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Input Reductions and A Healthier Farm

Ardoyne Dairies - From High Inputs to Low Inputs - a Transition Story

Reducing Inputs Leads to a Better Farm

Ewan Mathieson tells how Ardoyne Dairies changed their system

A high intensity dairy farm at the bottom of the South Island changes into a low input, profitable one with a gradual change in system that focuses on working with soil biology.

Overlooking Stewart Island & Colac Bay at the bottom of the South Island, Ardoyne Dairies occupies 520 hectares of varying degrees of productive land. The farm is rolling in its typography with some peat soils making parts of the farm less productive than others.

In the Mathieson family since Ewan’s grandfather first purchased some land here in 1948 the family legacy continues to this day with 3 of Ewan’s children working on the farm and, he says proudly, 4 grandchildren now growing up on the farm.

Whilst back in the 1940’s things started small, milking 7 cows with about 27 sheep, the farm now has 830 cows peak, all self contained.

Over the years the farm had grown and so had the intensity of the farming system. Ardoyne had become a high input, high output farm. It was highly productive, but not sustainable.

Ewan says,

“We got to a point, 7 or 8 years ago where we couldn’t maintain it. The farm, the environment just couldn’t maintain that intensity.”

What Ewan found was that they could back off significantly yet still maintain profitability with a much lower environmental footprint.

In backing off the intensity Ewan paints a picture of a gradual but continuous cycle of changes and improvements on the farm. From lowering young stock numbers to simplifying systems which included resource use or inputs use, to fewer staff required.

When asked about the cost savings of this reduction Ewan, matter of factly, points out that it is better to look at the input numbers rather than cost savings. This is due to the changes and fluctuations in input prices over the years with fert prices 8 years ago being a lot less than they are today.

“So the cost savings today are not that significant, but we are only using about 50% of the nutrient we were, and I think Fish IT has played quite an important role in being able to do that in the last three years since we have been using it.”

Starting on using Fish IT about 3 years ago has then led to the team working with Steven Haswell from BioAg NZ. The combination and focus on building soil biology and soil health has led to improvements in pasture utilization leaving optimal residuals.

Ewan says “The fish is playing an important part in making our pasture more attractive to the animals, more palatable.”

Ewan Mathieson explains how the farm has changed over 7-8 years from a high intensity farm to one that is lower intensity yet just as profitable.

“If we look back about 7-8 years we used about 180 Units of N. Last year we used about 15 and this year we will end up around 20. So there’s been a gradual decline in nutrient use.”

In episode two Ewan tells the story of how the farm has changed and how noticeable that is to anyone driving past.

Noticeable changes, Noticeable improvements.

Significant change takes time and for Ardoyne Dairies, time has allowed them to test and try things to improve their system.

As the Ardoyne farm system has evolved, Ewan says that sometimes the changes and improvements have taken time to show through. He tells the story of Brendon, a local contractor who stopped him beside the farm one day 3 years ago. At that time they were using about 50 Units of N per season having come off 180 Units. Ewan tells us,

“He said our farm looked like shit. I said ‘how do you mean Brendon’ and he said ‘well it looks all yellow, it doesn’t look like the neighbors’.”

Ewan pointed out that he was now using very little N compared to the neighbors, however they were still growing grass but it didn’t look like it used too. Taking it on the chin Ewan says it was a fair comment at the time as the farm was “not looking quite so flash.”

Fast forward to August 2023 and Ewan again bumped into Brendon and the conversation took quite a different turn.

“This spring Brendon stopped again and commented on how good the farm looked. He said it looks like an absolute picture. It’s dark, it’s green. At that point in time the neighbors farms had not had their first application of N, they were looking quite yellow.”

Ewan says that in the three years between Brendons comments Ardoyne had started using Fish IT and BioAg NZ’s products as well, Ewan says,

“Over those three years we’d really been able to kick-start that soil biology. We’ve still got some way to go, there is still considerable opportunity there, but it has been good.”

Resource use reduction and improving growth and resilience.

Not content to stop where they are Ewan says Ardoyne Dairies will continue to look for ways to remove resource use out of the farm.

As the family farm moves forward into the future, Ewan is continuing to look for improvements to the farming system they have now developed. With about 10% of the farm in multispecies pastures there is considerable opportunity to increase pasture diversity, and to find ways to get the best use of what nutrient is going into the farm.

“We will continue on the journey we are on but also look at how we will continue to take resource use out of our system.”

Long roots, lots of root hairs and plenty of worms are all characteristics of healthy soil on Ardoyne Dairies.

A journey to a healthier farm and lifestyle that takes time.

What Ewan is now seeing on the farm is that the pasture retains colour and growth due to the improved biology in the soil.

“Soil biology makes a difference of about 2-3 degrees in soil temperature particularly over winter. I think we are really seeing that taking place.”

In regards to the Fish IT and how much they are using Ewan points out they are applying 10-15L/ha in Autumn and the same amount in Spring.

“It’s not a significant amount and it’s not a significant cost, to be fair.”

When asked how other dairy farmers could make the start to transition away from the high intensity inputs they find themselves using, Ewan suggests finding a paddock, not necessarily your best paddock, and starting there. By starting small you lower the risk associated with the changes you are wanting to make.

“This will give you the confidence that it will work and can work without the huge investment for a start. Get on and try it. I believe there is a real opportunity.”

Multi-species pastures make up 10% of the farm at Ardoyne Dairies.

With resource costs still fluctuating Ewan says reducing resource use is a benefit to the business, the farm, the environment and the animals. Whilst the Ardoyne Dairies journey has taken 8 years so far, it is far from over and Ewan, along with his family working on the farm will continue to try things to improve their outcomes, including maintaining and increasing the profitability of their dairy farm.

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