Grieg and Rachel Alexander have changed management practices for greater sustainability
Greig and Rachel Alexander were the supreme award winners in the Ballance Farm Environment Awards for Northland in 2015 for their high-producing 126ha dairy farm recognised by the judges as having some of the steepest slopes for dairying in Northland. The commendation was that the Alexanders were consistently willing to think outside the square, be innovative and to change their management practices to make their farming business very sustainable. Decisions made about appropriate land use, including retirement from grazing, native bush regeneration, slope stabilisation, no pugging and water management were also highlighted.
The Alexander’s values statement is “to grow a sustainable business and create wealth, security, freedom and happiness by complimenting strengths of each other, staff members and industry professionals in order to balance works, lifestyle and leisure because we enjoy being challenged by our business and family each year”.
Greig and Rachel went sharemilking on the Alexander family farm at Pakotai in the mid-1990s and purchased the farm in 2001. It has been expanded and the dairy platform of 126ha is now included in 486ha (60ha leased) on two farms, one dairy and forestry and the other beef farming and forestry, with extensive native bush enclosed. Cow numbers have been increased from 240 when sharemilking to 350 today. Production per hectare has more than doubled over the past 18 years. The herd now has an BW index of 133, which puts it in the top 3% of Friesian herds nationally.
The award judges were very impressed by the attention to detail in all areas of production, from calf rearing to pasture management. This is a high input system (System 5) using mostly home-grown feed, with imported supplement now used for drought or wet periods. Milk produced was 1452kg/ha MS from 126ha in 2013-14 season (despite a bad drought), which was well above the Northland average of 956kg/ha. Production per cow was 523kg versus the Northland average of 377kg. Total feed eaten was 19.2 tonnes of dry matter per hectare, versus the Northland average of 12.3t. 8.9t was pasture and the rest conserved feed (more than 50% of total intake), mostly three types of silage – grass, maize and red clover.
The farm is among the highest in Northland for dairy farming and has steep topography and a range of unstable, erosion-prone, poorly drained soil types. Low-lying parts of the farm are also subject to regular flooding from the Mangakahia River. The strengths of the Alexanders commented upon by the award judges were that they had carefully matched the land uses to the land capabilities and focused on reducing erosion and sediment loss to improve downstream water quality.
On-off grazing is practised to minimise pugging and soil damage and reduce fine sediment loss from the paddocks in heavy rainfall. Temporary fencing is also used to avoid grazing any slip-prone areas during winter. Any sediments and nutrients lost from paddocks is captured in fenced and protected wetlands traps that have now become a feature of the property. All waterways have been fenced well beyond the requirements of the Sustainable Dairying Water Accord and riparian planting has been done with poplars and native species. The judges commented on “impressive, active, long-term biodiversity and biosecurity management practices”. Bush, wetland and waterway fencing has led to impressive indigenous regeneration, further enhanced by the planting of kauri in light wells, which are recorded and monitored by members of the family. Possum, cat, rat and mustelid controls have produced good regeneration of nikau and puriri, while invasive weeds have also been kept at bay.
Making, storing and feeding three types of silage while reducing dependence on imported palm kernel won the Massey University Innovation Award for Greig and Rachel Alexander. They make red clover silage that has 22% protein as well as grass and maize silage. Red clover for silage is a new crop for Northland and requires careful establishment and weed control within the crop and extra care when harvesting to avoid leaf loss while also making sure the stack is not too wet. Now in their fourth season of red clover crops, the Alexanders have sown 13.5ha and have budgeted on a yield of 15 tonnes/ha (net fed to the cows) from four cuts of high protein silage at 10c/kg compared with maize at 12c and grass silage at 15 to 18c.
The crops are established on river flats with power harrowing and air seeding. Oats and maize are also grown.
The Alexanders were also praised for their detailed soil and nutrient management, beginning with the different soil types and typography. Soil tests are carried out on lines established with GPS to ensure consistency. In consultation with the fertiliser co-operative representative, applications are adjusted according to farm block, soil test results and economic conditions. Nitrogen is applied little and often; urea and sulphate of ammonia being used where appropriate. Effluent is irrigated on 38ha with a travelling irrigator and a pod system. Records are maintained and reviewed to ensure all paddocks in the irrigation block receive similar amounts of effluent.
Although consent to discharge treated effluent to a man-made wetland is retained, even in the particularly challenging conditions during a flood in the spring 2014, the discharge only operated five days. Recently they built a new water storage pond on a hill adjacent to the farm dairy and effluent ponds to extend storage capacity and provide water head for reticulation. The four pond system now provides storage for up to 90 days.
Farm dairy water use is carefully monitored with water meters as a means of looking for efficiencies. Total use now averages 34 m3 a day, including 105 litres/cow/day from August to November. Water use in the yard is minimised by recycling cooling water, a chain on the backing gate and the use of a hand scraper.