While many UK dairy producers look to New Zealand for inspiration on low-cost grazing, Kiwi farmers are increasingly adopting European-style farming practices.
There are about 600 New Zealand farms with housing facilities, accounting for 5% of the country’s 12,000 farms.
This figure has grown rapidly; a decade ago you would have struggled to find more than one example, says Geoff Taylor from levy body DairyNZ.
See also: 10 tips for outwintering dairy heifers
“[Housed systems] have really grown over the past five years, in particular with good milk prices. There are only a small number – we believe less than 10 – that are full TMR systems.”
Mr Taylor says the growing interest in housed systems is down to the fact that they offer producers greater control.
“In Southland people have to winter off the platform and cows are typically sent to a third-party grazier. This costs a lot and often farmers are disappointed with the results. A logical step is to bring them home and a housing facility is required to enable this.
“In Waikato, wintering is less of a factor but people are seeing opportunities to enhance productivity by reducing overgrazing and improving pasture harvest – and therefore milk production.
“Recent droughts in Waikato also mean people are bringing in more feed and these housing facilities usually provide a feeding facility.”
Other drivers are:
- Greater cow numbers can be carried on the same land
- A more pleasant working environment for staff
- Farmers can grow their business without having to buy more land
- Gives producers greater control in adverse weather conditions
- Prevents the grazing platform from becoming damaged in the winter by reducing poaching and overgrazing
- Producers can increase milk production
- Housing facilities offer greater flexibility compared to a feedpad.
Mr Taylor says it is often more cost effective to build a barn instead of a feedpad.
“The cost of expanding the effluent system can be significant so it is often a trade-off between the cost of a roof over the pad and the effluent system. The housing solution usually offers more flexibility than a pad for use at other times of the year.”
The majority of houses being built are shelters (shown above) or covered feedpads rather than traditional freestall barns, emphasises Mr Taylor.
“The majority of housing will be what we refer to as loose housed barns, with either concrete slats or soft bedding. A number of freestalls are being built but they are probably less than 10% of the total.
See also: Paddock grazing improves milk yields
“In the majority of cases the systems people are running are hybrids relying heavily on grazed pasture but using the housing to better manage certain times of the year, for example wintering.
“Cows are out for 10 months, perhaps coming inside for a couple of hours a day for some supplement feeding. Even over winter they may still graze outside if the weather and pasture growth allow.
“Mostly, housing is a bolt-on to an existing system rather than a wholesale conversion to a housed system. Possibly the ‘pasture’ farmers in the UK are using a close approximation of our ‘housed’ systems.”
Despite the global downturn in milk prices Mr Taylor says they are still seeing interest in housing.
But he adds: “We are expecting [interest] to be revised down and for low prices to last longer than initially expected so it is likely that farmers will hold off on these decisions.”
Flexible freestall barn system
Bruce Turpie, Methven, Canterbury
- Sells milk to Synlait
- Currently receives NZD4.40/kg (£3.12) of milk solid
- Milks 1,300 Holstein cross Jerseys
- Spring and autumn calving
- Cows are milked through an 80-point rotary parlour twice a day
Canterbury dairy farmer Bruce Turpie decided to house his herd of 1,300 Holstein cross Jerseys part-time when he established the dairy three years ago.
Mr Turpie, who reduced his arable enterprise by 200ha to pave the way for a new dairy, says the approach has enabled him to stock a higher number of cows on the same land and use grass better.
“We were arable for 30 years but decided to take the focus off the arable enterprise and look for a new challenge.”
It cost Mr Turpie NZD1.5m (£634,000) to build a freestall barn to house 730 cows.
“It wasn’t feasible for us to house cows 24/7. We can only house 50% of our cows at any one time,” explains Mr Turpie.
Instead half the herd is housed at night and half in the day, and the groups switch at morning milking.
“All the cows that have been inside at night go to pasture and the ones that have been outside go to the barn.”
Mr Turpie says it allows him to carry a higher number of cows without putting too much pressure on his grazing platform.
“For three months of the year [between October and January at peak grass growth] cows will only have access to the barn four hours a day.
“For a couple of months in the winter we do house the winter milkers inside 24/7. We get snow on the ground so it is better to keep the cows inside to take pressure of the grazing platform.
“The spring calvers are grazed on kale and oats before calving in springtime.”
Inside the shed cows are fed 20kg/DM a day of total mixed ration (TMR), which includes lucerne, maize silage, fodder beet and palm kernel, plus minerals.
Meanwhile outdoors, cows rotate round a grazing platform of 200ha, which is broken up into 40 paddocks of approximately 5ha each. They are moved into fresh paddocks every 18-20 days, depending on grass growth.
“We measure the kilos of DM in each paddock and allocate on a daily basis.”
The aim is for cows to enter paddocks at 2,900kg/DM hectare and graze them down to 1,500kg/DM a hectare.
In the parlour cows are fed to yield up to a maximum of 5kg a head a day for the higher yielders that give 45 litres/day.
“We are spending extra money on feed, but on the flipside we are getting extra milk by stocking more cows.”
Mr Turpie is managing to control feed costs by growing 200ha of home-grown feed, including barley and ryegrass.
He says that his cost of production – NZD4.50kg/milk solids (14p/litre) – is in line with that of many other grass-based systems, which on average operate at NZD4.20-4.60kg/MS (£1.78-1.95/litre).
Mr Turpie believes he can remain competitive with graziers because he isn’t housing all the time and is able to manage costs tightly.
“It still has to be commercial to work. You have to run a cost structure that competes with a grass-based system and keep working expenses under control. We are trying to maximise production without costs getting away from us.”
In the current climate this is challenging, as in the past 12 months Mr Turpie’s milk price has been cut by 50% from NZD8.40/milk solids (26p/litre) to NZD4.40/MS (14p/litre).
To combat falling farmgate prices he is getting rid of his poorest performers to take advantage of good cull prices. In New Zealand culls are currently fetching up to NZD1,200 (£500) apiece.
“We are targeting high-producing cows and are taking a look at the cows not paying their way.”
Mr Turpie is culling cows that are doing less than 2kg/MS a day.
Any animal that is eight years old and has repeated issues with mastitis is also being culled out of the herd.
“If she’s got to have three treatments in one season she’s gone,” says Mr Turpie.
Until last year he says there was growing interest in “barn-style” houses in NZ, but he adds this has waned due to financial pressures.
Mr Turpie admits housing hasn’t been without its challenges and for any New Zealand farmer thinking of converting there is a lot to consider.
“There’s a great deal of extra work involved – even for us starting off. It is a big shock for some of the cows to be put in barns, too. The heifers adapt easily enough but the older cows don’t.”
Mr Turpie is running a B herd of about 100 cows that never go indoors because they go off milk or are more susceptible to mastitis indoors.
This group largely consists of older cows. “It was worse in the first year, but now we have a lot of heifers coming through.”
Another consideration is attracting the right staff, says Mr Turpie.
“In this country it is hard finding people with experience in intensive dairying. You need to be patient with cows that don’t want to sit in cubicles and instead sit in the scraper lanes.”