Farm Feedback

Brian & Caroline Hutchings

Liver biopsy tests show suspension fertiliser benefits

It was liver biopsy tests taken in the autumn of 2012 that convinced Brian Hutchings that his hunch around fine particle fertiliser had paid off.  Milking a herd of 260 Ayrshires on a copper-deficient 200ha dairy farm near Dargaville, Brian had always routinely supplemented copper along with magnesium and cobalt.  This all began to change when a neighbour trialled fine particle fertiliser and seemed to be getting good results.  Brian decided to move away from his conventional superphosphate and lime fertiliser regime and called Corey Martin onto the farm.

“It was more luck than good judgement,” Brian admits.  “But it felt like the right thing to do.”  At the time the herd was winter milking and the grasses seemed to be getting ‘lazy’ and slow to pick up.  They also had problems with soil compaction, low clover populations, dwindling earthworm numbers and some animal health problems.

After three years applying fine particle fertiliser products, the picture on the farm has changed – particularly from an animal health perspective.  After liver biopsy tests came back in 2012, the vet told Brian to stop supplementing completely.

“All our key mineral levels were at optimum or better,” said Brian.  “We repeated the same tests just before calving to be sure and everything was still bang on.”

Corey Martin then took soil samples and herbage tests and these confirmed that all the significant mineral levels were high in both the soil and grass.  This was enough to convince Brian to stop buying supplements for his herd.

“For the past three years we haven’t even given the cows magnesium to get them through calving and we have very few cases of milk fever – maybe two or three a year in the older more prone cows.”

Prior to the use of suspension fertiliser, the farm would see around a dozen downer cows each year according to Brian.

From a budgetary perspective, the new approach to fertiliser has lowered production costs.  There is no supplement bill to pay, veterinary costs have reduced and the fertiliser programme itself is no more costly than a conventional synthetic regime.  “We are definitely on the winning side,” said Brian.  “Now we feed the soil and that does the trick.”

John Frizzell

Fertiliser advice pays off on Omakere sheep and beef farm

It’s fair to say that John Frizzell has a traditional approach to farming, but one thing is very different about the way he manages the 1650 acre sheep and beef farm near Omakere in Central Hawkes Bay.  In autumn 2004 John trialled a new fertiliser programme on three of his worst paddocks and he hasn’t looked back.

Prior to 2004 spring and autumn applications of superphosphate and lime were standard practice on the farm and according to John they were ‘doing pretty well’.  However, results from customised  fertiliser applications over the past ten years have shown clear improvements in production, pasture quality and animal health.

Corey Martin has worked with John since he set up the first trials on the farm and he continues to carry out soil, plant and animal diet tests pre- and post-application to keep ahead of the nutritional needs of the farm soil, pasture and stock.

John describes his farm as good natural stock country – medium coastal hill country with easy to steep undulations and no flat.  He is rightly proud of his sheep stud made up of 2800 Polled Dorset ewes and 400 ewe hoggets, hogget replacements and ram hoggets.  John also winters 600 to 650 cattle, buying them as weaner steers and finishing them as rising three year olds.

John aims to finish as many lambs as possible in November, which is earlier than surrounding farms.  Even in difficult conditions like those experienced after the drought last year, John finds that the land recovers quickly.  He puts this down to the fact that the average pasture rooting depth on the farm is now over 300mm – an increase of about 200mm since 2004.  In the third week of November 2013 he culled 1530 lambs destined for the prime lamb market weighing an average 19.5 kg.

“We finish the lambs early so that we can concentrate on the cattle.  When you run an all grass-fed system with no hay, crops or supplementary feeding, the quality of the pasture is paramount,” said John.

Over the past ten years John has been pleased with the gains made.  “Grazing is far more even, we were getting a few patchy places previously.  Stock health has improved.  We don’t have so many daggy sheep and we’re getting more weight into the lambs.  Every season is different for the cattle, it was particularly difficult over the last year or two but we’re still getting good results.”

Pasture diversity has also improved with increased populations of red and white clover.  For the last four years plantain seed has been added to the fertiliser application and the results this season have been ‘spectacular’.  Even after the drought, 2013 has been an exceptional growing year on the Frizzell farm.

Soil biology continues to improve with worm numbers increasing and no compaction problems.  Over the years Corey Martin has been able to build an increasingly advanced fertiliser programme for the farm. Each year the treatment is different to balance the nutrient levels found in the soil, plants and animals through pre- and post-application soil and herbage testing.

According to Corey, a key achievement has been the boosting of soil fertility despite nutrient removal through the harvest of meat and wool.  Getting the most out of production by keeping stock numbers at the maximum level without overgrazing requires fine balance.

The nutritional quality of the pasture is equally important.  Repeated herbage tests have shown that nutrient and trace mineral levels in the plants exceed the daily requirements of the grazing stock.  John does not give his stock B12, selenium or magnesium supplements and only boosts copper to get the cattle through the winter in prime condition.  P levels are also well within the target range for a hill country farm.

According to John, the good advice and expertise provided by Corey Martin has been invaluable.  “Corey understands exactly what’s going on in the soil and grass.  He follows the latest science and keeps me ahead of the game.”