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New Zealand through the eye of a pasture manager

After Jack Kyle retired as Ontario’s pasture specialist following 30 years of service to Ontario’s beef producers, he and his wife Jean joined an agricultural tour to New Zealand to see the sites and have a look at agriculture in New Zealand.

Some of what he saw there may provide food for thought to pasture managers here in Canada.

The first farm they visited was Criffel Station in the high country on the South Island near Wanaka owned by Jerry and Mandy Bell. Mandy, who is a veterinarian, is the farm manager. Criffel Station has 1,850 hectares and had been a sheep station since the 1850s. The Bells converted it to red deer production in 1993. Currently, they have 1,500 female Eastern European red deer grazing on the hills at their station.

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Deer are not native to New Zealand but were imported from England and Scotland in the 19th century for recreational hunting in the Southern Alps and foothills. With no natural predators, the population quickly expanded and by the mid-1900s they had became a major pest on grazing and forest lands. The export of venison from wild deer started in the 1960s, turning a pest into an export market. Early deer farmers started netting live deer with helicopters and farming them. Today there are 2,000 deer farms raising one million deer per year, making New Zealand the world’s No. 1 source for farm-raised venison.

To utilize their extra forage production Mandy started finishing market lambs and grazing dairy heifers in addition to the deer. “Mandy has it all figured out on how much grass on a dry-matter basis it takes to finish sheep, dairy heifers or deer,” says Kyle.

At the time of Kyle’s visit, she had calculated the return for sheep at $0.23 per kg of dry matter fed, dairy heifers at $0.26 per kg of dry matter fed and deer $0.32 per kg of dry matter fed.

Criffel Station has three farming entities consisting of the hill breeding operation, venison finishing and stud operation. In their stud operation the Bells measure breeding values with the primary focus on venison growth rate to 12 months, utilizing DNA technology to produce top-quality breeding hinds and stags.

“There is a lot of irrigation going on in New Zealand, especially in the South Island. The arable land was basically all irrigated pasture. Corn was grown on the North Island for silage and most silage was stored in covered piles. In addition, chicory, fodder beet, turnips in a mixture, kale and fodder rape were grown.

“The pastures are broken after five years and seeded to annuals for one year then back to pasture. Red and white clover, perennial ryegrass and sometimes orchardgrass make up the pasture mix.”

Next they visited Te Mania Angus, one of the largest performance-tested Angus herds in New Zealand. Located about two hours north of Christchurch, the farm runs 850 registered Angus cows on 1,500 hectares that ranges from reasonably flat to very hilly.

They sell approximately 200 breeding bulls each year at two on-farm sales, while the meat is marketed through a pasture to plate, integrated, quality assurance, branded Angus beef program in partnership with a major national grocery store chain.

“Perennial pasture supplemented with a small acreage of annuals formed the basis of their feeding system. The cattle were moved every one to two days to a fresh paddock. The farm had a total of 220 paddocks in its grazing system.

“In other areas, there were a lot of five-acre paddocks with a water trough in each field. Three to four hundred cows would graze a paddock in a day before being moved to the next paddock.”

Irrigation systems were either K-line or centre pivots. The K-line units were like a glorified lawn sprinkler. They are low cost and sprinkle water 40 feet wide and since they are movable they could irrigate a strip 300 to 400 feet long. Irrigation water came from storage reservoirs in the mountains, rivers or wells. The water from the mountain reservoirs had the advantage of moving by gravity feed to the irrigated fields.

Kyle saw some dairy bulls being grown and finished on grass. When they were there it was dry and some producers were selling some of their herd to balance feed needs with pasture production.

“We visited the auction mart at Fielding on the North Island and saw a number of 400- to 450-kg bulls being sold to producers who had sufficient grass to finish these animals. Grass-fed bull beef lacks fat but the lean meat is exported and blended with fat trim in the importing countries” says Kyle.

“In general, beef costs the consumer about half what it costs in Canada. The New Zealand and Canadian dollar were about equal. Beef was $15 to $29 a kg, depending on the cut and, believe it or not, a half a pig’s head was $1.50 a kg. This was in a tourist area but in the main grocery store, prices were similar to the regular prices we see in Canada.”

On the North Island, he visited a farm running 260 Jersey cows on about 210 acres. They had 40 acres of corn silage and the remainder was in pasture. The cows’ production cycle was managed so that the farmer had one month with no milking so he and his family could have a holiday. “Not a bad idea,” adds Kyle.

There has been lots of expansion in the dairy industry that has pushed the sheep on to less desirable land resulting in a significant decline in the sheep population. But that may be slowing down with the recent declines in the country’s milk export markets, particularly China, the EU and Russia, in response to policy changes in all those countries.

There are no subsidies in New Zealand. It is free market enterprise environment, so in order to survive farmers there must adapt to changing market conditions.

There are 30 million sheep in New Zealand, down from the previous 60 million, and six million dairy cows.

“On one farm they were raising Wagu-dairy cross calves as part of a marketing group. The Wagu-Friesian cross gives a beef calf that they market as a grass-fed branded product. This market for a crossbred calf has appeal to some dairy producers” says Kyle.

“New Zealand’s climate and land makes forage and pasture production their best cropping option. Ninety per cent of the agricultural production is exported, which means they have to be competitive in world markets. Forage converted to animal protein is their lowest-cost and most profitable opportunity. Dairy production is focused on milk solids per hectare rather than production per cow.

All the operations he visited used a lot of paddocks, monitored their forage growth and measured the amount of dry matter being offered, as well as maintaining sufficient residue for good regrowth.

Annuals were grown to augment the pasture, especially during the fall and winter months.

“I was impressed with the high level of pasture management throughout the country and the optimum management of all pastures — I didn’t see any tall mature pastures in our travels.

“We can learn a lot from the New Zealanders about pasture management and making effective use of pasture as a primary feed source for livestock,” he concludes.

About the author

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Duane McCartney is a retired forage-beef systems research scientist at Lacombe, Alta.

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