A Southern Dairy Wintering Project

September 2012

A DairyNZ Project examining the best options for wintering dairy cows in the deep South

The Southern Wintering Systems project is part of the Southern Wintering Initiative. It’s a research project looking into how improved decisions around winter management leads to more profitable farms, good outcomes for animals and reduced environmental impacts.

Wintering is a significant cost to dairy farmers in the southern South Island. On average it makes up 20-25% of farm working expenses. If costs can be reduced, farmers will achieve more profit from this key dairy region. Other challenges brought on by the conditions have environmental implications, test stockmanship skills and place strains on people. This four-year project looks into how farmers are managing these conditions, and tests different approaches to help farmers make the best decisions they can around winter management.

Southland dairy farms are also under increasing pressure to implement wintering systems which protect the environment and animal welfare, provide appropriate working conditions for staff, and consistently deliver profit to the farm business.

Expansion of Southland’s dairy industry since the 1990’s, and an increasing number of dairy farms operating on heavier soils, has generated a need for more sustainable wintering options.

Challenges associated with traditional brassica cropping, and a desire to maximise returns from the milking platform have led to more wintering of cows on dairy support land (DSL). In turn, volatile prices associated with grazing contracts has further led farmers to reconsider their wintering policies. More recently, some farmers are considering housing cows to enable them to feed their herd on farm through the winter.

Regardless of the choice of wintering system on Southland dairy farms, the wintering programme must maintain or improve the profitability of the farm business at the same time as achieving environmental, animal or social goals.

There are six monitor farms enrolled in the study – covering the main wintering systems being used in Southland.

Cold temperatures, saturated soils, and the opportunity cost of lost milk production usually make all-grass wintering on the dairy platform economically unfeasible.  Regional Scientist for DairyNZ, Dawn Dalley says the stocking rate and lactation length must be reduced to allow sufficient pasture to be carried forward into the winter. This system can be financially viable on dairy support land with more hospitable soil and climatic conditions. She says forage crops are generally considered to be an economical option for wintering cows, however, the profitability of this system is highly dependent on crop yields which vary greatly depending on crop management, soil condition, and climate.

For stand-off pads and most types of housing facility to be economical, farmers need guaranteed sources of supplementary feed and bedding materials at affordable prices. Housing of cows in the winter is a relatively new practice in Southland. These systems have the advantage of allowing increased days in milk and lower feed requirements during the winter. However, there is a significant capital cost associated with building the structures and more research is required to establish the profitability of these systems.

Composting barns with a loafing area covered with an organic bedding material (e.g. straw or wood chips) are currently the cheapest structures while freestall barns with individual lying areas for cows and large steel structures are the most expensive.

Control of animal management, particularly feeding levels, rather than profitability, tends to be the major driver for farmers acquiring dairy support land (DSL). Productive dairy support land is increasingly difficult to source. When quality land is secured, it is often converted to a milking platform which can provide a better return on capital invested. Leasing of support land is considered a more economical wintering option than ownership. Grazing off with a grazier is a viable wintering option if quality grazing at an affordable and guaranteed price can be negotiated. This system is highly sensitive to price fluctuation depending on supply and demand, and the profitability of alternative

The six monitor farms have had a range of research projects running within the overall umbrella of wintering systems, among them estimating crop utilization and crop yield. Technicians have been looking to compare what was left with the amount of crop offered, with the difference being what was consumed. This information will be linked with the crop quality data.

This study will provide a better indication of how much the cows are actually eating. If there’s a difference in BCS, it should be possible to determine whether it’s the amount that was offered or the quality, or a combination of both.

Once the figures are in, they’ll be added to the website with a selection of photos showing various levels of crop utilisation, to make it easier for farmers to work out how much their cows are actually eating. This should help with planning, and clarify what a farmer needs to do to get cows to put on BCS points, depending on their system.

Dawn says her team has also linked in with a North Island study looking at the management of standoff pads and how they hold up over winter.

The Telford pad and the two wintering pads in the SWS project have been added to the monitoring. Staff have been out digging holes in the pads to measure temperatures and collect pad samples for further analysis.

