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Jeane Fowler

Sustainable Farming: Where on Earth Do You Start?

By How To, Management, Soil Health

Farmers are currently facing unprecedented pressure to change their farming systems from traditional practices towards more sustainable methods with the added context of increasingly high inputs and a focus on maintaining or increasing production.

The Scene is Set

The drive to add sustainability into the farming system is becoming relentless and unavoidable, and it is coming from multiple directions;

  • Prices of inputs hiking at phenomenal rates,
  • Restrictions in short-term supply and long-term availability of traditional fertilisers,
  • Government regulations including the Freshwater Policy and nitrogen cap,
  • Councils requiring and enforcing environmental farm plans,
  • Customers demanding environmental accountability,
  • Urbanites critiquing farming practices,
  • Emissions reduction requirements and pending He Waka Noa pricing,
  • Personal satisfaction from land stewardship done well.

Source: www.indexmundi.com

Production Full Steam Ahead

However, looming food scarcity means we can’t make changes that impact production.  The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says it is critical that the world achieves food security in the face of climate change:

“The overarching challenges being faced are the growing scarcity and fast degradation of natural resources, at a time when the demand for food, feed, fibre and goods and services from agriculture (including crops, livestock, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture) is increasing rapidly.”

“However, the transition of our global food systems will take time, policy change, an evolution of on-farm practices, and an overall shift in mindset. Farmers, in specific, must implement a new set of practices in the field to transition conventional systems towards more sustainable farming systems. We must empower farmers with research, education, support. Applaud those making changes and be careful not to villainous those slower to uptake.”

Pragmatic Ideas on Taking Steps to Sustainable Farming

While this pressure can seem overwhelming and, let’s face it, change is never easy, it’s important for farmers to remember that along with pressure, there is also fantastic support in New Zealand for those ready to start on a journey to change. Whatever your driver for making change – and for some of us it’s as simple as the high price of fertiliser – it doesn’t have to be a big shift or total overhaul of what you know and what works. In fact, of the experts that we spoke to, almost all suggested that staged, incremental change – baby steps – was a great approach.

“Every farm is different and there is no prescribed set of rules. Usually, it starts with identifying what it is you would like to change; animal health, pasture growth, fertiliser reduction; then find people who can help you.”

Canaan AhuAgrownomics

Transitioning agriculture systems to embrace sustainability without loss of production is not just a New Zealand issue.  But, as always, it could well be New Zealand that leads the way.  At Fish IT, we continue to talk to some of the players in the incredible advisory network in New Zealand that are out there and armed with the knowledge and expertise to support and guide farmers along the way.

Start Small and Build

A recent podcast with Tow & Fert, featuring Canaan Ahu, Soil Consultant and Director of Agrownomics, gave some great advice. “When the pressure comes on, we go back to our defaults. We think, we cannot afford to take any risks here. And that’s why it becomes hard to implement sustained change. A ‘safe to fail’ strategy can work so well. Start with a small area that won’t cripple you if it goes wrong. Once you build trust that the strategy holds truth on a small scale, then multiply it out”. “Every farm is different and there is no prescribed set of rules. Usually, it starts with identifying what it is you would like to change; animal health, pasture growth, fertiliser reduction; then find people who can help you.” He says that it is understandable that new clients are testing the waters. Results build trust. Success stories build confidence. “The Regen model is not the only one out there, but answers do start to appear when we look with open-mindedness. Our aim is to reduce pressure on farmers and restore pride in what they are doing.”

The beauty of the farming industry is that we can share our knowledge and successes for the greater good of all farmers without diminishing the value of our own business. So as increasing numbers of New Zealand farmers go along this journey, we are getting better and better at what we do.

Manage the Natural Nitrogen Cycle

Raymond Burr of Qlabs in Waipawa points out that for some, these practices are not even particularly new, and there is plenty of expertise out there. “Some of us have been practicing this stuff for 30 years, before it even had a name. Now it’s being called regenerative farming. New Zealand started relying on synthetic nitrogen in the 1990’s and now we’ve almost lost the ability to manage the natural nitrogen cycle. We need to transition back to where we were but use our knowledge to do so without impacting production.” Qlabs works with clients to build healthy soils, plants, animals and profits. “We work to drive the natural carbon and nitrogen cycle by optimising soil functionality – that combination of physical, chemical and biological soil factors. Of the 16 essential soil elements, we need to identify and remedy the limiting factors for growth and quality of pasture. Then implement best practice methods of grazing management, rotation lengths, spelling pasture and adding a good carbon source – which is where Fish IT or other biological stimulants come in.”

