The Business of Dairy

Lowering Total Feed Costs with Good Spring Pasture Management

August 01, 2021 NSW DPI Season 1 Episode 3
The Business of Dairy
Lowering Total Feed Costs with Good Spring Pasture Management
Show Notes Transcript

Growing high quality feed and utilising it in the Spring period is a key opportunity to lower your total feed costs across the year. Agronomists, Josh Hack and Peter Beale talk about the importance of getting your ryegrass management right coming into the Spring period, the importance of nitrogen in growing this feed source and principles of good grazing management to capture your Spring surplus.

Nitrogen is a key profit driver for milk production in a pasture based dairy system and even though we are currently seeing urea prices increase dramatically, Josh works through an example to show that it can still be cost effective to apply with typical dry matter response rates at this time of year and the price of alternate feed sources.

Useful resources related to this podcast:

·       Peter Beale’s article in the Hunter LLS Winter newsletter.

·       Professor Richard Eckard’s, Dairy Australia YouTube clips 

o   Efficiency of Nitrogen

o   Nitrogen grown pasture versus purchased feed 

o   Timing of Nitrogen Application 

·       Josh Hack’s Grazing Management YouTube Playlist

A link to the FertSmart Nitrogen Pocket Guide on the Dairy Australia website.

This podcast is an initiative of the NSW DPI Dairy Business Advisory Unit – further information and resources are available here

It is brought to you in partnership the Hunter Local Land Services 

Please share this podcast with your fellow farmers and colleagues and feel free to contact us with suggestions or comments via this email address

Further NSW DPI Dairy channels to follow and subscribe to include;

NSW DPI Dairy Facebook page 

DPI Intensive Livestock Twitter feed

NSW DPI Dairy Newsletter

Access a transcript of this episode here 

Produced by Video Lift

The information discussed in this podcast are for informative and educational purposes only and do not constitute advice. 


The Business of Dairy

Episode #3 Transcript – Lowering Total Feed Costs with Good Spring Pasture Management


Sheena Carter: Welcome to the business of Dairy podcast, I'm your host, Sheena Carter, Development Officer with the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries dairy team. Each month I speak with industry people generous enough to share their stories, knowledge and skills with us to help you in the increasingly complex area of farm business management. Growing high quality feed and utilising it in the spring period is a key opportunity to lower your total feed costs across the year. And so this month I checked in with two well-known New South Wales agronomists, Josh Hack and Peter Beale. 


We talk about the importance of getting your ryegrass management right coming into the spring period, the importance of nitrogen in growing these feed sources, and principles of good grazing management to capture your spring surplus. Nitrogen is a key profit driver for milk production in a pasture based dairy system, and even though we're currently seeing urea prices increased dramatically, Josh works through an example to show that it can still be cost effective to apply with typical dry matter response rates at this time of year and the price of alternate feed sources. 


Okay, so today’s show we are going to be talking about management of our ryegrass pastures as we come into this spring period where we see longer days, higher temperatures and consequently an increasing growth rate in our ryegrass pastures. And also managing that growth with nitrogen fertilizer, which is a key profit driver for milk production from grass pastures. Today, we have the pleasure of the company of both Peter Beale from Hunter Local Land Services and Josh Hack from PGG Wrightson. Peter is an experienced agronomist with Hunter Local Land Services. He's their senior land services officer and it is also the Hunter LLS that are partnering with New South Wales DPI in presenting this podcast to our audience. So thank you for that, Peter. But you have been doing lots of work over your career focusing on dairy pastures particularly, but especially focusing on nitrogen use within pastures and doing a lot of research work there. So thanks for joining us, Peter, it is great to have you with us today. 


Peter Beale: Yeah, thanks. And looking forward to it. 


Sheena Carter: Thanks, and Josh Hack, as I mentioned, agronomist with PGG Wrightson Seeds, you've been involved in pasture agronomy for the last 10 years with a previous history in broadacre cropping in the western regions of New South Wales. You're also based in the Mid-Coast region of New South Wales and have, I guess, a heavy dairy client base. You've also been heavily involved in the delivery of the Feeding Pastures for Profit workshops throughout the state, which has been a fantastic opportunity for many dairy farmers and also had a history and extension, quite a few years ago now, Josh, with Dairy New South Wales. So, Josh, great to have you with us today as well. 


