Louise Cook Owl Farm
A farm for future generations
Louise Cook, Owl Farm
Down a tree-lined driveway, just behind the campus of St Peter’s School near Cambridge, is a unique and innovative dairy farm.
Owl Farm wraps around the school on three sides, its 170 hectares of land sloping down to the Waikato River, and meeting the old State Highway One (now Cambridge Road) on the other side.
Established in the mid-1930s, the farm has always been an integral part of St Peter’s School.
Over the years it has grown – not only in size – but in vision and practice. It is now a world-class demonstration farm which offers the opportunity to showcase the journey towards a blueprint of sustainable, profitable dairying.
It is a place of education and learning, not only for St Peter’s pupils, but for farmers and rural professionals from around New Zealand and the world.
With its 450-strong herd of dairy cows, Owl Farm has ambitions to become a “top 20 per cent farm” says demonstration manager Louise Cook. Part of becoming a leader in dairy excellence is applying proven research, good on-farm practices and scientific monitoring to demonstrate environmental gains.
One important tool is FARMAX agricultural software, which helps Cook make day-to-day and long-term decisions for the future of Owl Farm.
KNOWING THE HISTORY
In the school’s early days, milk from the farm’s herd of 35 Jersey cows supplied the needs of the school, as did eggs from 250 hens. Pigs supplied the school with pork and bacon, and sheep added lamb to the menu.
During the war years the dairy herd increased to 120 milking cows, and revenue generated from the farm supported development on the farm and also contributed to the finances of the school.
In 1937 the farm was 64ha (159 acres), and over the years it has grown as adjoining properties were acquired. By 1975 the farm was at 186ha (460 acres) with about 320 cows producing around 500 gallons of milk. The School Farm, as it was known for most of its history, not only provided milk for the school but also for the borough of Cambridge at that time.
The farm has always been a place for study and learning, with ‘academic agriculturalists’ praised for their work at the school farm from its origins. It was one of the first farms in New Zealand to use artificial insemination in 1945, using sperm from an overseas sire, timed with a similar event at the Ruakura Animal Research Station (modern-day AgResearch).
In the past decade or two, the farm has not been actively supplying the school with food, but instead has been run as a farm business. Says Cook: “the profit from the farm has gone back to the school, so in that way it has been a successful commercial investment for the school.”
A NEW ERA AS A DEMO FARM
Taking learning to a new level, in 2014 St Peter’s partnered with Lincoln University to become a joint-venture demonstration farm.
It was rebranded Owl Farm. The owl appears on the St Peter’s School crest and represents knowledge, learning, wisdom and education – all values which underscore the new partnership.
Owl Farm has developed a strong national and international reputation as a demonstration dairy farm. Each quarter, farmers and rural professionals gather onsite for Farm Focus Days, which are opportunities for learning, discussion, sharing ideas and networking.
The farm strives to be a leader in financial and environmental performance, human resources management and health and safety standards. It works with industry partners Opus, LIC, DairyNZ, Fonterra Farmsource, Ballance, PGG Wrightson Seeds and Westpac.
Currently, Owl Farm has 431 crossbred (Friesian/Jersey cross) cows in its milking herd, which in the 2017 year produced around 178,000 kilograms of milk solids.
Although the farm is 170ha, only about 132ha is actively farmed as part of the dairy farm, along with 18ha of land leased from a neighbour. Restoration zones, including areas of native plantings done in conjunction with local iwi – Ngati Haua Mahi Trust – make up the remainder.
Owl Farm is conscious of the environment and mitigating the impact of farming on the land and waterways. A wetland was put in last year on the south-west side of the farm, above the Waikato River, to help filter nutrients and improve water quality.
The farm has continued to be a place of learning, especially for students.
“You will often see the students out on the farm doing practical components of their school work,” says Cook. “You see geography students out soil-testing or biology students investigating the wetlands. It’s using the farm as an outdoor classroom. It is integrated into their learning and part of their unit standards.”
For many of the students, especially those who don’t come from a farming background, having access to Owl Farm is special. “We had our youngest students – the Year Seven students – come down and feed the calves and they named them all,” says Cook. “They will follow those calves as they grow.”
WHERE FARMAX COMES IN
Cook is a big fan of FARMAX and how it has helped with managing Owl Farm. “There is so much functionality with FARMAX and so many things you can monitor and check,” says Cook, who has used it for several years. “It’s a good tool that monitors all parts of the business and how it interacts.”
Admitting that she “loves data”, Cook says that in farming “you’ve got to be sure of your numbers”.
She likes FARMAX because “it’s a tool that the average farmer can use, it’s not just for consultants”.
Cook uses FARMAX in several ways, to help her assess what is happening on the farm, answer questions and make good decisions for the future.
One question Cook wanted to answer was around Owl Farm’s feed system. Getting the feed right impacts everything from the cow’s condition to milk quality, so it’s important stuff. “Looking ahead to winter, we needed a really robust forecast,” says Cook.
Last year’s maize silage wasn’t utilized well in the paddocks, and the decision was made not to purchase it in again, however, the focus on growing more grass and healthy chicory crops, along with pasture silage made on the farm and buying in palm kernel, will work well. She’s wary of introducing much more palm kernel, as high levels can impact the fat ratio of the milk for their supplier Fonterra.
Cook says more strategic scenarios can be considered too. Studies have also shown that plantain can reduce the amount of nitrogen getting into the soil.
“If we wanted to integrate plantain into our feed budget, how would that affect things throughout the year? It’s a complicated question to figure out,” says Cook. “I could just plug the information into FARMAX and see the impact easily.”
Keeping on top of the feed budget and monitoring things on the farm are ongoing tasks for Cook. Every Tuesday afternoon she sits down with the farm manager and they look at the feed budget in FARMAX to see if things are on track. It allows her to respond early, and make any changes: “FARMAX gives you the ability to feed your cows not only now, but look ahead and see in three weeks or a few months, how you are tracking, and whether you will have a feed deficit”.
PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE
The strategic plan for Owl Farm is in two stages, and focused on it becoming both profitable and sustainable. “We don’t think we are a ‘top 20 per cent’ farm yet, but we are a lot closer to that goal,” says Cook. “We want to go from average to being in that top tier.”
Their partnership with Lincoln University and leading agribusiness companies will help them on their way. Cook belives “in the last 12 months as we are getting ready to begin stage two, FARMAX has been a big part of that.”
“We’ve had to consider everything – less cows or more cows, less feed or more feed, herd homes, feed pads, in-shed feeding, calving dates, winter milking? Which combination of these things is going to give us a reliable improvement in profit as well as an improvement in nutrient efficiency? Both profitability and the environment are important, it can’t be one without the other.”
To work through these options, the former demonstration manager, Doug Dibley, modelled them in FARMAX, then looked at the nutrient budget in OVERSEER to find out the impact of these scenarios on the environment.
“The intersection between the two is a drafting gate of its own,” jokes Cook. “Some systems might significantly improve profitability, but have a negative impact on the environment, or vice versa.”
As Owl Farm heads towards the future, its twin goals of environmental excellence and profitability will make it a role model for other dairy farmers and a generation of future leaders through the school. Farmax is pleased to have a role in helping Owl Farm achieve its goals.