End of April 2022

Anecdotal Observations End of April

When exploring the differences between conventional and regenerative farming approaches, data and stats can be incredibly useful. But so can real stories from real people, working on-the-ground. This is why we’re talking to all our highly experienced farmers, and using their thoughts and observations to help add another dimension to our findings.

  • Animal Health

    The regenerative herd has had a slightly higher condition score (4.5) than the conventional herd (4.4).

    Lameness has also been down on the regenerative side with only 3.6% of the herd being treated, while 10.4% of the conventional side was treated. For the last 6 years this has been noticeable with the 2nd herd (Conventional side), our thoughts as a farm team were the different race types, 94 ha of the regen side has clean lime races and no irrigation water touches them, the remaining races on farm are rotten rock, old rock and crusher dust with irrigation water going over most of these. We do get a grader or digger to take the top off the races when required and run the roller over them for maintenance. To minimise lameness on the conventional side we graze front paddocks followed by close back paddocks to minimise time on races and we have noticed a difference over the years by doing so. Next season we will investigate this more to determine the drivers like time on yard etc. Walking distances have been calculated and there is very little difference between the two herds. Mastitis has been reasonably consistent since the start of the season, with the regenerative herd having slightly more cases (18% of herd) than the conventional (15% of herd). We believe this is more likely to do with the way the herd was split at the beginning of the season rather than due to regenerative or conventional practices. The herd was split by BW, calving date and age, and we did not consider animal health outcomes such as SCC when splitting the herd.

  • Reproduction

    From a reproductive perspective there has not been any significant differences between the two herds. Our empty rate was 18% and the 6 week in-calf rate was 64%, which was a 6% decrease from the previous season. This was caused by low submission rates for the first three weeks of calving. Submission rates were down across all the Align Farms, but Clareview in particular had a considerable drop. This was our first season using All-flex collars and not using bulls and we think these were the two main driving factors. We added collars to 4 out of 5 of our dairy farms and got the best breeding outcomes on the farm without collars which was not anticipated.

    We have been working to reduce the stocking rate on all Align Farms for the past 5 seasons, and our strategy was to breed a bigger cow to avoid reducing our productivity. We have been adding more Friesian genetics into the herd to increase the size from our previous average of 420 kgLW to our goal of 470 kgLW. We have done this quickly over the last few years and while we are seeing an increase in the average size of our herds, we have also increased the range between the smaller and the larger cattle. We assumed that the more live weight, the more milk production but our milk production data has shown this isn’t entirely the case.

    When we quartile the cows into 4 groups, 400 kgLW, 430 kgLW, 470 kgLW and 500 kgLW, the best performing from a live weight perspective are the 430 kgLW cows who are producing 433 kgMS/cow which is 100%+ of their liveweight. The 500 kgLW cows were only producing 447 kgMS/cow which is only 89% of their liveweight. We have come to realise that because we have such a range of sizes in our herd, when we allocate feed based on the average weight of the herd, the smaller cows get overfed, and the heavier cows are under fed. To combat this, we are going to change the way we feed the cows by having a 400 kg herd and a 500 kg herd and adjusting the diets accordingly. Unfortunately, Clareview is our only farm that will not be able to do this, due to the herd already being split by regenerative and conventional systems. We are hoping we can use in-shed feeding on Clareview to buffer the larger cows and ensure they are getting adequately fed.

    Overall, we are happy with the success of our breeding program, in three years we have lifted the BW of our stock from a herd average at 123 to our 2020 born animals being 217, decreased our unknown ancestry from 6.9% to 4.4% and lifted fertility from -0.02 to 1.48. So now we are focusing on reducing the variability within the herd and trying to get more uniformed cows. We hypothesize this variability is impacting our fertility rates as a 500 kgLW cow needs an additional 474 kgDM/year compared to a 430 kgLW cow and this has not been accounted for previously. We are looking at moving feed budgeted to be fed in Dec-Jan into September-October to help combat this issue.

