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Dairy scientist Peter Hutton is working on a research initiative that highlights the value of local science skills

Western Dairy offers independent evaluation of pasture performance

Dairy scientist Peter Hutton is in the driver’s seat of a new research initiative that is highlighting the value of having local science skills embedded in the suite of Western Dairy services - by providing real-time and independent pasture variety analysis.

Peter together with Western Dairy’s agribusiness team leader Kirk Reynolds, has established two major trial activities on Ray and Donna Kitchen’s Carenda dairy at Boyanup that will offer WA dairy farmers their first opportunity to have pasture varieties independently evaluated in WA conditions.

Western Dairy has not only secured the capability to stage the blind pasture variety trial of annual and short-term varieties that is run as part of the national Pasture Trial Network (PTN), it has also extended this process to design a local seed trial.

The PTN pasture variety trial is at a plot-scale, using four replicates of 13 varieties in a blinded study over three years where each variety is replanted each year. The information generated from this trial will be used to create a validated and most importantly, local forage value index for the varieties planted. A more immediate information source however, is the local seed trial that has been set up in the adjacent plots, using four replicates of six pasture varieties that are representative of those current sold in WA, providing an independent analysis of the performance of these varieties.
The information from the local seed trial will provide real-time and dynamic information on dry matter production and feed quality from locally purchased seed, with analysis being released at the Western Dairy spring field day.

“The objective of having a Pasture Trial Network in WA dairy regions is to give producers greater confidence in their decision making, backed by independent science and analysis,” Peter said.
“We are able to link this work into the new Dairy Australia Forage Value Index (FVI) – which is a rating system that farmers can use to select ryegrass cultivars. The FVI is a relative indicator of a variety performance as affected by the local environment, and is similar to an estimated breeding value for dairy cattle.

“When you think that nationally, Australian dairy farmers invest more than $100 million renovating pastures each year and perennial ryegrass accounts for almost 80 per cent of this – yet until the arrival of the forage value index, there’s been no easy way of assessing the agronomic performance or potential economic benefit of different cultivars in a dairy system.”
According to Western Dairy regional manager Esther Jones, until now, the FVI work had been restricted to the Eastern States, where perennial ryegrass varieties are most common.
“But in WA, annual and short-term varieties are more the norm – and so it was important for Western Dairy to secure the capability to incorporate varieties that are relevant to us and submit them to the Indexing system.”

A further dimension to the work is through Western Dairy’s partnership with South West Catchment Council, which has enabled the capacity to test the correlation of the on-ground biomass measurements with the measurements achievable from drone sense technology.

The south west’s major seed companies and resellers met with Western Dairy for a pre-release inspection of the trials in September and have given their strong in principle support for the merit of the independent and local evaluation because increasing the access to independent information on pasture performance will benefit the industry as a whole.
In all cases, the local seed trial had been sourced from a retailer rather than supplied by the seed company to ensure absolute independence.

Feedback from the pre-release review was that the participating companies valued the inclusion of a range of measurements beyond dry matter and already there is an extensive list of ‘additional components’ that may be added for further rigour and interest next year, particularly in relation to the grazing, pest, weed and fertiliser interface.
The Forage Value Index is a collaborative effort between Dairy Australia, Agriculture Victoria, Australian Seed Federation, Meat and Livestock Australia through the MLA Donor Company and DairyNZ, that Western Dairy is now pleased to be partnering with.

Footnote: So what went on down at the trial site?
The pastures were all sown at commercial sowing rates on June 1 into dry soils. A dry start to the season resulted in slow and lower than ideal germination.
Red-legged earth mites the flourished and were controlled using separate applications of Chloropyrifos 500 and Fortune 500. Kamba M used to control broadleaf weeds particularly clover.
The combination of pest and weed control, a wet July and August and timely fertiliser applications (Super SR, MoP and Urea) helped to salvage the trial and a light harvest was possible on August 22, followed by a more substantial harvest at 2.5 leaf stage with canopy closure on September 15. The third harvest was on October 6.
The cut and dry method of harvesting has been used, where plots are cut using a mower and catcher, to 4-6cm above the ground when they reach the 2.5-3 leaf stage. Wet samples were weighed and sub-sampled for dry matter yields and nutritive analysis. Plots were fertilised after each harvest at rates to supply enough macro-nutrients so that growth was not limited by fertility.

Western Dairy’s Peter Hutton and SWCC’s Peter Clifton are collecting drone sensor images of the pasture variety trial which will ultimately generate a Forage Value Index and the local seed trial that generates real-time dry matter and quality information.

The trials are located at Peacocks lane, Boyanup.

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