 hectares (2.5 to 7.4 acres). They rest each pasture for 21 days, which, Grainger-Allen says, is just the right amount of time for them to grow back.

The Grainger-Allens also base their pasture rotation on forage measurements made by using a rising plate meter. The rising plate meter is used to measure height and density of forage in a pasture.

“It looks a little bit like a walking stick. On the handle is a small, digital readout, and on the foot of the walking stick is an aluminum plate that is about one-foot-by-one-foot in size. It slides up and down according to how deep the pasture is,” says Tom Phillips, a New Zealand dairy consultant.

According to Phillips, this is the most common way New Zealand farmers measure their grass growth. The readings are taken and put into a spreadsheet, where it is converted into kilograms of dry matter per hectare. The information is then used to calculate stocking rates.

“Over time, they learn how much each farm can produce. What they try to do is use 70-80 percent of what grows each year, so that determines the stocking rates,” Phillips says.

cows grazing

Grazing the right number of cattle can be the best thing for a pasture in New Zealand.

“There is a limit to this, but in general, if you put more cows on the pasture, you tend to grow more pasture as well. That’s because the biological system in the soil, using the animals, starts to cycle the nutrients more efficiently.

So the animals are a very important part of the farming system. Farmers who have the cows grazing the pasture have a lot more grass than farmers who cut the pasture and take it to the cows,” Phillips says.

The Grainger-Allens have two farms. One is called the “milking platform,” and the other is the support farm where they winter the cows and keep youngstock.

The main forage they graze the cattle on is a mix of ryegrass and white clover. Grainger-Allen uses Roundup and a no-till drill to reseed 10 percent of his pastures every year.

He also undersows 30 to 40 percent of his land with annual ryegrass every year to improve grass growth in the winter and early spring.

When he winters the cows on the support farm, they graze alternative forages such as forage kale and “swedes” (rutabagas), which Grainger-Allen no-till drills into the pastures.

According to Phillips, other alternative forages used in New Zealand include chicory (for dry summer months), turnips and fodder beets.

“The carbohydrate, or the energy, is in the roots, and there is a little bit of protein in the leaf material, so sometimes that means [farmers] have to supplement with something else, like silage,” Phillips says.

Grainger-Allen cuts his silage from excess growth on his pastures. When grass growth is at its peak, they set aside pastures to harvest. This silage he uses as a supplement in the winter and when the grass growth stops in the summer. Relying on excess growth can present a challenge.

“We don’t have dedicated areas that are just grown for silage, so what we get for silage varies every year. Last year, we made very little silage. I think we only made 50 or 100 bales of silage, and this year we did 500 bales of silage,” Grainger-Allen says.

The variation in grass growth brings with it a number of problems.

“The grass growth varies enormously. You get a lot of variation in the climate, and even though you might expect a certain growth rate, it may not happen.

So it’s the variation in what you expect to happen that’s a difficult thing to manage. Most of the cash-flow variations relate to the amount of pasture New Zealand farmers have available.

And in general, if they have to go and buy supplementary feeds, it’s very expensive, because New Zealand is not a cereal-growing country, so most of the feed has to be imported,” Phillips says.

When they are short on silage, the Grainger-Allens have to buy silage and palm kernel. “It’s hard to budget for,” Grainger-Allen says.

Another challenge the Grainger-Allens face is the steep hillsides on their farms. Grainger-Allen fences the hillsides so that the cows are forced to graze it. He also says the smaller cow type – a Holstein-Jersey cross – makes it easier for the cows to graze the hills.

“They’re never housed, and even as youngstock they’re always on hills, so they’re used to going on hills. Even here, if you take cows from a flat farm and put them on hills, they do tend to stand there and look at it, whereas our cows are used to it,” he says.

The hills also present a challenge to fertilizing the pastures. In the spring and fall, the Grainger-Allens spread fertilizer using a tractor and spreader on flat areas, and a helicopter on the hills.

With so much rain, leaching can be a problem. To control that, Grainger-Allen applies fertilizer “little and often, and not in wet weather.”

Grainger-Allen feels that his greatest success is simply making things run smoothly.

“I think our biggest success is just when things go well. The biggest kick is when you’ve got things right, and the grass is growing right – you’ve got enough grass, you’ve made enough silage, and things are going well and you’re in control.

Our biggest success is being able to buy cows and own cows. That’s something we’ve always wanted to do,” Grainger-Allen says.  FG

TOP: Colin Grainger-Allen, his wife, Hazel, and their daughter are successful pasture-based dairy farmers in New Zealand.

MIDDLE: Pasture-based dairying in New Zealand

BOTTOM: Cows in the Grainger-Allen herd have been trained to graze the steep hillsides on their farm. Photos courtesy of the Grainger-Allen family.