An evaluation of a strategic de-stocking regime for dairying to improve nitrogen efficiency and reduce nitrate leaching from dairy farms in nitrate-sensitive areas


  • Cecile de Klein
  • Jim Paton
  • Stewart Ledgard



Strategic de-stocking in winter is a common management practice on dairy farms in Southland, New Zealand, to protect the soil against pugging damage. This paper examines whether this practice can also be used to reduce nitrate leaching losses. Model analyses and field measurements were used to estimate nitrate leaching losses and pasture production under two strategic de-stocking regimes: 3 months off-farm or 5 months on a feed pad with effluent collected and applied back to the land. The model analyses, based on the results of a long-term farmlet study under conventional grazing and on information for an average New Zealand farm, suggested that the 3- or 5-month de-stocking could reduce nitrate leaching losses by about 20% or 35-50%, respectively compared to a conventional grazing system. Field measurements on the Taieri Plain in Otago support these findings, although the results to date are confounded by drought conditions during the 1998 and 1999 seasons. The average nitrate concentration of the drainage water of a 5-month strategic de-stocking treatment was about 60% lower than under conventional grazing. Pasture production of the 5-month strategic de-stocking regime with effluent return was estimated based on data for apparent N efficiency of excreta patches versus uniformlyspread farm dairy effluent N. The results suggested that a strategic de-stocking regime could increase pasture production by about 2 to 8%. A cost/ benefit analysis of the 5-month de-stocking system using a feed pad, comparing additional capital and operational costs with additional income from a 5% increase in DM production, show a positive return on capital for an average New Zealand dairy farm. This suggests that a strategic destocking system has good potential as a management tool to reduce nitrate leaching losses in nitrate sensitive areas whilst being economically viable, particularly on farms where an effluent application system or a feed pad are already in place. Keywords: dairying, feed pads, nitrate leaching, nitrogen efficiency, productivity, strategic de-stocking