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Mitigating Farm Risk from El Nino

By How To, Management, Productivity, Soil Health, Sustainability

Predicting the weather is a tough gig. Because of our place in the Pacific Ocean New Zealand can sometimes buck international weather trends relating to La Nina and El Niño – for example we had two moderate wet years with this past La Nina but the country has more than made up for that with the ‘big wet’ in the North Island over the past six months.

We know that El Niño is now on its way with NIWA predicting this weather pattern to settle over New Zealand for the next few years. In general, El Niño events tend to bring drier conditions to the east coast of New Zealand and wetter conditions to the west coast. This can lead to droughts in the east and flooding in the west. The 1997/98 El Niño event was one of the driest on record in New Zealand, and it caused significant damage to crops and livestock.

Because of the associated droughts, floods and warmer temperatures, El Niño events can also lead to other problems for farmers, such as:

  • Increased pest and disease pressure: Warmer temperatures can favour the growth of pests and diseases, which can damage crops.
  • Reduced crop yields: Droughts and floods can reduce crop yields, which can lead to financial losses for farmers.
  • Increased feed costs: If droughts reduce pasture growth, farmers may need to buy more feed for their livestock, which can increase their costs.

Prior Planning…

There are a number of things you can do to prepare for El Niño events.

  • Monitor weather forecasts and be prepared to adjust farming practices as needed. Have a plan in place with set dates for decisions based on climate conditions. Ratify and test your plan with trusted advisors.
  • Drought-proof crops by building soil fertility. For every one percent increase in soil organic matter, your soil to holds an additional 200,000 litres of water per hectare. Heightened water holding capacity means crops are more resilient through times of drought or heavy rain.
  • Have a plan for dealing with pests and diseases that come with the warmer temperatures.
  • Manage available feed: Implement and monitor a feed budget to meet your planned stock numbers, and act on deficits early. Consider prioritising stock classes for destocking early in case it is required and feed the remaining stock as well as possible to maximise income.

For decades, the focus in New Zealand has been on addressing the chemical attributes of our soils. When performance is required but response is dropping off, more chemicals equalled more growth. But soil, as we are taught, is a three-legged stool with nutrient (chemical), biological and structural needs to thrive. With legislation and rising costs, farmers are now looking at addressing the neglected leg of the stool – biology – to promote soil health and give mother nature a chance to provide and recycle nitrogen and other nutrients in the soil.

What is Healthy Soil?

Soil health can be simply defined as “the capacity of the soil to function.” Important soil functions include water flow and retention, solute transport and retention, physical stability and support; retention and cycling of nutrients; buffering and filtering of toxic materials; and maintenance of biodiversity and habitat. Fertile soils teem with microorganisms, which directly contribute to the biological fertility and functions of that soil.

In addition to fertility, soil microorganisms also play essential roles in the nutrient cycles that are fundamentally important to life on the planet. In the past, agricultural practices have failed to promote soil health through healthy populations of microorganisms. Not doing this limits production yields and threatens sustainability.

Soil fertility is the ability of a soil to provide the nutrients that plants need to grow and thrive. It is what mother nature has done on this planet for millions of years successfully without intervention.

Some Good News

The more fertile the biology of the soil, the lower the dependence on chemical fertilisers. This means that you can work within existing fert budgets to transition from high use synthetic nitrogen (where often 75% of N applied does not reach the plant due to abiotic conditions such as rain and dry) to a lower usage of N as your natural soil fertility develops.

Fertile soils with more fungal and microbial activity and diverse roots have a high concentration of organic matter, which helps to improve the soil’s structure, water retention capacity, and drainage.

Here are some of the ways in which soil fertility protects against drought:

  • Increased water retention: Soil organic matter helps to hold water in the soil, making it available to plants for longer periods of time. This is especially important during droughts, when water is scarce.
  • Reduced water evaporation: Soil organic matter also helps to reduce water evaporation from the soil surface. This is because it forms a layer that helps to insulate the soil and prevent water from evaporating.
  • Improved root growth: Fertile soils provide plants with the nutrients they need to grow strong roots. This helps plants to access water and nutrients from deeper in the soil, which is important during droughts.
  • Increased drought tolerance: Plants that grow in fertile soils are often more tolerant of drought than plants that grow in less fertile soils. This is because they have better root systems and are able to access water and nutrients more efficiently.

Improving Soil Fertility

  • There are a number of things that can be done to improve soil fertility:
  • Adding organic matter: This can be done by incorporating compost, manure, or other organic materials into the soil.
  • Feed you soil microbes. Like any living organism, soil microbes need food to exist. The amino acids and peptides which of hydrolysed whole salmon from Fish IT are a perfect source of food to get your microbial and fungal activity working hard to develop soil fertility.
  • Crop rotation: Rotating crops helps to keep the soil healthy and prevent nutrient depletion.
  • Cover cropping: Cover crops are planted during the off-season to help protect the soil and improve its fertility.
  • Conservation tillage: Not necessarily no-till but certainly low-till. Conservation tillage practices help to protect the soil’s organic matter and structure.

Take Action

It seems quite conclusive that New Zealand is on a path to drier summers in the North Island and all but the West Coast on the South Island. You can and should be thinking now about the path forward now.

Fish IT Refined offers you the opportunity to feed your microbiology and build fertile soil. Remember, every one percent increase in organic matter generates a 200,000 litre per hectare water holding capacity. As Rachel Hunter once said “it won’t happen overnight but it will happen” – this is also true of taking a path to address your soil health. But then El Nino is going to be hanging around for a while so it might be a good time to start now

Call us on 0800 FISHIT or send us an email to learn how to get started.

Fish Hydrolysate made with whole Salmon is premium. We explain why.

By Animal Health, Education, Productivity, Soil Health, Sustainability

Whole Salmon vs Heads and Frames.

In our conversations with Farmers, we’re regularly asked what makes Fish Hydrolysate made from whole ocean Salmon premium to its rivals that predominately come from the heads, frames and waste products of commercial sea catch.

While both solutions are excellent sources of food to improve soil health and provide essential nutrients to plants, they have distinctly different profiles and perform various functions.

Other parts of the fish have varying nutrient profiles. As with Salmon, commercial fish heads and frames contain high concentrations of collagen, contributing to the hydrolysate’s gelatinous properties. On the other hand, Whole Salmon includes the flesh, which adds to the overall protein, Omega-3 and nutrient content.

Importance of protein

When applied to soil, protein can have several effects on soil health. Here are some ways protein can impact soil health:

Organic Matter: Protein is an organic compound, and when it is added to the soil, it contributes to the soil’s organic matter content. Organic matter is crucial for maintaining soil health, improving soil structure, water retention, nutrient availability, and microbial activity.

Nutrient Cycling: Proteins contain nitrogen, an essential nutrient for plant growth. When proteins break down in the soil, they release nitrogen through mineralisation. This nitrogen becomes available for plant uptake, supporting healthy plant growth and productivity.

Microbial Activity: Proteins serve as a food source for soil microorganisms. Soil microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi, play vital roles in nutrient cycling, organic matter decomposition, and soil fertility. By providing a source of carbon and energy, proteins can stimulate microbial activity, enhancing soil biological processes.

Soil Fertility: Protein breakdown in the soil releases various nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulphur. These nutrients are essential for plant growth and contribute to soil fertility. Protein-rich amendments or organic materials can improve nutrient availability and fertility over time.

Soil Structure: Organic matter, including proteins, contributes to improving soil structure and aggregation. This enhances soil porosity, allowing for better water infiltration and drainage. Improved soil structure also promotes root growth and nutrient uptake by plants.