Raymond says that often the desire for change is driven by increasing animal health issues. “To get unhealthy animals, you have to have unhealthy soils and unhealthy pastures”. It backs up Canaan Ahu’s principle that you are what you eat and so are your animals. “They can’t go looking for gaps in their nutrition. If they are eating nutrient dense food with the right balance of minerals then they are going to be metabolically healthy and resilient. By taking a preventative approach to animal health, we are avoiding the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff of remedying issues with expensive drugs and loss of production.”

Keep it Simple and Move Forward with a Safety Net

Reagan Bayly of Soil Matters, a soil consultancy based in Christchurch, says that it starts with a plan. “I often get clients to white board some simple points. 1. What do we want to achieve broadly? Just a couple of words. Then 2. What are our non-negotiable production outcomes. 3. How do we measure those outcomes? Then we can start putting in place steps to head towards our goals but with a safety net, which is measuring those non-negotiable production outcomes. This helps manage the risk of a new approach and forms the basis of a decision-making system as you move through the season. So if your goal is a reduction in N usage of 20%, you can put in place a methodical approach of how to get from A to B ensuring you are keeping tabs on those critical measurements of non-negotiable production as you go along, making sure as you manipulate what you do, you don’t go too far.” Something Soil Matters finds when working with clients is by careful analysis of the farm data they can often identify the ‘Low Hanging Fruit’ and work on those first. That is changes that won’t cost much (or are easy) to implement that address obvious issues.

Low pasture production due to soil compaction can be a good example of low hanging fruit. Even a simple grazing management change can pretty quickly improve results. Leaving larger residues behind post-grazing can protect the soil structure, prevent damage and improve soil that is functioning below its optimum. “You interrupt the cycle of low grazing due to lack of pasture supply leading to worsening supply, but it takes a conscious change.”

Reagan emphasises that the key is to get good advice. Look for someone who approaches the farm as a whole system, because everything on farm is interrelated. “It takes time to get biological systems functioning and the reality is, a lot of people give up. Nitrogen masks a lot of problems and there is a mindset that it is the answer to those problems, but it’s actually inhibiting good practice and progress. We need to be honest about what the problems are because most issues happen due to a previous action or actions.”

“New Zealand started relying on synthetic nitrogen in the 1990’s and now we’ve almost lost the ability to manage the natural nitrogen cycle. We need to transition back to where we were but use our knowledge to do so without impacting production.”

Raymond BurrQlabs

Little and Often

One thing every expert we spoke to was in agreement on was that it all starts with the soil.  Rudi Woutersen, from R & J Agri Spray says that the question of where to start has a surprisingly simple answer “Just start using less fertiliser, but more often”.  “Change is not that scary if you take small steps all the time.  Get your confidence levels up with what you are doing”.  He says he would never recommend a farmer just suddenly stops or makes radical changes but goes gradually towards the end goal. “We need to build trust.  All of us advisors in this space are trying to prepare farmers for new regulations.  We can be doing better in New Zealand, but some of the traditional advisors are not helping farmers to change.”

One of the R & J products is ‘LMO16’, which stands for Little More Often and contains the 16 soil nutrients, plus a carbon source to boost soil biology. It is applied as a fine particle foliar application using a Tow & Fert and is generally applied more often, but at a 30 to 50% lower annual rate than traditional fertiliser. He says it’s important to give the soils time for natural processes to build in response to the carbon source and not to fall back on N reliance too quickly. “We keep checking pasture growth rates and soil fertility levels.”

Rudi tells a story of a farm he has worked with that has gradually reduced their annual fertiliser use by 50%. “It’s been mind boggling, after 5 months we have seen the levels of every single soil nutrient go up, despite much less going on. It’s amazing what can be done by tweaking our practices. By going little and often and adding a biological component to provide a carbon source, you are making the whole process of putting nutrients on more effective. And massively reducing leaching.” “Nitrogen is only one part of it, P is the other component. We are putting on massive amounts at once, paying shitloads of money for it, and it’s not getting utilised”.

Keep up the Kaizen

Kaizen is a Japanese term meaning “change for the better” or “continuous improvement.” It is a Japanese business philosophy regarding the processes that continuously improve operations and involve all employees. Kaizen sees improvement in productivity as a gradual and methodical process.

