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I love the reliability of maize

I love the reliability of maize

2015/16 Season

Owners: Rex and Sharon Butterworth
Farm location: Walton, Waikato
Farm size: 106 ha
Herd size: 480

The Butterworth’s milk a Friesian x Jersey herd on 106 ha at Walton in the Eastern Waikato. In the 2013/14 season, when the competition was based at a milk payout of $8.37/kgMS, they peak milked 450 cows and produced 447 kgMS/cow and 1,906 kgMS/ha. They had a cost of production of $3.13/kgMS, with an operating profit of $10,344/ha and a return on capital of 10.9%.

In 2014/15, at a $4.40 payout, they peak milked 480 cows producing 489 kgMS/cow and 2,223 kgMS/ha. The farm’s cost of production dropped to $2.53/kgMS, the operating profit was $4,416/ha and the return on capital 4.3%.

Rex, who has been farming for 28 years, grew up on a family farm at Te Pahu. He left school and worked as an Assistant Manager for 12 months before commencing a three year OE. His time away confirmed what he already knew.

“I tried a lot of things and it made me certain I wanted to be a dairy farmer”.

He returned to NZ and took on a lower order sharemilking position on the home farm, followed by 50:50 sharemilking. During this time he was fortunate to obtain a second sharemilking position on a neighbouring farm which helped build equity.

In 1998, Rex and Sharon formed a partnership with Rex’s parents and purchased their current farm. A 52 ha run-off was purchased in 2007 and this has helped the Butterworth’s shape their farm system.

Rex believes the first step to profitability is to grow as much grass as possible using sustainable methods, maintaining quality and maximising utilisation. 

He tops pre-grazing in the spring and summer. This helps avoid overgrazing in some areas and eliminates low quality clumps in others.

Unfortunately the Waikato’s climate is too variable to rely on pasture alone. Supplements, including maize silage, high quality pasture silage and palm kernel make up close to 40% of the cows’ diet on an annual basis, ensuring production levels are maintained regardless of how well the grass grows.

Rex first started feeding maize silage when he was sharemilking in the early 1990’s. “A neighbour, Mike O’Connor, was using maize silage very successfully and I went to see what it looked like” says Rex. “The next season
we fed some ourselves and I was hooked”.

“I love the reliability of maize. It thrives under conditions where ryegrass doesn’t grow much and a maize silage crop followed by annual ryegrass can produce double the amount of feed as permanent pasture” he says. “Other feeds have a place but for us maize silage is the best fit, nothing else beats it”.

In spring 2015 they have planted 26 ha of Pioneer® brand P1636 on the runoff and 4 ha of P9400 at home.

“We want a high yielding, high energy maize silage crop” says Rex. “The difference in cost between a 22 tDM/ha or a 26 tDM/ha crop is minimal but the economic gains are huge”.

Initially Rex fed maize silage in the paddock to put condition on cows in the autumn and soon he was feeding a bit more to extend lactation length. Spring feed shortages were the next priority, but the couple found wastage was higher when ground conditions were wet. The solution came in the form of two 250-cow HerdHomes® shelters built in 2013.

“The main thing that put us off building a feed pad was the amount of water it would capture” says Rex. “We would have needed to spend $200,000 upgrading the effluent system to cope with the increased volume”.

“Just about everything we were reading advised us not to go down the cow housing route, but those farmers who already had invested in HerdHomes were saying just the opposite” says Rex. “It took us a long time to make the final decision, we should have done it sooner”.

The farm’s 10-year average production prior to building the HerdHomes was 154,000 kgMS. By the 2014/15 season production had lifted to 235,000 kgMS, a massive 53% increase.

Rex has calculated the payback on the HerdHomes is around five years. “The cashflow has always been positive with the increases in production and savings in costs outweighing the cost of interest”.

Cows can be fully fed year-round with minimal supplement wastage. Pasture damage during wet or dry periods is minimised and this has increased pasture harvest. The couple have also seen big efficiency gains as the cows are no longer using feed energy to stay warm.

“The HerdHomes are also about 8ºC cooler than out in the paddocks in summer” says Rex. “Cows eat an extra 10 kgDM, drink more and produce significantly more milk”.

The Butterworth’s realise the potential environmental risks associated with intensive dairy farming and are focused on doing all they can to operate responsibly.

While building the HerdHomes stacked up economically, it also made a significant impact on the farms environmental sustainability. In the 13/14 season their nitrogen leaching, as predicted by Overseer®, was just 25 kg/ha and their phosphorus loss 1.3 kg/ha. 

On days where it is too wet to spread dairy shed effluent directly onto paddocks it is pumped and stored in the 1.4 million litre concrete tanks under the HerdHomes. The tanks are emptied in May and early September and the slurry is carted to the run-off and applied to maize paddocks.

Fertility levels on the run-off have steadily increased over time. While a small amount of artificial fertiliser is still being applied to some paddocks, the Butterworth’s can see a time coming when effluent will provide all the necessary nutrients.

“We used to view effluent as a problem which was costly to get rid of” says Rex. “Now we view it as a valuable resource that saves us money”.