Overall, proteins contribute to soil health by increasing organic matter, nutrient availability, microbial activity, and soil structure, ultimately supporting healthy plant growth and sustainable agricultural practices.

Role of Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Salmon is renowned for its high content of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA and DHA. These fatty acids offer numerous health benefits, including reducing inflammation and supporting heart and brain health in humans. The benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in the context of sustainable agriculture and soil management are primarily related to their effects on plant growth and development, which indirectly impacts soil health. Here are a few potential ways omega-3 fatty acids indirectly benefit soil health:

Plant Growth and Nutrient Uptake: Omega-3 fatty acids have been associated with enhanced plant growth, root development, and nutrient uptake. Improved plant growth and nutrient utilisation can lead to healthier and more robust root systems, which contribute to soil structure and nutrient cycling in the rhizosphere (the soil zone around roots).

Stress Tolerance: Omega-3 fatty acids have been reported to enhance plant stress tolerance, including tolerance to abiotic stresses such as salinity, drought, and extreme temperatures. When plants are more resilient to stress, they can better maintain their physiological functions, which can positively impact their interactions with soil organisms and nutrient cycling.

Indirect Effects on Soil Microbes: Omega-3 fatty acids can indirectly influence soil microbial communities by influencing plant exudates, which are compounds secreted by plant roots into the soil. Plant exudates serve as a carbon source for soil microbes, affecting their growth, diversity, and activities. By promoting healthier plants, omega-3 fatty acids indirectly contribute to a more favourable soil microbial community.

While the direct impact of omega-3 fatty acids, specifically EPA and DHA, on soil health is limited, their positive effects on plant growth, stress tolerance, and nutrient uptake directly contribute to healthier plants and influence nutrient cycling in the soil.

While the flesh of commercial catch such as Hoki and Orange Roughy also contain omega-3 fatty acids, their levels are lower than those found in Salmon. When only the heads and frames are used in the manufacturer of Fish Hydrolysate, omega-3 fatty acids are only found in low levels.

Nutrient Profile

While the overall protein content and Omega-3 in whole Salmon is found in greater quantities than commercial catch heads and frames both solutions have similar mineral profiles.

Fish Hydrolysate both Salmon and commercial fish contain a range of important nutrients, selenium, potassium, and phosphorus. These nutrients play an important role in maintaining soil health and supporting plant growth. Here’s an overview of their significance:

Selenium: Selenium is a trace mineral that is essential for both plants and animals. In soil, selenium is involved in several important functions. It acts as an antioxidant, helping to protect plants from oxidative stress and enhancing their resilience to environmental pressures. Selenium also plays a role in plant metabolism and enzyme activity. While selenium is required in small quantities, its presence in the soil can positively influence plant growth and health.

Potassium: Potassium is one of the three primary macronutrients for plants, along with nitrogen and phosphorus. It is crucial for numerous physiological processes in plants, including photosynthesis, water regulation, enzyme activation, and nutrient transport. Adequate potassium levels in soil promote healthy root development, improved disease resistance, and increased crop yields. Potassium also contributes to soil fertility by enhancing soil structure and cation exchange capacity.

Phosphorus: Phosphorus is another essential macronutrient required by plants. It plays a vital role in energy transfer and storage, as well as DNA and RNA synthesis. Phosphorus is involved in root development, flowering, fruiting, and plant growth. It is crucial for seed and fruit formation, promoting early establishment of plants, and improving crop quality. Adequate phosphorus levels in the soil are necessary for maximising plant productivity and optimising nutrient uptake.

Maintaining appropriate levels of these nutrients in the soil is essential for optimal plant growth and overall soil health. Imbalances or deficiencies can lead to reduced production yields, decreased plant vigour, and increased susceptibility to diseases and environmental stresses.

It’s important to note that nutrient management practices, such as soil testing, additional nutrient application, and rotation, should be employed to ensure the proper balance and availability of these nutrients in the soil.

Product Consistency

Along with the profile of each product, consistency is vitally essential when comparing Fish Hydrolysate made using raw material from farmed whole Salmon vs commercial sea catch. Every pod of Fish IT is manufactured using the same raw material from a known source following a 360-degree model of the circular economy. Whereas, Hydrolysates made from commercial sea catch utilise raw material across multiple fish species from shallow to deep sea fish, all of whom have different feeding profiles. We are what we eat, which changes the consistency of the raw material  used in each brew.

In summary, while all Fish species’ protein and mineral profiles are similar, they are found in more significant quantities in Fish Hydrolysate manufactured using whole fish. Hydrolysates manufactured using Whole Salmon raw materials are unique due to their high Omega-3 Fatty Acid content. While all Fish Hydrolysates should be part of any mix, the combination of protein, mineral and Omega-3 content makes whole Salmon the premium fish product to support sustainable agriculture, minimise environmental impacts, and maintain long-term soil fertility.

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The Narrows – A Farm Management Case Study

By Animal Health, Customer Stories, Field Outcomes, How To, Productivity, Soil Health, Sustainability

Lachie Craw, Contract Milker at Southern Farms’ The Narrows in Riverton, packs quite a bit of farming experience into his youthful frame.  He grew up on a sheep and beef farm just out of Waikoikoi in west Otago, worked weekends dairy farming before going full time for family friends, a year dairy farming in Ireland and the same again in Australia, a stint at Farm Source and then the past five years at The Narrows.

In this article, we hear from Lachie as he talks about his time at The Narrows, his farming ethos, the progress he has made over the past five years towards improved land management practices and where to from here.

Taking the right approach

Lachie is driven to work smarter, not harder. As he says “I’m all for working hard. But, you know, there’s got to be a balance between work and family life and I look to incorporate that approach with my workers. Flexibility is key. The farm owner just wants to do things once and do it properly, which I’m definitely happy about”. Lachie has good stability in his crew of three full timers, including himself, and a couple of part time calving helpers. This year he has been able to drop one full time staff while maintaining production, without increasing work effort. So things are definitely heading in the right direction.

The Narrows

The Narrows is part of the Southern Farms Ltd group, nestled between the Pourakino and Aparima rivers across from Riverton in Southland. Lachie explains “We’re about 290 hectares effective. This calving we’re going to calve down to about 880, peak milk 850. When I first got here, we were 950 peak milk. The idea going forward for us is milk less cows and do the same production or more, essentially. The last couple of years they’ve averaged around that 460kg milk solids per cow. The year before I got here it was 330kg so we’ve come a long way.”

For Lachie, it is all about setting The Narrows platform up to farm sustainably in the long term. As he says “100 to 120 less cows and be able to do the same amount of production you know, there’s cost savings in that because you’re not running the shed for probably an extra half an hour a day. And it takes the pressure off time and labour”.

When you couple this with improved pasture management and an improving herd quality, it’s a win-win.

Five years ago

Lachie spoke of some initial observations when he first arrived at The Narrows. The clover root weevil was a major problem. If you drove around the farm and you’d be lucky to find two clover plants. You might have found one worm.

“I think the practices I was coming into were probably non-existent, to be fair. I remember when we when first came and had a look around the farm prior to moving here. We drove past a couple young grass paddocks that the cows had just come out of after a storm. And the paddocks were black. Practices and management just wasn’t where it needed to be.”

Lachie continues “You’d put a mob in a paddock at five o’clock in the morning, you go past them a few hours later at nine o’clock and they’re just not happy. They’ve trampled half the paddock and want to get out, even on a fine day”

Back then The Narrows were wintering about 300 cows on farm on fodder beet. There was plenty of it but the problem was that the fences were only being moved about half a metre to a metre per day. Lachie explains “If you’ve got a five or six hundred kilo animal staying in one place, that just ruins the soil structure. You might have grown 30 tonne that year, but you’re only growing 8 tonne for the next five years. So it just doesn’t stack up.”


