Organic path a `natural progression’

Organic path a `natural progression’
Grass roots: Taranaki’s Rachel and Kenneth Short with sons Zak and Max with some of the jersey herd.

Operating with farm working expenses of just $2 a kilogram per kilogram of milk solids would get most dairy farmers singing, even in the rain.
For Taranaki couple Kenneth and Rachel Short it is the norm based on running a low-cost, purely grass-based organic system.
The couple are equity partners with Rachel’s parents, Louis and Barbara Kuriger, on two farms 13 kilometres apart near Opunake.
Shortland Farm 1 is 168ha, peak milking 440 cows/ plus young stock. Shortland Farm 2 is 68ha, peak milking 200 cows plus young stock. The Short’s are variable order sharemilkers on farm one.
During the 2016/2017 season Shortland Farm 1 produced 130,000kgMS milking twice-a-day, while the second farm produced 50,000kgMS in their first full season of once-a-day milking.
Both herds are jerseys and both farms are currently undergoing a three year conversion to be fully certified as organic.
The number one farm is expected to be certified on 1 September 2019 while the second farm will be certified November 1 this year. It was a natural progression to go the organic route, Rachel says.
“We’d always run a (Dairy NZ) system one, completely self-contained farm. There are already a few organic farmers around coastal Taranaki; about a dozen of them converted about 15 to 20 years ago.
“We had always been fairly close to an organic system and then Fonterra started taking on more organic farmers.”
Making the commitment wasn’t a major step change, but rather formalising what the farm system was already operating close to, she says.
The farm’s milk currently goes into Fonterra’s normal milk supply, but an incentive premium of 45 cents/kgMS is paid. Since June 2016 Fonterra moved to an independent market-linked price for organic milk.
“At the moment the organic milk is at $7.50. Last year it ended up being $8.85. The predictions are that it won’t have as big a fluctuation as conventional milk.” Rachel describes organics as farming with nature.
“For somebody that’s looking at going organic, if they’ve been a high input farm, if they’ve put on a lot of urea, it’s essentially a huge change, but we were already running that self-contained system.”
The Short’s simple farm system comprises grass, hay and turnips. Their biggest learning curve in organics has involved understanding the complexities of soil biology.
“It’s probably the area where we have the least knowledge and we are trying to do the most learning.”
With such low farm working expenses and the prospect of a healthy Fonterra payout, the future is looking rosy, but the couple are eager to put the horrorifi c past season behind them.
“Coastal Taranaki has had a season from hell. We’ve had double the rainfall back in spring and four months of dry, to Cyclone Gita and the tornado.”
The tragic tale of the season is easily told in both farms’ total production, which plummeted 40% from the previous season, to a total of just 78,000kgMS.
“We dried our cows off on Christmas Day, which was just crazy at the time, but it’s worked out the best thing that we did.”
“At the time it was crazy, but we hadn’t had rain for two months and we didn’t have rain for another two months after that.”
While it was a dire decision, the Short’s bank was supportive, animal health is now great and the farm is flush with 3000kg DM/ha of grass to start the next season with.
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