Staff have also been interviewing farmers who have changed wintering systems in the past 12 to 18 months. The aim is to record their experiences and develop online case studies for those thinking about changing their wintering system.

The results will provide an interesting and useful resource for people to compare and learn from others’ experiences – why did they change, how did they go about it, what have the results been, and what would they do differently next time?

For the last six years, Edendale dairy farmers Allan and Julie Maxwell have utilised two feed pads to manage through winter.

The Maxwells run 350 cows on 110ha effective and introduced feed pads as an alternative to pasture-based farming, and have found it a successful alternative.

“The feed pads have a drained woodchip area and a concrete area where silage is self-fed,” says Allan. “We feed hay, baleage and silage and keep 100 heifers on the feed pad at the farm too. Young stock are grazed on grass, with 25ha of the farm leased for tulip growing.”

The cows go onto the pads in early June and stay there until a week before calving, in early August. Allan shifts the break on the silage stack each morning and says it is easy for the cows to gain condition.

Some lameness is an issue the Maxwells work to manage, along with mastitis, so all cows have dry cow therapy treatment.

Allan says management-wise, the feed pad is relatively maintenance-free, requiring the effluent to be scraped off regularly and enough storage so the system only requires clearing once a year.

The Maxwells have purchased a second farm, which borders the original farm, and will be run as a separate operation on 80ha. It will feed crops to the extra 250 cows: 3ha of swedes, 6ha turnips and magnum oat mix, along with baleage. Additional neighbouring land has also been purchased allowing expansion of the farming operation for 2011-12. Extra cows will be wintered on swedes on ground where tulips have been harvested.

Wintering System specifications are :

• Loafing pads

• Cows wintered 2010: 375 in calf, 12 empty carry-overs (2/3 yr olds)

• Two loafing pads; one 3 years old one 4 years old.

• Size: Concrete: 70m x 15m and 100m x 25m, Loafing area:120m x 15m (small) and 150m x 25m (large)

• Cows per loafing pad: 220 large, 153 small. Basis of cow split: Heifers and light cows and older mixed age group

Allan Maxwell says the pads are quite easy to manage from a feed point of view – they know how many go on each pad and they want to feed them 10kg/day so they have enough silage plus some spare to last all winter. Allan also says having cows on the pad means he’s walking through them regularly to check for lameness or if they appear sick.

Any animals that are not doing well in either of the systems will be removed, checked for ill health and left on grass for as long as needed to gain weight and recover.

There are consents that have to be met for having animals on the pad. Alan says the pad needs to be scraped down to remove the solids. Staff have to be watchful of the liquid holes and pump them out to K-lines when ground conditions are dry, leaving storage during the wet days. The crops are on flat paddocks with no creeks or tiles anywhere near, so as long as nothing is floating through the fence there are no issues.

Glenn and Cherie Taylor run a hybrid wintering system, combining a freestall barn, crops, supplements and pasture.

The 120ha farm will winter 270 cows this year, cut back from 308 last season, with their 65ha support block used to grow silage, grain and rear replacements.

The Taylors milk until June. Their freestall barn houses 100 dry cows until August, when they return to pasture and the 100 crop cows go inside. The remaining herd of 60 is a herd of younger cows, fed on crops.

The crop cows are fed swedes in early winter, along with green globe turnips and moata later on. They feed the swedes early on in winter then feed the turnips and moata as a transition feed leading up to calving.

The barn cows are fed mainly wholecrop silage and up to a kilo of molasses per day for energy – Glenn is trailing maize silage this season.

Glenn says the barn requires a high level of stock management, as issues such as lameness or cows not settling in are more common, however, the barn does bring better weight gain, ability to measure feed and 100 percent utilisation.

The barn is set up with 90 days effluent storage for 450 cows.

Wintering System specifications are:

• Mixed – Barn/Crop/65 ha adjacent support block

• Cows wintered 2010: 310

• Area in crops: 5.5 ha fodderbeet, 5 ha turnips/moata

• Age of barn: 2 years old, 42m x 28m, winters 110 cows

• Basis of cow split: Contract cows on grass at support block, R2s and small cows in barn, balance on crop