At Fish IT we understand that there are no silver bullets out there, nor is there a one size fits all. Farming is a complex, constantly evolving system that requires expert management and advice. As a source of carbon and soil bio stimulant, Fish IT is simply one of the options in the broad toolkit for moving towards a more sustainable but high production system. We recommend 3-4 applications per year for best results, but obviously every farm is different and it’s important to get specific advice. Another good starting point is to download our Definitive Guide to Benchmarking the Soil and start the journey towards understanding how to improve your soil health.

By speaking to the experts in the farming industry who are out there every day working with clients we have been so impressed with the depth and breadth of knowledge in our industry. There has never been a better time to broaden our search for best practice and the rewards are many. Not the least of which is the well-being that results from pride in what we are doing, competently responding to the new pressures on farming and the satisfaction of knowing that we are helping lead the way to resolving a global problem of food security in a fast-changing environment.

aeration-let-the-soil-breathe

Aeration: Let Your Soil Breathe

By How To, Management, Soil Health

We all aim to set ourselves up to get through winter as best we can – to hit the ground running early in spring when our production needs to kick into gear and quickly ramp up. One tool in the kit is aerating the soil. Aeration is perhaps under-utilised in New Zealand, but studies have shown that this land management practice can have a big impact on production levels. Mechanically or via crop species with rooting structures to do the job naturally, aeration deserves serious consideration.

Heading into winter we all know what’s coming – cold, rain, and mud… But what does this mean for our soils and how can we help them get through winter, and all its puggy glory, in the best possible shape to support spring growth?

Benefits of Aerating

Aerating the soil can be hugely beneficial. Just like above ground, air is a crucial component for vigorous life below ground – so compacted and waterlogged soils are naturally less productive.  

Soil compaction occurs over time as soils are repeatedly subjected to stock trampling and machinery usage. Farm systems with heavy soils, larger animals, densely grazed areas and high traffic loads within or across paddocks are often more compacted. Aerators disrupt and penetrate compacted layers creating an open and porous soil that air, moisture, and roots can penetrate more easily and deeply.

Improved soil aeration allows: 

  1. Improved Soil Drainage: the ability of water to drain improves – surface water can drain down into the subsoils reducing ponding and surface runoff.
  2. Deep Root Growth: when soil compaction is reduced, roots can grow deeper and more vigorously – resulting in enhanced plant health & yield. Productivity can be improved by up to 30% in a relatively short time frame.
  3. Fertiliser Response: There is a higher percentage of fertiliser waste on compacted soils as it is more likely to vaporise into the atmosphere or wash off. When soils are permeable, fertiliser absorbs down to the plant root zone more easily, resulting in more fertiliser being accessible by the plant and reduced surface runoff.
  4. Better Soil Porosity: As compaction is removed & the amount of macropores increases, so does the amount of moisture and nutrients available to the roots.
  5. Productivity Gains: All of these benefits promote a healthier, more resilient, higher productivity plant.

How do I know if my soil would benefit from aeration?

Stan Winter, Soil Scientist gives some great advice on how to determine whether your soils would benefit from aeration. “The most obvious indicator is surface water being held in your soil – those wet spots that you can’t drive easily through and never seem to improve. Rushes are also an indicator that you are likely to get a good response from aerating.”

Spring is usually touted as the best time to aerate due to stronger root growth at this time of year, but autumn aeration deserves consideration too. If winter pugging or water logging is a concern, it may be of significant benefit to aerate the soil in autumn (either instead, or as well as spring) to reduce damage throughout winter. Improved soil drainage creates a more resilient soil structure with less surface water retention. Waterlogged soils coming out of winter reduce ground temperatures, meaning a later start to your spring pasture growth.

Stan advocates a simple test – dig a hole to spade depth under a fenceline as your control site, then another out in the paddock. Note the difference in the difficulty to dig the two holes – this indicates compaction. The root depth of the turf from these holes will also indicate whether there is a problem or not. Roots should be growing deeply to the depth of the spade or more. Rusty flecks in the soil indicate water being held in soils above a compacted pan. “Patchy grass growth is a real indicator too”, says Stan, “especially where fertility levels are increasing but not being matched by increasing productivity”. And finally, no mushrooms! “Lack of fungi growth is less well known but pretty indicative of compacted soils”.

Good structure

sample taken from under the fence-line demonstrating good structure.

Poor Structure

Sample taken from the paddock demonstrating poor structure.

Cooper Walton, from Rata Equipment comments, “You can get powerful results in terms of reducing the propensity for pugging and water-logging by aerating in autumn. Particularly if you get strategic with your pull direction and land slope”. “Prevention is always a better option than trying to rectify pugging afterward, so this builds the case for autumn aeration for a lot of farmers.” “You may not get the same immediate lift in initial production level as you do by aerating in spring, because you are not going into such a growth period, but it means you can come out of winter in better shape.” “Timing in spring is also more crucial as you want to avoid going straight into a dry period after aeration.”

