Supporting New Zealand's dairy future

October 2012

 

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JUDE BARBACK takes a look at some of the key teaching and research institutions propping up New Zealand’s evolving and prolific dairy industry.

I grew up on a Waikato dairy farm. Despite the long-running joke in my family – that my Red Band gumboots still had the plastic holding them together the day I left for university – I do feel a rapport with dairy farming. Although I was probably more of a townie-in-waiting, I did my share of calf-feeding, yard-hosing, and weed-pulling, and somewhere over the years has emerged a strong sense of pride in New Zealand’s dairying industry.

Everyone knows the importance of the dairy industry to New Zealand. It is the country’s biggest export earner; exports totalled in excess of $12 billion last year. The industry contributes 25 per cent to New Zealand’s merchandise export earnings, and our dairy exports account for over a third of the world’s dairy trade.

Ongoing research is required to maintain the lofty status of dairying in New Zealand. New innovations are emerging all the time. We have managed to breed cows that produce low-fat milk that is also high in omega3 oils and polyunsaturated fat. Fonterra’s collaboration with GE Healthcare is helping to tackle bone health issues. Fonterra is also collaborating with Industrial Research Limited to produce from milk complex lipids, which have a variety of applications and are very valuable.

These examples are just scratching the surface of the research and teaching that is occurring in institutions across New Zealand.

Lincoln and Massey universities are both renowned for their strong dairying programmes. Historically, the general belief was that Lincoln concentrated its agricultural education programmes on sheep and Massey University on dairying – an assumption that no longer exists, says Lincoln’s Bruce Greig.

Lincoln University is a small, specialist university, situated 20 minutes out of Christchurch, which concentrates on land-based academic disciplines. First established in 1878 as an agricultural college, Lincoln then became part of Canterbury University before becoming a university in its own standing in 1990.

Lincoln’s increased prominence in dairying arose in response to the expansion of dairy farming in the South Island from around 1990, particularly in Canterbury and Southland. Greig says its number of dairy students increased dramatically, mirroring the investment made by the dairy industry in the South Island.

The industry has continued to evolve and grow since the early nineties, challenging institutions to keep their courses and research programmes relevant.

Agricultural commerce and science degrees like those offered at Lincoln and Massey tend to be the most popular among dairy undergraduates. Both institutions offer a range of further postgraduate qualifications, such as Massey’s Master of Dairy Science and Technology, a course that is only on offer to candidates with approved employment in the New Zealand dairy industry.

Will Grayling, who graduated from Lincoln in 2008 with a Master of Applied Science majoring in farm management consultancy, says his time at university has been invaluable to his career. In addition to providing him with a firm grounding on the basics of pastoral farming in New Zealand and increasing his contacts within the industry, Grayling says his qualifications have given him the ability to problem solve and to look critically at information.

He says his Lincoln studies exposed him to other types of farming outside of dairying. This proved immeasurably useful when Grayling competed in – and won – the prestigious and challenging National Bank Young Farmer of the Year award in 2011.

Most appreciated by Grayling, however, was the time spent learning from actual dairy farms and the lab sessions out on the Lincoln farms.

“I enjoyed getting out in the field and studying the performance of farms and farmers, especially analysing financial performance,” he says.

Greig confirms that the practical components are vital to the courses at Lincoln.

“A key teaching strategy is through the use of case studies, achieved through regular visits to commercial farms, regional farm tours, and a personal farm study,” says Greig.

Greig says that within the farm management department, the teaching philosophy is whole farm systems-based, is very applied, and has a strong connection with farmers and the primary industry.

Students have access to research and demonstration farms. The Lincoln University Dairy Farm (LUDF) was established in 2004 for this very purpose. A commercial dairy farm, LUDF demonstrates best practice and is reportedly in the top one per cent of New Zealand farms for profitability. The Lincoln University Research Dairy Farm (LUDRF) followed suit in 2009, to conduct, in collaboration with industry partners, component and farmlet-scale research on soils, forages, and cows to support dairy production systems.

Similarly, Massey has a large landholding of 2000 hectares including four dairy units and 1100 dairy cattle. Over the last decade, its Dairy Cattle Research Unit (DCRU) has been running a trial to compare the effects on production of organic systems with conventional systems.

Getting out on the farm and learning from first-hand experience has long been an important part of both Massey’s and Lincoln’s dairying programmes.

Alan Hitchcock, who graduated from Lincoln in 1977 with a BAgCom (Economics), says he found the time spent on farms and industry-related premises invaluable. While the Lincoln farms were not around in Hitchcock’s Lincoln days, the requirement to spend time on a dairy farm was. Over the course of his degree, Hitchcock completed 12 weeks in industry at the Tirau Butter Factory, 12 weeks on his parents’ dairy farm, and 12 weeks in a dairy farm in Oregon, USA.