A step change today

There have been many improvements Lachie has overseen at The Narrows and we’ll cover these changes but for now, let’s focus a couple of metrics around grass growth and animal health before we dig into the approach Lachie took to get here.

Dry Matter

Last year Lachie grew 14.8 tonne of dry matter on farm per hectare which equated to 720 bales. Three years ago he was making about 180 bales of bailage. As Lachie says “While we’ve got run off blocks, which are run separately around the coast, supplement feed comes from bailage and silage. So with improved pasture management we’ve been able to make a bale of bailage on farm for well under half the price of what you buy one and you’ve got control over quality.” Lachie continues “That bale tends to  twice as good as the $110 bail you bought in you know, so, yeah, it’s a no brainer as far as I’m concerned.” Better quality feed at a lower price that positively impacts the bottom line, we like that.

Animal Health

Dairy farmers monitor somatic cells because they can be used as a measure of the health of their cows. Lachie comments “Just the general animal health is a whole lot better. The average cell count the year the year before I got here was around that 360-370 (thousand) mark. First year I was here we were about 300. The last two years we’re at about 170 so we’ve come down a lot”. Great progress there! Lachie continues “You know, there’s no reason why we can’t be around that 120-130 mark. It’s essentially where we’ve sat since Christmas.”


The path to improvement

Like in any business, success is not always a straight line, and there is no end-point – you just keep going. The Japanese have a term for this – they call it Kaizen – which is a compound of two Japanese words that together translate as “good change” or “improvement.” In recent times, Kaizen has come to mean “continuous improvement”.

In a nutshell, the following management practices have helped Lachie continuously improve The Narrows long term sustainability:


  • A focus on herd quality that delivers bottom line results with reduced health costs
  • A direct drill trial that delivered positive results on yield
  • The application of soil aeration to provide oxygen into the topsoil
  • The importance of keeping residuals at a decent level (grass grows grass!)
  • Applying Fish IT fish hydrolysate as part of the regime to feed the soil biology, boost production and improve animal health through a better pasture diet
  • Mixing up grass species to provide diversity
  • A continuous programme to regrass old and under-performing paddocks

Direct Drilling

Lachie is a big fan of direct drilling seed into the soil. A couple of winters back he planted 15 hectares of kale. Half direct drilled, half conventionally spread. It was all treated the same over winter. The big win was that Lachie got the half that was direct drilled back into young grass 10 weeks earlier than the conventional.

Improved grasses

Lachie believes it was the overuse of nitrogen that soured the grasses in the early days when he first arrived. Lachie points out “The clover content wasn’t there either. I think that there was so much N on the plant, which probably relied on it, and the palatability probably wasn’t great. It would have soured a whole lot of it. The cows weren’t interested.”

He continues “I definitely think the Fish has helped push things along a bit faster and brought the biology back to life. Before using Fish IT we went round and dug a dozen holes. We were lucky to find five worms total. Today you go and find 10-20 worms in one hole. So the biological activity has definitely come back.”

At The Narrows, Lachie worked out that it was only $3 per hectare more to chopper apply compared with tractor spray boom or Tow and Fert, so one big benefit is that the entire farm is done by lunchtime leaving the afternoon to get back to milking.

Between the supplements in the shed and the improved pasture quality and palatability influenced by the Fish IT biostimulants, the cows are now “happy as” according to Lachie. He continues “It’s the argument of wholefood versus junk food in a way. I suppose if you eat McDonald’s every day then you’re not going to feel great are you?”

Nitrogen Use

Lachie is still using around 160 units of nitrogen over the past couple of seasons. He says “We’re still using relatively high amount of nitrogen. But going forward, you know, the idea is to bring that bring that down” As the biology kicks in and the nutrient cycle gets into full swing “then, you know, there’s no reason why we can’t half what we’re what we’re using. Going forward but we need to get the remaining paddocks renovated first.” We concur, Lachie.


Lachie’s grasses are still ryegrass dominant but he has been putting in some clover species, new generation cocksfoot, plantain and rye grass varieties. There are some great benefits to offering diverse species to the biology as the microbe communities in the soil thrive on diversity and give back with a multiplier effect in terms of nutrients to the plant.
Lachie expanded on his views around cocksfoot “They’re pretty hardy plants. I’ve got a paddock of old cocksfoot that I could put 100 cows in today, leave for a week and it’d be black. Two days later it’ll be green again. Based on that I’m including it in the seed mix.”


Leaving a decent residual has had a big positive impact on grass growth at the Narrows.
“Two thirds of the year, probably I leave 1600-1650 residual. If I go lower than that, say 1500, it takes a week to recover to 1650 from where it starts growing properly again”. Lachie continues “I’ve been on shorter rounds since I’ve started doing that I think we’ve grown a lot more grass because of it.”


Looking ahead at The Narrows

“Going forward we’ve still got plenty of room to move” Lachie states. “The idea is to keep it pretty simple. Going forward, we are going to renovate a bit more pasture than we have in the past. And just get it to a standard where we can sit at the 10 to 15% a year mark pasture renewal. This will help us grow a lot more feed on farm”

Lachie will stay the path to reduce his units of nitrogen. This will come through a combination of improved natural nitrogen cycling in the soil so that the plant receives synthetic nitrogen as a tool rather than a drug. Applying a liquid N will assist in reducing the amount of units required too. Lachie is taking a good look at the benefits of using a spray application with a Tow and Fert to be able to mix fertiliser, Fish IT biostimulants and other nutrients to get the compounding benefit of a single application of the appropriate recipe of minerals and nutrients.

Lachie concludes “I can see plenty of potential and our aim is to have a cow that’s going to give us 500kg milk solids a year. Some of that’s breeding but a lot of it is management. You know, you can have the best BW and PW cow in the world but if she doesn’t calf or doesn’t produce milk then she’s worth not worth anything. So to get to that level in the next couple of years – that’s the aim”

Good one Lachie, for what it is worth we think you are on the right track. We’ll be sure to check in for an update further down the track.


fertiliser cost

Why is the health of soil so important?

By Education, Management, Soil Health, Sustainability

What is soil heath?

Soil health refers to the overall well-being and quality of the soil. Just like our bodies need to be healthy to function, soil health is essential for the growth and productivity of plants.

Think of soil as a living ecosystem. Made up of tiny particles of rocks, minerals, water, air, organic matter (like dead plants and animals), and a community of microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and insects. All these components work together to create a balanced and fertile environment for plants to grow.

When we talk about soil health, we’re looking at different aspects. One important aspect is soil fertility. Fertile soil contains the right balance of nutrients that plants need to thrive, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. These nutrients are like food for plants, and healthy soil provides them in appropriate amounts.

Another crucial factor is soil structure. Good soil structure means that the soil particles are arranged in a way that allows water to penetrate easily, while also holding some moisture for the plants’ roots. It also allows air to circulate, which is necessary for the roots and the microorganisms living in the soil to breathe.

Soil health also depends on the presence of beneficial microorganisms. These tiny organisms break down organic matter, recycle nutrients, and protect plants from harmful pathogens. They are like the soil’s own support system, helping plants grow strong and resilient.

Finally, soil health is affected by how well it can retain and filter water. Healthy soil acts like a sponge, absorbing rainfall and preventing runoff, which can cause erosion and carry away valuable topsoil. This water-holding capacity is crucial, especially during dry periods, as it helps plants survive and reduces the need for excessive watering.

