Plantation Road Dairies

March 2018

Dairy farmer Kevin Davidson has taken a biological approach to his farm system

Kevin Davidson and his wife Linda are rated among the top farmers in NZ. They run a large dairy farm business at Onga Onga producing close to 1 million kgs/ms from around 2,200 cows.

Kevin and Linda originally are from Auckland. Kevin trained as an electrician and then moved to dairy farming in the Waikato. In partnership with two other dairy farmers from the Waikato, Kevin bought sheep farming land in Hawkes Bay and converted it to dairy. A big attraction of the property was access to water.

The couple are early adopters – being one of the first Waikato dairy farmers to look for conversion opportunities in the Hawkes Bay. They are also keen to explore new ideas as is seen in their interest in biological soil management.

The farm is 454ha, with another 600ha of support land (a combination of leased and owned). At peak there are 2,200 cows milked through the 60 bail rotary. The milkers are run in three herds - Fresh cows, mid lactation cows and carry over cows – that are milked through the winter.

Milking 2,200 cows through one 60 bale rotary is a challenge. Morning milking can run from 4.30 through to mid morning.

Along with supplying Fonterra, Plantation Rd also supplies a local boutique milk and cheese producer, Origin Earth. Kevin says, “Food production needs to be sustainable for soils, animals, humans and the environment in a lower impact. There is still a lot we can learn.”

There are large centre pivots that cover over 90% of the dairy farm and roughly half the support land. The pivots run on a low-pressure system, which means less wear and tear on pumps and equipment. Kevin has also worked on developing droppers on the irrigation arms so that irrigation can be done in the wind. Stock water and dairy shed water is supplied by two artesian bores.

Cows get supplement year-round and are fed out on feed pads close to the dairy. They are fed according to their production levels. Kevin grows maize for silage and grass, also for silage. Depending on the season, food waste such as pea or apple is also fed out. Other supplements like PKE are added when required.

In recent years, Kevin has been looking at the transition of some of his family into the farm business. This has included sourcing their own contracting gear for harvest and fertiliser application. Some of his children are now involved in that side of the business and work off farm, contracting when not required on the family property.

Kevin is a supporter of biological soil management. This grew out of a dis-satisfaction with conventional fertilisers. He was also concerned with what he saw as signs of stress in the soil with more and more applications of N required. He started looking for alternatives to a chemical-only approach to soil management.

Kevin was impressed by some of the ideas put forward by Arden Anderson – a world authority on biological soil management. Kevin trialed an application of a tailored fertiliser mix applied in a “slurry”, in a system delivered by Dannevirke company, Outgro. (This company went into receivership in 2014 but is still trading). Over the next 6 to 12 months he started seeing a noticeable improvement in the soils. Visual soil assessments (as developed by Graham Shepherd) showed increases in worm activity and better soil structure.

These days the farm is divided into distinct areas. Soils and herbage are regularly tested and a fertiliser application developed depending on those results.

Kevin says production increases and better pasture utilisation are proof of the effectiveness of the system. He has also seen a drop in metabolic issues with his stock. He is using less N and P and he believes soil biological activity has increased dramatically. Another benefit is overall animal health, with young stock rarely needing a drench.