Regenerative Dairy Farmer Pushes for Premium Price

Ditchfield Group

A Southland dairy farmer is pushing for Fonterra to pay premium prices for milk produced using regenerative farming practices.

Dylan Ditchfield, the owner of Freedom Acres Ltd, runs over 400 cows on more than 160ha in Wendonside and 130ha run-off he leases in Freshford.

Ditchfield and his wife run the life and leadership course Farming to Freedom, which they founded in X.

South Otago dairy farmer Mark Anderson attended the course a few years ago and told Ditchfield about the bale grazing system he uses for winter.

Hay bales were laid on pasture in a checkerboard for cows to craze on.

Ditchfield was inspired by Anderson's pursuit to produce healthier, nutrient-dense food by removing chemicals and improving the biology in the soil to grow pasture for stock.

He described it as working with nature, not against it.

In the winter of 2020, Ditchfield tried the bale grazing in two paddocks to winter cows transitioning from dry to lactating, which then calved on the land. The plan was to bale graze both paddocks, so they'd be covered in hay residue by the end of winter 2023.

Ditchfield supplies milk to Fonterra and was talking to the co-operative about paying more to dairy farmers using regenerative practices.

He said he was pushing for Fonterra to recognise that regenerative farming offers a premium product.

Ditchfield's farm was part of the AgResearch field experiment The Soil Armour Project, which aimed to discover whether cattle grazing on pasture in winter could reduce nitrogen leaching and mud compared to traditional forage crops.

This winter, there were 30 experiment plots on the farm, with soil solution samplers measuring levels of nitrate leaching in the water table.

The size of the plots was the same, but the stock rate was different from mirror industry practices of two grazing systems. On control plots, four cows ate kale and baleage for two days, and on bale grazing plots, two cows ate pasture and hay for two days.

Ditchfield's cows had been condition scored before and after this year's winter.

Cows eating the kale and baleage had slightly higher scores, but nothing significant and the bale grazing cows were still in comfortable calving condition.

Ditchfield believed the condition of the bale grazed cows could be improved by growing more nutritious grass with more green leaf. He added that the quality of the grass this year had been impacted by a dry autumn.

Bale grazing could also save farmers money.

As the pasture in the bale grazing paddocks always had a living root, it could remain in the rotation and continue contributing feed.

A traditional crop, such as kale, was 'out of action' for months after winter as it was brought back into rotation.

Bale grazing needed fewer resources than a traditional winter crop system, reducing costs.

Since starting bale grazing, Ditchfield had learned of a North Island farmer who had used the system for the last five years and in that time, their animal health costs and reduced from $100 per cow to less than $20.

Also, since using bale grazing, Ditchfield had been lowering his herd numbers to find a sustainable stocking rate for regenerative grazing practices.

While it was too soon to see any improvement in the health of his herd, Ditchfield was convinced of the benefits of bale grazing.

Fonterra sustainable dairying general manager Michael Hide said that in June this year, Fonterra launched its Co-operative Difference payment in response to increased global demand for sustainably produced dairy.

Initially, up to 10 cents of each farm's milk price was determined by meeting sustainability and quality achievements.

Hide said that each year Fonterra would review the payment amount and achievements to ensure it remains one of the most sustainable dairy producers in the world.