Research into innovative dairy farms reveal milk production up to 25% more per cow at lower stocking rates can be achieved with lower carbon emissions and environmental effects.

Two years ago the Ministry for Primary Industries initiated the Farm Systems Change project, effectively using a triple bottom-line measurement of farm performance: environmental sustainability, animal welfare, and efficiency and profitability.

MPI senior analyst of sector policy, Jane Davidson, said external consultants had studied the records of 17 farms over five years and determined that while differing geographically and in farming systems used, there were similarities that enabled above-average performance.

“It primarily comes down to how efficiently they convert feed into milk, that the cows are looked after, they are well-fed, fit and healthy, and this was achieved across a range of dairy systems,” she said.

Farm systems were constantly evolving, and the MPI-funded study revealed some farmers were implementing sustainable farm practices that enabled them to achieve productivity increases within natural resource limits, often reducing the farm’s environmental footprint while maintaining financial performance and enhancing the resilience of the business.

Davidson said there were some common elements across the farms studied:

• the farmers paid attention to detail and were skilled at managing a whole-of-system approach while understanding the effect of changes to that system

• they understood and managed the relationship between feed efficiency, cow welfare and environment (feed waste was minimised by matching quality and supply to cows on a daily basis)

• the environment was integrated into farm management rather than seen as a compliance obligation, and

• farmers also made extensive use of advisers that they used as a team, again reflecting the whole-of-system approach.

Davidson said these farmers were hungry for information and to find ways to improve their business, and were constantly planning what changes to adopt next.

This focus resulted in farmers achieving up to 25% more milksolids per cow at lower stocking rates and with greater pasture utilisation than the industry norm, what she described as a significant result.

“That has potentially positive environmental outcomes, but that’s the sort of thinking that we want to test and refine.

“We think what we have got here is encouraging for the industry, but we want to test and refine these ideas with the industry.”

Two more farms would be studied, and then researchers would seek to understand what made these farmers successful and encourage that knowledge to be shared so others could improve profitability, reduce their environmental impact and be less exposed to milk price volatility.

“We want to share these examples, and the principles and learnings they highlight with the industry as a catalyst for a sector-wide conversation, highlighting the possibilities and potential opportunities for the industry,” Davidson said.

DairyNZ has been aware of the MPI-funded study and has participated.