Pasture renewal pays for Thomsen family

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New grasses are a vital cog in the dairy support system on Hugh and Deidre Thomsen’s Patoka farm, enabling them to meet weight gain targets and lift carrying capacity.

The couple farm Lindholm with their sons Greg and Hamish and have made the somewhat unusual move to a 100% dairy support operation, specifically heifer grazing.

The grazing means they have been able to grow their business sustainably, include their sons, and start planning for farm succession.

The home block, Lindholm is 285 hectares effective and they have added the neighbouring hill block, 150ha eff. They more recently purchased the Endburry block, which is 200ha eff.

The Thomsens take on 1200 heifers during December, and industry best practice is for the heifers to be 100kg by December 1. Weighing and drenching is done monthly and they have a number of weight gain targets to meet.

The same number is taken through as R2s for an 18-month period, so over summer and autumn they have 2400 heifers on the property. The R2s go home, in calf, on May 1.

The Thomsens aim to send a 430kg plus, in-calf, heifer home - though the weight can vary depending on the breed.

They soon realised their older, native pastures weren’t cutting it for the young stock in terms of quality feed. They implemented a re-grassing programme and aim to renew 40ha of pasture annually.

“That’s where the young grasses come in, to achieve those weight gains, otherwise we are really pushing to hit those targets with the carrying capacity we have,” Hugh says.

“At Endburry, without the new grasses down there we would only carry half as many animals.”

After much trial and error since they started re-grassing eight years ago, the Thomsens believe they have found the grass that suits their property and climate in short term Italian grass.

They tried brassicas as a development tool but found the animals didn’t do on them. They are able to get three years out of the Italian, with luck. It also makes good balage, which they use as supplement in tight seasons.

Hamish says they are able to pay off the investment within two years and get a better return off that grass with a shorter grazing rotation time for the heifers.

“They just fly on the new pastures. They can do up to an average of 1.2kg/day on it at certain times of the year.”

He calculates that if they hadn’t undertaken the re-grassing at Lindholm they would only be carrying 350 heifers as opposed to the 700 they comfortably carry now on the home block.

“If we didn’t re-grass on the home block we would only be grossing $800/ha as opposed to $1600/ha. The initial cost is around $760/ha to put new grass in,” he says.

“Generally, I reckon we’re growing double the amount (of grass) compared to the old pastures, it could even be more than that, provided we get a good establishment,” Hugh says.

“You don’t put them (heifers) on there hoping they are going to do, you put them on there knowing they are going to do.”

Due to the area they always spring sow. “Moisture and warmth is crucial and that happens in the spring. Autumns can be a bit fickle here and it’s too risky. Spring gives us a longer establishment period.”

Hugh believes the key to managing the new grasses and keeping them going is a short grazing interval. Heifers are in a break for just two days and then out again, ensuring there are always residual covers left in the paddocks (though the level does depend on the season).

“As soon as you start hammering those new grasses you’re not really looking after them and don’t get the same metabolisable energy (ME) out of them,” Hamish says.

While the Italian has proved a winner as a short term grass, the Thomsens are still searching for a good permanent ryegrass that can handle the dry.

“The Italian grows through the fringe seasons, it keeps going, whereas the native pastures grow in the spring and are dormant after that. The old pastures are more costly, from my point of view,” Hugh says.

“It (re-grassing) is expensive to do, but it costs you more in the long term if you don’t do it.”