Sandra Taylor

Waikato dairy farmers Adrian and Pauline Ball are using a combination of genetics, forages and management to reduce the environmental footprint of their dairy beef operation by 25-30%.

This is off an already low base.

The couple, who last year won the Gordon Stephenson Trophy at the Ballance Farm Environment Awards (BFEA) national showcase as well as the supreme award for the Waikato region, own and operate what they call a hybrid dairy/beef business near Cambridge.

In essence they use beef genetics to add value to the calf crop from their dairy herd and 74 hectares of their 196ha farm is dedicated to dry stock production. Adrian and Pauline are continually driving efficiencies in the beef side of their business to try and reduce greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of beef produced.

This means they are selecting the genetics and using forages and management to finish their beef as quickly as possible and while they are already operating from a very low emissions’ base – 10.6 tonnes/ha against the average on a Waikato dairy farm of 16t/ha – a recent trip to Europe has fuelled their enthusiasm to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions even further.

The couple won the study trip as part of their BFEA prize package and took the opportunity to visit dairy beef operations in Ireland and Northern Europe, particularly Holland where Belgium Blue genetics are commonly used over dairy cows to produce fast-finished beef.

Meeting with Rabobank staff in Holland, the couple were encouraged to focus their efforts behind the farmgate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of quality beef produced and this particularly resonated with Adrian.

“They like the idea of not worrying about other issues and just focusing behind the farmgate, because it is easy for farmers to get side-tracked.”

The trip also reinforced the need to gather credible data to back up farmer claims about environmental footprints and animal welfare standards.

“It was clear on our study trip that if we are serious about achieving a high-value product, data becomes a fundamental requirement demanded by the customer.”

Since returning home, the Balls have implemented cow manager tags to collect data and help to improve their efficiency with monitoring and managing animal health and growth rates. They are used as decision-making tools that reflect the individual product footprint for both meat and milk.

“Our focus is certainly on the quality that comes off our property with the aim of becoming even more niche producers.”

In Europe, they saw beef dairy cross animals being processed at just 10 months of age and while Adrian thinks that is unrealistic in this country, they are striving to finish their steers at 13-14 months on pasture.

They have been using short-gestation Belgium Blue and Charolais genetics (AI) over their non-replacement dairy cows and Angus bulls are used over their heifers and as a follow-up bull for their cows.

The couple run a recording system so know the sire of every calf born and tag each animal at birth, so there is no confusion between Angus cross and Friesian calves.

On their dairy operation they milk 300 autumn-calved Friesian cows, back significantly from a peak of 420 over a decade ago, but this decrease in cow numbers has been offset by their dairy beef cattle and the premium they receive for winter milk supply.

When Country-Wide spoke with the Balls in March they were in the middle of calving and Adrian says they have some fantastic calves again this year with no calving issues.

This year they will be leaving some of their Belgium Blue calves entire to see if they can be finished faster as bulls to high carcase specifications.

Underpinning these genetics are Ecotain plantain (which reduces nitrogen losses), chicory, ryegrass and clover pastures which are proving to be high-quality finishing feed. But ultimately it is stock and pasture management that is the critical factor.

“This is a common theme I’ve seen everywhere in the world and here in New Zealand, it comes down to good old animal husbandry.”

Keeping calves adds value

Adrian points out that not so long ago their beef cattle would have been put on the “bobby truck” at just one week of age, worth little more than $20/head.

Now, by the time their beef cross steers are finished in early summer, they are worth about $1800/head, but these cattle have also enabled Adrian and Pauline to reduce their farm’s total greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient losses while giving them a farm business that would stand up to the scrutiny of regulators and the general public.

Pauline describes their business as “dairy with a side of beef” and this hybrid model is a step change from what has become the norm in a dairy industry where farmers are driven to maximise milksolid production both per cow and per hectare.

Adrian and Pauline know what’s it is like to be constantly striving to intensify and increase production because it is a model they were part of in the early 2000s, but in Adrian’s view, it is a model that has let the industry down.

While their business, Dennley Farm, has evolved to include dairy and dairy beef, there have been seminal moments along the way that have changed the couple’s way of thinking and operating.

One of these was meeting the late Gordon Stephenson and being inspired by his passion for onfarm biodiversity. Another was when Adrian completed the gruelling Coast to Coast One Day multi-sport race in 2009.

It was during this personal development that Adrian began to re-think what they were doing and the long-term sustainability of their high-input dairy system. They wanted more balance in their life and less time in the milking shed.

About the same time, they were having to put their week-old autumn-born bobby calves on a truck for a long trip to the closest processors.

This simply did not fit with their personal values or animal welfare ethics and was when the decision was made to put an end to all bobby calves.

“We just couldn’t do it anymore, it just didn’t make sense,” Pauline says.

