AFGC Tour of New Zealand 2016

In the spring of 2016, I discovered that Dr. Dennis Hancock, Extension Forage Agronomist at the University of Georgia, would be leading a tour of New Zealand.  This tour would be sponsored by the American Forage and Grassland Council.  I signed up immediately since this had been on my “bucket list” for about fifteen years.

A secondary reason for wanting to make this trip was to visit Wayne Cruickshank.  Wayne was a member of the Rotary Group Study Exchange team which visited Danville in 1980.  He was a dairy farmer from Wellsford, NZ at that time and stayed with my parents during his visit to Danville.  I met him then and still had his card so I googled his name and found him on the second attempt.  He responded immediately and I made plans to arrive in NZ a day early so that I might spend the night with Wayne and his wife Raywin.  They sold their farm in Wellsford some years ago and bought a farm in Helensville, located about thirty miles north of Auckland.  Since then, they sold the farm, but retained their house which they now operate as a B&B.  Rawwin’s garden is spectacular.  The climate there in Northland, NZ is sub-tropical with winter temperatures warmer than ours and milder summers.  Their garden includes citrus fruit, azaleas, rhododendrons and roses among many others.

October 23:  The following day Wayne and his friend Les took me to Auckland where he had made lunch reservations at the revolving restaurant in the Skytower.  That gave us a 360 degree view of Auckland and its harbor.  We sampled Hokey Pokey ice cream later that afternoon before Wayne dropped me off at the hotel where I met the other 21 members of the AFGC tour group.  Most of our group were university extension and research personnel.  They came from Oregon, New Mexico, Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, Indiana and Kentucky.  We began our tour the next morning, October 24, 2016.

During the mid-1980s, the New Zealand economy was completely deregulated.  Agriculture receives no subsidies currently.  This resulted in great trauma at the time but has resulted in the most efficient agriculture in the world.  At present, the leading sources of revenue in NZ are timber, dairy, meat, tourism and seafood.  The dairy industry now self-funds DairyNZ which provides production advice and promotion to the industry.  Ninety six percent of dairy production is exported.

October 24:  Our tour bus took us to the Waikato region and the dairy farm of Neil and Eileen Bateup.  They milk 700 Jersey cows once a day in a 40 stall rotary parlor.  Their shift to once a day milking was prompted by their desire to lose fewer of his young cows to reproductive failure.  Their production of 800 kg total solids/hectare is not among the highest rank in their region but their net profit/ha is.  We encountered no NZ dairymen who could not quote their cost of production.  They also intensively manage their forages which on this farm made up the total ration.  They sample each pasture for quantity of dry matter on a weekly basis with a rising plate meter.  The output is known as a grazing wedge.

Our next stop was a Kiwi orchard.  Kiwi fruit is produced in the coastal areas on the Bay of Plenty.   Most of this fruit is exported.  A newer gold variety has recently been introduced with great success.

Kiwis are grown on vines trained up on a trellis.  Great care is taken to prevent fruit from rubbing against each other and causing blemishes.  Tall hedges are used to limit wind and to protect the fruit.  Bees are brought in to ensure pollination occurs.  Extensive pruning is also required.

October 25:  We spent the next two nights in Hamilton.  While there we visited the Alexander Farm close to Matamata.  This family farm encompasses 1210 acres and is the home of 13,000 sheep and a herd of Angus cattle.  Some years ago the producer of the now famous Lord of the Rings and Hobbit film trilogies selected the farm as the setting for Hobbiton.  After production the Alexanders purchased the sets and now have one of the most visited sites in New Zealand.

That afternoon we visited CRV Dairy in Ohaupo.  This dairy milks 250 cows throughout the year.  This is a departure from the typical NZ dairy which is managed so that all cows calve in the spring and are turned dry in the late fall.  These cows were housed in a two free stall barns which are rare here.  Fresh grass makes up 60% of the ration, with a mixed ration of maize silage, maize by-products and beets forming the balance.   A representative of DairyNZ, a dairy farmer funded promotional and support organization, along with two consultants for the farm engaged our group in a lively question and answer session focusing on dairy farm economics and management.  Their conclusions included their observation that there is now more variation in management systems on NZ dairies, the cows are now larger and that drought has stimulated these changes.  This farm was one of the more intensively managed that we saw and was a contrast with the once a day milking herd seen the previous day.

