Five Years of Progress on Owl Farm (2015-2020)

The team on Owl Farm, a demonstration farm near Cambridge in the Waikato, is focused on innovation, sharing the lessons they learn with the dairy industry, and connecting with the wider community. In the last five years they have made plenty of changes and now they are starting to see the results.

A “wagon wheel” (or radar graph) is core to planning and monitoring on Owl Farm. It is a simple tool for visualising how the farm is progressing in multiple areas. It allows the team to focus on the areas they have identified as important to their business. Rigorous data collection and analysis underpins the wagon wheel: regular farm walks, benchmarking, and modelling using Overseer and Farmax. They also make extensive use of DairyNZ’s tools and templates to inform their decision making.

The outer rim of the wagon wheel shows the targets the team are aiming for, and the inner circles show how far they have moved towards the targets each season.

Significant progress has been made in a number of areas, and Owl Farm’s partners (founding partners: St Peter’s Cambridge and Lincoln University; and industry partners: Ballance Agri-Nutrients, DairyNZ, LIC, Fonterra Farm Source, PGG Wrightson Seeds, and Westpac) have been there supporting them along the way, ensuring they have the best advice on tap.

For a start, they have de-intensified the operation, with a shift to a System 2 structure. They have halved their bought-in feed, and moved to a much higher utilisation of homegrown feed, with pasture silage quantities tripling from 50 t DM to 150 t DM in the last five years. Imported feed is down from 4.2 t DM/ha in 2014/15 to 2.1 t DM/ha in the 2019/20 season, and they have removed imported maize silage (which they were unable to feed out efficiently) from the mix. Pastures are a ryegrass/clover/cocksfoot/plantain mix and they grow summer crops of turnips and kale, with smaller additions of imported PKE and grass silage. This shift has had a knock-on effect on the financial side of the business. The decreased spend on imported feed has resulted in an increase in operating profit.

Another focus area, which is core to the ethos of the farm, is its environmental management. In the last five years their Overseer modelling has shown a drop in nitrogen leaching from 44 kg N/ha to 33 kg N/ha. The reduction in imported feed has had a big influence on this metric. But the team have also worked hard on tailoring their fertiliser applications, with the help of their partner Ballance Agri-Nutrients.

They keep a close eye on their application timings, only applying fertiliser when plants are able to utilise it. This means not applying nitrogen in May and June, when soils are cold, and applying it to soils where moisture and Olsen P levels are adequate. They are also careful to pick the right nitrogen products, such as SustaiN, which has a urease coating to prevent ammonia volatilisation.

Their phosphorus losses have also dropped in the last five seasons, from 1.2 kg/ha to 1.0 kg/ha. This has been brought about through a detailed analysis of what phosphorus additions are required, where it should be applied, and careful crop management (with the input of partner, PGG Wrightson Seeds). Also, the creation of a 33ha wetland has certainly helped to mitigate losses.

Greenhouse gas emissions are another environmental spoke in the wheel. Overseer modelling has shown a drop in emissions from 13,200 to 11,900 kgCO2eq/ha. This is due to the combination of a system change, with an associated shift to a higher reliance on homegrown feed, and a lower stocking rate – fewer, higher-producing cows.

The cow side of the equation hasn’t been forgotten either, with animal performance and welfare making up another spoke of the wagon wheel. The Owl Farm herd is already of high genetic merit, and using LIC data when making culling decisions, and selecting the cows that are the most efficient feed converters, ensures the right cows remain on farm.

Animal welfare is important too. Regular body condition scoring is carried out by Cambridge Veterinary Services, which allows individual intervention when required. Summer milking management is flexible too. Once the days heat up they shift to 3-n-2 milking, which means the cows are milked when conditions are cooler, and paddocks are selected to provide shade. Flexi-milking has the added benefit of decreasing staff hours in the shed.

All of these changes have helped, not hindered, the bottom line.

A final focus is on their connections with the wider community. The farm is a valuable teaching tool for St Peter’s School, not just for the students who wish to learn about farming, but also for other classes, such as geography and maths.

A stream of outside visitors come through the gates too: the public during farm open days, farmers during field days, and rural professionals to advise and learn. So Owl Farm provides both a learning experience and a positive showcase for New Zealand’s dairy farming industry. The results of these efforts show in the improving community perception side of the wagon wheel.

When reflecting back on the last five years, the team has a lot to be proud of, and looking ahead there are plenty of new targets to aim for and challenges to overcome. The wagon wheel is going to remain an important tool in the process of planning for the future, monitoring progress, and ensuring Owl Farm in on the right path to meet an evolving set of targets.

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