April 2005
AgResearch has developed procedures to help farmers decide when, where and how to select forages (including pasture) and manage their establishment. Specific software has been developed to simplify decision making. In particular it helps farmers choose species and cultivars that are most appropriate for their soil types, climate, stock types etc. A series of workshops has recently been held throughout the country to pass on this information and software to farmers.

The Foragemaster software asks a series of questions and as the farmer answers, it eliminates from the potential list any forages that don't suit, and ends up with a preferred list for his particular site. A separate compare section then allows the farmer to find out the particular species that are preferred, so if a lot of high-quality feed is required in late winter in a permanent pasture or perhaps emphasis is put on grass grub tolerance, it will come up with list of preferred species listed in priority order. It is important, however, not to take this list as gospel but to go further into it and find out why one species is advocated over another.

Reforaging this term is used rather than regrassing so that farmers will think about more than just the grass component. One of the real problems is the establishment of legumes because they require completely different establishment techniques to the grass component. Forage encompasses any crop that is fed to stock grasses, legumes, brassicas, cereal forages etc.

What is the best way of establishing the new forage? The establishment phase needs to focus on establishment of the legume component of forage.

a fine firm moist seedbed in which the seeds are placed (particularly all the companion species to ryegrass, the legumes in the Cox foot and the Timothy etc,) so that they can be placed very close to the surface. If they are more than 20 mm below the surface they don't have enough energy to emerge.

Adjusting the sowing rate of the grass species so that the legumes are not drowned out.

early management using light stock and light grazing

Andy Bray, R & D portfolio manager Meat & Wool, funders of the project, talks about the philosophy behind Meat & Wools funding of this project, why they support farmers in this way, and what is coming up in the way of new projects eg. satellite measurement of pasture cover. The project has been totally funded by levies from Meat & Wool, and is aimed at sheep and beef farmers, particularly those that have some area of their farm that can be resown.

Tom Fraser, AgResearch, developer of the program, said that farmer mentor groups say that they didn't know what to sow because of the huge raft of cultivars and species available, all the glossy brochures that they got in the mail, and they were completely confused and wanted an independent assessment of them. So AgResearch worked with the plant breeders and major seed companies to find out where their various species and cultivars fitted best, where they were best used and how they should be managed etc.

Should I reforage or not? This is the first question. Farmers need to decide whether there is an area on their farm that is under-performing in terms of forage production, work out why, and determine what are the best options to improve production from that area. Reforaging is only one of those options.

They cant go by what the neighbour is doing because todays sheep and beef farms have such a diverse range of operations going on they need to work out for themselves the best option for improving the forage supply on their farm. Options include more fertiliser, more subdivision, better stock water supply, and changing grazing management. Reforaging is quite an expensive option and unless fertiliser etc is ok resowing is not going to give the benefits that they expect.

What are the best species for my situation? Once the decision is made that reforaging is required, farmers then need to decide on whether to have an annual pasture or perennial one, or a short-term crop. The Foragemaster software will help sort out the best options within the criteria that set - ie: Which forage is going to be best for the environmental and management criteria on my farm?

Some farmers say that seed companies are rogues, and I want to make the point that the plant breeders in New Zealand are extremely good, and we do have extremely good plant material available to us. The problem is that farmers need to know where to use particular species and cultivars. Mistakes are usually in plants being used in the wrong place or at the wrong soil fertility. Purchasers of seeds have to sort out what is best for them much in the same way that they would choose a new car. What the Foragemaster software does is to help farmers with that sorting-out process.

Alister Hogg is a specialist in finishing lambs using fodder crops, and experienced in crop establishment. His 300 hectares is used for finishing about 15,000 lambs and 700 cattle. He was a monitor farmer until about 18 months ago. Summer finishing of lambs is done entirely on crops and virtually all the arable ground on the farm is turned over once every three years. He uses biennial grasses because of their high palatability, they only last for a couple of years then go into a brassica crop, usually Pasja, and then into the two-year cycle again. Most of the farm is very stony and is terraced down to the Rangitikei River. He uses only direct drilling.

Alister believes that very few farmers realise the true cost of establishing a new forage crop, and very few measure the response to see whether they got a positive return out of it. The costs of reforaging are very high, he says, and Foragemaster will help point this out so that farmers can make more rational decisions and not just reforage because the neighbour did.

Most farmers would be appalled to find that they may be making a loss because the cost of seed is so great, and that is why Foragemaster is going to have a great impact because it is going to make people think carefully before putting crops and why they want to put them in and what return they expect to get from it. Foragemaster essentially does what we have been doing, and it does in a nice easy-to-use fashion.

There are also many competing seeds available, and what farmers often don't realise is that for their property some varieties wouldn't have the advantages that are claimed, and may in fact have hidden disadvantages because of things like flowering times etc. So Foragemaster will help farmers through a minefield of varieties and cultivars that are all screaming for their attention.

The greatest benefit of Foragemaster is for people who seldom put in new crops. It will walk them through the decision-making process in unbiased fashion. It's a brilliant concept.