Calving and milking has begun in all northern dairying regions, with tailwinds from warmer early winter weeks and prospective higher milk prices persisting.
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Owl Farm manager Tom Buckley says kind weather in June means good prospects for July and August.

Planned start of calving in the South Island is two or three weeks away and pasture conditions and winter feed crops are in good shape, farm consultants report.

NIWA figures disclose that soils have field capacity saturation in all districts of the country except Central Otago and coastal Wairarapa.

The standardised precipitation index is “near normal” over 85% of the country, the exceptions being severely dry along the west coast of Northland, moderately dry in the rest of the Kaipara District and Coromandel, and severely or extremely wet in Southland and coastal Taranaki.

Rainfall figures in previously dry regions have shown regular useful falls during the winter weeks so far, although soil moisture profiles have not yet recovered in many places.

DairyNZ’s head of the North Island regional teams Rob Brazendale says pasture covers and cow conditions were generally good going into calving and the new dairy season.

“June was excellent for pasture growth and good utilisation because it was still dry under foot and warmer than normal,” Brazendale said.

“It has only really been in the past 14 days that growth has slowed down, but most farmers are well set for the remainder of winter.

“Soil moistures have barely reached field capacity and the aquifers and streams are not fully recharged, which is a little concern, but we have plenty of time yet for heavier rainfall.”

DairyNZ’s South Island teams head Tony Finch says temperatures had been mild and pasture growth good until last week.

“Most farmers have been able to catch up on their pasture covers and grow their winter feeds well,” Finch said.

“The more difficult regions are West Coast, where the situation is only manageable, and Southland where soils are saturated, but nothing out of the ordinary.

“Winter has been quite forgiving so far, except for the floods in Mid Canterbury.”

Finch says a third seasonal payout over $7/kg was unprecedented and farm businesses were well-placed financially, having caught up with the damage done between 2013 and 2015 and able to cope with compliance and regulatory costs.

LIC FarmWise national manager Edward Hardie says five seasons of good milk prices had been interrupted by droughts in some regions, where financial gains had been paid out in extra feed costs.

Generally, dairy farmers had caught up with delayed repairs and maintenance, paid down some of their borrowings and worked on environmental improvements.

“The industry has made good progress through this time, but we have unknowns, such as covid effects in the markets,” Hardie said.

“Among the good signs are an increased number of farm sales.”

In Waikato, Owl Farm manager Tom Buckley says kind weather through June had set up the 164ha farm well for July and August.

It meant they were able to utilise feed much better and build up their feed covers for the months ahead.

“I think the growth rates will become a little bit more normalised now, with slightly wetter soils and cooler temperatures. We had really good growth through June, which was great and really good utilisation too,” Buckley said.

The farm at St Peter’s School near Cambridge is about 25% through calving its 402-cow herd. Buckley says the herd was in great condition thanks to those good pasture growth rates.

“We’re still sitting above 2400kg DM/ha and we’re pretty confident going forward. We’ll start speeding up the rounds in the coming weeks now that we have them calved and are producing a lot of milk,” he said.

He says one potential concern was soil moisture. While there had been enough rain to start building reserves, the farm could do with a good downpour.

“We’re still a long way behind after two dry years of half the average rainfall. We’re a full year behind after two years,” he said.

Demonstration manager Jo Sheridan says the rain that had occurred had kept the pastures growing, but had not been enough to fill up soil moisture profiles.

Owl Farm has had about 750mm per year for the past two years, well below the 1250mm average.

“That last rainfall we had was the first time the soils have been at full capacity since August 28, the year prior. It’s almost been 11 months since the soils were filled right up again,” Sheridan said.

Further south near Te Kuiti, Waikato Federated Farmers president Jacqui Hahn says things were looking relatively good feed and animal condition-wise.

“Dry stock prices are high and probably in relation to high pasture cover. Groundwater is still lower than usual as ephemeral seeps have not run, and soil is still drier than normal in many areas,” Hahn said.

Southland is experiencing one of its wettest winters for a number of years, which is helping replenish soil moisture levels.

Agri Business Ltd farm consultant Deane Carson says after a dry start to winter, the last month has been wet, which has caused some feed utilisation issues.

“People are going through feed quite quickly, which is impacting on a few feed budgets,” Carson said.

However, farmers have plenty of baleage, which is being used to breach the feed gap.

He says the past few years have been dry, so the wet will help recharge soil moisture levels.

South Otago is experiencing what Federated Farmers vice president Stephen Crawford described as a normal winter, with rainfall for the year-to-date about average.

Crawford says farmers will welcome soil water tables being replenished.

Winter has arrived in North Otago bringing regular rain and some grass growth, with farmers hoping the cycle of two-and-a-half years of irregular weather patterns could finally have ended.

“We’ve had two-and-a-half seasons that have been difficult, where we have been living hand to mouth,” Duntroon farmer Matt Ross said.

Dry weather since January means crop yields are low, with many farmers relying on bought-in supplementary feed. But regular recent rain has set the district up, should they have a favourable spring.

After a dry autumn, North Canterbury is also welcoming recent rain, although local Federated Farmers president Caroline Aymes says the areas hit by the May deluge was patchy.

That storm was followed by a mild June, which encouraged some pasture growth, although that has been stopped by a series of frosts in July.

Nominations are open for Fonterra’s board election but a repeat of the drama that rocked the vote three years ago can be ruled out.

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