Innovation drives productivity gains

Innovation drives productivity gains
Re-grassing, reducing the stocking rate and supplement level per cow, and reducing competition for feed has resulted in productivity gains for farm manager Chris Rathgen.

Three years ago, South Canterbury dairy farm manager Chris Rathgen made a significant decision which would lead to bolstering the condition and markedly improving productivity of the family business’s two herds grazing on it’s two dairy farms, at Otaio and St Andrews.
“I split the herd into smaller cross-bred jersey’s and larger breeds basically to give the lighterweight cows more access to their fair share of feed, reducing competition and as a result we’ve been able to improve condition and subsequent productivity across the whole herd,” Chris explains.
In total the farms extend over 590 hectares and are part of a much larger business which includes substantial cropping and seed production. Chris takes care of overseeing both dairy units while brother Nigel is in charge of the cropping programme.
The smaller Otaio dairy farm converted three years ago while the 312 hectare St Andrews farm, just inland from the settlement converted ten years ago.
Chris says he’s pleased with what has been achieved and his role in improving performance outcomes since stepping on to the farms to take up the dairy manager’s role, having worked as a shepherd for five years before this.
There’s been a lot of innovation and focus in what is grown to sustain the dairy herds with some interesting other outcomes beyond the quantity of milk each cow produces.
“We’ve incorporated chicory into the mix, along with plantain, three species of clover and a mixture of rye-grass species. We used to be a bull beef and lamb finishing operation and noticed how well the young stock responded to a mixed-bag diet so thought we would try different blends on the dairy units,” says Chris.
One of the key factors in enhancing overall farm production performance has been to only put 60-70 per cent of the herd to replacement bulls, 20-30% to beef bulls with about five per cent not mated at all.
Milk on the St Andrews farm is produced through a 60 bale Waikato rotary, complete with automatic cup removers and protrack easily able to be managed by one person. About 300 kg of grain per cow per year is fed in-shed with a total supplement delivery per cow of less than 500 kg.
“Since re-grassing, which has been a big emphasis on the farm, we’ve produced more tonnage on the paddock. The most important thing has been to keep a close eye on ground conditions to prevent pugging on young pasture.”
With young pasture Chris says the lower dry matter content means keeping an eye on sunlight hours and introducing split breaks in different paddocks morning and night, to help cows stomach’s process the rich grass effectively.
In the past three years approximately 60% of the total platform has been replanted resulting in an increase in stocking rate. Working with Chris is a manager on each dairy farm, along with 2IC’s and herd managers.
When additional staff at St Andrews are needed Chris says the family’s cropping operation just over the boundary allows for staff to be ‘borrowed’ at busy times.
For the past four years the St Andrews Farm has been a source of data and experience in a Forages for Reduced Nitrate Leaching study in partnership with Lincoln University and Dairy NZ.
The study trials various pasture mixes to establish which blend and stocking rate the best productivity and cow condition while reducing nitrate leaching.
When the study began back in the 2014-15 season 1180 cows were peak milked at St Andrews with almost a tonne of dry matter per cow supplement. There was growing interest in finding ways to have a major impact on reducing the supplement bill, reducing imported feed and reducing the Nitrates leached.
“As part of the study Dairy NZ did some modelling. It became apparent that reducing the stocking rate and supplement level per cow would have the best outcome financially and environmentally.”
With almost half the supplement fed the impact on overall production was minimal (just over 6000kg total for the season) while per cow production increased He’s also a big fan of fodderbeet, growing 24 – 25 tonne/ha on the dairy farm resulting in a big reduction in supplements fed in autumn.
“We find fodderbeet is great for transitioning cows before winter, allowing the cows to continue gaining weight at a rapid rate.”
Having two milking sheds also means that various supplementary feeds can be tested in one of the sheds with performance results compared between the two.
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