Monday 12 March 2012

If You Don’t Measure You Can’t Control...Basic Pasture Management!

What’s going on? Have New Zealand dairy farmers taken their eye off the ball…..or even worse “lost the plot”? What has happened to their famous pasture grazing skills?
 Throughout the low cost pasture dairying world NZ farmers have a reputation of being expert grazing managers & very efficient users of low cost pasture. Is this still true? From my observations I’d say it’s no longer the case that NZ farmers are the best in the world.
In fact I’m appalled at what I’m seeing on most dairy farms. Most NZ dairy farm pastures I’ve seen are a total mess with little evidence of good pasture husbandry practices or care.
There is blatant evidence that few NZ dairy farmers do regular weekly measurements.
Therefore it follows that few are using the pasture management tools. The “Pasture Wedge Graph Concept” was developed back at Matamata in 1976 with NZ Dairy Board Discussion Groups & the clever mathematics worked out at Lincoln University Dairy Farm decades later. Drs C. P. McMeekan (From Grass to Milk), John Hutton, Arnold Bryant & Des Clayton from Ruakura would be equally shocked to see the state of today’s pasture management skills, as would Dr Ray Brougham (ex Director of Grasslands) & Dr Colin Holmes (ex Massey University). These gentlemen were the “Research Pioneers” who built NZ’s reputation as global best practice in dairying pasture management. People like Mac McKenzie & Don Johnson demanded of the Consulting Officer team that the extension focus of every Discussion Group was efficient pasture utilization, low costs & farm profit.

I think “Global Best Practice Dairy farm Pasture Management” now belongs to the low input pasture based dairy farmers in the UK & Ireland. The world’s best pastures are to be found either in the UK or France NOT New Zealand. In more difficult climates the dairy farmers in Victoria Australia are outstanding.
So why are the Discussion Group farmers in the UK & Ireland now world leaders in pasture management? Firstly the vast majority measure pasture every week & the data is recorded in Pasture Wedge Graph programs, many of which now are “internet cloud” based, so groups can share the information & gain extra efficiencies. Group members wouldn’t dare attend group days without pasture measurement data including growth rates, daily demand & of course their pasture wedge graphs. Farmers take enormous pride in their pastures & the care of those ryegrass/white clover pastures. Many organic dairy farmers lead the way in understanding why soils & soil organic matter in particular is so important to good pasture management. Many farms are under environmental restrictions (read enforced lower stocking rates) yet still produce outstanding pasture. Most would fully understand Danny Donaghy’s “Three Leaf System” of Ryegrass grazing & how this changes throughout the year. Many would monitor soil temperatures during the year to better understand leaf appearance rates & how it is changing. Danny has recently arrived at Massey University & is now Professor of Dairy Science.
The work of the NZ Dairy Consultants working in Ireland & the UK has been critical to those farmers now being global leaders in grazing & pasture management. People like Alastair & Sharon Rayne, Leonie Guiney (nee Foster), Lynaire Ryan, John Simmonds, Mark Blackwell, Carol Doak (nee Gibson), Paul Bird & more recently Adrian van Bysterveldt have had a massive impact.
Crucial to their success has been a strong network of Discussion Groups & vigorous "Championing of low input farming" leadership & focus on grazing management. 
 In Ireland there has been a real effort by researchers, extension staff & consultants to get as many farmers measuring & monitoring pastures weekly. This is supported now by internet cloud providers like “AgriNet”  which has excellent pasture wedge graph capability. Strong consultancy groups like the Grazing Musketeers are pushing on with Discussion Groups & honing the pasture management skills in both Ireland & the UK.  

What I don’t understand is what has happened in NZ. The past research at No. 2 Dairy Ruakura & the Lincoln University Dairy Farm  & past Consulting Officer efforts  have focussed on good pasture management & high utilization. I’m told that now fewer than 20% of dairy farmers regularly measure & monitor (pasture wedge graph) pastures. Why? Why don’t NZ farmers passionately care for their pastures? Where’s the pride in having spectacular pastures gone?

Let’s be clear about my criticism…..”If you don’t measure you can’t control” eyeballing pastures simply isn’t good enough. You need to know growth rates & daily demand. You need to know what’s going to happen next week & 2 weeks out. You need to know the current ryegrass leaf emergence rate by looking into pasture regularly to check the tillers. You should in my view be monitoring soil temperature regularly on your farm.
 Pasture measuring be it with a Plate Meter or CDax  should be done in my view by a senior Manager or the Farm Owner....the Pasture Wedge Graph is a communication tool for all Farm Staff or Consultants. Walking the farm has huge benefits if done weekly. To be honest I haven’t seen much evidence of any of these “Global Best Practices” in NZ lately. I’m sure there are some people & some advisers who are doing this every week & these comments are obviously not aimed at you.
 I suppose it’s nothing to do with the saying “Production is Vanity. Profitability is Sanity”………… surely not! Yeah Right!


  1. You will find farmers trained in the 1980-90 have a very good understanding of pasture growth and quality. If they have been farming their places a long time they will have a very good haulistic knowledge of their farms parameters and hence have a good knowledge of supply and demand. I have deep concern about many young farmers today who are using other feeds to prop up production at a cost to poor management.The high payouts have given the ability to put something into the system to gain a suposed profit. They are being sold bogus ideas from bogus people all trying to milk the dairy farmer. This year in spring i witnessed an operation that was feeding PKE and topping grass as we walked through rank grass that was sown last year.
    I have warned these new generation farmers that the payouts will drop at some point and they will have to wise up and become efficient. There is nothing like having a big monkey of debt biting at you to make you become efficient i think some kiwi farmers have become too complacent and cant see the finacial losses there making because they don't see them in the vat and never bother to analyse thier accounts.

  2. Thank you for your comments which I agree with. On most NZ farms pasture is at least 75% of the cows diet & even on the high input systems its likely to still be 50%. People know exactly how much PKE they have contracted to buy & what maize silage they have purchased (both of which currently cost about 25c/kg DM plus)yet they are not measuring nor monitoring pasture their most valuable low cost feed input????? At the moment countless North Island herds are feeding out silage or PKE because milk is falling. If they looked at the pasture quality (or dealt with it at every grazing..residuals)the answer is obvious.Feeding quality pasture has to be the prefered & most profitable option.

  3. Great comments
    I'd like to suggest a couple of other reasons why there is a low uptake on pasture measurement and pasture feedbudgeting.
    1) It is hard to 'commercialise' compared to something like a total mixed ration feedstuff. ie, there is not the incentive for commercial interests to promote the process. In this instance, it is being left up to the consulting officers.
    2) It involves a bit of cerebal thinking. This is a major criticism I have many farmers. They don't like to involve themselves in things that require calculations and thinking. Pasture measurement and feedbudgeting is very difficult to do succesfully unless the pasture/herd manager is intimately involved in the process themselves - there are just to many variables and management decisions they must be involved in to get a meaningful outcome. Don't believe me? Am I being too hard on our good farming folk? OK, at a farm discussion group or field day, how many farmers do you ever see taking notes? This is totally indicative of most farmers attitudes to aspects of farming that require some sort of academic self discipline. Future generations might be different but this is not being helped by farming employers who are increasingly reluctant to send employees to discussion groups because it's not making them money.

  4. Hi
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