After arriving back in Hamilton, we got a guided tour of Hamilton Gardens, a municipal focal point in the city.  This was the winner of the 2014 International “Garden of the Year” award.  Once a rubbish dump, it is now an extraordinary collection of themed gardens.

The Waikato River runs through Hamilton and is another focal point for that community.  This and other rivers in NZ are the subject of much discussion concerning water quality.  We got more exposure to this discussion throughout our travels.

October 26:  This morning we visited the headquarters and manufacturing facility of Gallagher, the producer of electric fence equipment with global distribution.  Electric fences have made New Zealand’s intensively managed pastures possible.  Their low impedance energizers have been a critical factor in livestock management worldwide.

This afternoon we visited another of New Zealand’s most famous natural attractions.  To the south we found the Waitoma Caves, home of glow worms.  After walking through this limestone cavern, we boarded a small boat which took us under thousands of these glow worms.  Much like the Milky Way but closer.

We enjoyed lunch at nearby Roselands Restaurant.  Lunch was good but the gardens were spectacular.   Afterwards the Hustler brand of hay equipment demonstrated their models of hay bale unrollers.  This equipment is similar to models that we see in the U.S.

After this demonstration, we traveled to Taupo and Lake Taupo.  This is New Zealand’s largest lake and the headwaters of the Waikato River.  As mentioned before, there is much concern currently about the quality of their waterways.  For dinner we hosted Mike and Sharon Barton of Taupo Beef.  They own a 312 acre farm on the northwestern side of the lake where they finish and sell grass fed beef.  This business has grown under their care to include several dozen other producers who contribute to the supply of Taupo Beef.  Dinner consisted of a filet of their beef, the best beef we sampled on our trip.  Afterwards, Mike presented his story of regional concern for the livestock which inhabit the lake’s watershed.  While no documented proof exists of pollution from the Barton’s or others, Mike is currently a trustee of the Lake Taupo Protection Trust which is charged with removing 20% of the leached nitrogen from the watershed by 2018.  The Bartons and Dr. Malcolm McLeod of Landcare Research have installed a permanent deep drainage lysimeter facility on the farm to research methods of mitigating nitrogen leaching from beef farming systems.  They hope that the results of this research will modify the output of a national environmental model called Overseer.  There is much concern in New Zealand today concerning the “one size fits all” approach that Overseer is now mandating.  Many producers may have to limit their herds (and their income) to comply with the current regulations.  The Barton’s research will add to the body of knowledge available to address this problem.  Our tour included stops at several universities also addressing this problem.

October 27:  We visited the Barton’s Glen Emmreth Farm at Tihoi to see the research site and to view their Angus x Charolais heifers that is the source of Taupo Beef.  Like most other New Zealand farms, their base forages are perennial ryegrass and ladino clover.  They are now operating under a nitrogen cap which mandates a limit on livestock urine and consequently a limit on their stocking rate and production.  They hosted us for tea and cake in their full bloom garden.

Leaving Tihoi, we traveled to Atahua Angus Stud Farm where we heard a description of the Cross slot no tillage drill.  This unique drill cuts both a vertical and horizontal slot for optimal seed placement.  The Dalziells have used this system for fifteen years. We did not get a chance to see the drill, but were given information.

Atahua management rotates their perennial ryegrass pastures about every six years.  They plant swedes or kale and then rotate back to a novel endophyte perennial ryegrass plus ladino clover.  Little red clover is grown in NZ because of an insect problem which limits its persistence.  Several producers told us that the native ryegrass persisted far longer than the newer novel endophyte varieties, although the native variety is known to cause “grass staggers,” a nerve condition.  The novel endophyte varieties do not cause this condition.

October 28:  After spending the night in Palmerston North, we visited the Stewart Dairy, a 440 acre dairy with 800 cows.  James is the fifth generation of Stewarts in this community and is now milking twice a day in a 54 stall rotary unit.  They farm on heavy clay soils and utilize maize silage and graze turnips, chicory, rape and forage beets during the summer.  Perennial ryegrass and clover pastures are also utilized.  They raise their own heifers, although some NZ dairies do not.

Leaving Stewart’s we traveled a short distance to Feilding, home of the Feilding Salesyards.  Established in 1880, these yards are located in downtown Feilding.  Sheep, dairy beef and beef cattle are sold here.  Dairy cattle are sold elsewhere.  All sales here are in pen lots but the price is by the head. The NZ 15% General Sales Tax is levied on each sale just as it is on all other sales.  Electronic identification (ear tags) are compulsory in NZ and are traceable back to the farm of origin.  All sales must be pre-booked and go through a sales agent.  Both cattle and sheep are transported in large trucks which pull a trailer.  They can unload without unhooking the trailer.  We saw no gooseneck trailers during our visit.

