Low Input Farming at Cloverdale Dairies

June 2013

Andrew and Nicky Watt won the Dairy Business of the Year on their low input dairy farm

Andrew and Nicky Watt run one of the largest dairy farms in the country on a low-input system with exceptionally good results, particularly around nutrient management.

Cloverdale Holdings is one of the largest dairy farms in the country at 810ha and 3000 cows milking this season. There are four herds on the farm based on condition score. The 3000 cows are milked through two 80-bail rotary dairy sheds. The cows walk up to 1.5km to their shed. The farm is on stony Lismore soils which are irrigated by pivot and roto-rainer irrigators.

The farm was converted in 2002 and began milking 1800 cows, and production in the first year was 605,000kgMS. Andrew and Nicky have been managing it since 2006, so this is their seventh season.

Initially when it was first converted, half of it was a dairy farm, the other half used for finishing Friesian bulls. This bull unit was converted in 2005, the year before they arrived.

The farm is owned by the Spectrum Group, and Andrew and Nicky were equity managers in the farm initially, but sold their shareholding a couple of years ago and stayed on as managers.

They have received the following awards :

2007 – Finalists in the Dairy Business of the Year

2008 – South Island winners of the Dairy Business of the Year

2011 – Canterbury finalists in the Ballance Farm Environment Awards

Won the LIC Dairy Farm Award

2012 – Won best people management and farm with the lowest environmental footprint at the Dairy Business of the Year awards

Cloverdale Holdings employs 15 full time dairy staff and two fulltime dry-stock staff. It is fully spray irrigated and pasture based, with 85-90% of the diet pasture. They harvest 17-17.5tDM/ha/year.

Andrew and Nicky have steadily increased production and refined their systems each year since they arrived at the farm.

In 2011 when they won the LIC Dairy Farm Award, the Ballance Farm Environment Award judges said their business had a “high producing, low cost, high profitability focus”. A feature was the complementary roles the couple played in managing the property.

The farm is a low input, with only 10% of the cow diet coming from supplements, the majority of which is their own pasture silage. In spring they feed palm kernel and through winter brought-in maize silage. Apart from the 810ha milking platform, the farm has 416ha of support land which provides winter grazing and supplementary feed.

Cloverdale’s production in the 2011/12 season was 1.26million kgMS, which is 1680kgMS/ha or 436kgMS/cow. The cows are stocked at 3.8/ha, and farm working expenses are $3.75/kgMS.

This is really high production for a low input farm, and the Watts describe themselves as “self-driven” and not trying to copy other systems.

They enter the Dairy Business of the Year awards every year to help benchmark themselves against other top performing businesses. The competition is based on financial performance, the key driver of which is return on capital.

“In the last four or five years we have only missed the finals one year.”

The farm has 17 full time staff, including 15 at the dairy farm and two dry stock staff. “We try and keep the systems simple so staff can understand, and because they can understand, they can be more helpful in making decisions.” In spring and autumn there are also contract calf rearers, some of whom are partners of staff members. Talking to staff and being available for them is important Andrew says. “I say good morning to everyone, and make eye contact. I want to make everyone feel valued.

I give them responsibilities and trust them to do their job. If they need help, I encourage them to ask, so they don’t feel silly for asking.”

Andrew promotes AgITO training with his staff, but doesn’t force it upon them. He likes to encourage them in a succession programme within the business. “That succession or ability to grow within a job is important.”

A quarter of the staff are Kiwi, and the majority are from South American countries including Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Argentina. Most of the staff have NZ residency, and have moved to NZ because opportunities are limited in South America.

“They can make as much here in a week as they do in a month back home, and conditions aren’t as good there.”

During springtime for the 11 weeks from 1 August to the first week in October, Andrew and Nicky hire a portacom with a kitchenette, and employ a chef to cook hot lunches and dinners five days a week. That way all staff get a hot meal, and it’s a very good team bonding thing, Andrew says. It’s a very efficient way of getting the best out of staff, and there is very little illness or absenteeism as a result. And he knows the junior guys aren’t getting by on two minute noodles and chocolate biscuits! When the weather is good they put on a barbeque, which is really uplifting, he says.

The Ballance Farm Environment Award judges commended Andrew and Nicky on their innovation in managing nutrients.

And in the recent Dairy Business Awards they reached an impressive 93% for their environmental efforts.

For example they have reduced their nitrogen use from 300kgN/ha to 93kgN/ha last year.

Their nutrient management is based on Overseer, which shows that the reduction in nitrogen use along with good water management is also reducing leaching to very low levels of 17-18kgN/ha. The average Canterbury leaching figure is 38kgN/ha/year, and the target is to get this down to 20 or less. “We are also on very light stony Lismore soils,” Nicky says.

Their annual rainfall of 500-550mm is relatively low, so irrigation is very important, and they use pivots and some roto-rainers.

From one dairy shed, 60% of the farm area is irrigated with effluent through the pivots; from the other 40% of the farm. “There are six sites around the farm where Aquaflex meters are used to measure soil moisture levels, and we collect information weekly. Our irrigation flow rates come back to the office computer using telemetry. We are trying to maximize pasture harvest but we are reducing the amount of fertiliser use generally applied to the farm. Our pastures contain ryegrass and clover, but also plantain and chicory for their medicinal and mineral value. Cows quite like a fruit salad of plants. We don’t regrass unless there is surface damage to the paddocks during spring. We are very focused on looking after the soil and what lives in it, as this will grow the grass we need.”

“I go around every week and assess pasture covers and feeding levels of the cows, and set rotation lengths using ryegrass leaf phase growth. We graze at the 2.5-3 leaf level. We are trying to maximize potential growth and maximize the intake of minerals by the cows.”

“Ryegrass leaf phase management is a method Intelact use, and it’s a fantastic way of maximizing pasture growth and potential harvest.”

From November through to autumn the cows are grazing pastures only. Supplements are used in early spring and then in autumn to lengthen the round and get pasture covers to where they should be.

“All the cows, except for 500 winter milking cows, go off the farm for winter onto our run-off.”

Nicky also does trial plots over the farm to test different fertiliser methods. She is looking for the best results environmentally and economically.

“I would like to measure the leachate through our soil profile to verify what we are doing. It is important to us that we run this operation very profitably, and to do this while looking after the environment for the future generations is an added bonus.”