For most Americans, New Zealand is known for its mild climate, kiwifruit and scenic vistas like those in the epic Lord of the Rings (Hobbit) movies filmed there. Yet to those of us who focus on grazing management, New Zealand is renowned for its emphasis on turning grass into milk, meat and wool.
Pasture-based agriculture accounts for nearly 60% of that country’s ag economy and more than 30% of its exports. New Zealanders raise nearly 30.9 million sheep, 6.5 million dairy cattle and 3.7 million beef cattle. But only 4.5 million people live in the British Commonwealth country.
Pasture is extremely important in New Zealand’s Waikato region, which supports a full third of its beef, sheep and dairy production. How can so much be produced in an area roughly the size of Vermont? To answer this question, I recently led a group of scientists, university Extension educators and producers from Georgia, Alabama, Florida and South Carolina on a tour of the region. We picked up many efficient tools and tips. Following are a few.
First, New Zealand farmers intensively manage grazing on their pastures. Polywire and polytape are strung across pastures on nearly every farm. Pasture is rationed out like feed in a feedbunk on an American farm. Faster than one can load up and feed a round bale, a New Zealander will put one strand of polytape around the perfectly sized area for what a herd needs. Supplemental grain is fed in the milking parlor or in portable troughs that move with cattle.
With equal focus, farmers there work to provide pastures that are highly productive and highly nutritious. They re-establish pastures much more frequently than do U.S. producers.
New perennial ryegrass varieties are talked about with the same vigor and knowledge that they use to talk about the latest bulls. Perennial forage crops produce their highest yields in the first two to three years after establishment, and producers take full advantage of this yield bump.
They commonly renovate 5-10% of their land each year, using the latest and greatest technology. Seed costs are of minor concern. Of upmost concern: Producing the highest quantity and quality of feed possible in pastures.
While renovating, New Zealand farmers use annual forages as “break” or smother crops. Some of the most common are forage brassicas like turnips, kale and Swedes, which provide quick cover after a worn-out stand is killed. Brassicas and other temporary forage crops are also often used to produce additional feed at strategic points in the season.
A lot of information technology, or IT, is used to manage livestock and pastures. Like many other countries, New Zealand has a national animal identification mandate. However, many farmers would use radio frequency identification (RFID) tags even if those laws were not in place.
These producers have integrated RFID tags into management systems that automatically collect impressive data sets, including animal weight gains, milk production, health records, breeding plans, etc., and prompt the user with what needs to be done. For example, ewes not gaining well may be automatically sorted into a holding pen for additional attention. Or dairy cows could be automatically drafted into a pen with other cows needing vaccinations as part of a breeding protocol.
Pasture-management software and forage sensors are becoming common in New Zealand. Using ultrasonic sensors on the front of four-wheelers (“quads” in kiwi-speak), farmers can rapidly and accurately measure the amount of pasture forage. In minutes, a pasture yield map is generated.
With a series of these maps, farmers can determine which field areas grow fastest and are grazed the most. Farm managers then can decide how to prioritize such areas for applications of fertilizer or weed control, etc.
One of the most intriguing things about New Zealand farmers is that a substantial number of them frequently travel to other countries to study farming systems. Looking abroad to study what does and doesn’t work in other situations can teach one a lot about what will or won’t work on one’s own farm. Not everything done in New Zealand is applicable to our farms, but much can be learned from our neighbors.
Check out this easy-to-read chart of basic information about New Zealand’s pasture-based systems.
Read more from Hay & Forage Grower: