In the September issue we described a sustainable farming fund project aimed at fine-tuning the technology of helicropping for different hill country situations. Flying sprays, seeds, fertiliser and pesticides on to hill areas using a helicopter is safer, saves time and avoids cultivation.
Comparing crops established using a helicopter to those established through traditional cultivation showed clearly there is no soil loss under an aerial cropping regime, whereas with cultivation soil is lost, particularly in wet weather.
The project is focusing on establishment and grazing management of winter crops of brassicas, sometimes combined with plantain as a companion, and subsequent sowing in pasture.
The September article looked at the advantages of helicropping and some of the species, establishment and grazing techniques being used.
This month we feature two hill country farmers who have been using helicropping successfully as a means of providing winter and early spring feed and as part of their pasture renovation programme.


Preservation of soils under a hill country winter cropping regime is the focus of a Farming Fund project in Waikato. Sandra Taylor reports on progress on Geoffrey and Joanna Fitzgerald’s farm.

Helicropping has proved transformative on Geoffrey and Joanna Fitzgerald’s 430ha mixed terrain sheep and beef farm at Wharepuhunga, east of Otorohanga.

By helicropping about 10% of their farm every year, the couple have been able to move drymatter surpluses to times when they really need the feed, and have improved both profitability and environmental outcomes.

“We wish we had cottoned onto it 20 years ago.”

While they used to establish forage crops through traditional cultivation methods they found this compromised the soil structure and new grasses struggled to establish and thrive.

They started playing around with “spray and pray” with variable success and have now tweaked the process so that they are growing reliable forage crops and new permanent pastures.

Geoffrey says they do a single spray on 30-40ha in early to mid-October using 4l/ha of glyphosate 490 and, most critically, an insecticide targeting springtails. They also include a wetting agent to stop drift – although they always choose a still day – and to get better coverage of the plants.

“We find we get a more consistent result with the wetting agent and, relative to the cost of the other products, it’s very small.”

They are also very particular about ensuring there is 2000-2200kg DM/ha cover on the paddocks before spraying because the desiccated and dying pasture makes an ideal mulch for the emerging crop.

Just two hours after spraying, the seed, slug bait and fertiliser are flown on.

The couple grow rape, which they find an ideal multi-graze crop for their system.

Geoffrey says they graze the crop every 45-60 days and it yields around 6t at each grazing.

The first grazing, in December, is used for finishing weaned lambs, and then in March it is grazed by cattle. Geoffrey says the cattle will defoliate the crop and at that stage the permanent pasture seed is flown on.

The rape comes away and is lightly block grazed over June and July by R2 cattle shifted every three to four days, depending on weather, so there is no pressure on the soils or emerging pasture.

“It is really important not to pug the paddocks, we really look after the new grass.”

After the final grazing the new pasture just comes away.

“It’s amazing technology.”

Prior to adopting the practice the Fitzgeralds were running a traditional system of turning late spring surpluses into silage for feeding out over winter.

Now, with more land taken out for cropping, there are no spring surpluses and feed supply is pushed forward to summer, autumn and winter. It also means they are not feeding out on hill country, which eliminates the costs and risks associated with that.

Now, with more land taken out for cropping, there are no spring surpluses and feed supply is pushed forward to summer, autumn and winter. It also means they are not feeding out on hill country, which eliminates the costs and risks associated with that.

Geoffrey says silage used to cost 35-40c/kg DM compared with around 10c/kg DM, which is what it cost to grow a crop of rape sown by helicopter. Geoffrey explains that it costs around $1400/ha including helicopter, agrichemicals, seeds, fertiliser and slug bait, and they get three grazings of around 6-7t DM/ha from that one crop.

The other significant benefit is the increase in the quality of the feed produced. These crops are grown on country that was producing only 7-8t DM/ha/year of poor quality feed, with most of that production in summer.

By growing rape and establishing good quality permanent pastures they are lifting both the quantity and quality of the feed grown.