Importance of maintaining good soil health

Farmers, horticulturalists, viticulturists and land managers are all interested in maintaining or improving soil health because it leads to better yields, healthier plants, and more sustainable practices. By taking care of the soil and ensuring its health, we can support the growth of plants, maintain biodiversity, and contribute to a healthier environment overall.

Soil health is of utmost importance for several reasons:

  1. Nutrient Availability: Healthy soil provides the essential nutrients that plants need to grow and thrive. When soil is rich in nutrients, crops can absorb them efficiently, leading to better yields and healthier plants. Maintaining soil health ensures a continuous supply of nutrients for crops, reducing the need for excessive fertiliser application and minimizing nutrient runoff, which can harm water bodies.
  2. Water Retention and Drainage: Healthy soil has good water-holding capacity, allowing it to retain moisture for plant roots. This is crucial, especially during dry periods, as it helps plants withstand drought stress. Additionally, healthy soil also has good drainage properties, preventing waterlogging and allowing excess water to flow away. Proper water management through soil health practices supports optimal plant growth.
  3. Disease and Pest Resistance: Healthy soil promotes strong and resilient plants. Beneficial microorganisms present in healthy soil can help suppress harmful pathogens that cause plant diseases. These microorganisms can also interact with plant roots, forming symbiotic relationships and enhancing the plant’s natural defences. Furthermore, healthy soil can support a diverse ecosystem of organisms that prey on pests, reducing the need for chemical interventions.
  4. Erosion Prevention: Soil erosion, where topsoil is carried away by wind or water, is a significant issue in agriculture. Healthy soil with good structure and organic matter content is more resistant to erosion. It forms a protective layer that prevents soil particles from being washed or blown away. By preserving soil health, farmers can reduce erosion, maintain fertile topsoil, and preserve valuable agricultural land for long-term productivity.
  5. Sustainable Practices: Maintaining soil health is a fundamental aspect of sustainable agriculture. It reduces the reliance on synthetic inputs like fertilizers and pesticides, which can have negative environmental impacts. Healthy soil promotes natural processes like nutrient cycling, reduces soil degradation, and contributes to long-term soil fertility. Sustainable soil management practices, such as cover cropping, crop rotation, and organic amendments, help maintain soil health and minimize negative environmental consequences.

In summary, soil health is vital for agriculture because it directly affects crop productivity, nutrient availability, water management, disease resistance, erosion prevention, and the overall sustainability of farming practices. By prioritising soil health, farmers and land managers can achieve better yields, reduce input costs, protect the environment, and ensure the long-term viability of their agricultural operations.

Reference Sources:

Visual Soil Assessment, Pastoral grazing & cropping on flat rolling country. Second Edition. Author: Graham Shepherd.

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Less Stress and More Profit – A Case Study

By Animal Health, Customer Stories, Field Outcomes, How To, Productivity, Soil Health, Sustainability

This month we continue our two-part blog series on a King Country farmer and his story of transitioning to a biological system, what it did for his farm productivity and, importantly, how it impacted his profitability.

If you missed part one, you can read the article here.

Our story relates to Raymond Burr who today runs a laboratory Qlabs to help primary producers create healthy soils. Twenty five years ago, Ray and his partner Donna ran a dairy farm in the King Country.

During the 1990s there was a history of high inputs of nitrogen and phosphate fertiliser across New Zealand that was a very recent introduction to farming practices. Through the period of 1997-2000 Ray noted that the pasture was deteriorating with a loss of ryegrass and clover cover and a reversion to low fertility species such as yorkshire fog, brown top and sweet vernal. Through this same period, animal health and production were also deteriorating with a crisis occurring in the 1999/2000 season:

The Crisis

Through this same period, animal health and production were also deteriorating with a crisis occurring in the 1999/2000 season:

  • Almost one third of the herd of 600 dairy cows were hormonally induced to calve that Spring.
  • Retention of foetal membranes (RFM) in 20% of the newly calved cows (120 total).
  • 30% of replacement calves diagnosed with Rotavirus.
  • 420 CIDRs for non-cycling cows.
  • 72 cows vetted empty.
  • Deaths – 25-30 cows.
  • Mating period extended to 24 weeks to achieve an 88% in-calf rate (528 cows).

The Investigation

Ray and Donna considered that their issues may have a nutritional basis so they engaged Peter Lester of Quantum Laboratory in Hawkes Bay to a meeting and undertook a programme to make changes in feed management and fertiliser practices based on pasture and soil samples collected from the farm.

The aim of the investigation was to monitor the changes in mineral concentrations in the soil, plant and animal over the period before and after the introduction of the new plan.

The Transition

The tables below outline the progression of the farm’s key performance indicators through the period of transition from the 2000 season to 2004.  The first table shows key performance indicators over the period while the second table illustrates the inputs regime.

“The aim of the game is to get that animal health under control and then you start making money. Our farming got to the point where it was so stress free, we couldn’t wait for the new season to start to see what further improvements would be made.”

Raymond BurrKing Country Dairy Farmer, now owner of QLabs

A Positive Impact

Within a four year window, Ray and Donna experienced a significant turn around on their farm.

  • $250,000 annual improvement to the farm bottom line by 2004. This is adjusted to normalise milk payout over the period.
  • Maintained 273kg of milk solids per cow in an era when 200kg was the national average.
  • No inductions.
  • No CIDRs.
  • Animal health cost per cow reduced from $90 to $38 per cow.
  • 25+ additional culled cows to sell at the end of the season with losses down from 25-30 in 2000, to 5 in 2004.
  • No downer cows throughout the season.
  • Very few lame cows.
  • Labour cost reductions. Reducing the herd and land (but maintaining average milk solids / cow) allowed Donna and Ray to reduce the team by one full time person (FTE) providing a significant labour cost reduction. Also, with a vastly improved animal health, labour requirements were dramatically reduced.
  • Replaced 60 tonnes annual of trough fed molasses to an in-shed, controlled feeding system to give them exactly what they need based on herbage test results.
  • Inputs remained approximately the same in terms of per hectare cost but with a shift away from traditional synthetic fertilisers to custom blends including: Calcium Limestone, Serpentine, Muriate of Potash, Borate 48, Manganese Sulphate, Copper Sulphate, Zinc Sulphate, Cobalt Sulphate.
  • Increase in milk solids per hectare driven by increased grass growth with no need for run off or additional feed to be brought in.
  • Animal health costs increased 2003 to 2004 but this was inflationary with less drugs required in 2004 over 2003 but at a higher price.

The Final Word

Improvements in your Economic Farm Surplus (EFS) come from producing healthier animals and more of them. In this case study, cost of inputs remained relatively the same through the transition to a remarkably more profitable farming system with $250,000 added to annually to the bottom line.

As Ray says “The aim of the game is to get that animal health under control and then you start making money. Our farming got to the point where it was so stress free, we couldn’t wait for the new season to start to see what further improvements would be made.”

Now that’s something worth thinking about.

Changing Tack – Sustainable Farm Management

By Animal Health, Customer Stories, Education, Field Outcomes, Productivity, Soil Health, Sustainability

Our conversation with Ray Burr was a long one so we have broken it into two parts. In this article we discuss his King Country dairy farm system pivot and how that went for Ray and his partner Donna. Next month we will get into the nuts and bolts of his bottom line improvements and how they stacked up in the fine tuning of his farming system.

Setting the scene

Farmers today are facing a future of increased complexity arising from new regulatory requirements, He Waka Eke Noa, changing consumer awareness and supply chain demand for sustainable produce such as the Nestlé Net Zero Roadmap where 50% of their ingredients will be sourced through regenerative agricultural methods by 2030 (cue Fonterra increasing sustainability requirements on dairy producers).

