Stop neglecting your pasture and save thousands of dollars every year.
Yes, you read that right. According to a latest study, you are losing as much as 385 dollars a hectare every year, by not managing your pasture. In this article I will tell you how you can save this.
Your pasture is a source of high-quality, low-cost feed
Let us begin by understanding the two distinct advantages that your pasture offers.
First, it can help you reduce dependency on expensive imported supplements. This alone can save you a lot of money. And it has a lower environmental footprint, because it literally grows in your paddocks and does not need any shipping, packing or transportation. Both these factors help you lower your livestock costs [Clark et al. 2007].
So for all practical reasons, your pasture is an excellent source of high quality, low-cost feed and is the foundation of a profitable farm business.
You need to manage your pasture to take maximum advantage of it
As you can imagine, you need to manage your pasture effectively to achieve optimal results. And the most important part of this is selecting the right paddock for grazing. But how do you select grazing paddocks? There are two options.
You can either select grazing paddocks based on 1) the day it was last grazed or 2) herbage mass data (in terms of Kg Dry Matter per ha). The first option is easier as you do not have to measure herbage data. But, the second option is more effective and can help you earn better profits.
You can also take this one step further and define the grazing sequence for a period of time. However, to do this effectively, you need to know which paddocks have how much herbage. In other words you need to measure your paddocks.
Also, based on this data, you can then calculate how much each cow has eaten. This is important to do. Because it helps you keep track of how much nutrition your cows are getting and what you need to substitute with supplements.
But, most livestock farmers don’t achieve grazing targets, half the time
Recent analyses in New Zealand indicate that recommended grazing management targets on dairy farms are not achieved at ~50% of grazing events [McCarthy et al. 2014].
Why does this happen? There are three possible explanations.
- Some farmers might not know how much they are losing out on. It is easy to just look at grass and forget the value of it. But since you are reading this article, you know better.
- In other cases, farmers know the value of grass, but are unable to take regular pasture measurements, because it costs them time, labor and effort. This is probably your biggest pain point.
- And finally, in fewer cases, where farmers do take pasture measurements on a regular basis, they might not feel entirely comfortable analyzing the results or trusting the analysis. This could be you.
So in order to use your pasture optimally, you need regular pasture data and a simple but also reliable way to analyze it.
Giving your pasture an economic value
In addition to accurate timely data, and simple analysis tools, farmers also need to know how much they are losing out on. Beukes et al. 2019 did exactly this by studying different models on a farm in New Zealand. They wanted to evaluate the potential production and economic benefits of measuring herbage mass, and using the acquired data to improve grazing management decisions on typical dairy farms in the Waikato region of New Zealand.
Model Scenarios & Assumptions
Results were simulated for two farm systems. A high input system that stocked 4.5 Friesian cows/ ha with approximately 40% imported feed. And a medium input system stocked 3.2 Friesian-Jersey cross bred cows/ ha with approximately 15% imported feed.
From the beginning, the experiment assumed that imported supplements will be needed during summer and low rainfall periods to keep cows lactating until the target dry-off dates.
For both these farm systems, grazing paddocks were selected and simulated using the three levels of knowledge about herbage data:
- Perfect knowledge, where herbage mass per paddock is known with perfect accuracy
- Imperfect knowledge, where herbage mass per paddock is estimated with an average error of 15%
- Low knowledge, where herbage mass is not known, and paddocks are selected based on longest time since last grazing.
The rotation policy was the same for both farm systems, ranging between 100 days in winter to 70 days at the start of calving season, and then reduced stepwise to the shortest rotation at balance date (when herbage growth rate equals feed demand) of ~20 days.
All scenarios were run with the following economic inputs:
- NZ$ 290/ tDM for bought-in pasture silage
- NZ$ 340/ tDM for maize silage
- NZ$ 270/ tDM for PKE
- NZ$ 140/ tDM for cutting silage
- NZ$ 40/ tDM for feeding supplements
The average milk price for the period 2012–2013 was used as NZ$ 6.33/ kg of Milk Solids.
Simulations were run for both the medium and high farm systems. Both these systems were tested against the three levels of paddock knowledge – low, imperfect and perfect.
And outputs collected such as monthly farm average herbage mass, annual herbage yield, milk production, supplement costs and operating profits were calculated for these 6 simulation scenarios.
How much are you losing out every year?
To illustrate key differences between choosing grazing paddocks based on accurate herbage mass data VS number of days since it was last grazed, I have simplified the experiment results as shown below.
For the full results, please refer the full publication.
First of all, you can observe a 5% to 6% increase in milk solids produced per hectare. I already hear you smacking your lips.
But even more importantly, there is an increase in operating profits by up to 19% or more than 500 dollars per hectare per year. Even with a conservative estimate, taking into account various other factors, the study estimates an increased profit of $385 per hectare per year.
Literally, this means the difference between earning a good living and just getting by.
These increased operating profits are based on three factors. First, lower costs in terms of feed and supplements, because you are taking maximum advantage of your pasture. Secondly, higher returns because of the additional milk solids produced. And thirdly, better management of surplus pasture.
These estimated profit gains are quite similar in nature when compared to another study done by Chapman in 2016, where, at an economic value of NZ$ 0.30/kg DM of pasture, he estimated profit gains between NZ$ 360 and 600 per hectare per year.
So what is stopping you?
True, we also need to take into account the cost of getting accurate pasture data.
One estimate of this cost by Crawford et al. (2015) valued this at NZ$ 23 per hectare per year for weekly paddock assessments over 46 weeks.
In another estimate from a New Zealand dairy farm the cost came to NZ$ 41 per hectare per year for a contractor doing a farm drive with an ATV bike towing a C-dax pasture meter (King et al. 2010) every 10 days over a farm area of 290 ha.
A further estimate of was obtained from a business specializing in herbage mass measurements in the Southland region of New Zealand. Costs came to approximately NZ$ 40 per hectare per year for a visit once a week, or NZ$30 per hectare per year for a visit once a fortnight. (Donald Martin, pers. comm., December 2015, GrassCo, www.grassco.co.nz, accessed 22 November 2017).
In reality, most farmers will have slightly better knowledge about their pasture than the low knowledge system, even if they don’t measure their pasture. Also, practical realities might reduce paddock monitoring activities and quality of herbage estimates considerably.
However, in spite of these factors, this study conclusively indicates that any cost towards collecting herbage mass data for informed grazing management decisions is worth it. Especially when compared to the potential operating profit gains it can help you achieve.
So start measuring your pasture today. And never stop doing it.
The better way to manage your pasture and save thousands of dollars
If conventional ways of measuring your pasture are too cumbersome and costly, you can consider an automatic pasture measurement service such as pasture.io. We use artificial intelligence and high-resolution satellite imagery to help you automatically measure pasture growth.
We also factor in local weather and your farm data. The weather data helps factor in seasonal weather changes, and the farm data helps factor other important local variables such as when your cows last grazed a particular paddock or when a paddock was last fertilized.
This means we can help you measure pasture growth until 3,500 Kg DM/ha with reasonable confidence to help you utilize surplus pasture effectively. And is something that other pasture growth measurement tools or services cannot offer.
Please check out our free and paid plans. It might change your life and your pasture for the better. Feel free to share this article with fellows that you think can benefit from it and if you leave any comments below, I will personally reply.
- Ollie Roberts, 12 Feb 2020