That afternoon we visited the Massey University Dairy located in the suburbs of Palmerston North.  This is one of two major universities doing agricultural research.  Their current research emphasis is on nitrogen leaching, particularly on their clay soils. Their site abuts a river which makes their location particularly sensitive.  Their pastures include perennial ryegrass, red and white clover, chicory and plantain.  We enjoyed a discussion with their research staff which included their efforts towards limiting nitrogen leaching and using housing to limit pugging and soil damage during wet winter and spring weather.

The last fifty years have brought an increasing interest in bi-culturalism with a resurgence of Maori pride.  The Maori, who first settled New Zealand about one thousand years ago, came from the Polynesian Islands to the north.  The Waitangi Tribunal, set up by the New Zealand Government in 1987 saw to it that the Maori language is now an official language of NZ and that unsettled land ownership issues were resolved.

Our group was invited to visit a Maori Marae (meeting house).  While there, we learned more about Maori history and their many traditions, including the haka.  Rugby fans will recognize the haka as the initial ritual of New Zealand’s All Blacks prior to their games.  It is quite intimidating and it is no wonder the All Blacks are so successful.  If there is only one thing that all New Zealanders can rally to, it is their team, the All Blacks.  The team and New Zealand share the Silver Fern as their symbol.

 October 29:  After spending the night in Palmerston North, I walked to a local museum which featured New Zealand history and culture.  Maori culture and traditions were prominently featured.

That afternoon we flew to Christchurch on the South Island.  While greater in land area, this island has a population of only one million of the four and a half million total population of NZ.  There is some friendly rivalry between the two islands with those in the south referring to their island as the “mainland.”  The Southern Alps dominate the west coast of this island, while the area east of the mountains contain the Hill Country with higher elevations and the broad Canterbury Plains between the Hill Country and the Pacific Ocean.  The areas east of the Southern Alps enjoy much less precipitation than the North Island, getting approximately 15-20 inches per year.  These plains are highly productive when irrigated.  The Hill Country can also be vastly more productive when irrigation is employed.  The lakes fed by snow melt in the mountains have been harnessed to provide this irrigation water.

A travel coach met us at the airport and gave us a sightseeing tour of the city on the way to our hotel.  The destruction of the major earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 was still very evident.  The Anglican Cathedral which dominates the city square still has not been repaired while discussion over its future continues.  Much of the city center remains vacant while other buildings are being repaired.  New construction also continues and we noticed it proceeded on Sunday.  The wooden buildings seemed to fare better than the concrete and masonry ones.  Min and I took a walk to the Botanical Gardens which are in full bloom there.  Although the trees there appear to be several hundred years old, the gardens have only been in existence for a hundred years.  The long growing seasons are very favorable for trees and all the other blooming species there.

October 30:  We spent this Sunday as free time in Christchurch.  I spent about three hours on a beautiful morning at the Botanical Garden.  We have some of the same species and genus here in the U.S. but our trees and shrubs seem to grow more slowly and attain less height and mass than the ones I saw here.

That afternoon, Dennis used our rental van to transport six of us to the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve.  This was our opportunity to see a kiwi, New Zealand’s national icon.  The kiwi is a somewhat endangered species.  They are still found in the wild on the far south Stewart Island and perhaps in one other spot on the South Island.  They are only found in NZ, are nocturnal and live in underground burrows.  At Willowbank, we observed kiwis in a darkened area where observation and photography was limited.  The rest of the Wildlife Reserve had birds, wild mammals and domestic animals in natural environments.

October 31:  We visited Lincoln University located just south of Christchurch.  This is the other major agricultural research institution here in NZ.  We met with their research staff who presented some of the research being conducted at Lincoln.  As with other NZ institutions, much of their research is being done on nitrogen leaching.  Preliminary results indicate that planting Italian ryegrass and plantain can significantly reduce this leaching.  Some of our tour members also made short presentations about their work also.  We then visited the South Island Dairying Development Centre, a demonstration farm located at Lincoln and sponsored by a variety of firms and institutions with dairy involvement.  This is operated as a demonstration farm which features a dairy herd managed using practices that any good manager could accomplish.  It is open to visits from dairymen and others who desire an opportunity to review newer options before they attempt them on their own operations.

