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Maximise production by controlling feed supply

Graham and Julie Thompson with some of their 640 cows.

Maximise production by controlling feed supply

2006/07 Season

Owners: Graham and Julie Thompson
Farm location: Papamoa
Farm size: 165 hectares
Herd size: 640 cows

The desire to achieve more consistent production led Bay of Plenty farmers Graham and Julie Thompson to feed maize silage. "The seasons are so variable. Each year presents a different challenge and it is hard going when you are reliant on the weather to feed your cows," says Graham. "We have built a system that allows us to control our feed supply and we can decide at the start of the year what production level we want to achieve."

Graham and Julie along with children Luke, Marie and Mark, milk 640 spring calving Friesians on 165 hectares of peat at Papamoa Beach. Each year they feed around 500 tDM (780 kgDM/cow) of Pioneer® brand maize for silage to their herd. For the past two seasons they have produced 240,000 kgMS (1,455 kgMS/ha being 375 kgMS/cow) and this year their target is 265,000 kgMS (1,606 kgMS/ha).

Four years ago, assisted by farm consultant Mike Randrup, the Thompsons moved from a predominantly grass system to one which fed considerable amounts of supplements on a custom built feed pad. "We worked with Mike for the first couple of years, which gave us the confidence to try something that was very new for us."

Cows are fed 3-5 kgDM maize silage per day on the feed pad from autumn until September or October depending on pasture growth rates. The farm also feeds by-products including 300-400 wet tonnes of reject kiwifruit from a local pack house and palm kernel extract, purchased as required to spin out the maize silage.

This year they are purchasing in 15 hectares of maize silage and have also planted 10 hectares of Pioneer® brand 33G26 on farm. "We look for maize silage hybrids that deliver good total yield as well as a high grain content."

A large emphasis is placed on good pasture management. For most of the year the cows are kept on a 15-20 day round. "We can keep pasture under control by varying the amount of maize silage that we feed," says Graham. "The cows are always well fed and the grass is kept between 1,500-2,700 kgDM/ha so that we get maximum pasture growth rates and high pasture quality. The feed pad allows us to keep pasture damage to a minimum during wet weather and that is a real benefit."

The Thompsons have found that "it is unbelievable how much cows can produce, if you feed them properly." Graham believes that the benefits of maize silage come from increased cow condition and better intakes prior to calving, as well as better feeding throughout the lactation.

The herd is fed 10-12 kgDM throughout the dry period, which helps to increase cow condition and capacity. "Maize silage is really good for putting weight on cows cost-effectively. When we moved to the higher winter-feeding levels, we found that we got all the money that we spent - plus a whole lot more - back in the spring. Higher feeding levels also increased cow capacity and they could eat more once they had calved. If you starve cows through the winter, no matter how much you offer them in the spring they can’t eat enough to sustain high production."

Graham believes that many farmers underfeed their herd because they are scared that too much condition will lead to big calves and calving difficulties. "That’s a myth - if your cows are well grown and you feed them well, they calve easily and produce a lot more milk."

Because of the farm’s location near the rapidly expanding Papamoa Beach residential area and the fact that none of his children want to pursue a career in dairying, Graham believes that ultimately, when he is ready to retire, some of the farm will be sold for subdivision. In the meantime, the Thompsons are using the increased income from their higher input system to reduce debt and are enjoying the fact that they are no longer solely dependent on the weather.

"We have built a system that is sustainable, controllable, and very workable. It has given us the flexibility to manage our herd effectively, despite changes in weather conditions."