Information is king and it’s turning grass and forages into dollars on Barnhill, an undeveloped hill block in Southland. Gerard Hall reports.

The costs and benefits of growing feed on a northern Southland farm have come under close scrutiny.

The decision to invest in pasture cages, monthly cuts and charting the results was an easy one for Guy and Vicki Goodeve who manage Barnhill, a 1019ha undeveloped hill block near Lumsden in Southland.

Twelve homemade, one-square-metre cages range across six sites specifically chosen to accurately represent the three soil types, aspects (sun and shade), and altitudes on the farm. Each site is nine-metres square and includes a caged control area. The cages were all welded and netted for $1200. Farmer Glen McPhail is contracted to do the pasture cuts using a lawnmower.

As well as getting an accurate handle on the amount of feed grown and the seasonal differences, the full spectrum of feed quality tests includes protein, metabolisable energy, acid detergent fibre (ADF) and neutral detergent fibre (NDF). NDF and ADF levels, all-important components of determining a feed’s value, are being objectively measured.

Pasture walks, timed to fit in with other tasks such as shifting stock, support the pasture cuts and monthly measuring.

The control site is covered when fertiliser is applied. This allows the Goodeves and their Ballance Agri-Nutrients adviser Latoya Grant to put accurate dollars on the economic benefits fertiliser is having on pasture production and to fine-tune future applications.

As information builds up the numbers will be fed into Farmax and Overseer 3, which the couple use for enterprise analysis and testing “what-if” scenarios – one of the strategies they are using to profitably turn more grass and forages into dollars.

“Having this information and real data at your fingertips gives you the confidence when making investment decisions,” Grant said.

Technology does the trick

Standard and rule-of-thumb approaches no longer cut the mustard for the Goodeves. The couple are using a range of technologies to make more informed and smarter decisions, using nutrients more strategically and stretching the fertiliser dollar further.

Barnhill features a mix of soil types. Kaihuku soils cover much of the 600-700ha of higher altitude, steeper and undeveloped native country, and Stoney Creek silt loams feature on the lower fronts. Mossburn and Makarewa soils on the river flats are being developed through a winter crop programme.

The Kaihuku soils have a good base saturation, low anion storage capacity and a relatively low phosphate retention.

Soil testing of each paddock shows Olsen-P levels vary from 5-34 (average 14), soil pH 5.4-6.4 and organic sulphur of about 5.

Soil testing each paddock allows tailored application of the right quantities of nutrients. Capital applications upwards of 800kg/ha Super 10 and including 30kg/ha of Sulphur Gain Pure have been applied after native vegetation (matagouri and coprosma) or gorse has been cleared.

Clearance of the woody native species has included root raking, windrowing, then disc work. Where best suited, mostly on areas where cultivation is not an option, helicopter applications of Met-Sulfuron and Tordon brush killer in autumn followed by the use of cattle to break down vegetation through winter is the other preferred option. Guy said the cost of both methods was similar, about $1400ha.

Specific areas of tussock are being preserved and large rocks removed and stockpiled. Lime (2 tonnes/ha) is being applied to selected paddocks. This year 230t of the Agri-Ballance product will be applied at a cost of $76/t on the ground.

On the lower, warmer country, where Olsen-P levels are higher (16-20), the amount of capital fertiliser applied is a little less – 500kg/ha of Super 10 and 30kg/ha of Sulphur Gain Pure, at an applied cost of $310ha-$320ha.

With sulphate sulphur levels as low as two in many instances, Grant said the biggest initial kick was coming from the sulphur.

“Modelling using Overseer 3 shows the capital applications of fertiliser and lime are already delivering an 8% increase in the amount of drymatter being grown.

“Add in the improved pasture quality, seasonal production and higher stock performance and the payback time is just 13 months.”

This year 70ha of summer and winter crop has been drilled including fodder beet, kale, swedes plus rape and short rotation ryegrass. The amount of fertiliser applied is determined by the specific needs of each crop and the target yield.

Another 32ha of new grass was drilled during autumn.

Optimising returns

Barnhill managers Guy and Vicki Goodeve, and owners the Thomas family, add power to their elbow by learning more about Barnhill’s soils and nutrient status. They can then tailor nutrient application and feeding strategies to optimise returns.

Yearly soil testing of all paddocks and the measurement of pasture growth rates identify the optimum soil test values for each area of Barnhill. Strategies like these are helping to turn poor pastures, tussock blocks, previous pine tree areas and areas overgrown with matagouri and coprosma into a grass factory.

Part of the lower, warm, north facing, easier cultivated country included a pine plantation. Since the pines were felled and stumps removed three years ago capital fertiliser, several winter feed crops, regrassing, subdivision and piped stock water have turned the block into one of the best grass-growing areas on Barnhill.

Plans are afoot to harvest the remaining trees and repeat the exercise.

