Dairy with a side of beef: Part 2

In the second of a two-part series looking at Adrian and Pauline Ball’s Award-winning Waikato dairy/dairy beef business, we look at the genetics they use and the way incorporating beef has allowed the Balls to reduce their environmental footprint.
Monday, 30 September 2019

Trying genes on for size

Adrian and Pauline have been working closely with Samen, who supply their Friesian and beef genetics for their artificial breeding programme.

This AI programme has allowed the Balls to play-around with different genetics and so far, the short-gestation Belgium Blues are outstripping any other breed in terms of growth rates.

But it is the carcase attributes that the couple is targeting and this includes yield and intramuscular fat- or marbling.

Adrian sees no reason why, with the right genetics and management, their crossbred cattle cannot hit the premium beef grades- such as Silver Fern Farm’s EQ grade.

“There is a real misconception out there that if it’s out of a dairy cow it is of poorer quality.”

Improving the quality of their dairy beef is of real interest to the couple who, as part of their BFEA prize, will be visiting closed dairy beef systems in Europe.

Adrian says NZ’s dairy beef industry needs to build more credibility by having the ability to produce a premium product.

“We are hoping to get that out of the Angus, but we need to invest in those genetics.”

As the couple’s autumn-born cattle are finished earlier than their spring-born counterparts, they also attract a premium for out-of-season beef supply.

Adding value

This year Adrian and Pauline are finishing 120 of their beef cross calves and they hope to increase this to 130 in the near future. They run a low stocking rate across their whole business but this means they have grass and stock growing and thriving throughout the year.

While the couple is striving to add value to what is essentially a by-product of their dairy operation, they believe beef cross cattle represent a huge marketing opportunity for New Zealand’s red meat industry.

“I think we’ve got a great opportunity to present our grass-fed brands, if we do it well and have a bit of courage around quality assurance.

“I believe we can have the most believable story in the world,” says Adrian.

He admits he has always been keen on assurance-type programmes and is hoping to complete the Red Meat Profit Partnership-developed New Zealand Farm Assurance Programme audit soon.

“The audit process will create value for us if we are brave enough and look the past the cost.”

Adrian and Pauline talk beyond triple-bottom lines in their business-and say bottom lines should now number six or seven and include factors such as greenhouse gas emissions, animal welfare and consumer expectations around ethical food production.

Environmental footprint reduced

By reducing the number of milking cows and incorporating dairy beef in their business, the couple have been able to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to 10.6t/ha – the average on a Waikato dairy farm is 16T/ha- and reduce nitrogen (N) losses from 75kg/ha in 2003 and 45kg/ha in 2013 to 25kg/ha. Improved infrastructure and including lucerne and Ecotain plantain in their rotation has also helped reduce N losses.

The Balls do use N fertiliser, but use it very strategically and just trickle it on. No single application exceeds 15 units/ha.

Lucerne is grown on their dry-stock block and this crop – along with maize silage – is cut and carried for use as a supplement in the dairy operation. Last year, they got seven cuts off their lucerne stands and as the plant fixes its own nitrogen (N), it has minimal N loss in the Overseer budget.

The lucerne and maize can be fed on a covered feedpad when dry conditions limit pasture growth on the dairy platform.

Another N-reduction tool they use on their drystock property is Ecotain plantain which reduces N losses. Grown in conjunction with clover, this mix generates a high-quality finishing-feed. Bloat has not been a problem, but bloat oil is added to the troughs at high-risk times.

The couple say beef has allowed them to reduce their environmental footprint by diluting the emissions from the higher-intensity dairy part of the business.

“Beef has allowed us to achieve our targets, it has been really good.

“What we’ve tried to do is understand what the footprint looks like and understand what the consumer is looking for.”

By producing dairy beef, they have moved their supply-chain closer to the consumer and this has given them a greater understanding and appreciation of some of the regulations facing the industry.

Adding to their dairy beef story is the biodiversity they have been building into their business over the years. What began by building a couple of ponds to shoot ducks out of, has turned into a real interest in creating habitat for birdlife and improving the aesthetics of the farm.

Since 2014, they have planted over 6000 trees, predominately natives, helped along by grants from the Waikato Regional Council and South Waikato Environment Initiative fund.

They have also fenced off 1.7kms of river boundary on their drystock block and this is where a good proportion of the trees have been planted.

Pauline says the planting has also helped their farm health and safety plan, as it has taken high-risk areas such as sidings out of the equation on their dairy platform.

Financially, the business is generating a $3,500/ha surplus. The dairy platform is producing $4, 500/ha while the beef side of the business is producing around $2,500/ha.

But for the Balls, it is not all about the money, rather the dairy beef has allowed them the generate a profit while meeting their environmental, social and personal goals and enabling them to meet the Dairy industry’s Dairy Tomorrow targets.

“The beef has given us the tools to achieve all the targets the dairy industry has set.”

“We, as an industry cannot afford to be making long-term decisions based on individual’s debt loading, we need to be thinking about the good of the dairy industry.”

From a personal level, Adrian and Pauline are farming with more enthusiasm than they have in years.

Before they converted Adrian’s family farm into a dairy operation in the early 1990s, the farm was a cattle finishing operation-so Adrian is essentially returning to his roots.

They believe they can show that with the right genetics and management, the dairy industry can produce top quality beef and meet the environmental and animal welfare expectations of an increasingly critical society.