The ongoing challenge is how to balance the needs of the planet with the needs of the people, while at the same time achieving economic prosperity.

In the middle of this is the farmer: spinning multiple plates labelled ‘uncertainty’, ‘high stakes’, ’small margins’, ‘fast changes’ and ‘judgment’. Farmers today are faced with the most challenging ‘perfect storm’: increasing input costs, softening commodity prices and interest rate driven mortgage stress and the feeling of being backed into a corner. Making a change from traditional farming systems were production may be high but economic surplus is marginal and the bank manager is breathing down your neck is akin to undertaking heart transplant surgery… while you’re riding the Tour de France. Ray has been there, and he has done that.

The Big Three

In terms of mineral recommendations, sulfur and boron, being anions, continually leach out of the system and need top up so these minerals are always required.  Reece explains “They don’t lock up in the soil like cations, so we know every year you are going to need a minimum of 20 kilos per hectare of boron and 80 kilos of sulfur 90.  The other mineral that is very deficient in New Zealand soils is silica.  Our goal is to get silica to a minimum of 2000 parts per million. Silica is great at tying up the excess aluminium that resides in NZ soils after decades of synthetic fertiliser treatment”.  Reece continues “Within 10 weeks of tying up aluminium what we are seeing through herbage tests are significant increases in copper, magnesium, calcium and phosphate without applying any of those products.  All these nutrients have been tied up in the soil for years and begin to unlock. You’ve paid for that fertiliser, you may as well be using it.”  One of Reece’s dairy customers has been five years without any phosphate application and is it still way above where it needs to be. “By doing the total nutrient test with Peter Norwood, Highland Nutrition have an inventory of nutrients and we know where things are at as every nutrient is given a rating” Reece explains.

“I studied at Massey University back in the mid 80s, where if we used more than 25 kilograms of nitrogen, we were given a growling, a big red cross and told ‘you're overstocked, you have to destock’. So even back in the 80s, we knew well and the lecturers knew that we weren't supposed to use too much of this stuff, because it's going to have a detrimental effect. Well, fast forward 40 years and the detrimental effects are here.”

Raymond BurrKing Country Dairy Farmer, now owner of QLabs

Recent history

Ray started our conversation with a little bit of background. He explains “I studied at Massey University back in the mid 80s, where if we used more than 25 kilograms of nitrogen, we were given a growling, a big red cross and told ‘you’re overstocked, you have to destock’. So even back in the 80s, we knew well and the lecturers knew that we weren’t supposed to use too much of this stuff, because it’s going to have a detrimental effect. Well, fast forward 40 years and the detrimental effects are here.”

Between 1990 and 2020 agricultural nitrogen inputs increased 800% in New Zealand without an equivalent increase pasture production. In the quest for ever-greater productivity, turning to fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides is now killing our soils, stressing our farmers and threatening our ecology.

Although New Zealand has some of the richest soils in the world, decades of land management practices that follow the status quo have taken their toll, depleting the essential nutrients and killing off bacteria and fungi that create organic material essential to plants. With the catastrophic climatic conditions impacting New Zealand recently, soil health has been in the spotlight. In a world where government agencies and agribusiness have long pursued the holy grail of maximum pasture production, it is time to take a different approach.

Ray states his position “So we have to get smarter because these products are getting dearer and the future of food production is going to be regulated, we’ve got to really get down into the efficiencies of making work what we’ve already got. That is soil functionality.”

Isn’t it all about the science?

The Big Fert companies in New Zealand will tell you it is all about the science. Ray challenges that proposition. “Their science was done last century. So once that science has fulfilled its promise to produce food, where do you go next?” He continues “You have to look at new ways of getting even better at what you do. Take superphosphate for instance. we’ve been pouring it on in this country for donkey’s years. The next conversation has to be about how do we make the whole farming system more efficient, so that we can utilise more of what we’re putting on. The answer to that lies in the soil”

Ray explains “In my journey, as a farmer, we converted our sheep and beef farm in the King Country to dairying in 1990. And we milked 520 cows back when the average cow herd was 125 cows. So, we were quite innovative in what we were doing… until the wheels fell off. Too much nitrogen, too much phosphate. And too many health issues with the cows.” Ray continues “You know, you love your animals, you look after them, and it just tears you apart when they’re not getting any calves, aborting and all the rest of the health-related issues. The ‘science’ wasn’t working”

It was at this point Ray took matters into his own hands. “I did a big study on my farm and I paid my vet to do a five year recall of all the products I’d used on my farm and fertiliser programs and animal health issues from my own records. I sent it off to two of the top soil scientists in New Zealand and their eventual response after much follow up was ‘No, you’re right Ray, just carry on’.” Unimpressed, Ray sought out the experience of an NZ soil lab seeking a 13 element based, holistic soil fertility program and was refused help as it challenged the status quo. Third time lucky, Ray found Quantum Laboratories in the Hawkes Bay. A couple that owned a niche lab and worked directly and independently with farmers. Ray was so impressed he eventually bought the rights to the business in New Zealand which, today, operates as QLabs.

Sustainable Farm Management

With a revised fertiliser approach addressing all 13 elemental soil requirements and soil fertility, Ray smiles and says “the animal health turnaround on our farm was just amazing. After three years, no CIDRs, no inductions, ten week mating, eight week calving and no downer cows – none at all”. He continues “our farm was ticking along that smoothly, we had 520 dairy cows, two classes of young stock, 800 head of cattle altogether. Donna and I and one staff. We put in all our own crops, re-grassed, spread all our own fertiliser twice a year and we got a nitrogen use down to 15 kilograms for one third of the first rotation. I don’t think we needed it. But hey, it’s a feelgood factor.” After a full analysis of the books, Ray’s accountant was able to determine that these changes resulted in an additional $250,000 per annum direct to the bottom line by year three.

The fertiliser conundrum

The bank manager really put pressure on Ray and Donna. Ray explains “The bank manager said ‘Look, you’re not feeding maize silage, you’re not putting on urea. You know you’re gonna go broke’ I said don’t worry about me, worry about the others. The bank manager told me to submit my books to Mark and Measure (the Dairy NZ Annual Conference). So I did”

Ray continues “That year there were about 60 of us farmers. We submit our audited books for them to go through so they could compare apples with apples. We got there on the first day of the three day conference, Donna and I and this other couple, we were laughing and carrying on everybody else was pretty serious. At the end of the first day, we had to put our production figures up and they were middle of the road-ish. I said, don’t worry about that, wait till tomorrow. So tomorrow came along, the couple that we were laughing and having a lot of fun with had the highest economic farm surplus (EFS) there, and we were $20 behind them at $1300/hectare – at a time when milk solids pay out was $3-4/kg. “

“It was pleasurable farming, we just laughed and carried on and the guy that was there that did the highest production, his phone just rang nonstop for the three days and he left on the third day because something had gone wrong on the farm. He did twice as much production per hectare as us and had an EFS of $64 per hectare.

At the end of the conference, the audience was asked by the facilitator ‘what did you learn?’ Ray stuck his hand up and said “I wouldn’t get out of bed for $64 a hectare. All that work, all that stress.” Two days after the conference the bank manager arrived at the farm to quiz Ray and Donna on how they got on. That was the last time they saw or herd from a bank manager.

The bottom line

For Ray, it is all about soil health, plant health, animal health. As he says “At the end of the day it’s the animal and its produce you sell that funds the whole operation. So kilograms of dry matter, anybody can grow kilograms of dry matter, just go and chuck urea on but that is not animal performance.”