Aeration and nutrients

The availability of nutrients for crops directly relates to the degree of soil aeration. Well-aerated soils provide more favourable growth conditions, while nutrient imbalance and poor aeration impede plant development. The impact of soil aeration on nutrient supply is as follows:

Nitrogen. Organic nitrogen fixation and mineralization are carried out with nitrogen-fixing plants (especially legumes), organic matter, and livestock wastes. Organic nitrogen is reduced to plant-digestible forms by aerobic bacteria that can function properly only under sufficient soil aeration. Poor aeration induces a split of nitrates to nitrous oxide (N2O), which is among the potent gases contributing to the greenhouse effect. Besides, denitrifying bacteria are more likely to deprive crops of nitrates in poor earths. This happens because most denitrifying bacteria are facultative aerobic. It means that when O2 is available, they will use it (aerobic respiration). When the O2 level is poor, they will switch to NO3 or NO2 (anaerobic respiration).

Manganese and iron have high valence in well-aerated soils and low valence in poorly-aerated ones. Although plants can consume only low-valency forms, their excessive absorption is harmful to crops. For this reason, excessive access to low-valency forms must be limited, and toxicity risks are mitigated with aeration.

Sulfur is represented by sulfate in aerated soils, which is suitable for plants. Sulfate turns into sulfide under poor aeration (waterlogging), and hydrogen sulfide is harmful to crops, too.

Nutrient imbalance results in the deviance of root formation, which will inevitably affect the whole plant and cause yield losses. Signs of poor aeration include thick, short, dark roots of abnormal shapes, poorly developed hairs, etc.

When is the right time for aeration?

Soil moisture levels are very important when it comes to getting the timing right for aeration. In both autumn and spring, soils must be moist and friable for best results. Hamish McCallum from Fish IT has worked on aeration with many clients and has seen great success stories. “You can measure soil moisture content technically, but there is an easy way to determine if soil condition is right for aeration. Take a tennis ball size amount of soil and roll it into a ball in your palm, then drop it from shoulder height. It should break into 3 or 4 pieces. If it crumbles it is too dry, splodges it is too wet.”

“Nothing can thrive in an anaerobic environment. So, when we aerate and then feed the soil bugs, we get fantastic results.”

Dennis Niewkoop of 4Seed & Nutrition Ltd agrees. “Beneficial soil microbes require air first and foremost to operate and do their job of transferring nutrients to plant roots. There is a journey to go down to get our soils functioning optimally. Once we have adequate aeration, good soil structure, and the right mineral balance then fish products are proving to be the connection to keep stimulating soil biology, particularly fungi. New Zealand soils are typically low in beneficial fungi”.

“Soil is a living thing and therefore needs to breathe” according to Rik Mulder from Soil Matters. “The soil’s ability to breathe depends on several factors, but for long term resilience in your soil it is important to start with the big picture elements like drainage and soil mineral balance. To manipulate these factors, it is very important to have a good understanding of your soil and soil type as these will have a strong impact on what the right approach is to get air in your soil. Once the big picture building blocks are in place, more emphasis can be given to the living things.”

Dennis points out that mechanical aeration is only one way to improve aeration. “We are seeing great results from multi-species pasture mixes. Species with taproot depth and width and different rooting depths can provide valuable soil aeration. “What we are finding is that a multi-species summer crop can provide really good benefits to soil structure and porosity. Once a more permanent pasture is put in place, then mechanical aeration is great for maintenance.”

For more information on whether aeration is right for you contact Fish IT. If we can’t answer your questions, we can put you in touch with one of our expert partners for more advice.

Full Circle: Old Goldmine to new Goldmine

By Customer Stories

Cam and Kayleigh McKay.  Round Hill, Southland. 
200 Ha – 125 Ha effective.  Dry stock farmers

Cam and Kayleigh have come into farming via a traditional path – Cam worked in dairy farming for 10 years and met Kayleigh, who originates from England, on the job.  “We were in neighbouring accommodation, we met and started dating on the same day and have been pretty much inseparable ever since!”  They now have a gorgeous 4-month-old baby, Arthur and have been farming together on their drystock property near Riverton in Southland for a year.

The property has a rich history, having once been the site of a goldmine.  Subsequently it was used for goldmining tours and hosted a small museum put together by Cam’s grandfather.  The farm is built on predominantly gold mining tailings and swamp land, and it was pretty run down when Cam and Kayleigh came onto it last year.  