Later that afternoon we traveled to the Kimihia Research Centre, operated by PGG Wrightson Seeds.  We had an opportunity to visit with their staff who discussed their research efforts and emphasized the importance of providing forages that would enhance animal performance.  As a part of their program, Wrightson helped develop New Zealand’s Forage Value Index (FVI).  We also toured some of their research plots.

November 1:  This morning most of our group headed to the airport for their trip home.  Seven of the remaining group plus one young woman from Indiana headed south in our rented van.  Our first stop was at Canterbury Grasslands.  This is corporate operation which milks 8,000 cows in Canterbury and another 8,000 on ten farms in Missouri.  They stock 1.6 cows per acre for 300 days per year.  During winter they supplement with fodder beets.  Lactating cows graze perennial ryegrass.  They use nitrogen and irrigation to vary forage production as needed.  Most field work is performed by local contractors.

That afternoon we visited Greenvale Pastures, operated by Craige and Roz Mackenzie.  They operate an innovative dairy and specialty seed production operation near Methven.  Craige was named 2016 International Precision Ag Farmer of the Year.  He uses soil moisture monitors to determine irrigation needs in the rooting zone.  By limiting irrigation, he can prevent applied water from leaching below the rooting zone.  By doing so, he limits any nitrogen from leaving this zone.  He and his daughter established Agri Optics NZ Ltd in 2010 to commercialize some of his precision ag techniques.  This firm was sold to Wrightson this year.

We then visited a seed production farm.  He produced a variety of forage and crop seeds.  The proper care and handling of the harvested seed was emphasized.  Management of moisture levels after harvest is critical.  The farm had a drying floor which allowed them to quickly dry seed to the optimal level.

Afterwards we stopped at the South Island Seed Dressing & Storage Company, where they were flying the U.S. flag to honor our visit.  This was a very large and innovative operation where seed was cleaned, processed, bagged and stored in discrete lots for their customers.

We then drove into Timaru, the site of the New Zealand Grasslands Association’s 78th Annual Conference.

November 2:  This year attendees came from Ireland, France, U.S. as well as New Zealand.  About 20% of the attendees were farmers, the balance being staff from industry, government and universities.  Presentations were made during the morning session, punctuated by the ritual morning tea, of course.

That afternoon we bussed to Riverholme Pastures where Alvin Reid has built a dairy where cows are milked by robots.  The exceptional nature here was that this was a voluntary milking system (VMS) with the cows in their pasture.   There are three blocks of pasture at this dairy.  Each of the blocks is subdivided into sixteen paddocks as it might be at any NZ dairy.  Here the cows start out in one block and are allowed to drift towards the milking shed at their leisure.  After milking (or simply bypassing milking) the cows can move to the second block of pasture.  The process repeats itself as the day progresses and the cows move to the third block of pasture.  Cows can be automatically diverted if they are in heat or need special attention.  Riverholme has three years experience now with VMS.  Their conclusion from this experience is:  “It is easier to change the cow than the farmer.”

After viewing the VMS system, we visited Rock Farm where they are successfully growing and utilizing Lucerne (alfalfa).  Owned and operated by Herstall Ulrich, Rock Farm is a dryland lamb and beef finishing operation.  They also provide pasture for heifers and dry cows from the Moa Flat Dairy operated by Ulrich’s son.

Moa Flat is another dairy utilizing robotic milking.  Here, however, the cows are confined in a free stall barn similar to those found in the U.S.  This is still somewhat unusual in NZ.  This herd calves year around which is also unusual for NZ dairies.  Moa Flat milks 300 cows and grows 70-80% of their feed needs on the farm. Alfalfa makes up a large portion of the total mixed ration.  Another unusual feature here is that they own and operate their own planting and harvest equipment.

That evening Rock Farm hosted the conference attendees at a lamb and beef barbecue.  Very good!

November 3:  After the morning’s presentations, we visited the Highlands Farm of Bill and Shirley Wright in the Cave community.  The Wrights operate this 830 acre dryland farm for sheep, dairy heifers and beef bulls.  They utilize direct drilling (no-till) to provide a pasture/crop rotation which includes Italian ryegrass, fodder beets, kale, cereal silage, alfalfa, fescue and permanent pasture.  They produce enough dry matter to fully meet their feed requirements.  The Wrights are also involved in a “Forages for Reduced Nitrate Leaching Project” being conducted in Canterbury.

