McFetridge Ballance Farm Award Winners

September 2013

A farm once devastated by a landslide is rebuilt to become a supreme farm award winner

Tauranga dairy farmers Dennis, Judith and Gordon McFetridge have been named Supreme Winners of the 2013 Bay of Plenty Ballance Farm Environment Awards (BFEA). But 32 years ago it was a much different story. In 1981, one of the McFetridge farms was submerged under millions of tonnes of sludge after a canal on the Ruahihi Power Scheme collapsed. This was a devastating blow for Dennis and Judith and it has taken many years of hard work to rectify the damage.

They now run the operation with the help of their son Gordon, a Lincoln graduate, who returned to the farm after five years in the rural banking industry. He manages the farms with the help of two full-time staff. Winning improvements include riparian and shelterbelt planting, retiring of steep areas, small plantations on steep areas, reduced use of N, improved effluent treatment and irrigation, reduced stock numbers countered by improved production per animal.

The McFetridge farms consist of a lower property of 68ha and the top farm of 112ha, plus two 15ha runoffs that are used for wintering stock and making silage. Dennis & Judith bought the lower farm in 1962. In the late 70’s the nearby Ruahihi hydro dam was built and the penstocks went through their property.

In 1982 the Ruahihi Canal collapsed and flooded the farm with clay and debris. It took three years to remediate – the ground ended up 2m higher than before – and put the land back into grass. Fortunately the couple had by then bought the top farm which was highly productive and carried them through, says Dennis.

“At first we went into deer because we were not sure how dairying would go with no top soil and deer were as profitable as dairying at that time, but they eroded the paddocks and the area was growing grass better than I thought it would so we went back to dairying on it,” he says. “It was a challenge to build up the fertility again from bare clay.”

In the aftermath of the flood Dennis started planting trees to make the property more environmentally secure. On the lower one he has put around 6ha into natives, mainly shelter belts and alongside drains and on steep sidlings. The top block also features shelterbelts as well as fenced off gullies and a 15ha pine plantation.

McFetridge Farms Ltd milks 180 two and three-year old cows on 60ha of the lower farm and 260 four years and older cows on 70ha of the top farm. The rolling to steep contour on lower farm is well suited to younger cows while the top farm, which has flat to rolling contour, is better suited for older cows.

“We split the herd up into age groups because it takes the pressure off the younger stock. The empty rates for the past two years were 4% and about 6%. In the younger cows there is less competition and bullying, and also they are more able to cope with the undulating terrain,” says Dennis.

“On the lower farm last year we did 62,000 kg and this year 58,000 before we dried them off at the end of March. We were quite a lot ahead but then the dry weather took its toll. The lower farm has a lot of kikuyu on it and so we have to undersow that with annual ryegrass to get growth during the winter and that really knocks the pastures around, which was a contributing factor to drying the younger stock off early.”

Since Gordon came back on the farm three years ago they have had to make some careful decisions around stocking rates, supplementary feeding, water cooling, effluent, and capital inputs.

“When Gordon came home we were feeding maize silage on a feed pad, but the effluent from it wasn’t being caught, and so we looked at how we would handle that, and the cost of completing the feed pad was about $70,000. We had a meal feeding system in the cowshed and decided that it would fit our system better if we brought in barley rather than maize silage, so we put in 100 tonne silo,” says Dennis.

“We grind up the barley and feed the cows and that means we deal with all our effluent in the cowshed rather than having it come off the feed pad, and that also reduced pressure on the races and gateways. We can feed up to 4 kg of barley in the cowshed and then we feed baleage to give them a bit of bulk.”

“This season we put in 7 ha of turnips, which gave us feed in the dry period and that certainly contributed to the production we achieved despite the drought, and we had baleage from our run-offs and as well as the barley.”

“We’ve also put in some oats to give quick feed after the drought, and the grass has come away again.”

Gordon and Dennis try to match stocking numbers to feed supply. They have lowered stocking rate but lifted per cow production through feeding barley, making the most of the grass and using some extra barley to plug feed gaps if they occur. They considered an all-grass system but decided that it would mean they would not be able to employ staff.

Gordon wanted to find out where the water was going and to become more efficient in its use so he put in water meters and can monitor how much the stock are drinking and how much the dairy is using, and when there is a water leak. The supply is from a spring on the top farm and a bore down 230m (about 140m below sea level) for the lower farm.

Both sources are quite warm – about 26°C in summer on the lower farm and about 20° on the top farm. That was causing quite a problem for milk cooling so they put in two water cooling towers that start up at 1am and reduce all the water in the reservoirs to normal night temperatures. That has enabled them to meet the dairy company requirements for using water to cool milk without having to put in bigger refrigeration units.

The effluent system had no storage so they constructed 30 day storage dams, installed new effluent pumps, and designated effluent application areas that now do not get any P or K, just nitrogen. All the effluent applied is recorded so the amounts of nutrients can be calculated.

Magnesium, zinc, selenium and cobalt go into fertiliser but they can also include them in the mineral mix as it is all augured into the feed as it is crushed.

The farm’s P levels were high so applications have been reduced. The effluent paddocks receive only N. The other areas received about 180 units of N, which is less than before and they are aiming to reduce it further. “Nitrogen use went up a lot when the clover root weevil came in and we had no clover at all on our farm at one stage so we used nitrogen to boost grass growth,” says Dennis.

“But we are now getting a bit of clover back. Dropping the stocking rate back means we don’t need to put quite a much nitrogen on but we have still increased production through better feeding.”

In March 2013, Dennis, Judith and Gordon were named Supreme Winners of the 2013 Bay of Plenty Ballance Farm Environment Awards (BFEA). The judges described the family’s farming business as a well-rounded operation that is “meeting economic, social and environmental objectives”, and said the properties are “aesthetically pleasing and highly productive” and the challenging topography has been wisely developed for dairy farming.

They were also impressed with the McFetridges’ approach to farm management, aiming to run a lower stocking rate while lifting per cow production and achieving this through improved feeding, better grazing management and a strong focus on animal health.

The judges also noted:

  • Excellent financial control, well-kept herd records and sound relationships with staff.
  • Their good understanding of soils – the low stocking rate helping to sustain soils and pasture. Erosion issues have been addressed with assistance from the Regional Council.
  • Regular pasture walks used to assist with grazing management and cropping decisions.
  • A “very effective” effluent management system, which uses pond storage, eco pumps and travelling irrigators.
  • The family’s experience and acquired skills in areas like rural banking and water management that have been of great benefit to the farming operation.
  • Difficult sidlings and gullies have been either left in native bush or planted in woodlots.
  • Both farms have extensive shelterbelts. Riparian plantings have been used to protect and enhance waterways. Areas of native bush have been fenced and now contain a diversity of species. An ongoing specimen tree planting programme is also in place.

As well as winning the Supreme title, the McFetridges also collected the LIC Dairy Farm Award, the Massey University Discovery Award, the WaterForce Integrated Management Award and the Meridian Energy Excellence Award.