DairyNZ chief executive Dr Tim Mackle says the joint decision three years ago to eradicate Mycoplamsa bovis was a difficult call.
It needs to refocus on pasture as a priority to manage volatility and reset the industry's competitiveness for the next 20 years.
DairyNZ plans to launch a campaign next month on putting pasture first, he told the Northland Dairy Development Trust annual meeting in Whangarei last week, attended by 160 farmers.
It is obvious there has been a big move towards greater feed inputs and in feed costs over the last 10 years, he said. Other costs, including labour per kilo of milk solids, have been relatively flat.
The big change started in the 2007-08 dry period over much of the North Island. There was a high milk price at that time and huge onfarm inflation of 11.5%.
"I am not criticising supplements or feed related costs.... I am not saying we haven't made money with high milk prices which we've had in the last 10 years – off and on – with feeding inputs. But as an industry we have lost our way a bit in growing and utilising as much pasture first."
DairyNZ's campaign launch next month will start with a challenge for farmers, creating debate and asking farmers to truly ask themselves 'do we put pasture first?'.
"This is not a criticism – we as farmers all feel we are doing the right thing – but it doesn't matter what you are doing in life, you have to go back and analyse and check.
"We have done quite a bit of analysis... we have had people out on farms doing pre and post checks saying 'the farmer thinks it is this, but this is what the plate tells us'.
"There has been quite a bit of variation in what farmers think they are offering and what they think they are leaving behind. There is a lot of juice to get out of the orange here. We think there is huge potential here to drive this harder."
The campaign will be backed up by evidence, facts and figures and tools.
"None of this is new; it is stuff we've known for a long time but we've got to bring it back and bring it back hard to the forefront to help get us through," said Mackle.
But it will also reset our competitiveness as an industry for the next 20 years ahead, he said.
"It is not all about getting us through the patch now. It is about learning about what we've just been through and putting some principals in place on how to deal with volatility."
DairyNZ wants to change the focus away from how much feed the farmer is bringing in.
"I am not criticising the systems approach because it gives you a feel for how much feed you are bringing in but that does not give you a recipe for how to farm well. It just says 'well, I'm bringing in 30% of my feed'.
"We will change the focus back to strategies on how much feed can you home-grow on your farm, and how much can you utilise, maximising that, working out what your stock rate should be....
"It's working out whether you have a 12 month strategy – whether you will use all you grow for 12 months, or whether you use a six month strategy – 'I will go from balance date for six months and for the rest of the gaps I will use other strategies, I'll destock, I'll send the cows off the farm, I'll buy in supplements at the right price'.
"For those who want to go really hard, maybe a three month strategy where I'll feed all I can for three months on the home grow farm and maybe for nine months I'll do other stuff.
"So that's changing the focus for us from how much feed are you bringing in to how much can you grow and utilise, what should your stocking rate be and what your strategy will be for filling gaps if you do need to fill gaps."
Mackle says it isn't rocket science; this has been around a long time.
"But it is acknowledging that pasture is our competitive advantage as a nation; you know this yourselves.
"Yes there is climatic variability across the country, but essentially as a country we are blessed with a great climate, soil, rainfall and sunshine to help us grow. There aren't many places in the world that can grow more tonnage than we can."