Embracing change

AgResearch senior scientist David Stevens inspects a kale crop on a deer farm in Eastern...
AgResearch senior scientist David Stevens inspects a kale crop on a deer farm in Eastern Southland last week. PHOTO: SHAWN MCAVINUE
AgResearch senior scientist David Stevens has been speaking to farmers in North Otago and Southland about the importance of building flexibility in a farming system. Shawn McAvinue attended the events as Dr Stevens shared strategies for bringing positive change on farm.

Farmers can maintain control by building a resilient system, panellists say.

The topic for a Beef + Lamb New Zealand event in the Maheno Rugby Clubrooms, south of Oamaru, last week was for a panel to take questions from a crowd of more than 20 people about how to build resilience and flexibility in a farm system.

AgResearch senior scientist David Stevens was on the panel.

Dr Stevens works at the Invermay Research Centre in Dunedin and has more than 40 years’ experience in agricultural research.

The legume pasture species lucerne had an important part to play in a farming system in a dryland environment, such as North Otago, Dr Stevens said.

"This is one of the worst environments in New Zealand."

Farmers could control the level of moisture and nitrogen in a system.

"Lucerne makes the most of the water and it fixes its own nitrogen."

A farming system featuring good use of nitrogen could grow 25kg of dry matter for every millimetre of water used.

If there was no nitrogen available, then it would grow 10kg of dry matter for every millimetre of water.

"That’s a lot of difference and it’s of a lower quality."

Dairy farmers in North Otago "poured on water and nitrogen to get that advantage".

Hill country sheep and beef farmers should introduce lucerne to their pasture mix to gain an advantage, he said.

Every farming system was different and farmers would need to learn how to "harness the power" of legumes, by optimising their system.

Farmers needed a flexible mindset on when to give certain type of stock access to certain paddocks.

If stock could be excluded from paddocks it gave pasture more time to grow and gave farmers some reserves if needed.

If a farmer excluded stock and allowed pasture leaf to remain growing when soil temperature started to drop, the pasture would be in a better place to grow quicker when soil temperatures got warmer, producing about twice as much feed.

Recent research had shown a lack of protein in the diet of a ewe in the month before lambing about doubled lambing deaths.

If a month before lambing a ewe was eating a fodder beet crop, which contains plenty of energy but no protein, the lamb losses would be twice as many compared to if it had been eating a crop of kale or turnip, which contained plenty of protein.

"You need to understand the basic of the nutrition and then see how you fit it to your system."

Farm consultant Pete Young, of Clyde, was also on the panel.

Mr Young has been a consultant for the past 15 years and had farmed in Central Otago for 25 years and worked as a stock agent in North Otago.

A strong resilient system was one where farmers were able to maintain a sense of control, Mr Young said.

In the grandstand at the Maheno Rugby Club in North Otago before the start of a Beef + Lamb New...
In the grandstand at the Maheno Rugby Club in North Otago before the start of a Beef + Lamb New Zealand event on building flexibility into a farming system are (top from left) AgResearch senior scientist David Stevens, sheep and beef farmer Grant McNaughton, event facilitator Matt Hore, (bottom from left) sheep and beef farmer Ross Hay, farm consultant Pete Young and Beef + Lamb extension manager Dean Sinnamon. PHOTO: SHAWN MCAVINUE
A system should have the right mix of stock classes.

"So you’ve always got an out."

If a farmer was continually having to kill their capital stock, then something was wrong with their farm system.

"You’ll need to dig down and re-examine it."

Another way of maintaining a sense of control was having plenty of silage available to help combat the lack of growth during a dry autumn.

Farmers should select pasture species which could "bounce back" after adverse weather conditions.

The management and monitoring of those pastures was important.

A farm system which was inapt for the environment would cost more than a more appropriate one and made farmers more vulnerable to seasonal changes.

Sheep and beef farmer Grant McNaughton was another panellist.

He and his wife Charlotte own and run about nearly 13,000 stock units on their about 6700ha property, The Dasher Station, inland from Maheno.

His pasture species selection decisions were based around providing his stock with the "optimal nutrition at the right time".

A system should be kept simple, Mr McNaughton said.

Legumes were an important part of the system but he had found their inclusion required greater management and costs, such as weed spraying.

A legume would fail to prosper if a poor job was made of grazing it out, he said.

"For certain systems, I’d recommend it."

His system included creating a winter feeding programme a year ahead.

The programme included measuring the feed available in May and then tracking how much of it was being eaten by the stock in 15-day periods.

"Without information, I don’t think we could make good decisions."

Having "confidence in the numbers" helped him predict his future feed requirements.

The system had a feed budget of more than 1 million kg in dry matter and included no reserves.

If there was a feed surplus, they would buy cattle to eat it and if feed was short, some cattle would be sold.

All decisions on what direction to take a farming system included calculating risk but when he and his wife made a decision, they stood by it.

"We always say, be bold and be brave."