Creature comforts for cows
Farmers, as they do, are quietly and carefully considering new shelter options for their dairy herds.
Options range from a simple roof over a feed pad or stand-off pad to a fully kitted-out herd house with roof, floor and under-floor effluent-catcher.
It's been a slow burn rather than a rush to book builders for a number of reasons.
For a start, farmers are keeping a careful eye on their finances, with the Fonterra forecast payout down, the high New Zealand dollar hitting local returns and key export markets still impacted by the global financial downturn.
Farmers also prefer to see the facts and evidence before making such significant investments.
The jury is still out on whether herd housing is the way to go from a range of perspectives - including animal welfare, greenhouse gas emissions and return-on-investment.
But unofficially, the potential benefits appear to be huge - if you do it right. Research to date suggests critical decisions include selecting the best option for your specific situation, and training your staff how to handle housed herds.
Depending on who you talk to, positives can include happier cows, fewer dead calves in wet winters like the Waikato's this year and lower environmental impact. But it has to be be done properly to get the gains, and to guard against issues like lameness or over-stocking.
A lot of research is underway to provide the hard data on the pros and cons. All the right people are involved, including DairyNZ, AgResearch and the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI).
DairyNZ, Environment Southland and MPI's Sustainable Farming Fund are spending about $2 million over about four years on research known as the Southern Wintering Systems Project.
Work is focused on the south because of the large-scale dairy conversions underway, the weather and winter pasture growth challenges, but the work will be useful for everyone.
DairyNZ says the goal is to help farmers achieve profitability, environmental performance and animal welfare objectives from winter housing. The team is developing success criteria for a range of wintering systems across environmental, social, feed, welfare and financial factors.
AgResearch, meanwhile, is looking at greenhouse gas footprints from winter housing in a three-year $390,000 Sustainable Farming Fund project. The Crown research institute says emissions from stored manure and manure-handling in housed systems are not well-understood, and there is a risk of "pollution swapping" if this is not carefully managed.
The project aims to improve understanding and to develop effluent and manure management best practices for herd housing, to reduce the environmental footprint and emissions.
In other work, AgResearch is looking into the best options for pastoral farming to reduce leaching into waterways, including nitrogen and effluent, and how herd housing fits into this picture.
A leading provider of herd housing in the Waikato, Herd Homes, says its systems tick the boxes.
"There's no doubt the guys who are using the Herd Homes shelters effectively as a tool have higher production and lower than average environmental footprint," says chief executive Hamish McMillan, who is based at Waikato Innovation Park.
Farmers are using Herd Homes for wintering their herds, for calving and for on-off grazing in summer.
"The conversation in the Waikato at the moment is around providing shade, because farmers notice the impact of heat stress through summer."
Herd Homes is a registered trademark for the company and its products, with specific features including clear roofs that let cows have sun on their backs, low-cost air circulation to keep air fresh, and specially-designed slatted floors for effluent to drop through into storage bunkers. These features keep the homes low-labour and low-maintenance.
Production increases from Herd Homes are on a bell-shaped curve, McMillan says. Some stay flat while others achieve production increases of 15 to 30 per cent.
Other benefits include not doing pasture damage as there's no pugging and no compaction, and knowing there's shelter for the animals from rain and sun.
And the cows like it, he says. Some vets and farmers question this, but if you give the animals the choice, they will vote with their hoofs and stay undercover if it's wet or too hot, he says.
"That's what a lot of guys are doing. Giving the animals choice - leaving the gate open so they have shelter if they need it."
The gates inside the homes are just chains, so farmers can change the number of pens to suit their circumstances.
"Flexibility for us is key."
McMillan says he sees the opportunity for herd housing in New Zealand as sitting in the middle, between the traditional Kiwi model of 100 per cent grass-based farming and the European and US model of 100 per cent housing.
"I have no doubt some form of stand-off will be the way of the future in New Zealand."
Entry-level Herd Homes include a roof over a limestone feed pad or stand-off pad for about $80,000 for 200 cows. Higher-level options include a three-bunker-wide shelter for about $360,000. Other options include a roof-only build over an existing pad, and multi-cubicle barns. Farmers can place bedding, such as straw or rubber mats, on top of the slatted floor for added cow comfort, McMillan says.
Most Herd Homes are sold in Northland, where the company was started by dairy farmers Tom and Cathy Powell; in the Waikato; and in Southland. About 300 have sold nationally, with about 30 in the Waikato, including in Ohaupo, Matamata, Te Kauwhata and Orini.
"Northland farmers have Herd Homes because they have wet winters and a huge variety of soil types. It's warm but it doesn't stop raining.
"Waikato farmers have them because they are proactive farmers and there are fewer grazing-off opportunities.
"In Southland, they're using Herd Homes a lot. The soil types aren't bad - it's just that it's cold and wet.
"Something that's really driving us at present is nitrogen leaching - with the Horizons One Plan and with Otago and Canterbury looking at setting figures for nitrogen leaching."
McMillan says the farmers who are most successful with their Herd Homes are those who use them according to a plan.
"For instance, in winter, put the cows inside and let them out to pasture for three hours a day. It's about having a system rather than trying to decide on a daily basis if it is wet or dry.
"It means you don't have to stay up at night thinking, ‘should I put my cows in tomorrow'?
"If you're on holiday, you don't have to think, ‘have my staff let the cows out'?"
The widest Herd Home built so far is 12m wide, with the limit being 16m as that is the widest clear span roof available. This compares to European barns, which are 37m wide, McMillan says.
The longest Herd Homes to date are being built right now; two 90m-long shelters on a restricted site.
The largest customer to date has an 800-cow herd, but has multiple Herd Homes.
"We would rather build multiple homes to give you the flexibility around managing mobs rather than giving you one big shed as they have in Europe.
"In Europe, one of their biggest issues is respiratory problems because of the air circulation. A cow is equivalent to a two-bar heater, and the heat is captured in the roof. In Herd Homes, the eaves have direct airflow to circulate the stale air and to dry the ground.
"We keep the system low-tech so we don't have to introduce electricity or fans, which means our systems are reliable and lower-cost."