Pastoral 21 Lifting Profits on Hill Country

August 2013

An industry-government research programme to improve profits for hill country farmers

A $1.6m research project looking at how profits on hill country sheep farms can be lifted in the wake of much of the highly productive land being shifted into dairy farming. The five-year project is now in its second year and is one of seven “objectives”, which make up the much larger New Zealand agricultural sector programme Pastoral 21.

A lot of the research money in recent years has centred on forage production on flat sites, where nutrients and water are more reliable.

Those involved in the hill country project say there has been very little work in that sector. This was recognised by Beef + Lamb New Zealand, which also recognised the sector’s increasing reliance on hill country, as other land uses (almost exclusively dairy) have claimed the flatter, easier country.

Andrew Newton farms a 570 ha (550 effective) block south of Cheviot. The property runs 2100 ewes, this year there’s 570 hoggets to the ram. He has 156 R1 dairy heifer calves and another 100 carry over cows. Andrew says he had a herd of beef cows but he got rid of them two seasons ago.

The property has 42ha under irrigation. That is dairy support country. He has around 25ha in lucerne on the hill and is planning to establish more.

Richard Wakelin from Beef and Lamb NZ says the project is about farming without flats. It’s a recognition of significant land use change and the challenges sheep and beef farmers are facing as a consequence. He says they’re funding the project because of the increasing reliance sheep and beef farmers are placing on hill country.

As feed requirements vary throughout the year, the project concentrates on opportunities for farmers to match those feed demands.

AgResearch’s Science Impact Leader for Forage Production, Tom Fraser, is quoted as saying ‘farmers get paid for animal product, not for growing grass.’ So how do you best convert forage production into animal production? He says before farmers even start looking at projects like this one, they need to ask what do they want to achieve.

Tom says the hill country project is being replicated in 4 locations throughout NZ – in Waikato, Hawkes Bay, Manawatu and Canterbury.

These trials are on uncultivatable hill country sites and up to 30 species of novel legumes are planted at each site. The first plot trials were planted out in Spring 2011 on both north and south facing sites on each of the four locations, and the work will run through until 2015.

These trials are just part of a much larger project aimed at increasing profitability of mixed livestock systems.

The scientists say there will not be a single silver bullet. They are instead talking about combinations of recommendations that will work – in different configurations – from Northland to Southland. They envisage that the end result will include improved methods of establishing pastures and crops in uncultivated hill country and guidelines on how winter grass management can be adjusted to improve feed supply into spring.

The project is also paying attention to environmental impacts, with some recommendations likely to be more suitable for certain times of years or on specific soil types.

The project wants to identify forage opportunities that will result in a 10kg increase in the weight of lambs weaned by twin-rearing ewes, or a 300g/day increased in spring liveweight gains of rising two-year-old cattle. Experiments have begun with the aim of growing 400kgDM/ha more feed between mid August and mid October.

How can summer-autumn feed quality be improved? What forage options are there to increase the summer-autumn weight gain of lambs by 50g/day or 300g/day for rising one- and two-year-old cattle? Experiments are exploring how to increase the quality of feed – by 1MJ of ME/kgDM – during the first three months of the year.

What forage opportunities are out there that would increase profit of hill country farms by 10 per cent? Modelling is being used to explore how to increase the efficiency of feed utilisation across different sites, with different feed production patterns.

The project is being attacked from seven angles:

  • establishment of new plant genetics in uncultivatable hill country
  • winter pasture management
  • spring management of lucerne
  • legume-grass combinations
  • late spring pasture management and summer-autumn quality
  • novel legumes
  • integrated farm planning

The aim is that as each season passes, the most promising strategies will be pursued. The work is being undertaken by scientists on commercial farm and research sites across New Zealand, with variable climates, soil types and topography.