And as for the Big Fert ‘science’. Ray is a great believer that on farm is where all the good discussion takes places. He asserts “Get out in the field so you can actually look at things and have those real discussions”. He continues “New Zealand farmers are probably the biggest research organisation in New Zealand. If they were allowed a little bit more freedom, then there would be even better research”.

In the next article in our conversation with Ray Burr, we will look at the bottom line improvements in his King Country dairy operation and where the financial benefits came from in fine tuning his farming system.

Taking a Balanced View To Sustainable Profitable Farming

By Animal Health, Customer Stories, Education, Field Outcomes, Productivity, Soil Health, Sustainability

It All Starts In The Soil

The Fish IT team came through Balclutha last month on a road trip from Invercargill and caught up with agronomist Reece Johnston who owns and operates Highland Nutrition – a soil consultancy with a biologically and mineral based farming system, focusing on soil fertility that delivers profitable, sustainable, and environmentally sound farming outcomes for his clients. If that all sounds interesting, read on.

Reece has always had a keen interest in biology, starting in high school and continuing as he watched his grandfather grow crops with little need for chemical fertilizer. Fast forward to today and the importance of biology remains at the fore.

Highland Nutrition’s approach is to focus on mineral nutrient balance in the soil, unlock tied up minerals for us and use biostimulants to feed the microbes and drive soil fertility and natural systems of nutrient cycling. Their approach with their customers is to undertake annual soil tests and quarterly herbage testing. Reece says “We use Perry Laboratory in the USA who run the Albrecht fertility system and focus on beneficial nutrient percentages to optimise plant growth.  We send another sample to Environmental Analysis Laboratory in Lismore, New South Wales to do a heavy metal and total nutrient test.  From there we work with Peter Norwood at Full Circle Nutrition to formulate our recommendations”

The recommendations will be a combination of nutrients to balance the soils and Fish IT fish hydrolysate to feed the soil microbes allowing nutrients to be unlocked and made available to the plant as well as to substantially simulate worm activity and clover production.

The Big Three

In terms of mineral recommendations, sulfur and boron, being anions, continually leach out of the system and need top up so these minerals are always required.  Reece explains “They don’t lock up in the soil like cations, so we know every year you are going to need a minimum of 20 kilos per hectare of boron and 80 kilos of sulfur 90.  The other mineral that is very deficient in New Zealand soils is silica.  Our goal is to get silica to a minimum of 2000 parts per million. Silica is great at tying up the excess aluminium that resides in NZ soils after decades of synthetic fertiliser treatment”.  Reece continues “Within 10 weeks of tying up aluminium what we are seeing through herbage tests are significant increases in copper, magnesium, calcium and phosphate without applying any of those products.  All these nutrients have been tied up in the soil for years and begin to unlock. You’ve paid for that fertiliser, you may as well be using it.”  One of Reece’s dairy customers has been five years without any phosphate application and is it still way above where it needs to be. “By doing the total nutrient test with Peter Norwood, Highland Nutrition have an inventory of nutrients and we know where things are at as every nutrient is given a rating” Reece explains.

The biological system seems to make clover grow, like urea does to grass. And then you’re fixing your nitrogen from the air for free instead of buying it out of a bag. Yep, we're getting Mother Nature to do all the hard work.

Reece JohnstonOwner, Highland Nutrition

A Sustainable, Viable Approach

Farming sustainability is at the heart of what drives Reece to help his clients.  Reece says “All decisions need to be profitable for the farmer. Because at the end of the day, if it’s not economically sound, the banks will lose interest. So, it’s got to start there. In the process, we can help our clients cut back on animal health costs to trim the bottom line, that’s where it’s all at”.  Reece strives to work within existing fertiliser budgets as his customers transition to better, higher yielding, more profitable systems. For example, Reece explains “Our mix that we put on with the Fish IT in it is $67.70 a hectare. It’s equivalent to 50 kilos of urea in price. Only a one or two dollar per hectare difference in price, but the big thing is, we may only put two, maybe three applications a year on”

Great Results

Another of Reece’s customers has between 3,100kg and 4,700kg DM / ha cover on his dairy platform. A phenomenal amount of grass. Reece says “And the thing is, it’s not llike it’s above your knees. It’s just that the pasture is so dense underneath. Even when a paddock’s been topped and grazed they still have over 2000 (kg DM / ha) cover and the clover comes back big and fast.”  He continues “the biological system seems to make clover grow, like urea does to grass. And then you’re fixing your nitrogen from the air for free instead of buying it out of a bag. Yep, we’re getting Mother Nature to do all the hard work”.

Yet another of Reece’s clients who has been with him for a few years made a comment that hasn’t seen any mastitis this season, no laminitis, none of the ‘itises’ which are inflammatory diseases, caused by excessive iron in the pasture. Another issue with excess iron is reproductive issues. Reece states “In our system iron levels need to be 100 to 150 parts per million.  We’ve tested palm kernel supplement feed from a new customer that has recently come on board, and we saw iron levels at six to eight times higher levels than our recommendations.  The client moved away from that quick smart”.

Reece looks after customers on the North Island and South Island with active projects currently from Waikato to Southland. He can currently be emailed or found on Facebook but watch this space, he tells us – a website is coming.

What Does Good Look Like?

I asked Reece what good looks like to him “At end of the day, to see my customers’ milk production up on historic averages by 20 percent or something like that. To know that farmers are putting some dollars in the bank or the local netball club, or that the tennis club sees a couple of bucks out of a local farmer, because he’s got a bit extra to spend. I just want to see continuous growth and profitability for farmers.” He continues “Rural communities and farming is the lifeblood of New Zealand, and we all need to do what we can to get them get back into shape”.

We couldn’t agree more Reece.

fertiliser cost

Frustrated by the Fertiliser Price Squeeze? Steps to take.

By Education, How To, Management, Productivity, Soil Health, Sustainability

Fertiliser prices have more than doubled over the past year. What events have caused these prices to go up, what impact does it have on overall farm costs of production, and what can farmers do to keep fertiliser prices from eating through all of their profits?

Two years of increasing fertiliser prices

The steady climb in fertiliser costs started in 2020. Much of the initial rise in price can be attributed to rising commodity prices, which drove growers to take advantage of a strong market by producing more bushels. In the following two years, however, a number of factors pushed fertiliser prices on a dramatic run.

Disruption in the global supply chain is among the reasons farmers are facing price rises for fertiliser once again. Prices have increased steadily over the past two years due to multiple factors.

The prices of some products have doubled in the last two years which has prompted more farmers to look for locally manufactured alternatives. Earlier this year, fertiliser factories in the U.S. were shut down due to cold weather along with supply chain issues. Then, the ongoing war in Ukraine has led both Russia and Ukraine to prioritise their own domestic food supplies and suspend fertiliser exports; Russia is the world’s largest exporter of fertiliser.

The impact on cost of production

Since 2020, the prices of synthetic fertiliser have in some cases doubled. Going back further to 2018, Urea costs averaged $526 per tonne. In 2022, Urea per tonne will hit $1400. That’s more than 250% increase for every tonne that’ll leave farmers’ pockets this year.

What can farmers do to limit the impact of these rising prices? Let’s think about it in two categories:

  1. Improving fertiliser efficiency. This means using farming practices that reduce fertiliser loss from denitrification, leaching, volatilisation, or erosion. For many farming operations, these losses will rob half or more of their applied fertiliser, meaning that it never gets to the right places.
  2. Reducing total fertiliser needs. This really means finding alternative sources to meet pasture and crop productivity needs. Improving soil health and soil organic matter can create free fertiliser by increasing total nutrient capacity within the soil and improving the soil’s ability to deliver nutrients to plants. Bio-diverse pastures can provide significant fertiliser value while reducing costs and providing additional benefits to your operation; from weed management to improved soil structure and water management capability, bio-diverse pasture blends are an affordable solution.

