Irrigation an essential tool for Canterbury farmers

Wet spring conditions followed by a hot dry summer is creating havoc for a Canterbury Dairy farmer 

A Canterbury farmer wants whoever flicked the fine weather switch on, to switch it back to rain for a while.

Robin Hornblow and fiancée Kirstie Austin are farm managers on Willsden Farm Ltd, a 306ha farm at Te Pirita – one of several owned by the Camden Group.

This is their first season on this farm and so far, the weather has not been kind.

"It is like someone flicked a switch," Hornblow says.

"It went from wet and soggy to baking hot. Now we want some rain and cooler temperatures."

To combat the hot summers and dry periods irrigation is installed on the farm and he says, "Dairy farming in Canterbury would be a struggle without an irrigation system.

"Dairy farming in this area wouldn't exist.

"We couldn't milk cows in this area without irrigation so it is absolutely critical that we have these machines."

Below-average rainfall in the past few months has left pastures "struggling", he says. The average rainfall for the area is 600mm and the soil type is a Lismore, free-draining stony silt loams.

"We received 25-30mm in October but not a single drop fell in November," he says.

"We normally get about 10-20mm in December – we got 10mm, which was really only catch-up rain - just enough to bring the moisture levels up a wee bit but not enough to stop irrigating."

They had some relief with 60mm in early January but they are hoping for a decent downpour that lasts a while.

"It is so dry, it will take a lot of rain to bring the moisture level back up and the pastures to start growing properly again."

A pasture walk done in mid-December showed that pasture growth had slowed to 40kgDM/ha/day.

"The grass goes into survival mode when it is that hot and dry.

"Without irrigation, it would shrivel up and die completely."

Irrigation consists of a centre pivot, three Rotorainers and K-lines and covers 95 per cent of the farm.

"We also have Aquaflex soil moisture meters which indicate whether irrigation is needed," he says.

The irrigation system previously drew water from an underground well but is now part of the Central Plains Water Scheme – a community irrigation scheme that was established in 2003.

The scheme is due to be completed in September and will have the capacity to provide water to 60,000ha within a command area of more than 100,000ha of the Canterbury Plains.

Nearly every farm he has worked on has had irrigation.

"I can't imagine farming in Canterbury without it," he says.

The son of sheep, beef and deer farmers, he grew up in Onga Onga in Hawke's Bay where his parents leased a 400ha farm. Occasionally, he did some relief milking in the area.

He had always wanted to be a farmer and decided dairying was where his future lay.

"In dairying, there are more defined pathways," he says.

"I could see what I had to do to get to where I wanted to go - starting at the bottom and putting in the hard yards and milking a lot of cows. It is relatively easy to progress and work your way up through the industry."

Leaving school, he moved south to attend Lincoln University where he completed a Diploma in Agriculture.

Tagging along with his flatmate, he visited the Camden Group farm at Te Pirita.

"My flatmate was doing a project as part of his study and the farm owner asked if anyone wanted some holiday work, so I jumped at the chance."

He spent two weeks during the August holidays helping out during calving and doing some milking and was hooked.

In November 2007, he sat his final exam and headed back to Te Pirita to work full-time on the farm. During the next 15 months, he worked his way up to senior assistant.

In 2009, he returned to Lincoln University and completed a Diploma in Farm Management then headed to the UK on his OE.

He got a job on a farm at Stamford in Lincolnshire north of London.

"In hindsight, I probably could have done something different but I would have had to live in London which is really expensive."

Returning home in 2011, he went to work for the Camden Group on Prairie Farm where he was the 2IC milking 1000 cows on the 260ha farm. He moved into the manager's role the following season.

He returned to Willsden Farm this season.

"I have come full circle back to where I started."

In 2014, he met Kirstie Austin at the Dunsandel Young Farmer Christmas party held at the Methven Races.

Leaving school in 2008, she went to work on an 800-cow farm at Rakaia where she learnt on the job.

Since then, she has completed Primary ITO Level 4 and is about to start a Diploma in Agri Business. She is also a member of the Dairy women's Network and the local Young Farmers club with Robin.

In 2012, she caught the travel bug and decided to move to Canada to ride pens in a 25,000-head feedlot for Ken Van Raay in Picture Butte, Alberta.

"I have a sharp eye for animal health so this job really suited me," she says.

The feedlot work dried up as the spring melt started so she moved northeast to work on a family-owned ranch at Big Stone, Alberta.

"I enjoyed the variety that it offered, no day was the same.

"Some days I would be in the tractor baling and the next I could be branding or doctoring calves. It was a nice change dropping down to 500 cows from 25,000.

She returned home after a stopover in New York then went to work for a previous employer in Rakaia while she decided what her next move was.

Her next move was moving to Kurow to work as the 2IC for owner-operators Dan and Christine Bishop milking 1500 cows through a 60-bail rotary.

"Within a week I had become the treasurer of the local Young Farmers club and had embedded myself in the little community.

"I loved the challenge that Kaimanawa Farms brought but the commute three hours to see Rob after some pretty big days was wearing pretty thin. So we made the decision that I would move back up to Rakaia."

She took a role at the local Synlait factory as a stop-gap while they planned their next move.

