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Water management, wet soil challenges for Fernside farm

Water management, wet soil challenges for Fernside farm

Canterbury dairy farmers Hayden Ussher and Gillian Dalley own a 135ha effective farm near Fernside. Carrying very heavy soils given its history as old swampland brings its fair share of challenges and impacts on how they successfully manage their dairy operation.

“Even in the spring, winter and autumn underground streams come up to surface level.  We are lucky that we have about 30% of the farm on slightly drier land. We’re always very mindful of how it is underfoot,” says Hayden. The farm supplies Fonterra and the milking herd numbers 350 true crossbred cows.

Before dairying in Fernside Hayden worked on a 300 cow dairy farm in Cust for five years progressing from assistant to contract milker in this time as well as growing a small herd of cows.

Hayden and Gillian then took a year off to travel overseas and it was during this time they were offered a 50/50 sharemilking position in Fernside for the following season.

“We were lucky that when we went sharemilking the farm owners wanted to begin stepping back from farm ownership.  They gave us the backing and the option to purchase the farm.”

With the late winter/early spring wet weather Hayden says calving has been amazing with a massive number of calves delivered in the first two weeks.

Calving will end early October. Unusually, given the farm’s vulnerability when receiving too much rain Hayden feels there may be a very dry patch ahead.

“So whether we are going to have a dry spring will impact on our reliance on irrigation which is challenging given restrictions set down for dairying in this area.”

Each season 120,000 kg/MS or thereabouts is produced.  The farm could possibly produce more, however the couple have deliberately chosen a lower stocking rate.

Hayden describes the farming system as not far off being organic which has resulted in reductions in nitrogen levels per hectare with the help of BioHelp products in reducing those levels.

“We don’t use antibiotics and that’s been our policy for at least the last 10 years.  We changed to using a lot of biological products and we saw a huge reduction in lameness and mastitis.”

When the odd cow presents with mastitis the management is to keep them milking through the colostrum pump. “If we leave them to recover themselves our strike rate is eight out of ten become well on their own.”

Other benefits flowing through the biological approach can be seen in reduced empty rates and much lower animal health costs. The farm operates to a system 3, with the herd wintered off.

Additional nutrition is supplied via 30 tonne of molasses, 20 tonne palm kernel and grass baled and turned into silage. Gillian looks after the young stock on the support blocks and with calf-rearing.

“We could get more milk production and thinking back over the past five years we’ve had issues to deal with year in year out.  A lot of the farm is still in very old pastures and we’re working on improving this gradually.”

A range of grass species have been applied and so far shogun seems to be doing the best – a three year hybrid annual rye grass. The milking plant is a 27 aside Reed herringbone.

While being very basic Hayden says the shed is well-designed, with solar hot-water heating reducing the power costs. Other challenges are around future water management.

“I think there are going to be some huge changes in the zone we are part of. We’ve been going to community and zone meetings these past few weeks and sadly there are still a lot of misinformed opinions.”

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