Owl Farm

May 2021

A venture demonstrating the latest in good dairy farming practice.

Owl Farm is a joint venture between St Peters School and Lincoln University, set up to demonstrate the latest in good, sustainable commercial dairy farming practice. Rural Delivery visited in 2016 not long after the farm had been set up as a demonstration unit with some clear and challenging goals.  We returned in 2021 to discover what progress had been made in that time.


Owl Farm has been part of St Peters School since its inception in the 1930s. Initially it supplied milk, meat and eggs to the School and then morphed into a standard dairy farm. In the 2000s it was milking about 450 cows on 150ha through a 36 bail rotary, one of the first of its type. The soils are a mix of heavy and light, prone to summer dry periods and so high amounts of feed were brought in.


Today a herd of around 400 is milked on 144ha using the same shed, modified to bring it up-to-date. Cup removal and teat spraying have been automated, Protrack installed, along with sprinklers for cooling stock on hot summer days.


These are a few of the significant changes that have taken place in the past seven years, bringing a slightly run down farm up to and beyond good dairying practice. The concurrence of a number of issues – lack of a demonstration dairy farm in the region, the increasing complexity of challenges facing dairy farmers, the need to recruit more young people into all facets of the agriculture and horticulture industries, the proximity of a school population with a high number coming from farms or rural areas – resulted in the School forming a joint venture with Lincoln University to create a demonstration farm similar to the one run by Lincoln in Canterbury.


The first few years were spent bringing the farm infrastructure up to a standard where it could be well ahead of farmers in adopting novel, proven practices and demonstrate their potential under local conditions. Jo Sheridan, who has been the Farm’s Demonstration Manager since mid-2019, says that has been achieved and they have now incorporated their management practice and planning into a revised “wagon wheel”.


Their wagon wheel consists of six key focus areas, each with its own KPIs:

  • Animal wellbeing
  • Farm performance 
  • Quality workplace
  • Healthy environment
  • Business health
  • People & community


“This is a really strong framework that we have been using on the Farm.  The idea is that for our business to be sustainable we cannot make a decision to push in one way without having a look at what the impact is on other areas,” she says.


“For example, this season we could delay culling cows because we have plenty of feed on hand and could profit from the extra milk, but we know that that will have an impact on our greenhouse gas emissions. By considering other wagon wheel KPIs and using Farmax and Overseer modelling we can quantify the impact and make informed decisions on our  projected biological greenhouse gas if we choose to milk longer, and there will be a longer milking season so we need to manage our team to ensure we don’t increase work hours for our staff; so there are trade-offs. We can't just prioritise profit without understanding what is happening to other parts of the wagon wheel.”


“Also, when we are considering a new technology we don’t just ask will it give us a better profit but will it give us a better quality workplace, does it allow our community to support and embrace the way we farm, is it the way of the future that inspires next generation farmers, does it improve the welfare of our stock etc. That's a strong fundamental way in which we make decisions and it is a concept that anyone can use.”


Healthy Environment


This is an important focus area with recent regulations and more on the horizon. The location of the farm right next to the Waikato River means that mitigation strategies are vital to minimise the amount of N leaching.  A wetland to capture runoff water is now well established (with 4 years of NIWA data monitoring) and reduces nitrate by about 63%. However, its catchment is only 7 out of the Farm’s 144ha, so a variety of mitigation strategies are needed on farm.


“The other strategy we are using is that we are  to reduce N use from about 150kg/ha down to about 120kg/ha in the coming year without compromising our production and profitability goals. We are using My Pasture Planner with Ballance technical expertise to focus on nitrogen use efficiency.  We then use Farmax to plan the feed system that still meets our performance and animal wellbeing goals.


“We have been on a journey to change to a plantain/clover-based sward and are working to maintain the persistence of those in the sward. Plantain can help reduce nitrogen leaching and we want to make sure we are using it as effectively as possible in areas where we know it will survive and we can look after it.”

The farm has reduced GHG emissions by 8% by removing inefficient supplements, reducing stocking rates and looking for more efficient feed converters. At the same time, profit has increased by 14%. 