She now works as the supervisor in charge of Synlait's fully automatic lactoferin plant and does shift work – two day shifts and two night shifts then four days off - which enables her to help on the farm and to start her study via correspondence.

The lactoferin plant does not operate from July to September so she takes leave and through their farm business, Kirbin Farming Ltd, sub-contracts herself to Willsden Farming Ltd and rears calves.

She also does all the bookwork for their business, helps with staff recruitment and other fiddly jobs that need doing.

Last season, the herd averaged 452 kilograms of milksolids to produce 489,000kgMS. Their target this season has been reduced to 485,000kgMS.

Robin says maintaining feed quality through spring and summer has been a challenge because of the extended wet period followed by the dry conditions.

They are having to dip into their reserves and feed supplements to make up the shortfall in feed.

"We have had to feed a lot of baleage to keep up with the cows' demand.

"But the herd needs good quality feed to produce well and this has been an issue for us."

Barley is grown as a whole crop for winter silage, and 80ha of fodderbeet and 80ha of kale are sown for winter feed on the 250ha run-off.

"We have planted less fodderbeet this season than previous years because it isn't the best crop for the farm and expensive to grow.

"It costs around $2000/ha and to make it pay, we need a yield of at least 25tn/DM/ha but it has struggled to get to that."

When the rain finally stopped in November, they had to race to get their crops in as demand for contractors skyrocketed.

"It was so wet for so long and then when it was time, the contractors were flat out so they did go in a bit later than usual."

Silage is brought in from the 250ha run-off block which is shared between four Camden Group dairy farms.

"The aim is to be self-sufficient," he says.

"By supplying feed in-house, we have better control over what we feed and the quality of it. We have had to buy in feed this season from outside sources as we haven't been able to supply the quantity needed from our own source."

Since the early January rain, pasture growth has improved to 65-70kgDM/ha/day but still has a way to go to recover fully.

He does weekly pasture walks and calculates by eye. The farm is also part of the LIC Satellite Pasture and Cover Evaluation (SPACE) service which measures pasture by satellite.

"It is interesting – we are able to cross-reference the satellite results with what we see on the ground," he says.

"The satellite results have shown that we have underscored the paddocks by about 50kgDM/ha – it is better to underscore than overscore – but at least it hasn't been too far off."

They usually start their regrassing programme at the end of September and aim to do 10 per cent annually.

About 28ha is sprayed and direct drilled with Italian ryegrass which they use as a break crop so they get two shots at killing the brown-top and other weed pasture species.

The following year, the paddock is sprayed and cultivated then drilled into permanent ryegrass and white clover.

"We also grow 7ha of fodderbeet and 7ha of kale on the dairy platform which is part of the regrassing programme," he says.

The paddocks are usually out of the rotation for about eight weeks but this season, it was 10-11 weeks before the cows were back in eating it.

"Two weeks is a long time to have paddocks out when you don't have much feed," he says.

The herd is wintered on the shared run-off which is home to about 3800 from the four farms. Animals from each farm are kept separate and identified by their eartag colours.

In late May before drying off, the herd is sorted into mobs of early and late calvers. The heifers are kept separate from the main herd during winter and calving.

Before calving starts on August 1, springing cows are drafted and brought home in mobs.

They do night checks of the herd and this season were bringing in calves every few hours because of the bad weather.

"It can get pretty busy at calving so having Kirstie on board is a huge help," Robin says.

"Some days, we can easily get 50 calves on the ground."

They rear 250 replacements which are kept indoors for about a week then shifted to another shed where they have access to pasture. Calves are moved onto the paddocks at 3-4 weeks.

Their weaning target is 70-80kg and the goal is for all calves to be at 100kg before they are sent to the drystock unit in December.

They also buy in and rear about 60 friesian bull calves for themselves to help build equity.

Each year, they donate a friesian calf to the Dunsandel Young Farmers as a part of their annual calf rearing competition.

Their calf has never taken out the top prize but he always seems to be the naughtiest.

"I always give them names which is maybe where I go wrong," Kirstie says.

"Frederick II ended up in the effluent pond on his way to the weigh-in."

Mating of the heifers begins on October 15 and a small group of high BW animals given prostaglandin and inseminated with A1 semen. The rest are run with jersey bulls.

Mating of the main herd begins on October 26. AI is carried out for six weeks then run with a jersey bull for a further five weeks.

The herd has been DNA tested and has a 98 per cent ancestry.

The empty rate is about 15 per cent which he hopes to reduce through better management and monitoring.

Looking ahead, their plan is for him to do one more season at Te Pirita and then move into a contract milking or sharemilking job together.

They have entered the Dairy Industry Awards Farm Manager of the Year competition as a couple.

"Hopefully with a set of fresh eyes and perspective, we should get some valuable feedback about what we are doing and where we are going," Kirstie says.

But in the meantime, they are working hard towards their goals, waiting for some decent rain and  have a wedding to plan with the date set for Mach 1 2019.

Farm facts

Owners: Camden Group - Willsden Farm Ltd

Farm Manager: Robin Hornblow

Location: Te Pirita, Canterbury

Farm Size: 306ha effective

Cows: 1080 Friesian/crossbred cows 

Production: 2016-2017 489,000kgMS 

Target: 2017- 2018 485,000kgMS 

Farm working expenses: $3.90