Fundamentals misunderstood | Functional Fertiliser

Fundamentals misunderstood

Peter Burton

16th June 2019

Farming is quickly becoming a taxation bonanza for the government.  A tax on nitrous oxide and methane emissions is coming even if not labelled as such.  Farmers ultimately will fund ongoing research that will spawn further study on other related issues.

At face value research seems like a good thing, however when will farmers see a return on their investment, and will the benefit be worthwhile?  Those of a cynical mindset are suggesting that research institutes will benefit far more than farmers.

The reality is that the cost of environmental research, monitoring, and implementation of the resultant rules and regulations will be ultimately be borne by landowners.

Historically the cost of such research has been offset by a steady rise in the dollar value of rural land, however increasingly there’s talk of properties being sold at discounted prices, with few believing that prices will rise within the next five years.

There’s always exceptions, with reports of unlimited money available for land suitable for kiwifruit development.  And yet it’s pastoral land that should be the most valuable of all, because of its ability to sequester carbon.

It is under grazed permanent pastures that carbon can most rapidly be sequestered.  Historically land was rotationally cropped until declining yields made it uneconomic, at which time it was returned to permanent grazed pasture.

Over time soil carbon in the form of humus developed sufficiently for the cropping cycle to be repeated.  Extra carbon under pasture is well known evidenced by pastoral farms in areas suitable for cropping being highly prized for their initial exceptional levels of production.

With the price of carbon credits likely to rise substantially in the near future pastoral farmers should be in a position to gain, and yet the opposite appears almost certain to be the case.  Each farm owner will be paying either directly or indirectly for the loss of carbon from their property.

Monitoring work over the last fifteen years clearly shows that it is possible for intensively farmed dairy and grazing properties to steadily gaining carbon.  With more carbon annual pasture production lifts with less nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients lost to groundwater, a positive outcome in all respects.

And yet for farms dependent on regular applications fertiliser nitrogen that’s not necessarily the situation. More nitrogen applied means slower carbon build-up and when excess N is used carbon can be steadily removed leaving soils pale and compacted and largely devoid of life.

The question is, how much is too much?  It depends, however an intensive dairy farm where regular N applications began 40 years ago is now reducing animal numbers each year due to rapidly declining pasture yields.  In recent years a little over 300kgN/ha has been applied annually with the argument for continued input being that where it’s not applied pasture doesn’t grow.

Most soils naturally contain 5,000 -15,000kg N/ha within the root zone of healthy plants.  What is used each year can be readily replaced with N primarily fixed by clover.  Those operators adopting well proven nutrient programmes along with sound grazing management find that annual production steadily lifts while all other costs particularly animal ill-health costs steadily decline.

Each farm requires its own programme based on current soil nutrient levels, historical inputs and level of production.  The greatest concern for farmers wishing to develop legume-based pastures is the oft-discussed transition period when pasture growth initially declines.

When the time-honoured grazing management principles promoted by Functional Farming Systems are adhered to, the dreaded drop-off is minimised to the point where the initial impact on total farm production is negligible, and from Year 2 onwards pasture and total output steadily lifts.

Fear of what might happen is a strong driver of the maintenance of status quo, however with looming regulation and its likely impact, taking the well-trodden step by step path to a genuinely sustainable carbon positive system appears increasing sensible and desirable. For more information call Peter on 0800 843 809.

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