A cheeky entry into the 2014 Ballance Farm Environment Awards switched Paul and Lisa Charmley on to what they could be doing to enhance and protect the environment on their 350-cow Dannevirke dairy farm.
While they managed to win the Hills Laboratories Soil Management Award for their soil management, they say the big win for them was the fantastic feedback and suggestions they received from judges.
“They suggested planting our fenced-off riparian areas, retiring some areas and other things to really lift our environmental performance,” Lisa says.
- Just get started
- Go to your local regional council for advice on what plants thrive in your region
- Be proactive, ask for advice and free seeds, cuttings
- Trial and error – some grow, some don’t
- Get your local community involved
- Involve your children – they are great helpers
- Plant by the moon phases – it works.
Paul is a fourth-generation farmer on the block at Te Rehunga, close to the Ruahine Ranges. When the couple bought 80 hectares and leased a further 36ha of their 106ha effective farm in 2013 from a family partnership they were fired up with ideas and enthusiasm.
“We bought on a high market too, so we were pretty motivated by the high debt level,” Paul says.
After the BFEA judging, Lisa launched into buying and planting riparian natives along the seven kilometres of fenced off waterways, with varying success.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing and we lost some because we had planted the bare-rooted plants in wet spots.”
Then her mum suggested lots of the natives could be grown from seed and cuttings so Lisa started down that track – within a year she had 600 plants growing in her back garden.
Paul and Lisa Charmley, Te Rehunga, Dannevirke
106 ha eff, 300 Kiwicross cows, 121,316kg MS, 405kg MS/cow
System 2, 4.5ha summer turnips, 400tonnes silage, 40 bales balage
A real enthusiast who throws herself into projects – but with a keen eye on the bottom line – she now has a dedicated propagation area and potting sheds with 1500 potted native plants happily growing under a new timer-controlled watering system that Paul installed for her for Christmas.
Growing a wide variety of natives, she has learnt which are best-suited for wet and dry areas and which take easily from cuttings or grow successfully from seed. She taps any resource she can – friends with bush blocks for seed, help from her mum, cuttings from friends’ stock bushes and empty pots from people in Dannevirke who have been collecting them in their sheds for years.
Having reached the stage where she could no longer hide her potting mix buying habit in the family budget, Lisa says she has gone commercial and found a supplier of bulk native plant potting mix from Napier to keep feeding her habit – at much less cost.
Repotting plants into bigger pots as they grow is a big commitment but she estimates riparian planting will be completed in five years by growing the plants herself, at a cost of only 60 cents a plant.
Paul is gearing up to get this year’s crop of plants planted in autumn, using farm workers Jay Singh and Andrew Campbell to help plant and also release last year’s plants from the encroaching grass.
The Charmleys have also constructed a bridge over the largest stream on the property for total stock exclusion and fenced off a stand of totara to regenerate ferns and native trees along with another small retired block around the cow shed.
“It has been so heartening to see the bugs and bees and frogs and birdlife coming back,” Lisa says.
Lisa’s environmental work led to her being nominated to attend the Dairy Environmental Leaders Forum, setting up and working with a regional group and looking for outreach opportunities to further the message and work.
Simple farming system refined
While Paul had always worked in the dairy industry after attending Taratahi and working locally then on his family farm, Lisa came from a background of study and working in manufacturing of aluminium windows in Napier before marrying Paul and shifting to Dannevirke.
His practical knowledge combined with her strengths in processes and systems and their mutual love of budgeting and knowing the numbers driving their new business has formed a powerful and strongly analytical partnership. They also have a bent for technology.
After buying the farm in 2013 they looked at the strengths and weaknesses of the business from a lean management point of view and decided to borrow more money to improve infrastructure and upgrade facilities.
The effluent system was due for an upgrade so they retired their old slurry tank, installing a pump and rain gun which applies three times the effluent in an hour. The 17ha effluent area is now treated differently for soil sampling and fertiliser application.
They also invested in Protrack for the dairy and a dosatron unit and dung buster yard scraper – identifying that saving time would mean saving money in the long run and enable them to keep farm working expenses low by savings in labour.
“Keeping our FWE to $2.36/kg MS has meant we weathered the storm of low payout years quite well,” Paul says.
Resiting their calf-rearing operation to a pole shed behind the cowshed with milk piped under the tanker track has been life-changing and meant a huge time saving for the operation.
“We saved a couple of hours each day not having to cart buckets of milk to outlying haysheds and in springtime that time is really valuable.”
Lisa’s native plant emporium
Hebes, pittosporums, lancewood, ribbonwood,
coprosma robusta, ake ake, olearia, carex secta, tenax, mountain flax, cabbage trees, manuka.
He also built a small sleepout for the children to play in and to act as a farm office next to the calf shed and shifted an old shipping container close by. Lisa kitted out the container with all of the fencing and water tools so they are always on hand, easy to replace back where they belong and always easy to find – another lean management principle, saving time by being methodical and organising your equipment so you never need to search for it.
The infrastructure upgrades meant the Charmleys were able to save on staff in the low payout years and afford to take on another worker this season.
Investing in a CDAX tow-behind last season has saved more time – with the unit connecting to the home computer by Bluetooth, the feed wedge can be updated as readings are taken, and all done in a morning.
While other bank managers and accountants might have shuddered at the outlay on improving infrastructure, Lisa and Paul managed to keep theirs onside by creating and presenting up-to-date budgets and cost benefit analysis using their good friend and ally, CRS Cash Manager Rural.
“We didn’t do a detailed cost benefit analysis for each investment but with mental arithmetic we were able to get a pretty good idea of what each upgrade would do to our bottom line,” Lisa says.
Through the journey they didn’t waver from their low-input System 2 approach, saying they want to farm the low-impact way, like farming 20 years ago but refined with modern technology to make it more time-efficient and more fun.
The Charmleys weaned themselves off urea after an approach to Doug Edmeades company AgKnowledge gave them the confidence that they could do it.
“It’s a bit like coming off the sugar – but the clover has thickened up really well and has helped us hold on to the production through our dry summers,” Paul says.
Palm kernel doesn’t feature on the farm – “it’s always been too expensive for us” according to Paul and they also prefer to use their grass silage from the runoff and milking platform as supplement.
“It’s the old-fashioned way – saving the surplus to fill in the gaps.”
A result of higher clover content and bloat worries was a new grazing system Paul developed after break-feeding a few part-paddocks around the cow shed one day. He noticed how much better the cows utilised the pasture and it showed in the vat, so he did some research and introduced his “bit-by-bit” grazing system.
Basically the cows are break-fed chunks of the paddock throughout the day rather than getting the whole paddock.
“It works really well – the cows always have fresh feed to go on to, we do very little topping and we have had an increase of 10% milksolids in the vat,” Paul says. “And there have been no cows lost to bloat.”
Paul has had great success spotting cycling cows with his DJI Phantom 3 drone, adding to a 78% six-week in-calf rate and 11% empty rate last mating.
Mating for nine weeks of AI, Paul says he was getting a little tired by the last three weeks and silent heat cows are harder to spot at that end of the season.
Sending his drone up for a 20-minute spotting run it’s easy from 100 metres to spot the dots of cows that are restless and tracking around the paddock after each other. Swooping closer he can capture their markings and number them – and spraying their numbers on their backs works well for any hard-to-identify cows.
Paul enjoys figuring out and flying the drone and is excited by its prospects for future use, saying he has used it to deliver ice creams to the worker’s house and is looking forward to being able to spot-spray weeds and measure pasture mass with updated versions of drones.