Profitability Strategies

To understand how you avoid getting caught in the trap of rising fertiliser prices, you need to understand the benefit from alternative fertility food sources such as Fish IT Refined. We reached out to a number of seasoned agronomist and farmers on the agronomic tips and tricks for navigating this expensive fertiliser market.

The overwhelming message was this – you have to start now to put your farm in a position to get out of the fertiliser price squeeze and gain some independence from supply chain struggles. As farmers, we face three basic realities when it comes to fertiliser use:

  1. Our practices can significantly impact the amount, availability, and waste of fertiliser. Soils that experience erosion above two tons of soil loss per hectare are often losing significant amounts of fertiliser and the most fertile soil. Similarly, soils with compaction can cause denitrification. Saturated soils can lose over half of all applied nitrogen. Cultivation provides a very short-term solution to compaction but will then perpetuate future compaction issues by further breaking down soil structure.
  2. Soil health will determine how much fertiliser is actually available to plants. Applied N and P must get converted into plant available usable forms. This process relies on soil microorganisms. The more microorganisms available, the more applied fertiliser is available to plants. Conversely, reducing soil biology through cultivation, plant residue removal, and periods of moisture stress will reduce soil biology. And if it isn’t converted for plant use, it often gets lost to leaching, erosion, or denitrification.
  3. Feed and increase the earthworm population, density and species are affected by soil properties and management practices. Through their burrowing, feeding, digesting and casting, earthworms have a major effect on the chemical, physical, and biological properties of the soil. The function of worms is to shred and decompose plant residue converting it to humus and releasing mineral nutrients. By comparison with undigested soil, soil digested by worms can contain 5 times as much plant available N, as much as 7 times of plant available P, 3 times Mg and a whooping 11 times as much K. Additionally, deceased earthworms contribute significant amounts of N to the soil. In broad terms, 4 tonnes of earthworms per/ha could release as much as 50Kg/N/ha on death. Proof that these guys are a key element in your fight against the price of synthetic fertilisers.
  4. Free nitrogen is available, if you choose to take advantage of it. Legume cover plants such as white and red clover, Austrian winter pea, and hairy vetch can provide significant plant-available nitrogen. For example, depending on its relative dominance in a sword, white clover is able to fix up to 300 kg/N/ha/year in high producing sheep farms and 380 Kg/N//ha/year on dairy platforms.
  5. Adopting technologies on offer will help you to manage fertilisers more efficiently. By utilising tools like Tow and Fert liquid foliar spray machines offers Farmers versatility to use soluble forms of fertiliser directly to the plant. Combined with GPS technology like that on offer from TracMap GPS, are helping to reduce the amount of fertiliser you require through greater efficiency.
  6. Keeping heavy machinery on the ground to a minimum will reduce the impacts of compacting the soil. Compaction which leads to water-logging or surface ponding results in a series of undesirable chemical and biochemical reduction reactions the by product of which are either toxic to roots or are in a form that is unable to be taken up by plants. Notably, plant available nitrate-nitrogen is reduced by denitrification to nitrite and nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas.

While death and taxes are certainties, we can avoid getting caught in the trap of rising fertiliser prices, but it sometimes takes a big and scary leap forward. Fish IT Refined is a biological food source for your soil, designed to stimulate soil life encouraging an increase to the earthworm population and clover production, to release you from the fertiliser price squeeze.

Reference Sources:

Visual Soil Assessment, Pastoral grazing & cropping on flat rolling country. Second Edition. Author: Graham Shepherd.

With input from Alexis Perez, TAC: Tasman Agricultural Consulting

The Road to Healthy Profits

By Animal Health, Customer Stories, Education, Field Outcomes, Productivity, Soil Health, Sustainability

Healthy Animals Means Healthy Profits

We recently had the pleasure of participating in the Wairarapa Rural Women’s Initiative Discussion Group.  The theme of the October meeting was better farm management through alternative fertiliser options.

The event was held in the woolshed at our very own Jeane Fowler’s sheep and beef farm in Alfredton. A group of twenty or so farming ladies and a few farming fellas got together to hear from two industry experts on practical considerations when considering a move to alternative, environmentally friendly and financially sustainable practices to run a productive, profitable farming operation.  That’s quite a mouthful but that is exactly what the session was all about.

Joining us on the day were Gordon Rajendram, a Waikato-based soil scientist who helps New Zealand farmers make better fertiliser decisions, and Raymond Burr, ex-dairy farmer and owner of independent testing lab Qlabs in Waipawa. Gordon and Ray both tackle the opportunity to change from a dollars and cents perspective. A view they hold in common is that farming profitability starts with healthy soil to generate nutritious plants that provide a healthy well-balanced feed for the animals.  It is more than just a consideration of cost of inputs vs outputs, there are many benefits to starting with what’s in the soil that deliver direct to the bottom-line of a farm’s profitability.

Ray and Donna’s Journey

Ray and Donna Burr converted their sheep and beef farm in King Country to a dairy platform back in 1990, milking 520 cows back when the average cow herd was 125 cows. They were quite innovative in what they were doing until the wheels fell off.  Too much nitrogen, too much phosphate and too many health issues with the cows. After receiving little useful information from some of the top scientists in New Zealand and consulting a laboratory that could not offer independent advice, Ray sought out a niche laboratory in Hawkes Bay which was able to offer him analysis and advice across the full 13 elements.  Ray says “The animal health turn around on the farm was simply amazing. After 3 years: no CIDRs, no inductions, no downer cows, a ten-week mating period, eight-week calving period and a vet visit once per year.” Increased milk solids per cow and some very healthy improvements to the bottom-line of the farm.

Raymond Burr, Qlabs

The animal health turn around on the farm was simply amazing. After 3 years: no CIDRs, no inductions, no downer cows, a ten-week mating period, eight-week calving period and a vet visit once per year.

Raymond BurrOwner, Qlabs and ex-Dairy Farmer

Ray, Donna and one herd manager ran the 520 dairy cows and around 250 young stock.  The three of them did all their own crops, regrassing and fertiliser applications.  Nitrogen use went down to 15 kilograms of urea per hectare for one third of the farm in the first rotation.  As Ray says “I don’t think we needed it, but hey it was a feel good factor”.

The laboratory Ray sought out in 2000 was Quantum Laboratories, the New Zealand arm of a US operation.  Ray and Donna bought the business outright in 2016 and run the renamed QLabs as an independent, family-owned laboratory that is focused on animal performance starting with the soil and the plant.  Today from its beginnings as Quantum Laboratories, QLabs has been in operation for 45 years.  QLabs recently patented RNJE – urinary nitrogen evaluation from testing pastures which offers farmers a pragmatic measure to assess how to moderate N losses and nitrous oxide volatilisation.

Show Me The Money

As Ray says “It’s all about soil health, plant health and animal health. And at the end of the day, it’s the animals and their produce that fund the whole operation. Kilograms of dry matter? Anybody can grow kilograms of dry matter, just add urea. But that is not animal performance. We soil test for all 13 elements in the lab and we won’t make a fertiliser recommendation, unless we’ve tested for all of them because something small might be the limiting factor.”

The Bottom Line?

On their King Country dairy farm, they achieved a cash flow turnaround of approximately $250,000 per annum within 3 years – milk pay out adjusted.  Ray took the group through an interactive whiteboard session to demonstrate the operational and cash flow benefits of improved animal health across a farming platform. It was very much “dollars and sense” discussion and, yes, it starts in the soil.