Josh Hack: Yeah, thanks Sheena, it's a pleasure to be here.


Sheena Carter: Excellent. Well we might kick off talking about ryegrass. I think, you know, a lot of our pasture systems, particularly in coastal New South Wales, is based around ryegrass pastures. And Peter, at this time of year, obviously, everyone that is in the ryegrass space has their pastures established, whether that's dry land or irrigated. And it'd be good just to talk about some issues around growth rates and how we're seeing them increase from this point forward, and how we can manage them with nitrogen use. So what are our growth rates looking like currently,  and as we go ahead? 


Peter Beale: Well, over the years, I've been able to measure growth rates in July of around 60 kilograms of dry matter per hectare. It does vary – 40 to 60. But as we move into the spring, we can step up to 80 and even 100 kilograms per hectare. And that really starts from about now onwards through July and into early August and on a dry land situation our greatest growth rates are in that period of August and early September, and depending on later spring rain, with dry… drying conditions actually slow the growth rate. So when we're looking at trying to maximise or reduce the cost of an overall pasture program, capturing that extra growth rate is really important in terms of the economics. It’s potentially another two kilos, well, two thousand kilos of dry matter in that period that we’ll either use it well, or it'll go begging if we get a really good year. In terms of nitrogen management, some pastures are ticking over. We've had a cold  period, and the growth rates are probably a little bit slow. Josh and I were looking at radiation… has been down with a lot of cloud, but even so, there's still pretty good growth rates. But what we need to do is anticipate that the next six to eight weeks are going to produce a lot of feed. We need to make sure the paddocks are well topped up with nitrogen and don't back off nitrogen at this point. All our soil probes are saying that the soil profiles full and we know it's even a bit wet. So that sets us up for at least three to four, probably six weeks of good growth, so it's important to, and Josh will talk about some of these indicators of nitrogen fertility, have a look at the paddocks and be confident in the next six or eight weeks to put some nitrogen on, get the growth rates, but equally utilise the feed as it comes – and they’re both key issues. 


Josh Hack: So yeah, no, agree 100%. So the key with the nitrogen is, farmers are quite intuitive, they’re out there, especially dairy farmers, they’re out there working with fences twice a day, so they get to look at their paddocks a lot. It’s really about going back to those basics of looking at our urine stains and seeing what they look like and see if they’re getting responses from those, which could indicate a bit of a deficiency. And also looking across the paddocks to see what their colour and growth is. And also, I'm a big fan of getting farmers to do demos on their own farms, so every time they go and put fertiliser out, make sure they’re doing a double strip and missing a strip. So then you can go back and learn and see where you're at and see where your budget is sort of lying and see where you're getting your responses. So, if you're getting a really good response on that double application, well, there's potential there that you could be applying more to get more growth, on your stuff that you haven't put any nitrogen on and you can't see the difference, maybe you’re applying a bit too much. There is some money to be saved there as well. So that visual stuff is really, really important. But, you know, Pete, you’d have some recommendations that you would go with. 


Peter Beale: Yeah, look, normally we're talking about 40 to 50 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare per rotation, and you could even consider increasing that a little bit as we go into this spring period. We do get a lot of flush of nitrogen from the soil, but you know, those things that you talked about, if the urine stains are showing up, we’ve certainly seen this year with a lot of wet conditions, we've had pastures that have really been responsive to nitrogen. And the thing to always bear in mind is every paddock's different, every farm's different, and we can't just… well, we might say, here’s a kilogram to a kilogram and a half per day of rotation – it really does vary between paddocks. And you've got to make that individual assessment of what the, what that, each paddock does, otherwise you just miss out because we do see such huge variation. 


Sheena Carter: And is some of that dependent on your soil type, Peter? 


Peter Beale: Yeah, very much so. Sandy soils won’t retain as much nitrogen. They haven't got as much organic matter, so they haven't got the reserve there. A lot of it also depends on just the last 12 months history, whether we've had a lot of clover last year, what sort of application rates you've been using in the past three to four months. Have you build it up, or are we still lagging behind? And certainly coming out of that heavy rain we had, Josh and I both noticed that overall the nitrogen fertility was pretty low. And some of that comes because we had two very dry years where not a lot of nitrogen went on, so it's hard to 


evaluate it all, but yeah, you've really just got to look at those signs Josh was talking about and say, are the pastures ticking along well? Some are – I’ve seen some great results – and if they are, keep going, but if they're not, you’re really coming to a point we're going to get good growth rates and you don't want to miss out.


Josh Hack: So, Pete, I'll add to that as well, that what we're seeing at the moment is, post the flooding, because we had a really wide sowing window this year, we've got a lot of late sown stuff, so things that have sown nice and early and got away and got their roots down and established through the winter really well – they're really responding to nitrogen now and growing really, really well. But we do have a lot of this late sown stuff – and even on the same farms – that is really struggling, just, we did have a really sort of cold winter and wet winter. So, apart from the photosynthesis, because of a lot more cloudy days, is, because we had colder days as well and wet, the plants have really struggled to establish and get into that nitrogen and take off. They’re plants that are going to need nitrogen going into the spring as well and to be looked after, which has been challenging on the grazing management front as well. 


Peter Beale: But the encouraging thing there is that once they do get established, they'll still grow well through the spring. Don’t hold back on them, they can take advantage, they’ll really pick up and get going very quickly in the next 6-8 weeks. 


Sheena Carter: So I guess in terms of, you know, we've spoken about growth rates that we see coming into the spring period and applying nitrogen, but it's worth pointing out that if you're not applying nitrogen at optimal rates, you're going to have missed opportunities and not be capturing that growth, following your investment in sowing ryegrass pastures for the across the whole season. 


Peter Beale: Yeah, no, that's really true. As I said, that high growth rate is there, it's an opportunity. Now, if we miss out on two tonne out of a grazing, you know, over the season of potentially eight tonne, and you're back to six – that's twenty five percent less feed and it increases the cost of that feed. So as I said earlier, that a big reason to think about spring and capture that extra growth is it does lower the overall cost of pasture and now is the time to do it. We potentially, you know, things dry out as you go into October and you just can't grow the feed, but if we can't capture and utilize that feed then the cost of the feed goes up quite a lot, and nitrogen may be, you know, prices are going up, and Josh has got some figures to contend with, it's really not a reason to back off. That increased cost is being spread over the whole of your growing, growing year, and it's important to get as much as you can in the time that you have. 


Josh Hack: I think the key too, is utilize that moisture, right? So we're coming out of winter now. We've really got some good moisture available, as soon as we start getting this warmer weather coming, and the light is going to be better as we go forward. So if we can utilize that moisture and grow more tonnes of dry matter, because typically along the coast area we can have quite dry springs, so I hope it keeps raining, but if we can utilize the moisture and grow as much feed while we've got it, that's the key. And if we put 50 kilos of nitrogen down per hectare and we get a 20 to 1 response in August, which is quite achievable with good plants and plants that are available to respond, you're going to get an extra tonne of feed per hectare. So it's really, really worthwhile doing. 


Sheena Carter: Fantastic, yes. So, I think we really need to be mindful of capturing that opportunity as we move forward. And Peter, I just want to quickly refer to the Hunter Local Land Services, put out a newsletter, a monthly newsletter, and in that, you've got some good points around a lot of what we're talking about today. But also there's some photos around some of that visual stuff that you see when the pasture is nitrogen deficient. So we'll put a link to that in our show notes as well. So we might move on now to talking about our grazing management of our pasture to capture that spring surplus. So, direct grazing management and also conserving any true surplus. Josh, can I hand over to you to have a bit of a chat about that? 


