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Maize silage and pasture - the basis for a simple yet profitable system

John Bluett (right) with son Nathan Bluett on their farm during the height of the drought.

Maize silage and pasture - the basis for a simple yet profitable system

2007/08 Season

Owners: John and Jill Bluett
Farm location: Te Pahu
Farm size: 240 ha (eff.)
Herd size: 950 cows

Maize silage is an integral part of a simple yet profitable farming system for Waikato farmers John and Jill Bluett. The Bluetts, who were regional winners of the Fonterra Westpac Dairy Farmer of the Year Business Growth Award in 2004, calve down 950 cows on two properties at Te Pahu, west of Te Awamutu.

The 240 ha (eff.) home farm is managed by their son Nathan who is an equity partner in the business. The 690 cow Friesian-Jersey herd is milked through a 50 bale rotary shed. In the 2006/07 season, it produced 888 kgMS/ha (309 kgMS/cow).

John manages the second 80 ha (eff.) farm, which was purchased on 1 June 2006. In their first season (2006/07), the 235 cow Friesian-Jersey herd produced 67,500 kgMS (845 kgMS/ha and 287 kgMS/cow) despite struggling for feed.

The combined operation is very profitable with an EFS in the top 10% for the district and farm working expenses of $2 per kgMS in the 2006/07 season.

This year, the Bluetts were targeting a production increase on both farms. A good start to the spring made this look realistic; however, severe drought conditions created by the driest summer in 100 years has meant production will be down on the 2006/07 season.

John, who was a NZ Dairy Board Consulting Officer near Hamilton from 1978-80 and who is currently Waikato Dairy Section Chairman for Federated Farmers, has a simple farming philosophy.

"We aim to maximise the amount of pasture grown and get as much grass down the throat of the cows and efficiently converted into milksolids as possible. Maize silage gives us the opportunity to do this by filling feed deficits."

A condensed calving on the home farm sees the herd start calving on 20 July and reach its midpoint by 1 August. Once 500 cows have calved, they are split into two herds and run on separate halves of the farm. The cows are fed all-grass until late August when maize silage is added to the diet at 1-3 kgDM/cow/day. Maize silage feeding continues until around the beginning of October when the grass growth meets cow demand.

In the past three years, the Bluetts have only made grass silage once on the home farm.

"We only make grass silage if there is a true surplus because we do not want to cut the cows short," says John. "Wrapped grass silage costs as much as buying in maize silage and is made at a time when we need to concentrate on mating. We prefer to run a stocking rate that is high enough to convert all the grass that grows into milk. Maize silage allows us to do that because we can use it to fill in feed deficits throughout the season."

The Bluett's attention to mating pays dividends for the farm. The herd has an empty rate of 2-3%, which allows heavy culling of the lower producers each season. As a result, the herd's genetic merit is impressive (breeding worth 158; production worth 182) and the Bluetts sell a substantial number of their culls as in-calf cows each season.

"We make money out of our low empty rates, which are due in part to our use of maize silage," says John. "The cows calve in good condition and we are able to take them into the mating period gaining weight."

The maize stack is opened again sometime in February when pasture growth rates fall and maize silage is fed at 2-3 kgDM/cow/day until the end of April or drying-off depending on autumn pasture cover levels.

"Instead of growing summer crops, which take a lot of time to manage, we save maize silage from the previous crop to fill the early summer deficit until the next maize silage crop comes in," says Nathan.

For the past two seasons, the maize silage has been purchased from local contract growers. In the 2006/07 season, the Bluetts purchased 178 tDM of maize silage, which was fed at 200 kgDM/cow on the home farm and 150 kgDM/cow on the second farm. In autumn 2007, they increased their order to 240 tDM. This season, they have contracted the same tonnage of Pioneer® brand 36M28 and have also planted 6 ha of the same hybrid on a 40 ha run-off that they leased in May 2007.

"We always specify the hybrid in the growing contract," says John. "Over the past 14 years, we have always planted Pioneer® brand maize hybrids and always achieved good yields of high grain content maize silage." Historically, the maize silage has been stored in clay bunkers with concrete bases and fed in the paddock.

This season the Bluetts have just finished building a 125 tDM concrete maize silage bunker near the farm dairy on the home farm. A 400 cow feed pad will be constructed near the bunker in March. This will allow them to feed-out maize silage year round including the early spring period when the Hamilton clay loam soils are often too wet for paddock feeding.

The Bluetts plan to run the second farm on all-grass through the wetter months with maize silage being fed in the autumn when ground conditions are drier. If feed gets tight, they will bring some cows to the home farm and feed them on the pad eliminating the need to feed maize silage in the paddock.

"Maize silage fed at three critical times – spring, early summer and autumn, has been part of our farming system for the past 14 years," says John. "It's a lot simpler system because we can increase stocking rate to eat more grass and the maize provides a back stop feed supply for us. The new feed pad will allow us to take advantage of the higher payout by feeding more maize silage at the times that we really need it."