Soil Scientist Gordon Rajendram

Dr Gordon Rajendram (PhD) is a Waikato-based soil scientist.  With more than 35 years’ experience in analytical testing, applied research including 22 years at AgResearch in Ruakura, Gordon now provides independent advice to farmers and fertiliser companies around New Zealand.

Gordon Rajendram, Soil Scientist

Soil testing allows farmers to make the best and most informed, data-based decisions for their farm, resulting in healthier land and stock as well as making a difference to your bottom-line

Gordon RajendramSoil Scientist

Gordon started by touching on the five universal factors in the soil that drive pasture growth: soil temperature above 5 or 6 degrees celcius (at 10cm depth), soil moisture above 25%, soil pH (ideal pH range 6.2-6.5) and 13 nutrients, good structure and porosity for air flow and good soil biology.  These are like the soil hygiene factors for good pasture growth.

Testing 1,2,3

Gordon’s non-negotiable is that soil, pasture and animal blood tests are key if farmers want to get the most out of their fertiliser applications.  Soil and herbage tests will provide farmers with accurate data about the mineral imbalances that may be affecting the health of their crops or livestock.

For Gordon, the devil is always in the data details. He advises “Soil testing allows farmers to make the best and most informed, data-based decisions for their farm, resulting in healthier land and stock as well as making a difference to your bottom-line”.

His recommendation is to develop fertiliser programmes specific to different areas on your farm and adjusting appropriate to the 13 elements required for plant & soil health and the 3 more trace minerals required for animal health.  Using too little fertiliser can be as wasteful and using too much.


Anion Storage Capacity

The importance of knowing the Anion Storage Capacity (ASC) was a discussion thread in Gordon’s presentation.  Farm soil ASC is needed to understand the ability for your soil type to hold on to anions – particularly phosphate and sulphur. Gordon explains “If your soil has an ASC of less than 40% it is more likely to be vulnerable to phosphate loss”.  That means that, for lower ASC soils, RPR may be a better form of slow-release phosphate than a highly soluble phosphate even though the latter may be cheaper on a per kilo basis.  Due to the potential for less leaching, slow-release P ticks environmental boxes as well as for pasture growth.

The Impact of Clover

Gordon talked about the importance of clover in terms of its quality as a high protein feed as well as the nitrogen fixing capacity of the plant. An Agresearch trial demonstrated that 10% clover dry matter – which visually looks more like 30% in a field – fixed 180kg of nitrogen per hectare per year.  Fixing nitrogen (with pink nodules on the roots) can be high as 34% protein which is an incredibly high value feed. This is almost double the protein value of rye grass at 19%.

In listening to Gordon, it felt like it really was the tip of the iceberg in terms of key take aways and he just picked on a few ‘low hanging fruit’.  His knowledge is immense and one gets the sense that he utilises his 35 years of experience with nuance for every farm conversation he has. There is certainly no one-size fits all approach with this gentleman.

It was a very pleasant morning at the Wairarapa Rural Women’s Initiative Discussion Group. Knowledge was shared and connections were made. What more could we ask for?

Get in touch with Gordon or Ray and take a new path to more profitable farming. If you would like to learn more about their pragmatic approaches to helping New Zealand farmers by testing, measuring, and optimising for your animal performance, they are ready to hear from you.

Nitrogen Reduction: Fortune Favours the Brave

By Animal Health, Customer Stories, Education, Field Outcomes, Productivity, Soil Health, Sustainability

Tony and Denise Zonneveld are milking 160 A2 Fresian cows off 55 hectares at Edendale in Southland. Contrary to the rest of the country, which has battled through an unusually wet winter, the Zonneveld’s have had a great winter, milking all the way through with plenty of grass to keep things ticking along.

Tony says that part of the reason they’ve been able to do this is his big focus on getting the roots of his pasture plants as deep as possible in the ground. “Getting this right gives a lot of resilience to the whole system under different climate conditions”.

I knew from decades of sharemilking using synthetic inputs, that you are always chasing grass growth and animal health problems.

Tony ZonneveldSouthland Dairy Farmer

It’s Biology At Work

“That’s why I’m so enthusiastic about utilising biology. I’ve found it’s all about getting the soil to do its own work by feeding it right. If we don’t look after it, it needs medication – just like the human body. If we do look after it, feed it right, we prevent having to treat issues, and that flows through to the stock too.”

The Zonneveld’s are natural innovators, and when they moved out of sharemilking and onto their own block in 2008, Tony saw an opportunity to do things differently. “I knew from decades of sharemilking using synthetic inputs, that you are always chasing grass growth and animal health problems.” He says they were always battling with cow herd health, particularly mastitis but other general ill health issues too.

“Our vet bills were horrendous – just always fighting animal health.” That is no longer the case. “I would say that now I have the lowest animal health expenditure in our vet club. And we get very low factor systemic cell counts in our milk without even trying – it’s just what we feed them. High quality nutrition.”

Tony believes one of the great things about Fish IT is the Omega oils. “You can just see the glossy pasture thriving.” He says they never top paddocks now because the grass utilisation is so good that the cows clean up the paddocks. “I can’t stop the cows eating it. Then three to four days after grazing the regrowth in the paddock is this fluorescent green colour – it’s beautiful to see!”.

Tony’s Toolkit

He also applies RPR and trace elements, basing it on the results of soil tests, and effluent over the whole milking platform. He’s been applying aglime as required but as a next step, and true to his innovative nature, is looking at using oyster shell lime from Bluff instead. He is adamant that anything from the sea is great for the soil. Tony keeps urea in his toolkit in case it is needed but says he doesn’t use it every year and is using less all the time as the biology of his soil gets better and better. “I won’t be using any this year.”

He also doesn’t feed any supplementary grain to his cattle. “I don’t’ need to,” Tony says. “We have averaged 1500-1600 kg milk solids per hectare over the last four years. Per cow it is 450-470. So we are easily competing with the grain fed guys on straight pasture and silage.” “I just think why not invest in your soil and grow quality grass.” They have had the nutrient density of their pasture measured and it came out at 7 compared to a normal average of around 4. “We’ve had scientists out here taking an interest in what we are doing and why our nutrient density is so good.”

We have averaged 1500-1600 kg milk solids per hectare over the last four years. Per cow it is 450-470. I just think why not invest in your soil and grow quality grass.”

Tony ZonneveldSouthland Dairy Farmer

Advice For Starting The Journey

We asked Tony what advice he would give to other farmers interested in trying a different programme and starting to incorporate biology in the toolkit. “I would say do a portion of the farm and you’ll see the difference. Changing the whole system can be quite daunting.” “I would also say get a support system around you to avoid too many mistakes. We always have a few mistakes when we try something new, but if you learn about the products and what combinations work for your situation, then you’ll get the maximum value for your spend.”
Tony says they are very happy with their current programme. “We are always looking for something extra but we are onto a really good recipe now.” “Other people are doing these programmes too and we are sharing the knowledge and getting the results. It makes farming easier and less stressful. You look out the window and you have got grass and content animals.”

Nitrogen Reduction – It’s Time To Change

In summing up Tony said that he believes biologics are the way to keep out of trouble for compliance in the changing farming environment. “We are better off to get off that mainstream track and try the biological system because we are going to be forced into it anyway with the high costs of traditional fertilisers and new compliance issues. But people need coaching. We need more consultants on the ground who know this stuff.”

“It’s time to change,” he says. “This is the opportunity for natural products to shine.”