Growing Futures

Feed alternatives for dairy herds

Feed alternatives for dairy herds

Integrating high yield crops, such as maize, to supplement pasture-based feed adds to the productivity of dairy farms

Dairy is New Zealand’s largest industry, generating more than $13 billion in export revenue each year. The Taranaki region, to the west of the North Island, is the third largest in terms of dairying – 11% of the nation’s 4.8 million dairy cows are grazed there. Dairy farmers throughout the remainder of New Zealand now integrate a range of crops into their farming systems to encourage pasture renewal and reduce pest and disease problems. However, dairy herds in the Taranaki region traditionally rely on pasture crops for their feed, and attempts to grow the productivity of their dairy farms have resulted in increased nitrogen fertiliser use, more intensive pasture management and importing feed into the farm system. These activities are now reaching logistical, environmental and economic limits, creating an opportunity to bring mixed cropping practices to farmers in the region and bring about a step change in the productivity of their enterprises.

Demonstrating the value of new crops

Pastures currently used by dairy farmers in Taranaki are often more than 30 years old. Introducing new, more productive pasture species can provide cows with more energy and ultimately increase the volume of high quality milk produced on the farm. This can be further supplemented through the introduction of high yielding crop species, such as brassicas or cereals. When integrated into the farming system, these crops provide a regular supply of cut or standing forage, particularly at times of the year when pasture productivity decreases.

Research at Plant & Food Research to improve the productivity of dairy farms began in 2007 on the Waimate West Demonstration Farm in Taranaki. By introducing a crop rotation system on several paddocks, each with a different combination of crops grown over a period of 12 to17 months, the research demonstrated crop productivity up to double that of pasture alone. By introducing these high yielding crops on just 10% of the farm, a 10% gain in productivity can be achieved, equating to a $500 per hectare advantage per year for farmers.

The introduction of cropping has also been shown to have a positive environmental impact, providing an additional technique for farmers to manage their soil health and improve the use of cow effluent. Results show that an economic advantage can be gained by reducing nitrogen fertiliser applications without compromising crop productivity.

Rolling out across the region

Analysis by DairyNZ estimates that if 20% of Taranaki dairy farmers adopt these systems, $16 million per annum would be added to the gross income of the region by 2015. Extrapolated across New Zealand’s dairy industry, this would add a minimum of $90 million to the annual gross income of dairy farmers.

Taranaki farmers are already adopting the technologies demonstrated during this research at the Waimate West Demonstration Farm. More are growing high yielding crops, such as maize, demonstrated by an increase in local seed sales of maize of 10-15% annually.

The research was funded through the Sustainable Farming Fund, with investments from the Waimate West Demonstration Farm Trust, Plant & Food Research, DairyNZ, PGG Wrightson Seeds, The Foundation for Arable Research, the Taranaki Regional Council, farmers in the region and a range of private companies.

Created: September 2012

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