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The performance of an efficient dairy system using a combination of nitrogen leaching mitigation strategies in a variable climate

Beukes, P.C., Romera, A.J., Gregorini, P., Macdonald, K.A., Glassey, C.B., Shepherd, M.A.
The Science of the total environment 2017 v.599-600 pp. 1791-1801
autumn, climate, cows, farmers, genetic merit, grasses, herds, leaching, mechanistic models, milk production, nitrogen, nitrogen fertilizers, pastures, protein supplements, weather, winter
An efficient dairy system, that implemented a combination of nitrogen (N) leaching mitigation strategies including lower N fertilizer input, standing cows off pasture for part of the day in autumn and winter (stand-off), and importing limited amounts of low protein supplements was evaluated over four consecutive years of a farmlet study. This efficient system consistently demonstrated a lower measured annual N leaching of 40 to 50% compared with a baseline system representing current practice with no mitigations. To maximize return from this system fewer cows but of higher genetic merit were used resulting in an average decrease in milk production of 2% and operating profit by 5% compared with the baseline system. The magnitude of the N leaching reduction from mitigation strategies was predicted in pre-trial modelling. Using similar mechanistic models in a post-trial study, we were able to satisfactorily predict the trends in the observed N leaching data over the four years. This enabled us to use the calibrated models to explore the contributions of the different mitigation strategies to the overall leaching reduction in the efficient system. In one of the years half of the leaching reduction was achieved by the ‘input’ component of the strategy (less feed N flowing through the herd from lower fertilizer use, less grass grown, and low-protein supplement use), while the other half was achieved by the stand-off strategy. However, these contributions are determined by the weather of a particular year. We estimate that on average stand-off would contribute 60% and ‘input’ 40% to the reduction. The implication is that farmers facing nutrient loss limitations have some current and some future technologies available to them for meeting these limitations. A shift towards the mitigations described here can result in a downward trend in their own N-loss metrics. The challenge will be to negate any reductions in production and profit, and remain competitive.