Best pastures for lifting performance

Best pastures for lifting performance

Participating in the Hill Country Futures Partnership programme has helped John Chapman identify and quantify the best pastures for lifting the performance at his 4,250 ha Inverary Station in Mid Canterbury.

Lincoln University got in touch with John after learning he was conducting his own pasture production research as part of an in-depth review of the property and livestock, looking at ways to drive productivity and profitability. 

“Professor Derrick Moot was keen to work with us and provide technical support – as part of the Hill Country Futures programmes research projects that he leads, working with farms and farmers across New Zealand,” says John.

The Hill Country Futures Partnership is a five-year programme co-funded by Beef + Lamb New Zealand, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, PGG Wrightson Seeds and Seed Force New Zealand.

The $8.1m programme is focused on future proofing the profitability, sustainability and wellbeing of New Zealand’s hill country farmers, their farm systems, the environment and rural communities. It differs from most pastoral-based research in that it considers the whole-farm system and, critically, the wider communities these systems exist within.

It incorporates traditional science research, farmer knowledge, social research and citizen science and has a strong emphasis on forages and providing decision-making tools to help farmers select the best forage option for different land management units.

John and his wife Anne farm the 4,250 Ha sheep and beef hill and high country property near Mt. Somers, with managers Bert and Kate Oliver who are joining them in an equity partnership

The farm runs to 1500m altitude and carries 5500 ewes, 1600 hoggets (half mated), 700 breeding cows and 400 yearling cattle wintered.

Around half of the property is higher and harder hill country with limited useful grazing. The lower hill country is a mixture of improved and unimproved blocks with better soils. The remainder is in a variety of terrains from cultivated river flats to higher glacial terraces.

The rolling or flat country with good cultivatable soils consistently grows large quantities of high-quality dry matter,  however the hill blocks, largely browntop-based, are slow growing when needed in the spring but generate large surpluses of poor quality feed in the summer and autumn.

“About ten years ago, we began a substantial development stage on the property but we were still struggling to use much of our hill country pastures efficiently,” says John.

“We didn’t really understand the seasonal contributions from the hill country although we knew it didn’t fit our feed demand too well. On the other hand, the legume pastures we had established were providing some exciting results. I set out a network of over 30 pasture cages throughout the property and measured the growth on a six-weekly basis providing a comparison between a variety of hill blocks and existing and developing pasture elsewhere.

“This fitted nicely with the work Derrick Moot was doing around legumes in hill country and he provided a lot of technical support in weighing and analysing the pasture samples.”

The measurements have been maintained for five years and have accurately determined the relative advantage of the legume based pastures over conventional grass based pasture.

The differences have been quite substantial. The traditional ryegrass based pastures have averaged 11400 kg dry matter annually while the lucerne (on lighter soils) produced 15300 kg dry matter. Red clover based pastures have provided spectacular results – on average, 17500 kg dry matter.

Of particular note was the spring performance of the legume or legume dominant paddocks in the spring. Consistently these have provided double the spring production of their conventional ryegrass paddocks and at a time of the year when every farm needs the maximum production. 

John says that, as expected, the hill country pastures were substantially less productive - 6700 kg dry matter on oversown and topdressed blocks and 3700 kg of dry matter on the unimproved hill.

“What it did highlight however was how tragic the early spring and autumn production levels were compared to the annual pasture growth.”

The production records enabled John to develop a pasture growth profile for the entire property and supported identifying and developing measures to address the imbalance. This includes developing pioneering a ‘spray and delay’ technique using soil residual sprays  to completely remove existing pasture and weed strikes on steeper hill faces and establish high performing legume pasture.

These are then ‘rested’ for 12 to 18 months with the fallow spell allowing development of an open seed bed and suitable soil moisture levels for growing red, white and Caucasian clovers.

“These hill blocks that previously produced 4-5000 kg of poor quality feed are now providing over 16000 kg dry matter of  exceptional quality. Where a few ewes once made a difficult living, we are now finishing lambs. This in turn creates high nitrogen levels, enabling sowing of high fertility grass species in subsequent years.”

Monitoring sensor networks have also been established on the farm as part of an experiment to map micro-indicators, such as soil temperature and moisture. The goal is to help farmers quantify key soil and terrain features to enable robust decision-making around the most suitable locations and potential benefits of introducing forage legumes.

“Working with Derrick and his field technician Malcolm Smith has been invaluable for us,” says John. “I was cutting representative pieces of pasture and drying them in the oven – and that wasn’t a recipe for a good marriage. Malcolm is multi-skilled and provides discipline, precision and accuracy and the samples go to Lincoln to be analysed and recorded for pasture composition and ME.”

The impact on productivity has been significant. Ewes scanning is up from 152 per cent to 175 per cent and sales of lambs have grown from 31.7 to 44.8kg per ewe mated.

John says he’s cautiously optimistic about the future of hill farming and sees science as key to that.

“The Hill Country Futures Partnership and programmes like it are absolutely critical – because hill country is where all the potential in New Zealand lies. Most of the flat arable land is spoken for but there is a huge amount of potential in using legumes in hill country. This is on-farm work demonstrating to a wider farmer audience that it is possible.

“Farmers are apprehensive about their obligations under the environmental legislation but they can see some of the potential too, such as the work being done here.”