Right now, everyone in the New Zealand dairy industry is figuring out how to get through the next 12 months without too much pain. Ultimately events will turn and we will be able to think more strategically about where the industry is going.
Down on the farm, the main long-term issue will be how to remain profitable whilst living in the new world of nutrient emission limits.
There are two ways to go. One is to farm within an all-grass system, but pull back the stocking rate and other inputs such as nitrogen fertiliser and supplementary feed. Some of the environmentally-focused people are arguing that this is the way to go, and within industry organisation DairyNZ there is a strongly held viewpoint that all-grass is where our competitive advantage lies.
A key limitation of the all-grass system is that even with considerably reduced stocking rates there will be considerable nitrogen leaching. This is an inevitable outcome when a cow drops nitrogen-laden urine at high concentrations. In spring and summer, the urine spots do not cause great problems. However, with autumn-dropped urine there is insufficient time for the nitrogen to be absorbed by growing pasture before being leached away in winter.
Particularly in the South Island, the so-called all-grass system actually relies on considerable quantities of forage crops – traditionally swedes and turnips, more recently kale, and now increasingly fodder beet. When fed in-paddock, the nitrogen leaching can be extremely high. Much of this occurs with dry stock on runoff blocks and therefore does not come into nutrient calculations for what farmers call the milking platform. However, when considering the total system, and doing so on a catchment basis, then leaching from these wintering blocks is a big problem.
The only way to solve these problems is to get the dairy cows off-paddock for the second half of autumn and throughout winter. Depending on the region, this is somewhere between 90 and 150 days. But going down that path leads to other controversies. By getting cows off-paddock there is no doubt that we can manage the nutrient situation much better. However, we also have to manage animal welfare, odour and costs.
Animal welfare is particularly important but there are solutions. Cows like being in a barn as long as they have freedom to move around, and somewhere soft to lie down. That means either rubber mats, straw, wood chips or sand. All cows need to lie down for at least 8 hours per day, and the herd average should be closer to 11 hours.
The internationally-proven free-stall design satisfies these welfare criteria. However, this is not achieved with some other designs which we have been seeing in New Zealand. The free-stall design also keep cows relatively clean and is therefore suitable for lactating as well as dry cows.
Terminology can be important and talk of cubicle-farming quickly raises public concern. The free-stall system does have cubicles, but a much better term would be ‘cow beds’. Within the free-stall system, the cows are totally free to choose their own bed and to come and go as they like. The side rails ensure that the cows lie in the correct direction so that when they do stand, some 90% of the dung and urine falls out into the central laneway, where it is removed by mechanical scrapers. People in the industry should never refer to ‘cubicles’ because of the false connotations they have for the uninformed.
The odour associated with these systems is not so much from the barns themselves, which have little smell when properly managed, but occurs when the nutrients are spread back on the paddocks. Essentially, the rest of the world seems to have solved these problems and it would be surprising if we cannot develop satisfactory solutions for New Zealand.
Accordingly, the one big issue to be resolved with barn-systems is the economics. Can we be internationally competitive in the dairy industry if we go down that path?
If we are going to make barn systems work in New Zealand, then it will be based on unique New Zealand solutions. Some farmers are already choosing fully-housed systems and are convinced they can make these pay.
The secret to success with fully-housed cows will be management of feed costs relative to the increased production from these systems. If we simply mimic American systems with their high grain content, then we are likely to be in trouble. Part of our New Zealand strength lies with conserved forage crops such as fodder beet, maize and lucerne which can outperform pasture production.