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Organic farming: When less is better

Pāmu is exploring how large scale organic dairy farming, using alternative animal health methods and sources of nutrients can make just as much profit as a normal farm, but with fewer cows and a smaller environmental footprint. Bernard Hickey reports.

It was the pile of untreated hard wood fenceposts by the milking shed that told me something was different.

Senior business manager Bruce Hunter explained to me why they were being used. They are untreated hard wood which means they meet strict organic standards administered by AssureQuality.

It looked like every other dairy farm I’d seen, but a quick scrape beneath the surface found differences all over the place.

The former pine forests of the pumice-laden central North Island would seem to be one of the last places to have a successful organic dairy farm.

Forestry-to-dairy conversions have been criticised for removing carbon sinks and encouraging nitrate leaching into vulnerable waterways. But Pāmu, the brand name for Landcorp Farming, is quietly converting one of its big Pastoral Complex farms, on what is known as the Wairakei Estate, into an organic farm that produces just as much profit with a third less cows and much lower nitrate use.

Organic dairy farming has had a mixed history in New Zealand, with patchy enthusiasm in years gone by from large farmers or the largest processors, in part because their model has traditionally been about volume of commodities, rather than specialised and branded products targeted at specific consumers.

But the astonishing success of organic baby formula in the China market and rapid take up of organic dairy products by the richest consumers has changed all that. The rise of Lewis Road’s organic products on supermarket shelves has reinforced the change of heart. Where once Fonterra shut down its organic collection programme (in 2011), it has had to ramp up its premium and plead for more supplies since 2017.

Its latest forecast is for a premium for organic milk of $1.85/kg, up from $1.10/kg last season. That could take the total payout as high as $8.45/kg.

Pāmu saw the opportunity and decided three years ago to convert one of its Pastoral Complex farms to organic, but it’s not a simple or easy process. It takes three years of running the farm organically to US standards before the milk can be certified as 100 percent organic. Currently the milk is being sent to Fonterra, but Pāmu eventually hopes to use the milk in its own brands of organic milk products – Lewis Road style. And, like Lewis Road, that will likely still involve working with a local milk processor for mutual benefit.

Glenn Edwards manages the Earnslaw farm at the Pastoral Complex and it’s his first organic dairy farm. It has 900 cows, 235 rising two year olds and 245 calves in its ‘closed’ system on 675ha of grasslands.

Managing the transition was not easy, particularly when all the feed needed to tide his herd over the lean winter months also had to be organic, and produced in the same year it was consumed.

“It’s a closed unit so you’ve got to juggle your silage. You can’t carry over each conversion year. Until we’re fully certified we can’t carry over feed from one conversion year to the next,” he said.

It’s like some sort of giant catch 22 in a bale of silage: can a bale be produced and consumed in the same production year when the whole idea of feed storage is to spread surpluses into later lean years?

There were plenty of other things he could not use. Synthetic nitrogen fertilisers are not allowed, so the farm has had to use certified reactive phosphate rock (RPR) and chicken ‘nuggets’ of chicken poo.

One thing that struck me as we drove around the farm in Bruce’s ute was the lack of weeds.

No chemicals are allowed to kill weeds, so Glenn and his fellow workers have to manually grub them or weed-eat them out.

The other big issue on an organic farm is mastitis. It’s an udder infection that is usually treated with antibiotics, but not on an organic farm.

I remember as a teenager on my family farm having to treat cows with mastitis by squirting tubes of penicillin up into the teats of the cows, but only after I could see the lumpy mastitis in the milk.

Glenn’s shed uses a sensor once known as Cellsense (now called Protrack Somatic Cell Count) that allows him to monitor somatic cells in real time. It helps him spot when a cow is building up an infection and allows him to act early, in particular ahead of the more formal herd testing that takes weeks to pass on results.

“We use homeopathic sprays and individualise it for every cow. Some homeopathics work for certain types of mastitis,” he said.

Glenn was particularly proud of almost halving his farm’s somatic cell count over the past year.