Hitchcock, who owns a large dairy farm in the Waikato, often takes on Lincoln students as part of their practical coursework during their holidays. He says he finds it interesting to observe the sorts of things they are being taught and how things have changed since he was at Lincoln.

Hitchcock was initially interested in pursuing a career in agricultural trade and marketing.

“I pictured myself becoming some sort of whiz kid overseas selling dairy products to China,” he says.

However, while he found the economics component rather dry, he found himself more engaged with the core agricultural coursework, which included things like basic husbandry and cropping. Upon completing his degree, he decided to shelve the whiz-kid notion in favour of dairy farming.

Yet, the commerce papers were not in vain.

“The economics stuff came in handy when I needed to borrow money. It also gained more relevance in later life. Just after I started farming, they started floating the dollar and brought in free market interest rates; when I was a student, that was all theoretical, as in the pre-David Lange days, everything was regulated.”

Not all the teaching has been relevant for Hitchcock.

“We had to complete a computer science paper, which involved typing onto a computer card, putting it in a machine, from where it would get sent to a computer in Christchurch. I got an ‘A’ for the paper. I walked out the door wondering what that was all about ... three years later, it was all redundant.”

These days, Hitchcock, who still considers himself a borderline technophobe, monitors farm performance in production and grass growth, and links with accountants, bank managers, vets, and many others all through the Internet.

Interestingly, even Grayling, who graduated a mere four years ago, says technology is moving so quickly that much of the technology he uses now on the farm was hardly around when he was at university.

Both Grayling and Hitchcock found their degrees academically stimulating.

“The academic stuff does interest me, especially when you don’t always get to push yourself that way when you are farming,” says Grayling, who hints at the possibility of further postgraduate study in the future. He professes an interest in understanding how to replicate high performance on average performing farms.

Another aspect on which both former students agree, is the biggest challenge facing the dairy industry at present: compliance with environmental standards, such as upgrading effluent systems. Grayling says that it is challenging working within restrictions to meet environmental standards, which appear to reflect public perception more than the science underpinning them.

“As a high achiever, the industry has serious challenges against our tall poppy syndrome,” says Grayling.

Unsurprisingly, environmental issues are prominent topics considered at Lincoln’s and Massey’s research farms. Major research institute, AgResearch, incorporates sustainable farming practices into its research programmes. The AgResearch Environmental Footprinting Centre (EFC) helps provide guidance on making the best use of nutrients to give high production with low emissions. One of the institute’s current major environmental studies, on which it partners with Massey’s Hopkirk Research Institute, focuses on the challenges of creating sustainable animal productivity while balancing environmental impacts such as the emission of greenhouse gases.

This contentious issue of agriculture is taken seriously by AgResearch, which hosts the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre, a collaboration of eight leading research providers, including Lincoln, Massey and DairyNZ.

As the industry good organisation, DairyNZ plays an important role in dairying. Drawing on its own research from the DairyNZ Research Team, which encompasses around 100 staff, and that resulting from collaborative projects with other research partners, DairyNZ supplies the industry with a wealth of publications, tools, resources, and current information pertaining to all aspects of dairying. Like the others, DairyNZ also has a number of research farms.

DairyNZ has also formed the South Island Dairying Development Centre (SIDDC) in partnership with Lincoln University, South Island Dairy Farmers, Ravensdown Fertiliser Cooperative Limited, and Crop & Food Research. The centre is aimed at improving South Island dairy farming through resources, education, training support, and practical research.

The Centre of Excellence in Farm Business Management, a joint venture between Massey and Lincoln and funded by DairyNZ, is another example of such collaboration.

These centres highlight the important relationships universities like Massey and Lincoln hold with industry members.

Greig points to the DairyNZ scholarships and the relationship Lincoln has with New Zealand Institute of Primary Industry Management (NZIPIM) as further evidence. He also mentions the prominent role Lincoln and DairyNZ played in establishing the South Island Dairy Event (SIDE), an annual South Island dairy farmers’ conference.

“Industry leaders and rural professionals regularly visit Lincoln and give guest lectures,” says Greig.

This is in stark contrast to Hitchcock’s days at Lincoln, when the courses were taught solely by academics with virtually no input from industry bodies.

Grayling says there could perhaps be room for even more integration.

“They do have good links with [industry] ... this could have actually been better communicated with students really. I had a DairyNZ scholarship so I knew about it through that.”

One linkage that is sure to be stronger than ever is that with Telford Rural Polytechnic, which following a merger last year, is now a division of Lincoln University. Telford is best known for providing practical training courses in agricultural or horticultural subjects by correspondence to people all over the country.

The AgITO, the industry training organisation for the agriculture sector, is another prominent fixture, supporting training in a vast number of areas to individuals and teams within the industry.

With the dairy industry providing such an important prop for our economy, it is pleasing to witness the many collaborative and independent initiatives being taken by so many research, training and industry organisations.