Central Otago is a region where farming is predominantly sheep and beef. The profitability of these farms varies, and in the last few years lamb prices have not helped this. Nitrogen use has the potential to help farmers improve production and profitability, but the use of it also varies a lot from farm to farm in the area.
The aim of this report is to explore the use of nitrogen on Central Otago sheep and beef farms in order to get an understanding of how farmers are using it, and how it could be used better. While using nitrogen can significantly boost productivity, it is important that this drives profitability as well.
Six Central Otago sheep and beef farmers were interviewed to get a good understanding of their systems, their use of nitrogen, and their profitability. These businesses have been compared and contrasted to build a picture of what good use of nitrogen in the future might look like for the area.
There were some similarities and differences between systems, but some major consistencies:
- All ran breeding ewes.
- All ran cattle but there was variation between what the cattle element was made up of for some it was cows for some trade stock or grazing stock.
- All finished some or all of their own stock.
- All had an area of Lucerne within their system.
- All grew winter crops.
- All tried to cut all their own supplement for winter feed.
Farmers were also questioned around benchmarking, feed budgeting, and environmental regulation to build a picture of their motivation and execution of their goals.
From this, several recommendations have been made both for farmers and rural professionals:
- Those in support roles (company reps, industry good organisations) need to identify ‘triggers’ for nitrogen use and be more proactive in their discussions around nitrogen to ensure that when farmers do decide to use it, that they have a good experience.
- That current application rates for strategic use continue to be followed – the author is not suggesting that rates of nitrogen use should dramatically increase, but that farmers should be more prepared to utilise light to medium rates of nitrogen to help maximise their pasture production.
- Rural Professionals need to help farmers in a more structured manner to execute plans to use nitrogen. This should allow them to more easily link their action (nitrogen application) with results, be it increased pasture growth or better ewe body condition score at weaning. This might be as simple as a straight forward pasture measurement exercise.
- Farmers need to examine their systems more closely to ensure they are building resilience to adverse effects. For example, many could possibly benefit from building a higher trading or finishing component into their system rather than re-building ewe numbers – they need sound advice from Rural Professionals to do this given their tendency not to use formal feed budgeting.
- In turn, advisors need to be more careful to explain and help farmers to understand the figures around their farming systems – be it pasture production or financial figures. As soon as they don’t understand what they are looking at, the benefit of the exercise is lost (for example when benchmarking).
- Farmers need to work at increasing the amount of measuring, monitoring and benchmarking that happens in their businesses. They are surely missing out on key triggers to make changes by not monitoring financial performance and pasture production closely.
- Finally, farmers need to share what they do well. In particular, the farmers interviewed were all doing a great job of looking after the environment that they farm in. They need to be spreading the word, especially as they are largely doing this due to their own motivation, rather than due to regulation.
The farmers in this area face a set of challenging conditions. In order for their businesses to be future-proofed for future generations, they need to build businesses resilient to the many environmental and economic challenges they face. Using tools such as nitrogen is just one part of the puzzle, but one which the industry can provide significant help with in order to improve profitability.