Thor fires up with the N factor
Strong beef prices in recent years kept Pa Hill Ayrshires from the brink during the dairy downturn, but surprisingly, another ally in the form of plentiful lightning has been like having Thor on his side, owner Gavin Travers says.
This season’s forecast milksolids payout of more than $7 per kilogram is also a godsend for Gavin, who, like many of his counterparts, is beginning to see some light on the horizon; he plans to use any surpluses to pay down debt.
“We’ve been living on interest-only, so we hope we can start paying some debt back. What got us through was selling the cows.”
Pa Hill Ayrshires, near Kaitaia, rears all its bull calves to 100kg, and firm beef prices in recent years have provided good returns.
However, the pain of the low payouts was made worse by having to start paying for Fonterra shares on a 40-hectare property when the lowest payouts kicked in. “If we had had to rely totally on our milk, we would’ve gone under,” he says.
“But we sell a lot of cattle. Half of our income is from selling stock.” The stud has a sale each April where it sells surplus heifers and cows, providing a much needed dollop of cash.
“We sell quite a few in-milk cows through the year to various people who ring up looking for extra cows, usually in groups from 10 to 30.” Many of these go into New Zealand herds where they produce and breed exceptionally well, he says.
With the wolf prowling at the door as the payout plummeted to $4.40/kgMS in 2013-2014, then $3.90 for the 2015-2016 season, some things could not be covered in the budget.
“We had to cut our fertiliser back to the bare, bare minimum, and mainly on the dairy blocks. The dry blocks haven’t seen fertiliser for quite a while.”
Despite this, Gavin says the farm has not paid any real penalty for the reduction in fertiliser, with Northland’s sub-tropical climate lending a hand from above.
“We get a lot of lightning and that gives us natural urea. We still try to put a bit of DAP (fertiliser) on in the spring.”
Scientific sources explain that the earth’s atmosphere is 78 per cent nitrogen, and in a thunderstorm there is enough electrical energy to separate the nitrogen atoms in the air.
Once separated, the atoms can fall to earth with rain and combine with minerals in the soil to form nitrates.
Gavin believes Pa Hill benefits from this process. The property covers a total of 604 hectares over seven properties, of which 420ha is leased, including the Travers family’s 134ha effective home farm.
The dairy operation comprises three farms and three milking sheds effectively run as one unit, split calving and peak-spring-milking 430 cows on 270ha and winter-milking 220 cows.
Beef cattle, calves and dry cows are grazed on 333ha over five properties.
“The opportunities of leasing land kept coming up so I have used them to grow,” says Gavin.
“I don’t like parting with my cows so I try and keep as many as I can so that’s why it just keeps getting bigger and bigger.”