Josh Hack: You know, we talked a bit about nitrogen and trying to grow more feed, and at the end of the day, it's better utilisation. So, I go to quite a few farms that are good at growing feed but sometimes they don’t utilise it. And I go to farms that probably don’t grow as much but they utilise it really, really well. So, grazing management is about how do we utilize what we actually grow and look after those plants, but try and grow really good quality feed as well so that we can optimize the opportunities that come. I always say that everything I’ve learned I’ve learned off someone else, and typically I learn most of this stuff off seeing good farmers operate and being able to put in processes and really focus on those opportunities when they come because sometimes they don’t come that often. So, I think we do have a really good opportunity coming up, good moisture, we’re going to have good nutrition. Let's look forward and start to plan and make sure we get grazing management right. So some of those things like, you know, we haven't got a long time here, you know there’s sometimes, you know, five, six day courses that we go through to talk about grazing management, but the next few months, you know, visually, what we're going to see and what we see on farms, we're going to have increased light and increased temperatures, and if you got good nutrition, you got moisture, right, we're going to grow more feed. Okay, so typically we might be around a 40, 50 day rotation through winter, but as we come out and towards spring, that's going to shorten. So, all to do with temperature and day length, is going to increase our leaf emergence, okay, so we really want to focus on the golden rules. Okay, so the golden rules for our grazing management for setting our rotation, is we want to try and achieve that two to three leaf, okay, so we want two to three leaf because we don’t want to go before two leaf because the plant hasn't recovered enough yet to be able to handle the grazing – we want at least two. We don't get past three leaf because the plant starts to senesce and die and we lose quality. So we want to stick around that two to three leaf for ryegrass and we don't want to go past canopy closure. So, you stick to those two rules before you go in to graze is the key. The quick one with the canopy closure – we're really going to focus on that in spring – I'm starting to see more and more nut grass and weeds and all that stuff coming through summer pastures, and that's really driven by grazing management, in my opinion. And in spring, when we get these flushes, these spring flushes and we haven't got our grazing management and our true surplus and silage and all those sorts of things under control, we get canopy closure and we start to kill those summer pastures underneath our crop and our ryegrass. So canopy closure is really important for our summer plants to be able to come back and recover but it's also important to keep the quality in the ryegrass that we have. So we want to try and preserve as much quality feed as possible. So they’re the two things that we really want to focus on to set our rotation length, okay, so that guides us. Okay, every time it starts to speed up, gets warmer, we get moisture, we’ve got good nutrition – that's going to grow faster – we need to reduce the rotation length and come in there quicker. Okay, what's that going to do to us? Well, what it's going to do, is going to give us more hectares per day to feed our animals. OK, so it's going to give us more grass into the diet, if you have the same cow numbers, and that allows us to then to play with our supplements and reduce our supplements. 


Okay, so we try and adjust that so we get more of the relatively cheap feed that we talk about, which is our pasture – try and get as much of that into the diet as possible. And then we're going to hit a stage, okay, once we get to August or September, everyone will be different with different stocking rates, but you’ll get to a stage where you've pulled back your supplements enough where you're comfortable you don't want to pull out anymore and you still look to be wasting feed, and if the cows are wasting feed, okay, you’ve spent money, okay, there's no point wasting it, our golden rule is we want to be about that four to six centimetre residuals, we don't want to go below that. Once we start going above six centimetres we’re wasting the feed, so instantly once we're at that point, we start to see cows waste the feed and we don't want to pull out any more supplements, instantly it's telling us we have a true surplus, then we can use some maths and some information, or you know, there's ways to do it, is to work out how many hectares you need to pull out, so then you can conserve that feed. Some people really worry about conserving feed and they don't want to conserve it, and that's okay, but in my opinion, you've spent the money, you've done the right thing with the grazing management, you get good quality feed into the animals, so it’s now sitting there going, here’s some true surplus feed, but if you don't deal with it, okay, it's not going to be conserved, but you're also wasting it, and then also, if it's wasting too much, and I see this on farms in spring all the time, it will start to mulch down and it’ll start to kill out new tillers, starts to shade, and the cows didn’t eat it last time, so they’re not going to eat it next time, so we're missing an opportunity and we're actually doing damage to our pastures going forward. So being able to recognize when that true surplus is there, keep the light down into the base of those plants, we're going to be able to grow better quality feed, grow more feed, and we’re going to be able to conserve a lot more feed as well. 