“This is the area in which many farmers will make their first gains. We are now looking at DNA testing the herd so we get a better idea of their genetics, we are reducing our replacement rate to 21%, so we are looking at growing cows better and having fewer of them. Part of that will be about having more efficient feed converters and at the same time increasing the energy content of home grown feed. There is a strong relationship between methane emissions and dry matter intake, and we know that improved forage management  can potentially give similar production and lower emissions.”


The farm uses crops such as turnips to provide additional feed in summer, which are typically dry. When these are fed the soil is left bare for many weeks  before autumn rains allow resowing. Waikato University has a long-term project measuring the change in soil carbon during the crop cycle and the CO2 emissions from the pastures on farm.  This will give data to enable informed decisions on how to best manage cropping to minimise emissions during the cropping and resowing process. “Farmax helps us model GHG changes when we change some aspect of the system, and we use Overseer every year to work out our total emissions profile for the year. Our target is to align our three-year rolling average for biological GHG with future industry expectations,” says Jo.


“DairyNZ has a group that allows us to compare our operating profit against emissions and nitrogen surplus rather than the profit of other farmers, which is a real change in the industry, and our role is to share that and start talking about it with farmers.” Using data in decision making is becoming routine. For example, measurements of moisture levels down to 600mm are useful in forecasting feed supplies. Rainfall over the past two seasons has been just 700mm instead of the average of about 1200mm. Consequently the farm made plenty of silage in spring and had strategies in place to cope if the dry continued.


Animal Welfare

St Peters School has given the farm a clear directive that they would like the number of bobby calves reduced to zero. This implies having a “purposeful life” for calves, meaning clear breeding objectives for each animal rather than it being a product of getting the cow in calf so that it will produce milk again.


“We are all AI on the farm and to start reducing bobbies our mating programme for the past two years has involved sexed semen and Wagyu semen. The sexed semen means more heifers are born from our best genetics.  Because our herd is just outside the top 5% in NZ more good quality heifers are available for sale into the national herd. We need fewer of them ourselves because we are reducing the replacement rate, then we are using Wagyu and alternative beef breeds to provide quality calves into a different market,” says Jo.


“That costs about $6000 extra in semen, but we make up to $4000 profit from extra stock income and reduce our bobby calf numbers by 31%, so it is a profitable solution and it allows us to achieve our animal wellbeing and community outcomes. We also looked at staff time and our infrastructure and it was a very good fit, so it was a win-win. This year we have also synchronised our heifers and used sexed semen on them, to make further gains in this area”.


Another area of animal welfare is cool cows. Staff monitor temperature and humidity on the farm and compare that with the DairyNZ temperature and humidity index. In the Waikato summers, often seven hours/day are out of their comfort zone which affects a cow’s production and up to three or four hours/day could affect fertility. We can’t change the weather, so mitigation strategies are important. Extra troughs have been put in the race so that any time a cow is moving she has access to extra water.  


“We always make sure that our crop paddocks have shade and stock are eating low-dry-matter feed, which is rapidly digested and doesn't produce a lot of heat. Cows prefer shade over sprinklers but sprinklers are more effective at cooling, so we use them in the shed. That can cost up to  $15 per milking but we know that they will remain cool for three or four hours after that. Sometimes we monitor cow respiration rates and if they are higher than 40/minute we can take action to reduce stress,” says Jo.


“In December, once mating is over, we go to three milkings in two days – 5am, 6pm, and then 11am the next morning, so two out of three milkings are in cooler temperatures. The change doesn’t cause a drop in production as we are removing the impact of heat and it  helps in achieving the 45-hour working week target.”


Staff Welfare

The three-in-two milking frequency means that once morning jobs are done on the two-milking day, staff have an afternoon free until the evening milking. The following day they are finished by about 1pm and can have a break until the next morning. Changes in technology and management are always assessed against the potential impact on staff time.


The farm is fully owned by St Peters School and so has no actual debt, but in setting it up as a demonstration farm it was assigned a notional debt to make it a realistic model of a typical farm. “The nominal amount of debt was about $20 per kilogram based on the fact that the farm used to do about 185,000kg. Production is now down to about 175,000kg since we took around 70 cows out of the system because of ‘inefficient milk’. After tax profit is applied to principal repayments and as we invest capital in things like the yard or an underpass, that gets loaded into the debt. At the moment it sits at about $20.86 per kgMS and our priority has been to pay off debt to strengthen our position for whatever investment is required for future attainment of GHG legislation,” says Jo.


Farm Management Committee

A committee of fourteen determines policy, guides farm staff and ensures that the farm is working effectively towards meeting its goals as a demonstration farm and an educational facility. Committee chair Ian Brown says that the big challenges for the committee are the raft of new requirements that are being put on dairy farmers and what lies ahead. What does the farm need to look like 5 years from now? What does it need to do to get there? What is DairyNZ saying? What is the NZ industry reaction? How does it all affect our set of objectives on the wagon wheel?  


“There has been a quite rapid change in the environment dairying operates in. How can we meet farmer needs with relevant information? Overall we are performing well, in some areas we aren’t quite meeting the targets we’ve set but we are working towards them.”


“Greenhouse gas is a good example and the rules haven’t really been set although we have some idea where they might be. Do we increase production and hence our GHG emissions, or not? We have to consider where the industry rules will be at in five years’ time so we will probably hold the line in terms of our emissions profile.”


Ian says that there is a range of interest from farmers in what Owl Farm is doing.  Some farmers are very engaged, especially online; others come along to open days regularly; some  can’t quite marry what we are doing with their situation, but then when they get their heads around the way we are balancing the wagon wheel objectives and Owl Farm goals they start to understand that it’s the way the industry is heading and it may have an effect on their milk solids production. 


“Being a demonstration farm and highly visible it puts the onus on us to get things right. Sexed semen is an example of something that is new and potentially problematic but we are demonstrating its use on quite a large scale and communicating the results. Many in the industry have different views on bobby calves but sexed semen is part of achieving a reduction of them so the practicalities of its use are very valuable information for farmers.


The key challenges for the farm and the industry include meeting the expectations of the community that the industry sells to. Ultimately it is customers who will determine how milk is produced, whether it be with lower GHGs, nutrient runoff, better animal welfare, better water management etc, so we have to be really focused on their expectations and need to ensure that we meet them as far as possible. 


“Dairy industry technology is changing rapidly so we are having a very good look at what technology we could use to meet our objectives, especially in increasing efficiency of pasture use and of staff time. Halter technology is an example of this. As a demonstration farm we need to look at the extra production versus GHG emissions and whereas a conventional farm might go for the extra income, we need to acknowledge that the rules are changing and so our decision is based on what the industry might be facing in 5 years.” 


“The big message for farmers is that in the past we have been quite one dimensional in driving production to drive profitability. While that is still very important we are moving towards a situation where there are other competing needs that farmers are going to have to balance – environment, staff, community issues etc. Dairy farming is changing but there are more tools being developed to manage the changes. Farmers will have to manage their farms a little differently than in the past but it is going to be more exciting.


Bringing the Youngsters on Board

Having the farm right by the School grounds means that farm visits by students are incursions rather than excursions and so health and safety issues can be managed and supervised by farm staff and selected teachers. The aim is to inspire students' interest in agriculture, agribusiness and horticulture subjects and it is working. There has been an almost doubling of student participation over the last 3 years (from 142 to 273). Agribusiness students have Christmas tree and sweet corn projects under way, and the farm hosts social studies modules, photography camps, media squad, and technology students fascinated by drones and animal data management, to name just a few areas of engagement by students at Owl Farm.


Public Connections

The farm also has a cycleway that runs along their boundary by the Waikato River, and an easement has been created through the farm and a neighbouring property for the Te Awa Cycleway. It is part of the farm’s commitment to public engagement and offers more opportunities for the public to become aware of the activities at Owl Farm.

Showdown Productions Ltd.   Rural Delivery Series 16 2021