DIFFERENT wintering options for New Zealand dairy farmers in a world of tightening environment regulations due to water quality and climate policy, was the subject of discussion at a GippsDairy Muster at Trafalgar last month.

More than 200 dairy industry members gathering on-farm. The theme of the day was ‘Pasture, Pathways and Performance’, and it showcased the latest trends, technologies, and practices in dairy farming. Emceed by Trish Hammond, a dairy farm owner from West Gippsland, attendees heard from industry experts and Gippsland farmers on ways to optimise pastures, business succession plans, and overall performance.

Farm hosts Graeme and Louise Paul, Belinda Egan, and Simon Reid shared their dairying stories and highlighted their current farm system as share farmers. Among the attendees was a group of eight agriculture students from Foster Secondary College, who networked with local dairy employers and members of the Gippsland Young Dairy Network, and joined the career pathways and progression breakout session.

The GippsDairy Muster: Chatting at one of the sessions are (from left) Belinda Egan, Simon Reid and the Trafalgar hosts Louise and Graeme Paul. Photograph supplied

The guest speaker, a Senior Scientist at DairyNZ, Dawn Dalley, said the NZ dairy industry had been working to deliver to national and environmental regulations for many years.

“There is national and regional policy for water quality and in more recent years, NZ has committed to reduce greenhouse emissions as a member of the Paris Agreement. We now have greenhouse gas commitments that we need to work towards,” she said.

“Also, dairy farmers are required to operate within the Dairy Cattle Code of Practice. That is being updated at the moment; some of the changes being suggested could have implications on how farmers farm.”

In this context, Dr Dalley, who spent eight years working in Gippsland at the Ellinbank research centre earlier in her career, discussed the key management considerations and some environmental benefits of the different wintering options that NZ farmers had adopted.

These included pasture and supplement-based wintering options, and winter forage crops that are used quite extensively in the South Island, where winter pasture growth is low due to cold temperatures.

“It’s hard to have cows on pasture in winter,” she said, hence the use of kale and swedes, or fodder beet.

Dr Dalley said these three main feed types created a real advantage; they were of high quality and grew a lot of kilograms of dry matter. Fodder beet also offered an opportunity to reduce nitrate leaching and nitrous oxide emissions.

“Farmers can grow them through the summer and autumn and break-feed as a standing crop with supplements through the wintertime,” she said.

“That means they can minimise the area need for wintering; that area goes back into grass the following spring. While widely used by farmers, this wintering practice has come under some scrutiny in NZ because the animals graze off the crop completely. It’s not a grass paddock where there is still material left behind; they pretty much eat all the crop, so it looks like the cows are standing in a muddy paddock. Despite how the paddock looks, the cows do very well on winter crop diets.”

Public perceptions have changed how farmers winter on crop in recent years.

“That is the challenge we have in the age of smart phones. We are instantly connected to the rest of the world. It’s very easy to take a photograph out of context, which can have a negative impact on how farming is perceived,” she said.

Dr Dalley said NZ research centred on the environmental and animal welfare benefits of forage crop wintering. Other wintering systems were based on pasture with conserved feed, (silage or baleage) and more recently, more regenerative approach, “using hay and pasture”.

Another system was the ‘off-paddock infrastructure’ – barns and other housing options.

“The disadvantage of these is the capital cost. There is a also belief that having animals improves the animal welfare outcome, but it takes different skills to manage animals indoors; it does not necessarily lead to better welfare outcomes,” she said.

Dr Dalley said conditions on NZ’s South Island and Gippsland were not that different (apart from annoying, pesky flies).

“Both have strong southerly squalls that come through, although Gippsland is less likely to get snow. I lived here for eight years; there were southerlies, frosts and lots of rain, so it was not much different, except it gets hotter here in the summer,” she said.

Dr Dalley said NZ was doing research into nitrate leaching to meet regional regulations.

“NZ farmers have a cap; they can’t put on more than 190kg of fertiliser nitrogen per hectare onto their pasture areas. Because it is difficult to measure nitrate leaching, there has been a lot of research on how to reduce nitrogen surplus – that is, how much nitrogen is coming into the farm in fertiliser feed and clover fixation versus how much is going out of the farm – through milk, meat and supplementary feed – anything that’s sold off,” she said.

“In the main Fonterra report on the end of the season, farmers get their nitrogen surplus number as an indicator of N leaching risk for the farm. There is a lot of pressure to improve water quality in rivers and lakes. Farmers are looking for opportunities to reduce N losses from their farms.”

Dr Dalley said there was a lot of farm system research to identify future systems that reduce nitrate leaching and allow farms to be still profitable.

“Some have been more successful than others. We know we’ve got mitigation options to reduce nitrogen loss – but can we maintain the profitability of our current system?” she said.

“Recently, we have changed how we talk about environmental risk, and future systems to focus on delivering profitable systems with reduced environmental footprint rather than maintaining profitability, which implies no loss in profit but which might not be achievable in some regions.”

Dr Dalley said that for most farmers, profit was still assessed on a $/ per kilogram milk solid basis, “but as we move to meet environmental targets, metrics could include $/kg of nitrate leached, or $/kg greenhouse gas emitted”.

“Resilient businesses in the future are likely to be assessed on a range of metrics, not just dollars in the bank,” she said.

Ds Dalley said another option to help deliver better environmental outcomes was including the herb plantain into the pastures. Plantain has been shown to reduce urinary N concentration and therefore the risk of nitrate leaching into ground water.

“NZ is more regulated than Australia around environmental emissions from agriculture. Nitrate leaching risk is probably not as big an issue in Gippsland as there is not the same concentration of dairy farms in the landscape compared to NZ. In some regions of NZ, there is dairy farm after dairy farm,” she said.

“However, the Maffra irrigation district is a possible exception. Nitrate leaching losses could be an issue there due to a higher concentration of farms and the irrigation practices used.”

Dr Dalley said for both the NZ and Australian dairy industries, customer (eg Nestle) expectations were going to drive changes to the way we farm in the future.

“Farmers can either sit back and wait until regulation dictates how they farm or they can take the opportunity now to make changes to drive their own destiny,” she said.