Taranaki trust leads dairy research

SUE O'DOWD
Last updated 06:00 17/01/2014
The Westpac Taranaki Agricultural Research Station Trust leases a commercial farm and a research station near Hawera.
ANDY JACKSON/Fairfax Media

FOCUS ON SCIENCE: The Westpac Taranaki Agricultural Research Station Trust leases a commercial farm and a research station near Hawera. From left, Vanessa and Daniel Dillon are the contract milkers on the commercial farm, Brett Thomson manages the research station and Brendan Attrill is the chairman of the trust.

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The Taranaki Agricultural Research Trust provides two platforms for cutting-edge research beneficial to the dairy industry.

The trust leases a 126ha (111ha effective) research farm across the road from Fonterra's Whareroa site near Hawera and owns the 350 cows milked there. DairyNZ manages the Westpac Taranaki Agricultural Research Station (WTARS) under contract to the trust.

The station, established at Normanby in 1974, has done research into areas as diverse as grass grub, nitrogen and phosphate use, once-a- day-milking and feed conversion efficiency.

It had made a significant contribution to New Zealand farming over the last 40 years, said trust chairman Brendan Attrill.

The trust also leases a commercial farm beside the research station. Profits from that farm provide funds for the Colin Holmes Scholarships established in 2009 by the trust to encourage postgraduate research beneficial to the dairy industry. The trust provides $25,000 to $30,000 a year to Massey University which allocates the funds to post-graduate students. About 20 students have been assisted by the scholarships.

Attrill hopes the scholarships will soon be funding research by New Zealand-born students because so far the recipients have been from other countries. "There's been a shortage of New Zealand-born students undertaking postgraduate research in the primary sector. But more Kiwis are starting to come through now."

The scholarships are named after Professor Holmes - the trust's patron and former trustee - in recognition of his service to the dairy industry during a 40-year research and lecturing career at Massey University.

"We were keen to push his excellent contribution to the industry by providing funds to Massey under his name. He's well worth celebrating as an industry great," said Attrill, who was a student of the professor.

Now a farm adviser, he has a long association with WTARS. With a bachelor of agriculture science and a Massey University postgraduate diploma, he was science manager at the station when it moved from Normanby to Whareroa.

When Attrill joined the station in the 1990s, it was operated by the Ministry of Agriculture and was struggling to attract funding because the Government had stopped supporting regional agricultural research, even though scientists Norm Thomson and Ants Roberts had carried out cutting-edge study there.

Kiwi Dairies chairman John Young, deputy chairman Harry Bayliss and director Philip Luscombe led its move to company- owned land near its Whareroa factory and promoted the establishment of the trust.

New races, water systems and a 40-bail rotary cowshed with facilities for collecting scientific data were installed and the station was commissioned in 2002.

"Having a good infrastructure was the catalyst for scientific research at the station and allowed us to attract funding," Attrill said. "So much was happening in the industry then, like the formation of Fonterra, that we were able to create something unique which other provinces, like Northland, have now copied."

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Soon after Attrill was appointed Fonterra's agribusiness manager and became a trustee. "The station has been my life for more than 20 years. It's something I really believe in."

Consisting of four farmlets with different stocking rates, the station has been managed by Brett Thomson for six years. Managing the multiple dairy herds at the station is a continual challenge. "I've never had less than six herds and I've had as many as 18," Thomson said.

The station has four full-time staff and eight casual staff, or one labour unit for 80 cows - substantially more than the industry average of 1/200.

Thomson conducts a weekly farm walk with farm supervisor Debbie McCallum. "It's a big part of how we get through the week because we identify the feed wedge."

Attrill said exceptional organisational skills were required to manage multiple herds.

In addition to the herds on each farmlet, the farm has a reserve herd to replace cows when they're in the feed pens that were established for the feed conversion efficiency trial seven years ago.

"So we have 48 cows which are in and out of pasture," Thomson said. "We have to have the ability to be flexible around the science being conducted on the station. Production is secondary.

"But I want the farm and the cows to perform the best they can, even though the farm is devoted to science."

Attrill said research imposed limits on the station's milk production. "But Debbie and Brett do a great job in maximising the potential of the cows within the restrictions of the science."

As manager, Thomson had achieved a major turnaround in the station's performance.

"He's the first manager TARS has had with a strong commercial background, so he's brought a different perspective with his focus on per hectare and per cow production."

Production had lifted to a top figure of 128,300kg milksolids - considerably above previous levels of less than 100,000kg MS.

On Thomson's watch, cell counts plummeted from being almost high enough for a grade to being in the top 2 per cent to 3 per cent of Fonterra suppliers.

Attrill said high-producing cows purchased for the feed conversion efficiency trial had also had a considerable impact on production.

"They gave us a far better genetic base and the impact on TARS was neutral. We now have the right cows for science projects rather than a herd resource that was not suited to science."

He said the science programme put the research station's operating costs $1-$1.50 above the industry average. "If it goes higher than that, we get grumpy."

Thomson said he enjoyed a strong working relationship with the trust. "I get a great deal of support from the trust and from DairyNZ. I'm keen to get the farm performing even better."

He said the scientists always discussed the practicalities of their research with the staff before projects began.

No research into genetics is conducted at the station. "We don't want to interfere with Fonterra's vision of 'dairy for life'," Attrill said.

Clients visiting Fonterra's Whareroa manufacturing site often visit the research station, where a viewing platform offers a safe view of milking operations without disturbing the cows. Riparian planting and effluent management also meet best practice rather than merely complying with minimum standards. "Our presentation has to be of the highest quality," he said.

He said the late Mr Young viewed the farm as complementary to the Whareroa site because it allowed visitors to see the entire dairy production process from pasture to factory.

Taranaki farmers are encouraged to attend the station's annual open day to keep up with emerging science.

The neighbouring 81ha (71ha effective) commercial farm has a herd of 226 mainly friesian cows and has been operated by contract milkers Vanessa and Daniel Dillon for the last five years.

Their best season produced 98,500kg milksolids (MS), almost double the farm's production of 55,000kg when WTARS took over the lease 10 years ago. Since then, the trust has upgraded the farm infrastructure of fences, troughs, tracks and water supply and improved the pasture management. This season their target is 102,000kg MS.

"This is a high-profile site and everyone can see what is being done here," Attrill said.

Each season 250,000-300,000 litres of proliq and 80 bales of hay are purchased and 50 tonnes of pit grass silage are grown. Palm kernel expeller is used as required. Stock is wintered on the farm, which receives an annual application of 200 units of nitrogen. Calves are grazed off from December.

Attrill is full of praise for Daniel Dillon's pasture management. "He has a gut feel for pasture that very few farmers have - an amazing ability to know what to do today, next week and next month."

Dillon, who's been farming for 13 years, said he just watched what the cows ate. "I'm reading the pasture all the time."

Although he was always pushing for more production, each season was getting harder. "I'm always trying to beat myself," he said.

The couple, who have three children, said they were excited their hard work on the farm was funding research into the industry they were part of.

The trust is keen to lease a further commercial farm when the lease on the current farm expires in three years. Attrill said the trust wanted to develop and grow its farming operation so that it could continue to fund scientific research.

Other members of the trust are DairyNZ director Barbara Kuriger, Massey University's Danny Donaghy and Taranaki farmers Graham Robinson, of Inglewood, Michael Joyce, of Otakeho, Gavin Vanner, of Kakaramea, and Duncan Johnston, of Waitotara.

- Taranaki Daily News

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