Grass-Fed Gold: Creating a Resilient Dairy Farming System


The Blinc Team attended the inaugural South Island Pasture Summit in Ashburton, a collaboration between Kiwi and Irish dairy farmers designed for farmers to share insights, learnings and consider what’s next for pasture based dairy. Robust discussions covered everything from optimal production, finances, equity growth and connecting with consumers across a diverse group of around 500 attendees. This summit was held during what is a challenging time for dairy farmers; falling prices, increasing concerns surrounding environmental impact and regulation and managing Mycroplasma bovis have all put pressure on farmers, their advisors and suppliers.

Why is pasture based dairy special?

Only New Zealand and Ireland have predominant pasture based systems. It was clear from the discussions there are opportunities across both countries to increase profitability and pasture utilisation, as well as improve genetics. Pasture based systems contribute less than 10% of the world’s dairy production yet are associated with higher nutrient density and improved omega 6 to omega 3 fat ratios. Dairy can also be the lowest cost source of dietary calcium, riboflavin and vitamin B12. If you’ve read the news lately, you might be surprised by all of the goodness in pasture grown milk. As Irish dairy farmer Michael Murphy noted at the conference, “We have a great story to tell, but we need to tell it better.”  This is particularly relevant at a time where we have malnutrition is our wealthy western world – too many calories and growing obesity but not the right nutrition and micro nutrients.  Dairy still has a key role to play.

There is still plenty of work to be done in the environmental arena, but I saw at the summit a group of farmers doing some great work and who are committed to continue to improve their processes and reduce the impact. Environmental regulations are increasing, and the majority will have a significant or reasonable impact on farm; Farm Environment Plan (FEP) implementation is just one of them. With so many changes, what is the best way forward?  How can we step back and relook how we manage our farming systems – one change on top of another will break the camel’s back. 

Do farmers need to change their systems and look for alternative land uses?

Fonterra announced last week that dairy prices have been cut and farmers are now looking at $6-6.30/kg MS. With high debt levels, low interest rates and focus of banks to get farmers to reduce their dept and increase their financial resilience – the pressure on farms that run with high input costs continues to increase. The discussion at the Pasture Summit provided some pathways—even if your farm debt is high today, some steps were tabled to change your farm system and become resilient to price fluctuations.

The production presentations at the summit featured experts such as Dr. John Roche and Dr. Brendan Horan, who explained that finding the correct stocking rate (SR) for your farm is key. The correct SR will maximise the utilisation of pasture, so supplementation is reduced or removed. This will keep costs low whilst improving calving rates and reducing N leeching. These systems are beautifully simplistic – the challenge was repeatedly put to the audience that replication is easier on simpler systems, versus higher input systems which are harder to replicate as there are more decisions every day.  This simplification of farming systems was proposed as the key to growing equity, without making radical changes to land use requiring more debt.

Where to start?

A simple, balanced system with minimised inputs sounds easy, but if you’re swimming in debt and relying on supplements to feed your girls, you probably feel more like Sisyphus than the highly successful farmers who presented at the conference. Transformational change is possible, but small steps towards that change will likely improve your chance of success. Here are some suggestions of where to get started:

  • Ask for help: you’re not alone and fellow farmers, as well as your banker and others, are keen to help. Find a farmer who is where you want to be and ask them if you come and learn.

  • Know your costs and get comfortable with your data: not sure what to make of all that data? See the previous step!

  • Think smarter and long-term: investment decisions today will have an effect in 20 years. In challenging times, it can become more difficult to make sound choices. Take time to step back, think things through, plan and believe in your farm.

  • Considering a partnership? Find someone you can trust and who shares similar goals and values.

The need for collaboration and cooperation came up throughout day one of the summit. At Blinc, our role is to facilitate those connections and help to create more competitive industries that result in a prosperous future for agribusiness. If you’re interested in meeting with likeminded farmers to explore these issues, please contact us to register your interest. We will be forming a farming cluster early next year and are looking to run a series of workshops that allow farmers to discuss these issues with their colleagues in a safe and supportive forum.

Victoria StarkComment