  • Diverse pastures

    When we initially started to explore diverse pastures, we anticipated adding a variety of species would help to flatten out Canterbury’s pasture curve and provide more feed in the shoulder months. Unfortunately, the opposite has occurred, and we seem to have tightened the bell curve. The diverse paddocks have exceptional growth during the summer, but they take longer to get going and are quicker to slow down in the cooler shoulder months compared to RG/WC. We are still investigating how to flatten our pasture curve and are looking into other species that may perform better on the shoulders. We are conducting an internal trial over autumn/winter by not grazing the back of a few paddocks so we can see how they perform over the cooler months. We get great performance out of the legumes in summer, but they disappear with the frost, and we lose yield as a result. One of the backs of a paddock we shut was dominant in chicory, plantain, and clovers, while another was grass dominant (timothy, cocksfoot, fescue etc)

    While we are disappointed about the pasture curve, we are very excited and proud that we have managed to grow so much feed without urea or other synthetic forms of nitrogen. We have applied fish fertiliser to the diverse pastures, and they received a total of 0.9 kgN/ha/year which we see as a momentous achievement. It is worth noting that our conventional side received 161 kgN/ha which is also well below the 190 kgN/ha limit enforced on pastoral land.

    Our struggles with the pasture curve have lead us to farm system discussions and we see three paths forward.

    1. Reduce stocking rate (3.0) and harvest feed over summer that can be fed out through late lactation. This will drop the core per cow costs such as wintering, supplements, animal health but it will also drop total milk production. We would also increase costs by harvesting and feeding out the surplus pasture. We would look to winter the R2s on platform from May 1 to reduce out wintering and have the lighter animals back on platform earlier.
    2. High stocking rate, (4.0) but have a robust and quick culling in Jan/Feb. The positive of this is that we would produce plenty of milk prior to Christmas when the farm is firing so we would not drop milk production, however this would increase some core costs like animal health, supplemental feed in early lactation and wintering.
    3. Moderate stocking rate, (3.6-3.7) and milk them for as long as you can until the cover hits a pre-determined level (2500 kgDM) and then dry them all off. This could be as early as April 20th. This would be beneficial because there would be more feed available for early lactation, but the early dry off would almost double the wintering costs, so we would likely need to winter some of the stock on farm.

    We will be doing some Farmax modelling to compare all three options because they all have their pros and cons. The challenge is what lens to be looking at the issue through. If we focus on productivity/profit, then we want to milk as many cows for as long as possible. But if we prioritize the environment and social outcomes then the first option with the lower stocking rate and harvesting feed would be the best outcome.

    Right now, we are leaning towards a lower stocking rate (3.0 cows/ha) and doing it very well and try to drop costs by harvesting more silage rather than importing it and wintering the heifers on the dairy farm to reduce wintering costs by 20- 30%. We are aspiring to eventually eliminate the purchasing of any silage and to grow it all on farm. The downside of this system is we don’t have enough production to dilute fixed costs (management, irrigation, rates, insurance etc), however still thinking this will be the most resilient, enjoyable, environmentally friendly, and productive option for the long term.

    While we are looking at all 3 options, we are leaning towards reducing our stocking rate for the coming season. This is a bit intimidating as we have not quite nailed our production, so we are nervous to drop more cows, but we believe with 3.0 cows/ha doing 400 kgMS/cow or 1200 kgMS/ha and limited brought in supplement we can achieve great results. Over time we would look to increase per cow performance to 440 then upwards from there, production per hectare could range between 1330 and 1500 KgMS per Hectare.

    If we manage to winter 20% of the herd at home (the heifers) and that would save us $25,000 in wintering costs.

    Costs have moved so much in recent years that what was relevant a year ago is no longer relevant today.

