Reducing the seasonality in Kiwi dairy systems

I have previously written how New Zealand’s seasonal dairy industry aligns nicely with long life commodity production but does not align well most value-add products.  In contrast to New Zealand, in nearly everywhere else in the world – apart from Ireland, and some areas in Australia – the cows are milked for 12 months per year.  This is driven by the needs of consumer markets. So if New Zealand wants to capture an increasing share of the branded markets, it will need to figure out how to make non-seasonal production systems work in our pasture-based environment.

It definitely won’t be a case of everyone moving to non-seasonal production, because there will always be a place for long-life commodities. But we do have to give serious thought as to how we can diversify away from such high reliance on whole milk powder (WMP). This WMP is essentially a product that is consumed in developing rather than developed countries. Currently, China is by far the dominant WMP consumer, and also now the largest WMP producer, but in time they are likely to move away from WMP to more consumer-focused products.

Producing milk in winter does cost more than producing milk in the warmer months when grass is doing its ‘growing thing’. So it has to be the processing and marketing companies that provide the lead and tell farmers what premiums there will be for out-of-season production.

Currently, there are some premiums for production outside the peak season but the pricing messages are complex, often short term, poorly communicated, and insufficient to get a response by mainstream farmers.

Fonterra already offers premiums to all farmers for any milk produced outside the four peak months of September to December. Both last year and this year, that premium has been and is 51c per kg milksolids.  As a consequence, and using Fonterra’s current overall guidance for 2016/17 of $4.25 per kg milksolids, by the end-of-season financial wash-up they plan to have paid $4.01 for milk produced September to December, and $4.52 for milk outside these months.

Fonterra calculates the 51c off-season premium (or peak-season discount if viewed from the mirror-image perspective) by allocating to the peak months of September to December all of the cost of servicing capital invested in stainless steel and associated processing equipment. This is based on an assumption that there is surplus capacity at all other months. To those trained in economics, this makes sense. However, this seasonal premium / discount does not make allowance for the inventory costs of holding product over a 12-month cycle. And it is calculated only on the assumption that any additional facilities will be bulk standard WMP dryers. That last assumption does make sense if New Zealand is to remain wedded to long-life commodities, but bigger premiums will be needed to fill the value-add factories for 12 months of the year.

Throughout the country, there is a range of premiums emerging for specific situations. For example, famers in South Canterbury can earn an additional $1.40 per kg milksolids over a 60-day period in June-July for milk destined for the mozzarella factory at Clandeboye, and Westland will be offering $1.91 (minus cartage) for a 100-day period next winter for those of its Canterbury farmers who can service their UHT factory at Rolleston.  Also, Fonterra has a range of contracts for farmers supplying ‘town milk’ over the winter period, although Fonterra is currently squeezing back on the prices of these contracts.

These and other premiums can be seen as a first step, but they will need to become much more widespread if we are to move further down the value-add path.

Once premiums become explicit and come with long term contracts, then farmers can make their own decisions as to whether it is worthwhile moving to non-seasonal production, given that there are both costs and benefits.

Perhaps the first myth to shed is that spring calving is what comes naturally to cattle. The truth is that cattle, unlike sheep and deer, are happy to breed at all times of the year, and if left to nature, will calve at greater than 12-month intervals. It is only us humans that try and squeeze them into a 12-month cycle. The consequence is that despite hormone-related reproductive techniques to induce early ovulation after calving, there are high culling rates of cows that do not keep to the strict 12-month breeding cycle. Indeed, the major cause of culling in New Zealand is failure of cows to keep to the 12-month cycle. This challenge to maintain 12-month calving has increased since pre-term calf inductions have been banned. 

There is another myth in New Zealand that the attractive-looking high-powered ryegrass-dominant pastures that we feed our dairy cattle are the natural feed for cattle. One only has to observe the runny green liquid coming out from the rear end, and compare this with beef cattle on the hills, to realise that high-octane largely single-species ryegrass pastures are an unbalanced feed. 

