Future Forage Systems Project

April 2014

Identifying superior combinations of forages for dryland farming

Two Hawke’s Bay dryland farms are part of the Future Forage Systems project to road test new forage species.

The Future Forage Systems project aims to identify and test forage systems that Hawke’s Bay and East Coast dryland farmers can use to improve their profitability (and reduce their risk) in what has become an increasingly variable climate.  The project is road-testing new forages by collecting actual data to determine their fit within local farming systems.

Forages are currently being evaluated on a range of demonstration sites, many of which are located on commercial farms. In many cases the project is operating hubs. These are sites where a small group of interested farmers  meet three times a year to monitor progress.

Annual clovers grow well in winter and spring and then set seed and die prior to summer as a survival mechanism in drought prone areas. Not surprisingly, most annual clovers used in New Zealand have originated in Australia. Sub clover is presently the main annual clover but a number of different annual clovers (e.g. Arrowleaf, Balansa, Persian) are being tested. These clovers have potential to produce large quantities of high quality spring feed. However they are aerial seeders which means they flower at the top of the plant and this has implications for grazing management. The challenge is to develop grazing management systems which will enable these annual clovers to be used effectively in dryland.

Okawa is a 1000ha property owned by Tom Lowry and located on the Napier-Taihape Road, 10km northwest of Hastings. The property is summer dry with a rainfall of 750mm and light silt loam soils. Arrowleaf clover has been grown as an annual crop for feeding lactating ewes and early weaned lambs for the past three years.  In 2013, a total of 60ha of Arrowleaf clover was established as pure species and mixes to provide greater spring flexibility. A 10ha trial paddock is being used to examine differing methods of establishing Arrowleaf and Persian clover. Measurements will include dry matter production, seed yield and hard seededness.

One change Tom had to make was to put in greenfeed oats during winter to cope with the increased number of animals able to be fed in spring on the clover.

Brownrigg Agriculture established 40ha of Tonic Plantain along with Balansa, Persian, White and Red clovers at Te Mahanga Station in April 2013. Balansa and Persian annual clovers were chosen because they were the stand-out performers at the demonstration site in this paddock in 2012. The aim is to produce high quality feed for lamb finishing in late winter/spring. Te Mahanga is summer dry with an annual rainfall of 750mm. The soils are Matapiro silt loam and are underlain with a hard pan which reduces drainage in the winter months. Dry matter production and animal performance are being measured during 2013.

Plantain is better known to many people as a roadside weed. It is tolerant of pests and diseases and has become increasingly popular as a specialist crop or sown in a pasture mix. It is likely that 5000ha of plantain or plantain mixes were sown in 2011 and this may have increased to 10,000ha in 2012. Work to date shows that specialist plantain pastures can also out-yield ryegrass pastures in terms of dry matter and have a clear advantage as a high quality feed in late winter and spring. Questions being addressed include how long a plantain pasture will last and whether management systems can be developed to extend the life of a plantain pasture.

Brownrigg Agriculture’s Livestock Operations Manager Hayden Ashby says the trial plantings of plantain and clover fit their winter lamb finishing system so well, they are putting another 300ha in this coming autumn and even more the following year.

Compared with new permanent pastures, their plantain pastures give a 30% lift in lamb growth rates, and a 2% lift in dressing out weights.

Over the course of a calendar year plantain pastures have grown 4tDM/ha more than new permanent pastures in dryland sites. Those measurements include last summer’s drought in Hawke’s Bay.

That’s worth a great deal of money to the business. But Hayden warns that plantain won’t suit everyone’s farming system. “It totally depends on each system’s supply and demand curve. It fits ours well.”

It suits their system because it is winter active and high quality. “We are investigating how well it goes as a supplementary feed source (either wrapped up in a bale or put into a silage bunker) to enable better control in late spring. We are also treading carefully right now when it comes to grazing cattle on the plantain/clover due to the risk of bloat. But I think that once the clover hardens off a bit we will be fine. This will co-incide with the last of our old season lamb kill where the sward is being grazed by lambs alone at this stage.”

“You also have to take it easy when grazing it in summer but that suits us because we don’t carry large numbers of stock through the summer dry.”

“It’s a good news story for us.”

As well, an annual clover demonstration site was established at Te Mahanga Station at Poukawa on 28th March 2012. The soils are Matapiro silt loam with an underlying hard pan which reduces drainage in winter. Annual rainfall is 750mm. Clovers sown were Sub (Denmark and Woogenellup), Balansa (Bolta), Arrowleaf (Arratas and Cefalu) and Persian (Turbo). The effects of broadleaf and grass weed sprays and grazing management were tested across all these clovers.

On-Farm Research is trialling new forages on farms to see how they go in dry East Coast conditions and see how they fit into farming systems there. That involves working out how to sow them, what problems are thrown up, how long the forages persist, and how well animals do on them.

Part of the research is intended to provide objective data to use for modelling, so farmers can say what is likely to happen if they put in 20ha of a forage. The research intends to find out what forages to use to make farming on the East Coast more resilient as climate change makes the climate drier. Where do these species fit in and what are the keys to management?