Environment and market drive farm policies

Northland bull beef farmers Dennis and Rachelle O’Callaghan have been involved in Beef + Lamb New Zealand’s Beef Profit from Pasture programme, which has helped them further focus on pasture management – a key driver in their business.
Monday, 10 June 2019

The couple, who were Supreme winners in the Northland Ballance Farm Environment Awards in 2018 have successfully maximised productivity and profitability while protecting and enhancing their natural resources.

In part two of this three-part series, we look at the factors that have driven their stocking and farm management policies.

Breeding cows were a part of Dennis and Rachelle O’Callaghan’s business until last year when M. bovis tracer animals were found in their Friesian bulls. The couple then made the decision to not to replace their cows after they had depopulated the whole farm.

“After M.bovis we have had to re-evaluate our whole farm policy.”

Environmental concerns have also been a factor is determining farm policy and after struggling with the pugging and lost production caused by carrying R2 bulls and the cows through winter, they now buy in 2400 100kg Friesian bull calves and sell them as 330kg yearlings.

Dennis enjoys operating in the Friesian bull market as it is removed from many of market vagaries driven by climate and other factors.

“There is a lot of emotion in that traditional beef steer and heifer market but not with bulls, you just don’t have those grass market issues and that’s why I like it.”

Dennis and Rachelle start pulling together fixed-price contracts with professional calf rearers in May and June to ensure supply in spring. These rearers are typically based in the Waikato or South Island although the couple do buy some calves from local dairy farmers.

The calves go into the intensive grazing system- a combination of techno-system and cell-grazing- just as the yearlings are being sold.

The bulls are run in mobs of 20-25, although they do have mobs of up to 30, stocked at 4/ha on the hill- which is the bulk of the farm. While Dennis has played around with different stocking rates, he has found 4/ha is optimal for both pasture quality, productivity and profitability.

A lighter stocking rate meant they had more trash to be dealt with and a higher stocking rate meant behavioural issues with the bulls pushing on the fences – something that is not a problem at 4.5/ha.

They can push the stocking rates up to 6/ha on the 120ha of flats.

All the animals in the TechnoSystem and the cells are shifted every second day. The length of the rotation varies according to the time of the year and over winter the rotation is 60 days reducing to 20 or 30 days over spring.

One of the challenges is knowing when to speed the rotation up in spring as pasture growth is explosive.

“We never speed up our rotation early enough or quick enough.

“In spring, once you see that grass it’s too late.

“You need to get on top of it before you see it.”

Dennis admits this is more of a psychological issue as it is hard to confidently speed up rotations after spending all winter trying to conserve feed.

Kikuyu management

As long as the Kikuyu has been managed correctly in autumn- and this means either mowing it to the ground or mulching it (ideal but a lot slower to do) then the pastures will revert to ryegrass and clover and stay that way until late December when it reverts back to being a Kikuyu dominant pasture.

Initially, the Kikuyu does have good feed quality, but when it becomes reproductive, the quality plummets and hence the need to mow it.

They start mowing behind the bulls in March and this goes on throughout autumn.

In complete contrast to most other farmers, Dennis aims to go into May with minimal pasture covers.

“If we go into winter with pastures down to the bare-boards on May 1st I would be rapt.”

Mowing is a significant cost to the system – around $70/ha – but the cost of not doing it is even greater.

Mowing the pastures allows the ryegrass and clover to flourish over the cooler months.

Dennis admits that he will not contemplate any re-grassing programme as they simply won’t get the pastures to persist in their environment.

The Nuie ryegrasses planted 60 years ago have adapted to the environment and Dennis firmly believes production on their farm is all about pasture management and not about the grasses. Clover is important and is very evident in their pastures, although Dennis says it does suffer when it is too wet or too dry.

This attention to pasture management is generating 1,000kg of beef per hectare.

The yearling bulls are often sold to finishers in the Waikato-or any region that has grass.

It can be a balancing act, as it is the finishers who decide when they are going to kill their R2 animals and therefore will be in the market for the yearlings- but it is usually in November.

It is the buy-in price and sale price which determines their profitability and Dennis works alongside a stock agent who works hard on the family’s behalf to optimize returns, although they work on averages rather than the peaks and troughs of trading.