Good rainfall in Taranaki this dairy season has boosted pasture growth so most farmers have plenty of feed if a dry spell arrives.
South Taranaki farm adviser Debbie McCallum and Waimate West Demonstration Farm supervisor Joe Clough both say farmers are in a better position than they were last year to deal with dry conditions.
Dairy NZ Taranaki regional leader Katrina Knowles notes this season's good production is aligned with a good forecast payout - $8.30/kg milksolids (MS) compared with $5.84kg MS last season. So she's advising farmers to use the money to improve infrastructure and meet compliance standards and to do some tax planning.
Tikorangi farmers Craig and Tania Rowe are hoping to top last season's production target of 175,000kg MS. At the moment their production is 5 per cent ahead of last season. Their monthly production is 8 per cent ahead of last January.
In the lower North Island, Fonterra's milk production is 3.46 per cent ahead of January 2013 and 2.44 per cent ahead of the 2012-13 season to date.
Farming for 22 years on their farm of 125 effective hectares, the Rowes have a herd of 384 cows which produced 167,000kg MS last season, because they milked until May 26.
"It cost me money for PKE (palm kernel expeller) to maintain production last year. I used 260 tonnes, 40 tonnes extra," Craig Rowe said.
"At the end of January we were under stress," he recalled. "Production was already dropping away."
It was down to 1500 litres a day and continued falling as the rain stayed away. Grass growth was less than 30kg dry matter (DM) and pasture cover was only 1550kg DM and falling. So he culled cows in January and dried off 120 cows in April.
Contrast those figures with today. "We're still growing 50kg DM/ha a day. Our cover is about 2100kg DM. Good payout, good production, good rain - what more do you want?"
By the end of last week January rainfall was 81mm and more rain fell on Sunday. "That's good for Tikorangi. We can dry out here. Us guys handle the dry better than some other areas. We're used to drying out - it's a matter of how severe."
He said last season's drought broke quickly when rain did fall. "Production rose and the cover built, so the cows came through pretty well. Nature balances up - we had a good winter with good growth. Then we had an awesome spring."
Impressed with the success of a plantain and chicory crop last season, they've planted 15ha (eight paddocks) this season. "It's unbelievable; it's like rocket fuel. Last year the whole farm was brown except for the two chicory paddocks, which were green."
The cows graze a hectare a day on a 15-day rotation. The couple also have 6ha of maize, but are not growing turnips this season for the first time in years.
In Hawera, Bryce and Amanda Savage are 50/50 sharemilkers on a 134ha Parininihi ki Waitotara farm where production from their 415 cows is up 1.69 per cent for the month and down 1.4 per cent for the season.
Daily production per cow is 1.57kg MS, 0.9kg more than last year.
"There's nothing in it," Amanda Savage said. "The drought hadn't kicked in at this time last year. Production losses didn't hit until February.
"But this year we've used 70 tonnes less PKE. Last year we were pouring in more feed."
She was surprised when she compared the two seasons' pasture cover and growth. At present pasture cover on the farm is 2440kg DM/ha and average growth is 54kg DM/ha. Last year the figures were 1778kg DM/ha cover and 13kg DM/ ha growth.
Bryce Savage said the couple expected to meet last year's production target of 185,000kg. "I've got feed up my sleeve.
"You've gotta be positive with a payout like this. Even if it goes dry, I've got plenty of feed to bridge the gap."
McCallum, who's the supervisor at Westpac Taranaki Agricultural Research Station nearby, said the June-December period of 2013 was much warmer and wetter than 2012. Rainfall was 727mm, 112mm more, and the average soil temperature was 11.9 degrees Celsius, 0.6 degrees higher.
This January was wetter and colder than last year. "Great for farmers, but not holidaymakers," she said.
Total rainfall for January 2014 was 113mm, compared with 67mm last January. Rainfall in February and March last year was only 70mm, less than half the 150mm average.
Pasture growth from June to December 2013 was 10.8 tonnes/DM/ ha, 0.9t DM/ha more than the previous year - an extra 90t/DM on a 100ha farm. An extra 100 tonnes dry matter has been harvested as supplement this season.
She said more supplements had been harvested this season on most farms, where soils were also wetter than last year.
While milk production started dropping in late January last year, it was pulling ahead now. "This time last year, concern was building due to drier than average conditions and poor cashflows. Favourable weather and much improved cash flows have farmers in a positive mood."
Taranaki focus farm host Chris Prankerd said 199mm of rain had fallen on his high- altitude farm at Tariki this month, compared with 142mm in January 2013. Rain fell on February 6 last year and didn't fall for the next 38 days.
Last season pasture cover was 2540kg DM/ha and he had 460 bales of silage, compared with 2200kg/DM now and 640 bales of silage. His 225 cows are each receiving a daily feed of 2kg PKE this season.
Daily per cow production of 1.72kg MS is higher than last season's 1.52kg MS. Milk production is 12 per cent ahead for January and 7 per cent ahead for the season.
"We've had better rainfall in December and January than last season. If it keeps raining, we'll have good production. I'm pretty positive about the way it's going."
Production on the 142ha (effective) Opunake farm of Rachel and Kenneth Short set monthly records five months in a row last season, including January, when it was almost 12 per cent ahead. The couple are Taranaki 2013 Sharemilkers of the Year and 2014 Taranaki Ballance Farm Environment Awards finalists.
Production began declining on their farm at the end of January last year. "We were desperate for the rain that arrived on February 4," Rachel Short said.
Rainfall in January 2013 was low and although 50mm fell on February 4, it was not enough to maintain production. The couple dried off their 450-cow herd in April, achieving 128,000kg MS - below their target of 144,000kg which they're on track for this season.
The couple use no inputs, so focus on pasture quality. They'll have 500 bales of hay by the end of this week, significantly more than their 400-bale average. They've also grown 10ha of turnips.
She said the farm received 155mm of rain this January and puddles on the farm after Sunday's rain indicated good soil moisture. She's feeling positive about the season. "But everything depends on the rain."
Clough said last spring was significantly wetter and much more grass had grown on the demonstration farm near Manaia than the previous season.
Since June 2013, the farm has received 150mm more rain than last season and DM/ha was 1600kg ahead.
Less than average growth from September 2012 had no significant impact on milk solids production to the middle of January last year because pasture levels were still good.
But low growth between October 2012 and January 2013 meant there wasn't much supplementary feed on farms last summer.
However, much more supplementary feed was made between October last year and this January, so stocks were approaching normal.
Clough said while many farms were ahead of last season's high production, the difference was not substantial. On some farms it was lower.
The theory of retired Taranaki Agricultural Research Station scientist Norm Thomson that November rainfall was an important indicator of the season to follow proved correct last season.
This season the indicators were more positive, with November 2013 rainfall at the demonstration farm well above the average of 80mm. Rainfall since was also above average. Any dry spell this season was likely to be shorter and less severe than last season's drought, he said.
Knowles said milk production peaks this season were higher and longer than normal on many farms after strong autumn and winter grass growth put cows in good condition for calving.
Maintaining pasture quality had been challenging and highlighted the importance of monitoring to capture grass growth - whether in the vat or as supplement.
Seedhead emergence had proved a challenge and could increase the risk of facial eczema because there might be a lot of dead matter in the pasture base.
She expects grass growth to slow next month and is advising farmers to extend their grazing rotation.
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