Drought-hit Far North a huge challenge for growing pastures

Nothing grows in Northland without soil moisture, Lyn Webster says.

Nothing grows in Northland without soil moisture, Lyn Webster says.

OPINION: Northland has just been pronounced an official "drought area" on a medium scale.

I have milked 200 cows in Ahipara Northland for the past five years.  The first two seasons were very dry with really bad production the result, and I wondered what I had got myself in for.

All the locals said the farm would be overrun with kikuyu grass when it rains in autumn and I would have to be on my toes to manage that.

Green kikuyu grass growing in one of Lyn Webster's paddocks where cows are due to go into on her Northland farm.

Green kikuyu grass growing in one of Lyn Webster's paddocks where cows are due to go into on her Northland farm.

The infamous kikuyu with its low metabolic energy and stalky stem can grow rapidly in the right conditions (warm and wet) at over 100 kilograms of dry matter per hectare per day.

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By the time it usually rears its ugly head, milking cow production has already crashed for the season. Still by then you are happy to get whatever grass growth you can in Northland.

I am bound by my lease agreement to re-grass a certain percentage of the farm every year, which is fair enough.

Those first two seasons I diligently sprayed out eight paddocks and paid a contactor to direct drill expensive ryegrass clover mixes into them.

That new grass took off with a hiss and a roar during our mild winter and early spring. Then it did not rain for 10 days and it all wilted and died.

The other paddocks with their old species and some kikuyu died back but as soon as the rain came they responded and started greening up and growing again. The expensively re-grassed paddocks just languished and the tropical kikuyu began creeping its way back into the bare spaces as quick as a wink.

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I decided that re-grassing in the traditional way in Northland seemed like a waste of time. So the next year I tried a different approach and broadcast annual rye grass into heavily grazed and some mulched paddocks.  I also experimented by adding chicory and plantain into the mix.

This was year three, which was not as limited by a severe summer dry. I actually got to see what the locals meant as the kikuyu grew so fast you could literally see it growing and the cows at least had something to chew on during late summer as they begrudgingly produced well less than a kilogram of milksolids per cow per day. But that is better than having to dry them off.

The annual ryegrass really comes into its own in late winter and early spring, when kikuyu is dying and perennial ryegrass and clover is struggling to grow fast.

The chicory and plantain also adds another feed to the mix which the cows enjoy and it grows back fast too.  Last year I tried adding lucerne to the mix but none grew at all.

 I was hoping the chicory with its longer tap root might help the paddocks hang on a bit longer in the summertime, but although it grows really well when it's getting regular moisture, a 10 days or longer deficit knocks the chicory on its head just as much as any other species.

Soil moisture is the key to success up here and everywhere really and when it dries up in the Far North it dries up fast. Traditional management tools like urea applications are next to useless as it is impossible to get the timing right and kikuyu grows out of hand if it gets the chance without adding extra nitrogen.

Crops like turnips would have struggled in this drought too.

If you didn't get the chance to make a few silage bales or if you can't afford to buy in some feed – God help you dairy farming in the Far North.

  • Lyn Webster is a Northland dairy farmer.

 - Stuff

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