With autumn here, many farmers will be determining what and when to sow pastures. Front of mind, especially this year, in areas such as the Goulburn-Murray irrigation region where the water price has increased dramatically in the past 12 months, will be cash-flow issues. Although it is important to save money wherever possible, making a short-term decision on planting pasture may limit returns in the long run.
For dairy farms located in the high rainfall/irrigation zones, choosing ryegrass cultivars that limit potential late season production and quality may be short sighted. A bit of money saved now could cost a lot more money later in the season. Despite alternative feeds currently being at a similar or slightly cheaper price than (temporary) irrigation water at $260 to $300 per megalitre, ryegrass pasture is still the backbone of any successful dairy farm and usually is the cheapest feed source both on a cents per kilogram of dry matter (cents/kg DM) and cents per megajoule of metabolisable energy (cents/MJ ME) basis. Therefore, the aim should be to maximise the amount of consumed DM on farm as possible for the year.
Below are some considerations on which to focus to maximise pasture consumed on farm this coming year.
1. Get grazing right
The single most beneficial action to maximise returns from investing in pasture is to get grazing right. Establishing a pasture wedge, using the correct rotation length, and maintaining pasture residuals can drastically improve the bottom line and reduce feed costs. To establish a pasture wedge farmers use several techniques:
Cows are fed in sacrifice paddock(s) or feedpads during the night or day and may graze some pasture (with or without fodder) to establish a slow rotation.
The pasture allocated will be initially larger but will decrease in area as the growth accelerates.
Aim to leave a residual level of 1500-1600 kg DM/ha, or four to six centimetres height, between the clumps. This is not easy to achieve and will require substantial supplementary feeding initially.
If residuals are left too low and/or first grazing is too early and/or the rotation is too fast, then the farm will probably be short on feed and overgraze in the second round. At that time, the farmer will potentially buying/using their own higher priced supplements to keep the cows performing.
Towards the end of the first round, aim to graze ryegrass pastures at the 2.5-3-leaf stage. If there are fewer leaves than this, slow the rotation.
Remember, many other factors such as calving date, current soil moisture, rainfall events and cost of irrigation water can have large impacts also.
2. Choose the right ryegrass option
A trap too many farmers fall into is that when deciding which ryegrass cultivar(s) to sow is to only look at the initial cost of the seed. While not always, there is a strong relationship between the price of ryegrass seed and the level of performance. Choosing a cultivar on price alone could potentially limit the amount of home-grown feed, the cheapest feed source and a key to annual profitability. Therefore consider the following;
Don't put 'all your eggs in one basket' - choose at least a couple of ryegrass types to suit different soil types, rainfall/likely irrigation and try to match growth curve to the calving pattern.
In most dairy zones, a later maturing cultivar will offer greater back-end yield and feed quality and, ultimately, be a cheaper option.
Does the variety have reliable data to support its performance and is it listed as a confirmed variety (PBR listed and certified)? Visit the following website, which is listed by the Australian Seed Federation page or check out the pasture variety tables, starting on page 75. Choosing a non-confirmed variety or a 'Variety Not Specified' (VNS) cultivar is a huge risk that can and has cost farmers thousands of dollars.
Return On Interest (ROI) comparison
Outlined in the tables on these pages is the amount of additional consumed DM required to justify an investment in an improved cultivar over an early annual such as Tetila. This assumes a milk price of $5.80/kg milk solids, any additional DM growth requiring 1.6c/kg DM of additional fertiliser, and that 1kg of DM consumed will, conservatively, produce one litre of milk for the purpose of the analysis.
Tables 1, 2 and 3 illustrates the extra DM needed to justify the investment for a range of scenarios when comparing a range of ryegrass cultivars. Costs used are Tetila ($66/ha), a late-annual ryegrass at $91/ha and a late-Italian ryegrass at $159/ha.
As can be seen from Tables 1 and Table 2, that while the price of seed and water (if applicable) influences the decisions process, consumed DM far outweighs these costs. An improved ryegrass would be required to produce an additional 285-1700kg DM/ha (based on 70% utilisation), despite the additional seed, fertiliser and water costs.
The upper value is equivalent to one additional grazing. It would be typical to see extra yields in excess of 3-4 tonne DM/ha with an Italian ryegrass and 1-3 tonne DM/ha for a late annual over early annual ryegrass types such as Tetila under an irrigation or high rainfall system. Table 3 demonstrates the actual return on investment from using a late-annual and a late-Italian over and above Tetila in an irrigated system.
3. Fertilise to maximise return on investment
Ensure that pastures are fertilised correctly to allow potential growth to be realised and to maximise return. If investing in an improved variety, it needs to be fertilised correctly.
Fertiliser regimes that limit the performance of an improved variety will likely see the ROI being decreased significantly to a point where there is little to no benefit. Speak with a fertiliser adviser or agronomist earlier rather than later, soil test if needed, kick start the plants at sowing with the right nutrients and apply fertiliser as required.
Getting these three critical areas right will see dairyfarmers go a long way to increasing their returns this coming year.
*Frank Mickan is Pasture and Fodder Conservation Specialist Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources