Ben and Sarah Troughton, Waikato
Waikato dairy farmers Ben and Sarah Troughton are partway through their journey from a high input, high output operation towards a smaller, more diversified and environmentally sustainable system they’re truly proud of. It’s a slow journey and the financial investment has been significant, but the payoffs for their soil, livestock, lifestyle and the environment are starting to show.
Most farmers want to leave their land in better condition than when they arrived and maintain happy healthy stock.
But there are big challenges. How do you balance making a viable living with the need to look after stock and the environment?
A Waikato family have made some big changes on their farm. Let's take a look at how it's working out for them.
Any favourite flavours?
Definitely Banana Bee - Banana and Honey.
We've got the hives on the farm.
Jersey Cow Caramel, Ginger and Turmeric, Damson Buttercup.
The damson plums are off the farm and the original trees - my grandfather would've planted them.
That flavour's quite cool because we're using the fruit from the farm and the milk from the farm.
My grandfather Vic came out from Ireland in the early 1920s, so we're coming up to 100 years on the land.
In some respects, we've almost gone back to what my grandfather would've been farming like.
Just a more basic way of farming. If you have your own garden and you understand the basic principles.
Most people don't go out and spray their vegetables with fungicides, herbicides and urea. People don't tend to do that with their vegetables at home, the food that they eat.
And that applies to the grass too because the cows are eating that and we're drinking their milk and eating beef off the farm.
It's the same principle but on a larger scale. We know there's some harmful practices, and without everyone jumping up and down,
we have to do something about it.
Probably the biggest difference in latter years is the stocking rate. We've dropped that considerably from what it was.
We still use a little urea, really selectively. We've gone down from something like 200 units to 20 units.
And we've done that intentionally. We're at the point now that we could cut out artificial nitrogen completely.
It's cost us a lot of money to do what we've done. The books don't look that good from the bank manager's point of view.
We've had to spend extra on the fertiliser and we've spent extra on the composting.
We have reduced our cow numbers and as a sharemilker, they're actually our asset.
Our bank manager pointed out that our best years financially were when we were milking the most cows.
We were doing good production but it came at a cost.
They were the worst years in our farming.
Lots of cows, lots of staff.
Lots of pressure, lots of skinny cows and lots of costs too.
So we've reduced our costs. We have reduced our cow numbers and we have reduced our production.
But we're doing a lot better per cow and we are confident that we'll make up the difference when we tweak cow numbers a little more.
I guess our battle is with the land being so expensive, it's hard to manage that. Perhaps we need to look at different ways to diversify to make it work.
The aim of what we're doing with the gelato is to add value to our milk.
We look to overseas examples like the Swiss and their cheese and the French and their dairy products.
They're not producing massive amounts to feed the world.
We should be using our high quality ingredients and producing products that people want in this country.
We can produce this food and it's worth more to us.
It is exciting and hopefully an example of what can be done too.
For me, I look at the way we farm, the condition of the cows. The cows are happy, you can see in the coat. It makes me proud of what we do.
And to be able to show people that there is another way and we can do it sustainably. Because that's what we all want.
100 years on the land.
We're not trying to destroy it, we're trying to improve it.
As well as reducing stock numbers and urea, Ben and Sarah moved to once a day milking, diversified their pasture, minimised tillage, improved effluent management and established feed pads.
All to improve their environmental performance and their work life balance.
Their focus on low input farming and selling locally won't work for everyone, but they wouldn't have it any other way.
Overall production levels have dropped but productivity per cow has increased and they're looking to add value to their product.
They're continuing to adjust stock numbers to get their system right for them.
And scientists from Waikato University are right along side them, crunching the numbers to see what works.
Make sure you check out www.agmatters.nz for updates on what they find, and for more videos about kiwi farmers on the path to sustainability.
Back to the future
Ben Troughton’s connection to the dairy farm he manages with wife Sarah near Matamata in the Waikato, runs deep. Grandfather Vic bought the property nearly 100 years ago, and bloodlines in Ben’s current milking herd trace all the way back to Vic’s original animals.
And it’s the farming principles that Vic lived by—keeping it simple and local, and looking after the land, livestock and each other—that Ben and Sarah are now looking to emulate as they strive for a more sustainable and fulfilling business.
It wasn’t long after taking over the farm that Ben and Sarah realised change was necessary.
All the advice they received at the time pointed to increasing inputs: higher stocking rates, more imported feeds, more nitrogen fertiliser, more pressure to produce. They saw the effect it was having on the health of their stock, on their staff, and on the environment, and decided that— for them—it simply wasn’t the way to farm.
Change began with a close look at stocking rates. They’ve reduced numbers and increased production per animal. Costs have gone down, but there’s still some fine tuning to do to get the cost-production balance just right for them.
At the same time, they reviewed their nitrogen fertiliser use—and didn’t like what they found. They’ve since reduced urea inputs to about 10% of what they were. They’re almost ready to eliminate artificial nitrogen inputs altogether. Between 2012/13 and 2018/19, the Troughtons decreased their synthetic and organic nitrogen fertiliser use by 73%, from 84 to 23 kilos of nitrogen per hectare per year.
Over the ensuing years, the Troughtons have moved to once-a-day milking, diversified their crops and pastures, minimised tillage, reduced the amount of time paddocks are bare, improved effluent management and established feeding pads to avoid pugging—all aimed at reducing the farm’s environmental impact and removing stress on animals. An improved work-life balance is a welcome side-effect.
They’ve also looked to diversify and add value to the milk they produce—most notably by opening a creamery that produces and sells gelato and sorbet. More products—like cheeses and butter—might follow.
The Troughton’s focus on low-input farming, and sourcing and selling locally, might not work for everyone. But—looking back—they wouldn’t have it any other way.
And scientists from Waikato University are right alongside them crunching the numbers to see exactly how their actions are affecting greenhouse gas emissions and soil carbon stocks. Initial results are not far away and will be shared on Ag Matters as soon as they’re available.