Flooding is a fact of life for farmers on the Manawatu plains. By Jackie Harrigan.

Angela Strawbridge and 2IC Letisha Stubbs.

After spending four years farming in the Basin, Angela Strawbridge is well versed in weather watching, flying into action after receiving flood alerts and dealing with flood-resistant pastures.

It’s knowledge her new farm owner obviously valued when he offered her to stay on in the role of farm manager on the 255-hectare milking platform at Rangiotu in the Manawatu.

She has worked hard on many initiatives to increase production, improve cow efficiency and shore up team systems, some of which helped her win a merit award for people management in the 2022 Horizons Ballance Farm Environment Awards.

Ownership of the Basin changed in June 2022, from Hopkins Farming Group, who Angela had managed the property for for four years, to the OB Group.

It’s not quite business as usual for Angela, with a change from calving 850 cows in a split calving system to 750 cows calving in spring, to take pressure off the farm in the wet of winter.

And every winter is wet, with The Basin named after the basin it sits in, alongside the Oroua River with Burke’s Drain running along the northern boundary – the main drain that takes the overflow of stormwater from Palmerston North city, preventing the city from flooding in a prolonged rain event. Another drain takes overflow from the Oroua River.

Angela is impressed with the flood alert calls she gets from Horizons Regional Council and tracks the rain warnings for the Oroua and Manawatu rivers while taking a flooding event in her stride.

“We know if there is a big rain event through in the Tararua, at the source of the Manawatu River, there will be lots of water coming our way.

“They can be quite helpful – we know that a December flood means a good January/February for summer pasture production.”

Up to 75% of the farm has been under water in a bad event, and can take up to 10 days to clear.

Previous owners Hopkins Farming Group put 25% of the farm into a fescue-dominant sward in the back paddocks nearest the drain which Angela says survives really well up to 10 days under water.

The fescue, plantain, clover mix (15% plantain, 30% clover, 55% fescue) has taken a different management approach but has proven its worth in terms of flood recovery.

Growth is fast, with good winter growth and earlier seed head that thrives in summer but needs to be watched carefully and often involves some topping, Angela says.

“We have also put some red clover in – with the longer tap roots to bring moisture up from below.”

“We can graze the sward every 12 days with a faster growing round – so we try to do a weekly pasture walk to keep an eye on it.”

The farm grows 13-14 tonnes/ha each year, Angela says.

When asked if the cows milk well on it, she explained that the milk protein levels drop slightly but that the fescue is a four-leaf stage type plant, but really needs to be grazed at the three-leaf stage before the cows find it too fibrous – and then it might need topping to get it back under control.

Fescue prefers warmer temperatures for establishment – so Angela says she needs to have a discussion with the new owner about changing to chicory rather than turnips for summer feed – to get the regrassing done sooner. And to ensure a good strike.

It’s a balancing act Angela says, as milksolids can dip 0.5kg on the fescue sward but jump by the same amount on the chicory with the higher protein intake.

Last season the farm was a System 3-4 operation with the winter milking, bringing in mainly maize, palm kernel and making 200T of grass silage, but plans are afoot with the new owner John O’Brien opting to grow their own maize (400-500T maize) at the runoff and on the extended platform, from adding in a neighbouring 100ha, which is part of the O’Briens’ home farm.

The additional land will be useful as it’s slightly higher ground and will be partially  milked on and also used to grow the maize, Angela says.

Supplement will be fed until September when balance date hits then the herd reverts to straight pasture along with the summer crop.

Building performance and reproduction

Angela has spent 25 years in the dairy industry and the past four years at The Basin.

The herd was producing 268,000kg MS in her first season there and she has built production to 319,000kg MS with 50 fewer cows. She puts the increase down to improved grazing management and improvements to the herd. With a reduced empty rate she was able to cull some of the poorer cows from the herd.

“There were lots of three-titters and old cows here when I arrived, but we have been able to get rid of them. We also really reaped the rewards of a better empty rate by reducing it to 15% from 19% and improving the six-week in-calf rate to 70%.

“Part of that was increasing the herd fertility by whole-herd metrichecking and monitoring body condition score each month.”

Drafting light cows into a once-a-day herd with the lame cows meant they could build their condition before mating.

Improving the environmental footprint

The effluent system has been rebuilt with an enlarged pond which can cater for the wet soils and for the planned increase in cow numbers to 1000 when the extra 100ha is brought into the milking platform.

A solids separator has been a bonus to screen the solids out and apply that to the crop paddocks.

The effluent area has been expanded to 90ha and has the ability to extend the lines Angela says. “Because we are on a flood plain we need to have flexibility.”

“We have kept the N application regime to under 100kg/ha/year because I prefer to stay away from nitrogen application and use more effluent application area.”

The farm team has fenced off lots of old drains, along with putting new proper drains through and the next project is to plant natives to build biodiversity.

“The duck ponds need fresh planting too, so we will be going for co-funding from Horizons Regional Council to buy suitable plants.”

She is proud of how many small native frogs they have noticed living in the old Taonui stream bed and is keen to bring more back into the drains and streams around the farm.

This season the calf rearing facilities have been extended to increase access to sunlight and have bigger runs for the calves. The races have also been limed, to address the lameness problems from the wet farm.

“Limed races are much better for cow flow, they have their heads down walking along and walk at their own pace – we have just had quotes for rubber matting in the rotary dairy shed also.”

Auto cup removers, auto chemical dispensers and an auto teat sprayer have been installed in the shed, along with green floodwash for the yard and feed pads.

“We don’t use any fresh water for cleaning them and to further save water, the chiller water goes into a water tank and into the cow water supply system.”

People Award winner

Angela is a people person and thrives on building and enabling her farm team.

“I like to build a farm team where you share passion and goals, when everyone knows what you want to achieve and to upskill all the team members to keep high standards.”

She has upskilled the team on cell count management and good shed hygiene to avoid grades and has trained them all in effluent management.

“It’s important to give them the ‘why’ so they understand the reasoning rather than just how we do things.

“All of the staff have a personalised training plan and the opportunity for upskilling – working with Primary ITO to make sure they get recommended courses to suit them and the farm pays for the training.”

Aiming for five fulltime staff, she says the key to retaining good people is having an enjoyable team environment and staff-friendly rosters.

“The 6:2 roster works well with a team of four, and we can put a junior person on as an overlap and still have a strong team.

“You have to be more flexible around rosters these days, so we try to be open to different rosters for different team needs.”

Her 2IC Letisha Stubbs, who has a B Ag Com degree and is now studying Primary ITO level 4, is a keen dog agility competitor and values the flexibility to swap shifts when she needs to travel to competitions.

Angela is studying part time for a B Ag Com qualification by distance, combining study of two papers in Semester 1with one paper in Semester 2 and 2 papers over summer school.

She also manages to fit in leading three regional DWN leaders in her role as Lower NI Hub Leader and supports her three children and grandchildren.