Grass Grows Grass

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Over the past couple of weeks I have traveled 3500 km throughout both the North and South Islands and yet again I have been disappointed to see the large numbers of skinny cows and sheep grazing lawnmower pastures.

By contrast, it has certainly been a delight to visit a number of farms with healthy grazing residuals achieving high production levels and making excellent profits.  Of course payout and meat prices are well up at present but it is really difficult to make profits on shaved pastures, and by that I mean anything less than 1600 DM/Ha.

The full impact of the phrase “grass grows grass” didn’t hit me until some years ago when I was trying to find out why an increasing number of our farmers were consistently achieving good profits in spite of poor prices and lousy climatic conditions.

It was a revelation to me to discover that when you applied business profit measures to farming that the nature of farming practices could change dramatically.  I had come from a research background and it was a real wake-up call to realise that good business management studies could be in conflict with production science.  It took some real soul searching over a considerable time frame before I could accept that when eCOGENT farmer members applied business principles to their farming practices that the commonly accepted production measures were less relevant.  No big deal to them of course because their profits were increasing well beyond expectations.

You see, if you treat farms as businesses and apply the best business measures then that gives you the opportunity to assess pasture covers, animal health expenses, fertiliser practices etc in terms of profit, not production.

And perhaps the most surprising thing as we started to drill further down the profit pathway was the discovery that as these farmers increased profits they also “grew” their soils.  Soil depth increased as did the amount of atmospheric carbon they were sequestering into the soil.

Visual soil assessments subsequently indicated other changes such as increased friability, better mineral balance, better water holding capacity, more earthworms and deeper rooting plants.  At the same time they had lower animal health costs because of fewer parasites and metabolic diseases, less facial eczema and mastitis, lower somatic cell counts, and so on. The end results were better daily production of milk solids and live weight gains, and – most important – satisfying gains in profitability.

Our members are now totally convinced that raising pasture residuals gives better overall pasture production and that adjusting stocking rates allows animals to become more efficient.  Likewise, changed fertiliser practices have led to lower overall costs as carbon levels have increased.

The decisions leading to these changes have been based on profit rather than science.  Occasionally I am challenged with the question “Where is the data?” meaning where are the peer-reviewed papers published in scientific journals that justify these sorts of management changes.  Well of course there aren’t any because farming is a business.  However, there is plenty of evidence of improved profitability, as our members will attest.  So the answer is to talk to them.

Successful farming is about business performance, and best business practices do work on all aspects of NZ farming.  Everything from fertiliser practices to increasing soil carbon levels and even “grass grows grass” is best assessed using robust measures of profit.

Peter Floyd

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