Sheena Carter: And I guess there, Josh, I think it kind of makes the point that perhaps we need to be flexible in which paddocks we're locking up and being able to potentially move those paddocks just so that we maintain that quality. When we're conserving that fodder we still want it to be high quality fodder. So, if we're going to get to a paddock before we can actually conserve it, being able to adjust in that instance. 


Josh Hack: Yeah, that's 100% right, Sheena, and what I've learnt from good operators and good farmers is they recognize that surplus really early, so they don't get in a pickle where it's all out of control and they've just got to go and lock up the farm. We've got to try and get away from lockup paddocks because at the end of the day, we should be cutting silage when they’re meant to be grazed, right? So they shouldn't be locked up at all, they should be just, when they’re ready to be grazed is when they’re cut for silage. But it's about recognizing what is available and what can you pull out of the rotation. Okay, to then… and you can do it if you’re on the ball, and I always say that when things are good like this, this is when farmers are the busiest, because it’s when they've really got to be organized, they've got to be talking to the contractors a long way ahead, recognizing paddocks when they're going to be ready for the contractor, not the other way around, okay, it’s not when the contractor gets there, it's when can the contractor get there? Now recognize the paddocks you can cut for silage. They're the ones that get pulled out and you still keep your quality feed going. 


So, 100% right, Sheena. It's about conserving that feed, when it’s meant to be fed to an animal, is exactly what we want to be trying to achieve. Because if we just lock a paddock up, like I said before, we're going to go past canopy closure. Okay, and if we're doing that, we're going to be killing those new tillers that are coming for that next grazing, okay, and we're also going to be shading all that summer pasture that you potentially have underneath and doing damage to that as well. 


Peter Beale: We observed this last year when we had wet conditions through this period, when you just can't get the cows on because they're going to bog it up and you end up presenting them with feed that, instead of being two and a half to three tonne of dry matter, it's five and six. And they really only eat the leaf and they leave a lot of stem behind, so bearing in mind that if you can't get on and graze in your normal rotation, and feed is going to be building up, if you're offering tall feed they're not going to eat it well and there's a number of different strategies, but yeah, as Josh said, the thing is just saying, okay, I know something's going pear shaped, it’s too wet, say we do get three inches of rain,  what am I going to do? What are my strategies? And start thinking early.


Sheena Carter: No that's great, and I think, as Josh has said also, it's about that communication too, with your contractors. Thinking ahead. Be proactive in that space. We might talk now about nitrogen or urea pricing at the moment. We're currently seeing nitrogen urea prices increasing at a rapid rate. And we did mention earlier on in the podcast that that shouldn't be a reason to stop applying nitrogen to your pastures because there is still an opportunity there, even though they are going to higher rates. I think we were sort of around 600 dollars a tonne a month or two ago and they're heading northwards towards a thousand dollars a tonne. Josh, do you want to just talk about our break-even response rates and potentially something around that urea pricing at the moment? 


Josh Hack: Yeah, sure Sheena. And look, it is a consideration that you know, it’s a bit annoying that when we want to use a fair bit of fertiliser it seems to skyrocket, but that's just the global market and also the domestic market we’re in. And look, I always encourage farmers that I deal with to be talking to their suppliers, looking at forward contracting. Sometimes, you know, people want to get the cheapest price, sometimes it's about knowing a price that you can handle and deal with, because there were some contracts there sort of a few months ago but they’re all gone now and the price is definitely going well up to that thousand dollars a tonne in one tonne bags and bits and pieces. So, if we quickly, you know, have a think about it, the first thing I’ll… and Sheena you can put some links to these YouTube clips, and Richard Eckard, a bloke that I've listened to and watched the most, and he taught me as much as I know about nitrogen, so if you look at some of his YouTube clips, and they’re really simple, they’re only two, three minute sort of videos. He talks about how much nitrogen you should use, the timings and what the cost is. And I guess it's the cost one we’re sort of talking about now Sheena, and you know, if we want to get 50 kilos of urea to the hectare, which is sort of the higher rate of where we’re wanting to be. Even if it gets to a thousand dollars a tonne, roughly, let’s say a thousand and forty, or something like that. So it works out at two dollars a kilo. So if we work on two dollars a kilo of unit per N, we're going to put 50 units out, so it's going to cost us, let's say, one hundred dollars a hectare for that fertiliser. So, and we should be able to get a twenty to one response. The response we're going to get, Peter’s got some numbers here that he's had locally where we've been getting up to 30 and 35 to 1 responses. Okay, so the higher that response is, it's 30 kilos of dry matter grown per one kilo of nitrogen applied. So if we put 50 kilos out and do a 20 to 1 response, basically that's going to grow a thousand kilos per hectare of dry matter, so one tonne of dry matter, it's going to cost us, at two dollars a kilo, one hundred dollars. So for that extra tonne, even at two dollars a kilo, we’re normally, we’re at about $1.30 or $1.20 a kilo, so it is substantially higher at the moment, but even at $100 a tonne for feed for the return, still pretty cheap feed. But again, you should be always doing these numbers to see whether you need the feed. Nitrogen is a feed source, okay, and if you don't need the feed and you don't want to store the feed and for whatever reason, it might be stocking rate, you've culled most of the animals, or whatever it is, well then don’t apply the feed, I mean the nitrogen. If you need the feed and it's going to be relatively cheap feed, $100, you’ve already done the planning cost, you've already done everything else, and you’ve got your grazing management under control, and you’ve got the ability to conserve some feed, you know, the extra $100 a tonne to grow that extra feed. 