In most parts of New Zealand, non-seasonal production means that cows need to be off-paddock in the winter. But there is increasing realisation that we need to go down that pathway even for dry cattle if we are to manage the nitrogen leaching problem. 

There is a range of ways that off-paddock wintering can be achieved. In some cases, it may be by stand-off pads, but unless there is a soft surface for cows to lie on, this raises welfare issues for anything more than about a three-day period. 

Lincoln University is currently trialling a range of open-air feed-pad surfaces, together with a dung and urine collection system, at their new Ashley Dene dairy farm. This includes use of matting surfaces. This may work in some Canterbury winters, like the current one which so far has been warm and with modest rain, but in most parts of the country a roof will be required. 

The overall wintering system that can satisfy both welfare requirements and the need to minimise winter leaching of nitrogen is the free-stall barn where cows choose their individual padded cow-bed which is raised such that most of the dung and urine falls out the back of the bed into a laneway.  These are the systems used widely in Europe and the USA, where they have been refined by 50 years of experience.  So far in New Zealand, there are about 40 of these cow houses that are operational.

New Zealand farmers are doing their own experimentation as to how to make these barns work in the New Zealand environment. Some are feeding the cows in the barn, others are taking the cows outside for a period of daily grazing and then returning them to the barn.  Some farmers are using the barns throughout the year, in some cases using robot milkers, while others are only using the barns in winter. Some are already using the barns in association with non-seasonal calving, while others are sticking with spring calving given a lack of pricing signal in their region to do otherwise.

The big issue that frightens off most farmers is the capital cost, typically between $6 and $10 per kg of milksolids produced on the farm. However, there are lots of compensating factors.

To start with, most farmers, even with seasonal calving, find that they can get increased lactation lengths by milking later in the season. For those that go non-seasonal, the average cow-lactation length goes up by more than 50 days.  American research and practical experience has shown that well fed barn cows can be milked to within 45 days of the next calving, without any downside.  Also, winter feed requirements are substantially reduced for cows in a wintering barn. And summer heat stress is also greatly reduced for cows that can access the barn in the heat of the day. And then there are the benefits from less winter pugging of pastures. 

Most of the barn farmers whom I have contact with have increased both their per cow production – often by more than 100kg milksolids – and also their per hectare production, through a combination of some or all of the above.

In New Zealand, we still have lots to learn about how to optimise non-seasonal dairy systems in our pasture-based environment.  We have lots to learn about the best use of crops within these systems, and we have lots to learn about controlling the cost of production. From what I am seeing, there is a huge range in performance on these farms, just as there is on seasonal pasture-only farms.  But there will be more than one path forward.

When I look ahead 20 years, and regardless of farming system, I see much stricter rules about winter leaching of nitrogen. Wintering barns, nutrient management, and non-seasonal milking to help cover the costs thereof, could all go together as a package.

To many farmers, all of the above will be many steps too far.  The existing paradigms about so-called low-cost milk production from pasture are deeply embedded in the psyche.   And in any case, most farmers do not have the capital to make such changes right now.   But the notion that in 20 years we can be doing the same things as now is scarcely tenable from either a financial or environmental perspective.

So it will be a long journey, but all journeys have to start somewhere.

Disclosure of interest: Keith Woodford consults to Calder Stewart whose business interests include building dairy barns

Canterbury free-stall dairy

Canterbury free-stall dairy

About Keith Woodford

Keith Woodford is an independent consultant, based in New Zealand, who works internationally on agri-food systems and rural development projects. He holds honorary positions as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University, New Zealand, and as Senior Research Fellow at the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University, Wellington.
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1 Response to Reducing the seasonality in Kiwi dairy systems

  1. Ian Bywater says:

    Effluent recovery in barns not only will provide a system to combat nitrogen leaching but also make on-farm energy producing effluent digesters economic.

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