From pasture to profit

By Annette Lambly

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Dennis Wallace tells Annette Lambly about the many changes he has seen in dairying.

Cows are bred not only for temperament, conformation and fertility, but also to be efficient converters of grass to milk.
Cows are bred not only for temperament, conformation and fertility, but also to be efficient converters of grass to milk.

Having grown up on a Ruawai dairy farm, Dennis Wallace has always had a love of the land and strong attraction to dairying.

"Farmers do something that is real," he says. "There is something innately satisfying about milk flowing into a vat and the awareness that it is going to end up as a high-value product," he says.

Wallace has spent 30 years in agriculture-associated servicing or sales roles, including a three-year secondment in 2000 to Ireland, where he worked with dairy farmers as they moved from traditional farming towards modern pastoral techniques.

"Ireland's rural social structure was similar to the New Zealand rural structure I grew up in - small family units where unlocked doors were the norm, everyone knew each other and neighbours pitched in with seasonal chores."

Those days are long gone. The push for more production and profits has seen the Northland average herd size rise to 300 cows and the growth of large herds of up to 1600 cows resulting from farmers buying neighbouring properties.

"As a result there are fewer dairy farms and, in turn, fewer people employed on the land and this has impacted considerably on the rural community infrastructure and social environment. However, the economic reality of what makes a viable dairy farm appears to suggest size does matter, especially where debt servicing is involved."

Wallace recalls that when working as an AB technician during the mid-1970s there were still a few walk-through cowsheds. Those disappeared as herd sizes grew and herringbone sheds were the order of the day - now rotaries have gained in popularity.

"The technology used now as part of milk harvesting is tremendous and contributes hugely to the quality of the product that eventually ends up on to consumers' tables."

That was just the beginning of many changes attributable to the advancement of technology, Wallace says.

Dennis Wallace has a great love of the land. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Dennis Wallace has a great love of the land. Photo / Michael Cunningham

Production has increased through improved genetics, better grass species, increased supplement usage, better pasture management and improved animal health and husbandry.

Animals are now bred to produce and fit with modern dairy requirements. Not only are they bred for temperament, conformation and fertility, but also to be efficient converters of grass to milk.

Farmers need to be aware of environmental issues, sustainability, traceability and OSH requirements and, while the practical skill requirement of farming continues to be huge, hard work alone is no longer enough to make the farm business successful.

Farming is a multimillion-dollar business and sound business decisions are required.

"I don't perceive many of the 1940s and 50s generation farmers would have envisaged sitting down to write out goals or plans before heading out with a pitchfork or shovel, and I doubt whether they would have given much thought to succession planning," Wallace says. "We are fortunate in Northland to have some excellent rural professionals who are available to walk farmers through these issues, and courses and training is available for upskilling."

As a strong believer in what dairying can offer future generations, Wallace would like to see better promotion of career opportunities. "Dairy farming continues to offer new entrants the opportunity to grow asset wealth at a rate that potentially outpaces many alternative career choices," he says. Today's farming has many operational choices, including once-a-day milking, split calving, split herds, and the way farmers fed their herds whether pasture, housed or combinations of both.

"Twenty or 30 years ago once-a-day milking would not have been viewed as anything but a lifestyle option, feeding cows a waste product from palm trees was unheard of, selling surplus heifers to China didn't happen and irrigating with effluent to utilise the nutrient content would not have been common.

"We are often reminded the dairy industry is the largest export contributor to the economy and there is a responsibility that this carries. "I have an absolute conviction most people tending the land are doing so with empathy for the environment and a desire to nurture and improve the piece of land they are entrusted with."

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