Sheena Carter: Yes, so there's still opportunity there despite those high prices that we're going to see. Thanks for that, Josh. Is there anything, anything else? 


Josh Hack: Yeah, look, I guess one thing that we have skipped over a bit is potassium as well. So once we do start to grow a lot of feed and our rotation is going to shorten, so we're going to be on a shorter rotation, we’re going to start harvesting a lot more feed. I’d definitely be sort of, looking at your blends. Obviously the nitrogen rate we talked about, but looking at some potassium in that blends as well. Because you’re going to start to remove a lot more potassium as you start to produce more feed.


Peter Beale: And a comment on that too, with the soil testing we've done often it's one or two paddocks that are really low in K where you've been taking silage off. So there's probably 20 percent of the farm might be low in K and really needs to be addressed. But conversely, you can have pretty high K in some paddocks so it's always worthwhile knowing which one's which.



Josh Hack: Soil test.

Peter Beale: Yeah, soil test.



Sheena Carter: Yes, yes. Highlights the importance of the soil test. How much does the soil test cost gents?


Peter Beale: About $100 or $150. 


Josh Hack: About $150, yeah.


Sheena Carter: So well worth the investment. Well, unless we need to address any other issues, I'd like to thank you both very much for your time today. It's been a great discussion on the management of our ryegrass pastures coming into this spring period, potential growth rates in the use of nitrogen to manage that. And also some good tips, visual tips for assessing your pastures around their… any potential deficiency of nitrogen, but also that grazing management to try and capture the true surplus and conserve that and also graze it properly as we go around the paddocks. So thank you, Josh. Thank you, Peter. And I hope that we can catch up again at some point in the future and talk more pastures. 


Josh Hack: Thanks very much. It's been a pleasure, Sheena. 


Peter Beale: Yeah, thanks, Sheena. Thanks a lot. 


Sheena Carter: Thank you. 


Thank you for listening to this month's The Business of Dairy podcast produced by the New South Wales DPI Dairy Business Advisory Unit. This series is also brought to you with funding and support from the Hunter Local Land Services. This month’s show notes contain a full transcript and resources mentioned throughout this podcast, including links to Peter Beale's article in the Hunter Local Land Services winter newsletter; Professor Richard Eckard’s nitrogen YouTube clips; Josh Hack’s grazing management YouTube playlist; and a link to the FertSmart Nitrogen Pocket Guide on the Dairy Australia website. 


If you would like to learn more about soil testing and nutrient management planning for your farm, a FertSmart course is well worth investigating. Please reach out to your regional development program, such as Dairy New South Wales, to learn more about these. We'd love you to share this podcast with your networks and feel free to send any feedback or suggestions for future episodes to You can also subscribe to our New South Wales DPI dairy Facebook and DPI livestock Twitter feed and view, or subscribe to our quarterly DPI dairy newsletter using the links provided.