Geoffrey has tried kale and swedes with mixed results. He says swedes established through broadcasting sit on top of the ground and in their situation too many ended up at the bottom of a gully.

The pastures they establish in the wake of the winter grazing are ryegrass and clover or, where nodding thistles are an issue, ryegrass and cocksfoot, in which case once the sward is established the paddock is sprayed with a weed killer to control the thistles before clover is broadcast onto the area.

Helicropping swedes and plantain for pasture renovation

For the past six years, Matt O’Neale has managed a 1500ha effective hill country farm near Rotorua. About 850-900ha effective is in the lake catchment, but it is on the balance outside of the catchment that they have been carrying out a helicropping programme.

The farm, which has pumice soils and an average annual rainfall of 2100mm, runs R1 and R2 dairy heifers, a commercial sheep breeding and lamb finishing operation, and an Angus trading cattle policy.

Matt says he came to the management position from an intensive, flatland farm in the Wairarapa, and through helicropping he is trying to apply flatland production principles to the hill country. Only 10-15% of the farm is flat.

Every year they identify 40ha for renovation through a helicropping regime, and this area is grazed by cattle four weeks before being aerially sprayed and seeded.

Matt says the grazing ensures they get a good even pasture cover before the spray goes on.

They aim to spray the area in early November with Roundup and an insecticide and, depending on weather conditions, they will apply the seed, slug bait and base fertiliser either later the same day or within a seven-day window.

Matt is establishing a mix of swedes and plantain with the idea that the plantain cover crop comes out of the back end of the winter forage crop, utilising nutrients and providing ground cover, soil stabilisation and valuable drymatter in that early spring period.

Traditionally after winter forage crops are grazed there is a two to three-month period before any subsequent crop is able to be grazed.

Through this method the plantain comes away and can be grazed within one month of the winter forage crop being finished off.

Matt runs R1 dairy grazers on the swede crop over July and early August and is grazing the plantain in early September.

After 18 months the whole area is double-sprayed and permanent pasture is flown on.

Grazing management is important in this helicropping regime and Matt explains that they don’t graze the crop hard as they don’t want to compromise the plantain.

The 40ha is divided into eight blocks that are strip-grazed with mobs of 300-400 heifers on two-day shifts.

The cattle graze from the top of the hill down, but they can only do this because of their water infrastructure.

In order to look after the plantain they have been wasting about 10% of the swede crop, but this year they increased this wastage to 20-25%, (although cattle will chew the remaining bulbs on subsequent grazings).

This keeps the cattle on a faster rotation around the crop, and this year they have seen daily growth rates in the cattle increase from an average of 500gms/day to 700gms/day. This regime also allows the plantain to come away faster and so be available earlier in spring.

Matt says timing and monitoring are the critical factors for successful crop establishment via helicopter.

“Don’t procrastinate, have a plan, put it in place and stick to it.

“Talk to your agents and reps and have everyone lined up because timing is essential.”

Once the crop is in the ground it needs to be monitored, and for Matt this might mean applying another insecticide dressing and side dressing of nitrogen after Christmas, as was the case last year.

He typically budgets on a 10t/ha crop but this year drought affected yields and the swedes produced 8t/ha, which was better than expected given the conditions.

Costwise, it is typically around $1600/ha to establish the swedes and plantain, and last season the crop generated a $30,000 profit.

An extra dressing of nitrogen and insecticide this year meant costs increased to $2000/ha, and they won’t make a profit. But there are other benefits – they see improvements in soil and animal health through the mineral-rich plantain, and it is an effective pasture renovation programme.

Matt stresses that this helicropping system works well for their soil type and farm management. While they are still making tweaks and adjustments according to the season, it is a valuable way of improving the quality and quantity of drymatter grown on their hill country.

Environmental benefits

As well as the advantages of not cultivating soil, no more sediment is lost from the cropped area than is lost from permanent pasture as sediment traps placed in gullies surrounding the helicropped area over two years have shown.

“It can be done, it’s all about management,” Geoffrey says.