“Rather than spread the development budget over a wider area we are now concentrating the money on tackling smaller blocks of around 50ha,” Guy Goodeve said.

“The necessary stock water, fencing and access is then added to get the best returns.”

Another 100 circular water troughs plus trenched poly-piping will be installed during the next three years at a cost of $50,000 a year. Stock water is pumped from a recently completed four-million-litre pond that soaked up $80,000 of the development budget.

Providing 90 days of storage, water is pumped to a header tank then gravity fed to troughs.

The scheme is designed to cater for each of the 130-150 paddocks that the 1100ha will be subdivided into  eventually as well as the increase in stock numbers.

“It is about speeding up and at the same time optimising the return on investment,” Goodeve said.

“The lower hill country is able to support more intensive production including specialist finishing systems, forage and cropping options, and dairy wintering systems. One of the opportunities is developing farms within a farm.”

 Profit-driven and focused

Managing a family-owned farm with strong governance and commercially focused disciplines is a “once-in-alifetime career opportunity” for Guy and Vicki Goodeve.

After 11 years farming sheep and beef in the central North Island, the couple were lured south by the opportunities dairying offered.

After a period in Canterbury they moved to northern Southland and a stint with the Wilkins Farming dairy unit before grabbing the opportunity to assume the management of Barnhill, owned by David and Juliet Thomas, David’s sister Helen Thomas, and their children.

A short stroll from the Castlerock saleyards, the farm has been in Thomas family ownership for more than 150 years and is home now to an integrated sheep, beef, deer and dairying business.

The Goodeves are herd-owning sharemilkers of the dairy unit. They have also recently bought an additional 96ha in partnership with Castlerock Farming.

Adjoining the dairy unit, the property will be used for support land.

Vicki manages the 360ha, 1000-cow dairying platform on the fertile flats while Guy is responsible as general manager for the entire Castlerock Farming business with a focus operationally on the drystock side of the operation, which includes 270ha of improved dryland flats and the adjacent 1019ha hill-country block that runs up to 330m above sea level.

Since taking on the role two years ago, production off the dairy platform has been lifted from 243,000kg milksolids (MS) to 417,000kg MS in the 2014-15 season. Performance in the 2015-16 season is on track to meet the forecast 370,000kg MS with a large reduction in inputs. With the season nearing the end, Vicki expects the combined cost of production will be $3.80kg MS.

The Thomas’ have always adopted a long-term view of the farming business.

The focus is consistent and continual improvement rather than simply setting records. Their business philosophy is no different to that of the Goodeves. It is built around three tenets: sustainable growth, making sustainable profits geared towards ensuring dividends to the family reflect their investment in the business, and care of animals, people and the environment.

Stock numbers and per-head performance are climbing as development progresses and the amount of feed being grown increases. Last year 2100 cattle were wintered across the business made up of 1100 dairy cows, 450 R1 dairy heifers (May-May) plus the Barnhill herd of 190 South Devon breeding cows and their progeny.

Ewe numbers have increased from 2000 to 2400 and deer numbers have doubled. Three years ago 230 deer were wintered compared with 460 that will be on hand at June 30 this year.

Breeding cow numbers will gradually climb to 250 thanks to their ability to maintain pasture quality through summer. As well as being excellent pasture groomers, the long-established, high-performing South Devon cow herd is consistently weaning 92-96%.

Initially targeting another 10% of lambs from the ewe flock and 30kg liveweight lambs at weaning, Guy is confident per-head performance (sheep, beef and deer productivity) can be lifted at the same time as stock numbers increase.

The increase in ewe flock performance is being underpinned by a shift in breeding policy that includes using Mount Linton maternal sires.

Modelling using Overseer 3 provides the Thomas family and the Goodeves with the confidence that scope exists to conservatively double the amount of feed grown by the time the development programme is complete. They intend to make it happen.

“Potential exists to double the amount of feed (5000kg drymatter (DM)/ha- 6000kg DM/ha) previously grown on the undeveloped country to upwards of 12,000kg DM/ha,” Guy Goodeve said.

Reflecting reduced pasture growth rates during the past season, the 360ha dairy unit is expected to churn out 16,000kg DM/ha this year.e Barnhill

“Being on the conservative side, we should in time be able to average 8000 to 10,000 kilos of drymatter across all of Barnhill.”

This equates to a lift in stock numbers of about 8000-9000ssu. Actual stock ratios are yet to be determined.

While the Thomas family has no intention of selling, the increase in the property’s value is another pointer to the potential payback from the development programme embarked upon. Similar properties of this type are fetching $750ssu-$1000ssu.

The intention is also to employ EID to measure individual animal performance, make more effective use of weighing scales and body condition scoring, install a weather station and divide Barnhill into farm production areas.

“All part of delivering the required returns to the shareholders and the funds to be reinvested back into the farm,” Guy said.