We spent that afternoon at the Levels Estate of Jonty and Nicky Hyslop.  Their 480 acre, fully irrigated tract is composed of perennial ryegrass, clover and plantain.  They utilize these pastures to add weight to purchased beef cattle and lambs.  Pasture monitoring is done with a subscription computer program call FARMAX.  Formerly they also grazed dairy heifers on contract but have eliminated this enterprise.

That evening we attended the Conference Banquet which concluded the Conference.

November 4:  This morning we planned to visit Mt. Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak.  We drove west into the higher elevations of the Hill Country.  At Lake Tekapo we saw the stunning blue water of this mountain lake.  There is a church right at the lake’s edge.  There is also a monument to the Collie sheep dog which made it possible to make a living on the sheep stations in this region.  Southern NZ was originally settled by immigrants from the highlands of Scotland.  They brought sheep and their farming techniques with them to the similar topography they found in NZ.

As we turned north towards Mt. Cook, we found Lake Pukaki.  Even more stunning, this lake was a dazzling blue color.  Mt. Cook overlooks the Tasman Glacier.  This glacier is shrinking 400-800 meters per year.  Today there are some remnant ice floes in the lake while the glacier itself is seen in the distance.

Our hike up to see the Tasman Glacier was a strenuous one, but we got a great view of the mountains surrounding the lake and glacier.  After our hike back down, we had lunch with the above view of Mt. Cook.  As we left Mt. Cook, we drove towards our next visit—Bog Roy Station.  This high country sheep station named after its Scottish heritage, is the home of Gundy and Lisa Anderson.  This young couple, like all the other families we visited, are very committed to the success of their enterprise and keep financial and business metrics and goals constantly in mind.  Their station encompasses about 6,000 acres and is home to 4,000 Merino ewes and a herd of Hereford cattle.  They receive about 17 inches of precipitation per year.  Most sheep producers pay almost as much in shearing expense as they receive for their wool.  The Merino sheep at Bog Roy produce a finer wool which is used for more expensive fabrics and brings a premium in this niche wool market.  Gundy took us up towards the higher end of the property where we saw extremely rocky terrain.  He described how they used a rock rake to remove most of the larger stones then used a very large roller to bury the remaining smaller stone.  Once they had an even surface they installed pivot irrigation units and fenced the pastures.  They then drilled in red clover which few of the other NZ producers attempted to grow because of insect pressure.  After irrigating these pastures, the results were nothing short of amazing.

The Andersons had just returned from a three time per year meeting with the thirty other couples that make up their farm management group.  Twice per year they meet on one of the members’ farms to discuss current issues and to discuss the management scheme that farmer is utilizing.  The third meeting is at a neutral location and is used to evaluate year end financial information and to use the average to benchmark each operations’ metrics.  The group uses a paid facilitator to coordinate their activities.

Bog Roy lies on the shore of Lake Benmore, which brings its attendant environmental issues of nitrogen leaching and other runoff concerns.  Gundy and Lisa keep this in mind as they continue to operate Bog Roy Station.  At the conclusion of our visit, representatives of Te Pari, a NZ livestock equipment manufacturer, demonstrated their new line of drench guns.  These are linked to a scale head via Bluetooth cordless technology and are able to adjust each dosage according to the weight of the animal on the scale.  This technology is also available for syringes applying injectables.

Leaving Bog Roy, we drove the nearby community of Twizel where we spent our last night in New Zealand.  That evening after dinner several of us looked for the Southern Cross, the constellation viewable only in the southern hemisphere, and used to determine a southerly direction.  We think we saw it, but were glad our navigation did not depend on it!  The next morning we drove back to Christchurch where we caught our flights back home.  Thirty hours later, Rene met me in Louisville for our drive home.

I am very grateful to Dennis Hancock, the American Forage and Grassland Council and to Karen Baldwin at AgriTravel for planning and executing all of the details of this adventure.  While I had contemplated a trip to New Zealand in the past, I realized that there would be no way I could have seen the farms and people that we met during this trip.  Not only were the farms representative of New Zealand agriculture today, but the ones we visited were on the cutting edge of innovation and research.  Their hospitality and “tea” were welcome and made this trip very special.  New Zealand’s “clean and green” scenery on both North and South Island were spectacular and they have much to be proud of.  This includes the clear water of their lakes and streams.

Bill Payne