Guideline Index

Chapter 1: Fert$mart Planning

1.1 Situation analysis

Fertiliser planning requires a good understanding of the farm and business. For best results, farmers work with their advisor to; discuss production information, inspect the paddocks, note the condition of soils and pastures, and carry out soil sampling. The following aspects of the farm business are all important to nutrient management and fertiliser decisions:

The following steps (1.1.1 to 1.1.13) explain the information needed for the situation analysis, and a well-informed fertiliser plan.

1.1.1 Know the feeding system

Knowledge of the feeding system is important to understanding farm nutrients. There are five feeding systems commonly used on Australia dairy farms (Dairy Australia, 2012):

  1. Pasture + other forages + low grain/concentrate feeding in bail (i.e. Grazed pasture + other forages + up to 1.0 tonne grain/concentrates fed/cow/year in the bail).
  2. Pasture + other forages +moderate-high grain/concentrate feeding in bail (i.e. Grazed pasture + other forages +more than 1.0 tonne grain/concentrates fed/cow/year in the bail).
  3. Pasture + partial mixed ration ± grain/concentrate feeding in bail (i.e. Pasture grazed for most or all of year + partial mixed ration on feed pad ± grain/concentrates fed in bail).
  4. Hybrid system (i.e. Pasture grazed for less than nine months per year + partial mixed ration on feed pad ± grain/concentrates fed in bail).
  5. Total Mixed Ration (TMR) system (i.e. Zero grazing. Cows housed and fed total mixed ration).

In feeding system 1, dairy cows spend most of the time grazing pastures and therefore returning or recycling most nutrients to the paddocks. On the other hand, in feeding system 5, all nutrients are deposited on or near the feedpad/dairy and are then stored, distributed or sold. It is important to understand the feeding system and what happens to nutrients imported in feed when developing the nutrient budget.

More on nutrient stores & transformations (Chapter 10.2.2 )

1.1.2 Know farm production goals and feed requirements

Production goals start with the volume and quality of milk required throughout the year. This determines the number of milkers, the herd size, and the feed requirements.

Feed is the largest cost for most dairy farmers. Growing and utilising more home-grown feed helps to keep farm costs down and improve profitability. Fertiliser plays an important role in achieving this. A feed budget can be used to work out the home-grown feed requirements and the dry matter (DM) production goals for the coming year.

If DM production goals are similar to the previous year, these figures can be used in the farm nutrient budget to work out what quantities of nutrients need to be brought onto the farm to maintain current production levels. Soil tests are also required to adjust the specific fertiliser requirements for each farm management zone (FMZ). A FMZ is a group of paddocks with similar soil types and management (See Chapter 15.4.1 ). Where nutrients are removed in product (e.g. silage, hay and crops) both a paddock/FMZ nutrient budget and soil tests are required to work out the fertiliser requirements. Crop types and estimated yields (kg DM/ha) are also required for the nutrient budget.

1.1.3 Access information for the nutrient budget

The nutrient budget is used in Step 4 (see Section 1.4) to work out farm fertiliser requirements. The first step in nutrient budgeting is to quantify the amount of nutrients coming on to, and leaving the farm, and this requires access to the farm records. The inputs required for the nutrient budget are described in Chapter 15.6 .

1.1.4 Map farm soil types

Knowing the soil types and where they are located across the farm is an important consideration for soil and fertiliser management. Regional soil maps are useful in identifying and describing soil types on a broad scale. Regional maps can be used in combination with the farmer’s existing knowledge of the farm soil types to produce a soil map at a paddock scale. The soil map is used to characterise the soil profile, properties, behaviour and suitability for crops and pastures. Soil information is used in steps 1.2 and 1.3.

More on Regional Soil Types (Chapter 6 )

More on Soil Properties (Chapter 4 )

1.1.5 Map farm management zones

Fertiliser use is more targeted and profitable when fertiliser recommendations are customised for each FMZ. The farm map, showing paddocks and soil types, is used in combination with previous soil tests and previous/current management to map the FMZs.

More on FMZs (Chapter 15.4.1 )

1.1.6 Collect soil samples

If the farm soil tests are more than 2 to 3 years old, collect a new soil sample from each FMZ. At least 30 soil cores are required for each sample. Cores should be taken along monitor lines or transects that you can come back and resample in one or two years, or collected randomly across the area. In each case, however, care should be taken to avoid areas where nutrients may be concentrated such as dung and urine patches, areas near gateways, water troughs, and stock camps.

Take the samples to the standard depth (0 – 7.5cm in Tasmania, 0 – 10cm in all other states). Keep the samples cool (not on the back of the ute) and send them to a NATA accredited or ASPAC certified soil testing laboratory as soon as possible. Soil samples should be sent to the same soil testing laboratory each year to ensure consistency of soil testing methods.

More details on soil sampling (Chapter 8 )

1.1.7 Assess soil condition

Fertiliser efficiency can be limited by soil constraints; however it can also be improved with better soil condition. A quick field assessment of soil condition in each FMZ can pick up issues not identified in the soil tests, and farmers should alert their advisor of known soil issues. Look for evidence of poor soil surface condition, slaking, dispersion, compaction, waterlogging, salinity and acidity. See the Fert$mart FMZ field sheet for a basic checklist for soil condition assessment. Chapters 4 to 7 of this manual discuss soil condition

1.1.8 Assess pasture condition

Poor pasture performance and utilisation also reduces fertiliser efficiency. Pasture condition in each FMZ should be assessed and recorded. Observe current pasture species composition and consider their suitability (see Chapter 15.5.1 ). This can be carried out at the same time soil samples are taken in each FMZ:

1. Visually assess the species.

2. Consider recent performance/production of the paddock, grazing interval, silage/hay production.

3. Assess weed types and density.

Look for changes in species, growth and colour in urine and dung patches compared to the pasture around them. Look carefully at the old and fresh dung patches and record observations.

More on assessing perennial ryegrass condition

More on visual symptoms of nutrient deficiencies (Chapter 8.6 )

1.1.9 Determine the fertiliser financial budget

The farm fertiliser budget will vary from year to year, depending on financial circumstances. A common strategy is to maintain soil fertility when finances are tight, and to apply additional nutrients to meet capital requirements (if required) in the better years (see Chapter 15.3 ). Farm fertiliser records are a useful starting point.

1.1.10 Consider contractors, labour, equipment and skills

Implementation of the fertiliser plan could be limited by contractors, farm labour, equipment and skills. For example; if contractors are used for fertiliser spreading, does this create any limitations on the fertiliser types, rates and blends used across the farm, and the timing of applications? Also consider distribution accuracy and the impact this has on fertiliser use efficiency. For more information on the accuracy of fertiliser spreaders refer to the Fertilizer Australia website, or to the Fertcare Accu-Spread link:

1.1.11 Consider animal health issues

Check for animal health issues linked to soil and plant nutrition or toxins. See the following links:

Nitrate poisoning (Chapter 12.6.1 )

Grass Tetany

Implications on transition cow management

Trace element deficiencies (Chapter 3.5 )

1.1.12 Consider infrastructure, equipment and management

Check the capability of existing handling and spreading equipment. Are there limitations to fertiliser use, e.g. the types, rates, placement and timing? Are there cost effective options to upgrade infrastructure/equipment to improve fertiliser efficiency, e.g. effluent distribution equipment or infrastructure?

Are there other aspects of farm management that can be improved? The following links will help to identify key areas for improvement:

Soil Management

Fertiliser Management

Effluent Management 

Irrigation management

Feed conversion efficiency

Pasture Consumption and Feed Conversion Efficiency Calculator