In praise of maize

Kapuni dairy farmer Steve Poole, left, and farm manager Steffen Sahin say cropping has made feed management easier.
Kapuni dairy farmer Steve Poole, left, and farm manager Steffen Sahin say cropping has made feed management easier.

A Kapuni man still believes he's an all-grass farmer, even though he adds maize to his dairy herd's diet.

"I'm still an all-grass farmer because the cows are eating all the grass I grow," Steve Poole told more than 100 people at a field day on his farm last week.

He and wife Maria are one of three South Taranaki couples taking part in the Waimate West Demonstration Farm's cropping project which started this season. The others are Bede and Shirley Kissick at Riverlea and Martin and Christine Powell at Hawera. Field days will be held on their farms in the next two summers.

Cropping trials have been undertaken at the Waimate West Demonstration Farm near Manaia for six years. In the current trial, 10 of the farm's 40 paddocks have been planted in crops, including seven in maize, and the others in chicory, turnips and sorghum.

Waimate West Demonstration Farm supervisor Joe Clough told the field day bringing feed on to dairy farms did not suit all farmers.

The new trial was to see if the benefits of bringing in feed to increase both dry matter and milk production could be achieved by growing crops sustainably on farms instead.

He said funding from DairyNZ, Ministry for Primary Industries Sustainable Farming Fund, Taranaki Regional Council and Foundation for Arable Research gave the trial credibility. Sponsors also provided funding.

DairyNZ consulting officer Michelle Taylor, of Hawera, said data from the project's three commercial farms was loaded into DairyBase to benchmark them against other farms and to measure farm profitability and productivity from season to season.

Poole said while annual per cow production was 480 kilograms milksolids (MS), his focus was on production per hectare of 1800kg MS, with a production target this season of 400,000kg MS. "So I work out how much feed I need to achieve that."

Last season's indicative figures comparing the 210ha Poole farm and 45ha runoff with the North Island benchmark for high-input farms were presented at the field day and showed:

1835kg milksolids (MS)/hectare (1315kg/ha).

Pasture and crop eaten, 17.1 tonnes dry matter/ha (12.5tDM/ha).

Imported feed, 5.6tDM/ha (4.4tDM/ ha).

202 cows per full-time equivalent staff member (143).

Gross farm income, $7.17kg/MS ($7.30).

Operating expenses, $3.77kg/MS ($4.81).

Cropping and imported feed, $1.14kg/MS ($1.24).

Fertiliser, 28c kg/MS (42c).

Operating profit, $3.40kg/MS ($2.49).

Operating profit/ha, $6200 ($3200).

Clough said it was an outstanding result and Taylor explained that the gross farm income was lower than the benchmark because of stock sales income.

The Pooles milk 800 cows in two herds and grow 15ha of maize on the milking platform and on the run-off. Different paddocks are planted in maize each season, so over time the entire farm will be re-grassed.

"This system is simpler than all- grass; it offers more choice," Steve Poole said.

"I use the calculator more often, but there's less stress and I have no underfed cows. I dry them off in good condition and it's easy to put weight on them - if I have to, I just up the maize a bit.

"I have to be careful not to put too much weight on them."

He said an all-grass system did not offer many tools to improve cow condition.

Calving 130 cows in the autumn for winter milking increased the farm's efficiency.

The herd's empty rate after the 10-11-week mating period was less than 10 per cent and his younger cows would go through to autumn mating. "So it gives them another chance."

Initially his operation was an all- grass system until production reached a ceiling.

Being dictated to by the weather - like the current dry spell or a cold spring - frustrated him. "We were held to ransom by the weather and we wanted more control," he said.

Their current high-input system had evolved over 15 years, "fine- tuning and learning as we go."

They remained focused on feed utilisation, ensuring all the grass was eaten.

The cows receive a daily mix of up to 14kg of dry matter - maize and other feeds that may include palm kernel expeller, dried distillers grain, cottonseed and minerals - on the feed pad, which kept wastage at a minimum. Initial guidance from animal nutritionists enabled him to design his own feed mixes.

Poole said he followed a 24-day rotation all year. "I don't have a long rotation in summer because I can manipulate the feed with what I give the cows on the feed pad."

His system was based on the cost of a cow's average conversion rate of 12kg dry matter to a kilogram of milksolids.

Daily feed costs were $3.40-$3.60 per cow for a return of $11. Growing feed on the farm cost him 15c/kg/DM, compared with 34c/kg/DM/ha to buy it and significantly lowered the average cost of supplementary feed.

"The cows eat everything that grows here. Sometimes all they eat is grass because I concentrate on getting the pasture down.

"Not wasting grass is the key."

Taranaki Daily News