In 2014 Adrian and Pauline bought their 74ha dry stock block, just 3km from their home farm, which is where they grow out their dairy heifers and finish their beef cattle – although there is a lot of integration between this and the 122ha

dairy platform depending on feed supply and seasonal variations.

All calves are reared together and under Pauline’s care, the calves are given colostrum for as long as possible-usually six to seven days. Cows are given a colostrum rating of gold, silver or bronze, with the “gold” cows producing the freshest colostrum.

The calves are weaned at 100kg but continue to be fed a calf meal supplement throughout their first winter. All the Friesian bull calves are sold to a finisher (they have had the same buyer for several years) and these calves attract a premium as they are from a closed operation.

The remaining calves stay on the dairy platform, acting as a valuable pasture management tool over their first spring and early summer. In December they are taken to the dry stock block and the first-calving heifers are brought back to the dairy platform.

Adrian says they target a 260kg carcaseweight (CW) in their beef cross heifers, which are finished at 18 months. The steers are carried through to heavier weights and they aim for 320kg CW in their Angus-cross steers and 340kg CW in the exotic crosses. Adrian says the Friesian component stops them getting too fat.

Trying genes for size

Adrian and Pauline have been working closely with Samen, who supply their Friesian and beef genetics for their artificial breeding programme.

This AI programme has allowed the Balls to play-around with different genetics and so far, the short-gestation Belgium Blues are outstripping any other breed in terms of growth rates.

But it is the carcase attributes that the couple is targeting and this includes yield and intramuscular fat – or marbling.

Adrian sees no reason why, with the right genetics and management, their crossbred cattle cannot hit the premium beef grades, such as Silver Fern Farms’ EQ grade.

“There is a real misconception out there that if it’s out of a dairy cow it is of poorer quality.”

Adrian says NZ’s dairy beef industry needs to build more credibility by having the ability to produce a premium product.

“We are hoping to get that out of the Angus, but we need to invest in those genetics.”

As the couple’s autumn-born cattle are finished earlier than their spring-born counterparts, they also attract a premium for out-of-season beef supply.

Adrian and Pauline finish 120-130 beef cross calves every year and because they run a low stocking rate across their whole business, they have grass and stock growing and thriving throughout the year.

While the couple strive to add value to what is essentially a by-product of their dairy operation, they believe beef cross cattle represent a huge marketing opportunity for NZ’s red meat industry.

“I think we’ve got a great opportunity to present our grass-fed brands, if we do it well and have a bit of courage around quality assurance.

“I believe we can have the most believable story in the world,” says Adrian.

Duck shoot leads to more diversity

Adding to their dairy beef story is the biodiversity they have been building into their business over the years. What began by building a couple of ponds to shoot ducks out of, has turned into a real interest in creating habitat for birdlife and improving the aesthetics of the farm.

Since 2014, they have planted more than 6000 trees, predominately natives, helped along by grants from the Waikato Regional Council and South Waikato Environment Initiative fund.

They have also fenced off 1.7km of river boundary on their drystock block and this is where a good proportion of the trees have been planted.

Pauline says the planting has also helped their farm health and safety plan, as it has taken high-risk areas such as sidings out of the equation on their dairy platform.

Financially, the business is generating a $3500/ha surplus. The dairy platform is producing $4500/ha while the beef side of the business is producing about $2500/ha.

But for the Balls, it is not all about the money, rather the dairy beef has allowed them the generate a profit while meeting their environmental, social and personal goals and enabling them to meet the Dairy industry’s Dairy Tomorrow targets.

“The beef has given us the tools to achieve all the targets the dairy industry has set.

“We, as an industry cannot afford to be making long-term decisions based on individuals’ debt loading, we need to be thinking about the good of the dairy industry.”

From a personal level, Adrian and Pauline are farming with more enthusiasm than they have in years.

Before they converted Adrian’s family farm into a dairy operation in the early 1990s, the farm was a cattle finishing operation-so Adrian is essentially returning to his roots.

They believe they can show that with the right genetics and management, the dairy industry can produce top quality beef and meet the environmental and animal welfare expectations of an increasingly critical society.

Footprint reduced

By incorporating dairy beef into their business and reducing the number of milking cows they have been able to cut their greenhouse gas emissions and reduce nitrogen (N) losses from 75kg/ha in 2003 and 45kg/ha in 2013 to 25kg/ha. Improved infrastructure and including lucerne and the Ecotain plantain in their rotation has also helped reduce N losses.

The Balls do use N fertiliser, but very strategically and just trickle it on. No single application exceeds 15 units/ha.

Lucerne is grown on their dry-stock block and this crop – along with maize silage – is cut and carried for use as a supplement in the dairy operation.

The lucerne and maize can be fed on a covered feedpad when dry conditions limit pasture growth on the dairy platform.

The couple say beef has allowed them to reduce their environmental footprint by diluting the emissions from the higher-intensity dairy part of the business.

  • Supplied by Beef + Lamb NZ