    Align Farms FWE

    Season – Farm Working Expense (per kgMS)

    • FY19 – $3.89
    • FY20 – $4.26
    • FY21 – $4.27
    • FY 22 – $5.30 (would have been $4.92 if production targets had been met)

    The increase in FY22 FWE can be explained by increased costs for supplementary feed, fertiliser, and winter grazing, along with general inflation rates for the whole business.

    If the conventional herd achieves 1700 MS/ha with a FWE of $5 then the regenerative herd would have to achieve 1200 MS/ha with a FWE of $3.44 to be equally profitable at the current $9 payout. $3.44 is quite aspirational but if we can bring 20% of the winter grazing back to the dairy platform, cut out supplementary feed (not in a single season), lower per cow costs – animal health, wintering, young stock etc, then we think that $4.20 is achievable in year one and a further reduction achievable in year 2.

    Ultimately if we can increase average per cow production from 400 kgMS to 440 kgMS then at 3 cows/ha we could achieve 1330 MS/ha and then things start to get really profitable, so this is our focus going forward. The challenge by doing this is that we will be growing surplus feed in the hot summer months. At 3 cows/ha the pasture demand would be 50 kgDM/ha/day, but we can grow 150+ kgDM/ha/day of diverse pasture in the summer months. We will need to be cutting silage every 3 days, when that feed should really be going into the vat. But we hope in a few seasons we will get in to balance, increase per cow production and not need to import supplements.

    We are keen for feedback, suggestions, or any ideas that anyone may have in regard to the ideal stocking rate. It is a challenge to decide which metric gets prioritized when you are trying to balance productivity, environmental outcomes, profitability, and social outcomes.

  • Management of diverse pastures

    The diverse pasture is more challenging to manage compared to RG/WC because the variability makes it not predictable. Visually paddocks can look like they have the same amount of feed but once they cows are in there it is clear there is a difference. The plan for next year is to not make knee jerk reactions on residuals and try to make 3-day decisions rather than 1 day. With conventional it is easy to change the plan daily and get reliable results, but with diverse you need a longer viewpoint. If one paddock is dominated by chicory it may look like there is a lot of feed, but the DM is not there, and the residuals will suffer. Going forward if Kiri has an undesirable residual 3 days in a row, a change must happen, either feed supplement, adjust round length or reduce stocking rate.

    When you do have a 1500 kgDM/ha residual there isn’t much you can do other than culling cows. Adding supplement won’t stop the cows from eating down to 1500 kgDM/ha, they will just waste half the supplement and half the grass. Need to get the residual down before adding supplements for optimal utilisation.

    This is challenging us at the moment as we try to balance longer residuals and keeping the herd well fed. This year we did not want to hit 1500 kgDM/ha but we did multiple times, so what is the solution? We will lose money feeding supplement if we are not feeding out at 1500 kgDM, this has been proven in conventional science and would apply in the regen context from our perspective/experience. However, once you cull stock you can’t get them back and this could come back to bite us, so we will continue to brainstorm solutions in this space.

    Pasture production has not been our issue this season, but utilisation has been. There are multiple factors driving this, the stocking rate was not optimised, and we did not have a clear indication of when growth was going to slow down for autumn, so we took a conservative approach. We know when it starts to get cool, we need to act, our cover went from 2700 to 2200 in 3 weeks, so we started culling earlier than planned so we don’t lose production.

    Last month we ran into a bit of bloat, which is something we haven’t really dealt with over the past 9 years. Paddock 14, which is a new diverse pasture mix, has quite a bit of clover in it. We strategically did this mix as the paddock have previously been in crop for 3 years (maize, triticale, fodderbeet and kale). In January when we started grazing this paddock, we were very cautious of bloat and put salt bins out for the girls, along with 20 kg/ha in the tow n fert for the regen side only. The girls were noticeably gassy when grazing but no issues. We lost 2 cows on its last grazing which came as a surprise, as we had had no issues on previous grazings. Next season we will continue to monitor the girls on this paddock.

  • High density grazing

    We did not do much high density grazing this season in an effort to not overload the team who was already dealing with the additional labour requirements from the trial. We hope to explore this more in the future as we believe we can see greater gains in our diverse pastures and soil health through management practices.

  • No synthetic N

    if someone told us 4 years ago that we would be farming without N, we would have laughed. Now we are comfortable with the diversity and legumes meeting our productivity requirements without the addition of synthetic nitrogen, but we are wary about P and K. We know we are exporting these nutrients in our milk, and we are concerned about not replacing them. However, note we are replacing them currently through Guano, compost, manures etc. The next opportunity is to explore urban food waste as a fertiliser.

    Some scientists, such as Dr Elaine Ingham, state that there are over 100,000 years of P stored in soils and if we get the soil food web functioning effectively, that P could be mobilized into a plant available form. However, this is contested by other scientists.

    e are very curious to learn more in this space and understand why there is conflicting opinions. In the meantime, to ensure we are not depleting our soils we have been applying Guano, compost and manure to maintain current fertility levels, because fundamentally we believe it needs to come from somewhere.

  • Irrigation

    This year we were lucky enough to have consistent rainfall throughout the year so we used a considerably less amount of water than normal, in fact we didn’t turn irrigation on at all for the month of February. However, we have done a round or two in May which is unusual for us. In our first two seasons of trying cover crops it was clear once these crops got to about 1m or roughly 7 TDM that very little water was needed for the remaining growth period due to the canopy cover of these crops which helped keep the soil moist. We didn’t do a full cover crop this year and through observation the diverse pastures have needed the same amount of water as the RG/WC. We will be doing a full cover crop next season so can observe again.

    This year across all of Clareview’s irrigation wells, we have used 487,762 m3, which is only 45% of last year’s total of 1,070,460 m3.

  • SCC

    Somatic cell count has been higher than we would prefer, and the regenerative side has been higher than the conventional all the way through. We hypothesize this was from the herd split at the beginning of the season and not from the different systems.

    Hoping that we have a bit of a reset with dry cows over winter and next season we see SCC settle down. We will be surprised and disappointed if we don’t see lower SCC on the regenerative side. We think grazing on diverse winter crop and avoiding bare ground over winter should also have a beneficial effect.

  • Team

    The added dynamic of running a trial has been way tougher than anticipated. No one dislikes regen or conventional, but there tends to be a dislike of the trial and the limitations that come with it. People like to do things well and if something is restricting that from happening then it is challenging on morale.

    Overall, we have to work to put our blinders up and not get caught up in the dialogue and narrative around regenerative farming. It is a contentious issue in the agriculture industry and some individuals are critical of what we are doing. We focus on keeping a good mindset, remind ourselves why we are exploring this farming system and to find support and encouragement from those close to us when required.

  • Market garden

    We are very proud of the market garden and think it has been going very well. The Align team is loving getting fresh spray free veggies on a weekly basis and the management team takes comfort in knowing our biggest assets are being well fed. We are happy to have surplus to provide to the community and have had positive feedback from those purchasing our veggie boxes.

    What is very satisfying is to know that other businesses are seeing what we are doing and following suit. While there are easier ways to look after employees, we think it’s amazing that other businesses are also prioritizing healthy eating and food security, as we are at Align Farms.

    Next on the agenda is to build a greenhouse to extend the growing season we have here in Canterbury and increase our variety of produce even more.

  • Chicken

    We have built a custom chicken coop for Clareview, and it has been awesome to see it up and running. A bit of work goes into it, but it is worth doing for the team and the quality of the eggs is noticeably outstanding compared to what you would find in the supermarket. We are losing chickens though, unsure if hawks or stoats are to blame, but we need to find a solution to this.

    Currently, we are producing enough eggs to supply the team and a few of our community veggies boxes. If we did this on every farm, we would have to commercialize it and have a dedicated team to the operation. This is not a priority for us at the moment but something we may explore in the future.