It was great to see Paul Bird the other day, the first New Zealand grassland consultant to set up discussion groups here, and encouraging dairy farmers to stop using feeder wagons and produce more milk from grazed grass.
Paul started in 1997. He just happened to be visiting a colleague Leonie Foster in Ireland, when the British Grassland Society president Jerry Ryder, called to ask whether she would come over here to set up some ‘grazing’ groups. She declined, but suggested Paul would be just as good – and so he turned out to be for five years. Many of the groups he set up are still going strong.
Resilience v Volatility
Paul admitted that the global dairy scene is challenging, with the milk price not breaking even in New Zealand at the moment, although the past ten years have been pretty good.
“Now is a great time to review the whole system and to judge where the farm business is heading in the next five to ten years,” said Paul. ‘There is no doubt that there will always be demand for dairy products, but all farms need to be set up so they can survive volatile milk prices. We are not living in a world of flatness.
“The canny farmer has three budgets – the first pitched at a price level the industry is talking about, the second on better than expected prices and the final one on a war footing, so that he knowshe will be the last farm standing. Flexibility is key in all of this.”
High prices have encouraged intensification on many NZ dairy farms – in particular in the feeding of palm kernel extract, a cheap by-product of the palm oil industry in South East Asia. At £100/tonne and 11ME, farmers can feed a lot of it. Indeed, it is thought that 10% of NZ milk now comes from palm kernel.
In 2001, 70% of dairy holdings were low cost, self-contained units just buying in feed for the dry cows. In 2013-14, this group was down to 30%. In 2001, high input units buying feed in all year were just 13%; in 2013/14 this had gone up to 29%.
“Feeding cows is a risky business,” says Paul. “The most profitable farms are those that run simple systems which rely purely on grass. Unfortunately, there are a lot of young farm managers coming into run farms now that don’t have a benchmark of what good grazing looks like. We need to be careful that we are not losing a generation of good grazers.”
While measuring is monotonous, in volatile conditions it is essential for key criteria such as grass growth and cow body condition. Down one road, Farmer A could be growing two extra tonnes of grass. Even utilising one extra tonne could save £30,000 in other feed costs, according to Paul.
“On every farm that is monitored and sets figures for grass growth and use, utilisation goes up, because the individual paddocks are fine-tuned,” he remarked. “It’s all about attention to detail. Getting things right makes a world of difference.
“Measuring, not guessing, grass growth is so important. But it can be a hard message to persuade people to do it, and to do it properly. However, it forms the basis of a successful dairy business – as long as this information is imported into a package such as AgriNet, which has essential tools like a spring rotation planner and a feed wedge.”
Finally Paul emphasised the need for a sound strategic plan, as 80% of equity growth of a business comes from the strategic decisions, with just 20% from the operations.
“There are some fundamental questions to ask yourself, including do you enjoy what you do?” he said. “Do you have a five-year equity goal? Are you a spender or a saver? How do you save money to generate a profit – or how do you spend more money to generate more profit? What is holding you back? What can take you forward?
“The key is to write these things down. Set two or three days aside to sit down with your partner to decide the central vision – what you want to achieve and why. Then work out some of the details of how this is going to be achieved.
“Delegates may have come today thinking I was going to talk about grass all day – but actually it is the vision, and how to achieve this, which is most important when creating a resilient dairy business.”