“It’s challenged me to think and be proactive,” he said of using Cellsense, which is on every fourth bale in the shed and means cows usually are tested once every 10 days with the device.

“If she spikes, we can look at why she’s spiking, pull her out, look at her earlier, give her homeopathics early, and hopefully nip it in the bud,” he said.

The key to the profitability and nitrate loss story is the ability to reduce cows from around two cows per hectare to 1.3 cows per hectare and the much lower costs of feed supplements and fertilisers, potentially allowing higher profits per cow.

Hunter has crunched the numbers.

“We’ve modelled it. We took a risk here because it’s pumice country and we didn’t know how it would react to an organic system,” he said.

“If we could get a $2/kg premium, the economics are the same as traditional farming. So we could actually get a system change without being compromised on our economics, and things are tracking really well.”

Elsewhere on the Pastoral complex, Pāmu has also taken a longer term approach to looking after the environment.

One way is to go to once-a-day milking on its Renown farm, which allows a lower stock rate, but also reduces stress on both animals and staff.

“We’ve beaten the model forecasts. You’re supposed to lose some profit as a result of going once a day, but this particular farm where the walk is as long as four kilometres, it’s simply better for the animal’s wellbeing,” said Hunter.

Farm business manager Joan Barendsen points out that reduction in cow stress has reduced the somatic cell count on Renown too, which makes the milk more valuable in the longer run.

Cows aren’t the only variable worth watching on dairy farms. So are trees and the riparian strips and wetlands that ‘buffer’ any surface run-off of e-coli waste and phosphates into the Waikato River bordering the property.

Hunter and Barendsen drove me out to the edge of the 663ha farm to show me the farm’s trees and its extensive riparian strip down to the river. There’s also a corridor of forestry through the property to soak up runoff and provide shade for cattle.

“We talk about nitrates all the time, but the next thing is carbon,” said Hunter. “The interesting thing is they go hand in hand – trees in the right place address climate change and contribute to improved water quality and richer biodiversity”.

The trees act to both mop up run-off waste and store carbon.

Sidebar: A clever triple whammy (potentially)

Dairy farming and beef cattle farming share a lot of unutilised by-product in the farming system that Pāmu is hoping to remove with a clever programme. Pāmu is trialling a change to the current dairy farm system that changes the usual processing of male calves – creating an opportunity for profit and environmental benefits.

Just imagine if dairy cows could produce male calves that were all then raised as beef cattle.

It is the holy grail of dairying and beef farming, and would help reduce the total emissions footprint of both, while making both more profitable.

Pāmu’s Pastoral Complex is working with Beef and Lamb Genetics, and Massey University hosting the Dairy Beef Progeny Trial herd using artificial insemination (A.I) from  eight different beef breeds. Focus Genetics, the livestock genetics partner of Pāmu, has Angus, Stabiliser and Simmental sires represented in the programme.

Joan Barendsen is managing the trial programme on behalf of Pāmu, which includes growing both the steers and the heifer calves to be processed at 18 months and two years of age. The trial looks at traits important to the dairy farmer like gestation length and birth weight as well as growth factors important for the calf rearers and the beef finishing farmers. Importantly, the measurements go right through to carcass traits like pH, fat colour, meat colour and marbling. All of which are important for consumer preference, eating quality and taste.

“It's another greenhouse gas story as well,” said Pāmu’s Bruce Hunter.

Rather than farmers having to have beef breeding cows, where you have to breed a dam, we can just slot in progeny from dairy cows reducing the reliance on breeding cows,” he said.

That would create a triple benefit of higher profit, fewer bobby calves sent to processors, and valuable cattle with good environmental benefits around greenhouse gas emissions.”

A quick visit to the trial’s paddock shows a bunch of multi-coloured and hefty calves bathing in the sunshine and munching on a great crop of grass.

“There’s a potpourri of colours with lots of daddies,” said Hunter.

This is the third of five articles looking at innovations and new ways of farming being introduced by publicly owned farmer Pāmu, as part of a content partnership. The first, by Bernard Hickey, is here.  The second, on producing milk from deer, is here .

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