Southern Dairy Hub Update

May 2021

A return visit to the Hub to see progress after four years.

In January 2017, Rural Delivery went to the 350ha Southern Dairy Hub (SDH) at the time when it was being converted into a dairy unit, the intention being to experiment with and demonstrate dairy farm management, feeding and wintering regimes on a scale that would give results that were practical and relevant to farmers in Southland and West Otago.  Four years on, we pay a return visit.


The purchase of what was basically a run-down sheep farm and stock holding area associated with a meat works at Makarewa was completed with financial input from AgResearch and DairyNZ as well as local farmers. There is also a 39ha support block adjacent. Fertility was low, weeds a problem and drainage poor over much of the area. 


Conversion to dairying started with complete re-fencing and pasture renovation. Around 220ha (71%) of the 309ha milking platform was re-sown and of this, 160ha was fully cultivated, 43ha direct drilled and 17ha under-sown with annuals; 46.4ha were sown in 5-star FVI pastures, and 46.4ha in 1-star FVI pastures. The purpose of these sowings was to allow comparison of different grasses and cultivars under dairying in the Southland climate (the mean annual maximum, 17.7 C; annual minimum,  – 5.4 C; mean average annual soil , 11.0 C and average annual rainfall, – 785.4 mm).


A 60-bail rotary dairy with DeLaval plant and Delpro herd management software was completed for the start of the 2017/8 season. Today it has automatic cup removers and on-platform teat spray; automatic drafting and weighing in the exit race; 3 backing gates; greenwash on the backing gates; four research holding pens and a herringbone race and sampling area. The effluent system that was being constructed in 2017 now comprises two receiving ponds with weeping walls leading into a storage pond. Effluent is generally applied by traveling irrigator. 

The property is now in its fourth season as a dairy farm and the third season doing full research trials. However, conversion of the farm is an ongoing process, says Louise Cook who has been General Manager of the Hub for 18 months. “We are still working on drainage, lanes etc., and it needs a lot of maintenance in the southern climate but that's no different from most farms here.  We now have 104 even-sided paddocks, seven lanes from a centrally located 60-bail rotary cowshed,” she says. “We are still improving pastures but this year the farm is starting to get more ‘wheels’. We milked 725 mixed age cows at the peak, and we keep 220 weaners on-farm right through to prior to their first mating. We also have just under 200 rising two-year-olds out at grazing with the bull at the moment [November], and they will come back to the herd in May.”

Louise says it is an exciting challenge to run the property as a research facility and ensure they get accurate data from their experiments but still make good commercial progress. Sometimes there are conflicts – for example, some of the sub-units have been sown in 1-star FVI grasses that don’t perform nearly as well as the 5-star variants. However, by being able to make long-term comparisons they have found, for example, that the better varieties not only produce more but also have better nutritional value under the same environmental conditions. “Being a research farm is different from being a demonstration farm, and that's a different journey for everyone including our farmer audience and owners,” says Louise. “We don't get just a year’s worth of data and then we’re done, we experiment year after year to see if we get consistent results, and that requires people to have patience.” 

Superimposed on that are climatic events that affect everyone in the region but can disrupt the research programme. “We have all of the same challenges that every other Southland farm has – floods, droughts, prices, changes in land value and government regulations, etc, so we have to make our way through all of that plus the constraints of delivering a consistent farm system to give really good research outcomes to our farmer owners.” 


A significant claim to fame for the Hub is that it is the largest pastoral research farm on the planet. No other farm does the farm systems research on the same commercial scale. This is a win for Southland and West Otago with the research projects being designed specifically for the regions. “It's our job to try things for farmers so that they can start at the level of implementation and not experimentation. With the new regulations coming forward, what we are doing now on fodder beet, and what it's showing from an environmental point of view, makes it an incredibly important piece of research.” Louise says they now know that they can reduce nitrogen losses significantly but there some trade-offs that will require work-arounds. They are not easy to implement because it’s not possible to change the research protocols for the particular farmlets in mid project, but it should be possible to end up with a hybrid farmlet that delivers all the outcomes they are looking for.


The Hub puts out a production update every week of the season and hold several field days each year.  This year one was held online because of Covid-19.  Louise says there is a lot of interest and enthusiasm from farmers although some are a little frustrated the research happens over several years and results necessarily take longer to become firm recommendations. 


Showdown Productions Ltd.   Rural Delivery Series 16 2021