By Peter Burton
On almost a daily basis I talk and work with farmers moving away from the soil fertility model focussed on driving mono-culture pastures with soluble phosphorus accompanied by regular applications of nitrogen.
Those in that group I’ve had contact with lately are young enthusiastic folk doing their own research, determined there’s a better way, and experimenting on their own properties.
There are common threads through the various philosophies evolving which will eventually result in uniquely New Zealand pastoral systems that are both highly productive, and environmentally positive in all respects.
What is evolving is a flexible multi-pronged, principle founded, approach that will be adapted depending on regional climatic differences, topography, and animals being farmed.
Most importantly the long-term success of these systems is due to daily observation and a love of the farming process, with everyone having a slightly different perspective. Essentially art is being woven back into the farming fabric, and we will all be richer as a result.
The ‘new’ is outcome based, rather than process focussed, and the scientific fraternity will be endlessly busy working out why the systems are as successful as they are. Discovering how the many different plant species being introduced, natural soil fertility inputs, and grazing management techniques work as they do.
A change in thinking is required to understand the process of putting together in an innovative way already proven principles and practises whereby the outcome is greater than the sum of the parts.
There are however obstacles to overcome. There are nay-sayers determined to maintain status quo, and they have a number of one-line dismissals. The claim that any alternative will result in lessened production is a contention that’s now easily refuted.
Claims of better outcomes used to be batted away as anecdotal. There’s now many years of independent measures and a growing number of farmers with the same experiences for that line to be effective.
There are already well-established farming systems that are not based on soluble phosphorus and additional nitrogen. Production is markedly higher, inputs and costs are significantly lower, and carbon is being actively sequestered.
Of late I’ve heard the claim that should the government and councils continue with pending regulations, pastoral farming will be decimated along with our national income and standard of living.
Not so, pasture production is already declining due to the well-documented loss of carbon from our most intensively farmed soil, evidenced by an increase in nitrate nitrogen reaching aquifers, a fact that’s not disputed.
The new methods are far more effective and efficient and due to topsoil being steadily built, they can be claimed to be carbon positive. The days of any farming activity that is not environmentally sustainable are numbered and will eventually cease to exist.
It has often been said that any changes to current systems must be science led, yet breakthroughs in agriculture have almost without exception been initiated by farmers.
They come from observation over a prolonged period, an attribute of all genuine long-time farmers, particularly powerful when knowledge is passed from one generation to the next.
At the centre of the failure of current soil fertility practises to be genuinely sustainable is the unregulated use of fertiliser nitrogen. It is important to understand better why increases in short term production might come at the expense of long-term growth.
Farmers under financial pressure have monthly financial commitments and there is often little time or energy to focus on practises that may adversely influence production in years to come. That’s not a criticism of individuals it’s simply a fact of life.
At present $400m per year is spent by farmers on urea, approximately 30% of the total fertiliser dollars spent annually. An industry of that size has genuine staying ability and for it to be replaced there must be an alternative.
The products and know how are available and for those prepared to look to the future more information is available. Call Peter Burton 0800 843 809