“We prioritised stock water first up and then got into some fencing and pasture renewal.  We’ve been pretty aggressive in our developments.  Cashflow is key so we’ve taken on grazed animals on a monthly payment basis to help with that.” The property is currently running 170 R2 dairy replacements, 100 R1 dairy replacements and 100 Wagyu x cattle for First Light.  

As it was a bare bones block with low natural fertility and very limited historical fertiliser inputs, Cam and Kayleigh’s approach was to view it with a totally open mind.  Kayleigh led the charge, investigating different approaches and looking at what was happening both here and overseas with innovative farming practices.  Particularly interesting was the rapid advancements in biological farming. Eventually, Cam got on board too and was impressed with what Kayleigh had found.

We just wanted to grow a lot of feed without negatively impacting the environment.

Cam McKay

Cam and Kayleigh’s continuing online research threw up fish hydrolysate as a recurring theme in the success stories from farmers in the States and Australia who were using progressive, balanced farming practices and they became intrigued.  Focusing on strengthening soil health utilising a more biological approach could deliver the sustainable results in plant, pasture and animal health that they were after.  A quick search in New Zealand resulted in Cam contacting Fish IT who turned out to be 30mins up the road from their Round Hill property.  

“I’m keen to farm by observation”, says Cam.  So, while he is definitely interested in and embracing regenerative farming, he doesn’t see their farming practices being necessarily limited to just that.  “We want to build our soil health and are basically looking at and trying different things to see what works”.

Hamish McCallum, from Fish IT, took Cam and Kayleigh to visit some farming clients, including large scale dairy farmers who are utilising Fish IT to successfully grow high quality and quantity of feed with much lower traditional inputs.

“We were totally blown away. Meeting like-minded people who were having great results doing what we were thinking about doing just gave us the confidence to take a leap.”

Since then, Cam and Kayleigh feel like their mindset has really changed.  A holistic management approach means everything feels much more organised.  “Our paddocks are all set up, we know what we are doing each day, and everything has a purpose.  Our need to use sprays has gone down and we are figuring out what works”.

The McKay’s have re-pastured 1/3 of the farm so far and have trialled seed mixes recommended by Pastoral Improvements.  The multi species “Reboot” which has gone in over 12 hectares has been phenomenal. 

“We didn’t spray out, just ploughed and direct drilled and have since applied 30 litres per hectare of Fish IT”.  The results have been outstanding.  “We are at day 62 and have estimated we have grown 6 tonnes per hectare.  It’s just going crazy!”. 

 “We hope to apply Fish IT over as much of the property as possible, probably 3 applications per year. This should increase the microbial activity in the soil to the levels we need.”  “Basically, we want to create an oasis!”  laughs Cam.  

By focusing on the wealth beneath their feet it seems like they are well on their way to turning this historical property into a new goldmine.  We’re already looking forward to checking in with Cam and Kayleigh to see how they are getting along later in the year.

We are at day 62 and have estimated we have grown 6 tonnes per hectare. It's just going crazy!

The soil under the crop is loamy and pliable and retaining good moisture content.  “It’s just amazing to see the healthiness of all the tucker – it’s just so thick!”.

Cam and Kayleigh have also applied Fish IT to about 30 hectares of their existing pasture – most of which is relatively new grass (3-4 years old) and have been really impressed with the results compared to the non-applied paddocks. 

“I would say it has completely turned around” says Cam, “it didn’t go to seed as early, the clover came through faster and it’s a healthy dark green colour”.  They got two extra grazings out of the paddocks over the season and say that the animals utilised the pasture better leaving an even residual post grazing. “The animals loved it too and shined up quicker than the other mob”.

It’s fair to say the McKay’s are pretty excited about the future on their block.  “We want to keep working with Hamish (from Fish IT).  We’ve just connected, and he’s really become someone we can lean on”.  They have dug some holes and been impressed with the mycelium visible in the soil and the improvement in the soil structure.  They plan to continue to pursue farm development and soil health using Fish IT and the multi species approach.

Environmental Compliance – Part 1: Dates to Prepare For

By Regulation

31ST JULY 2022 – Nitrogen Cap Reporting.

In this first of a three part series on environmental compliance, we hone in on the fast approaching deadline for nitrogen cap reporting discussing who it affects, why we need it and what you can do about it.

Resource Management (National Environmental Standards for Freshwater) Regulations 2020.

As part of the Freshwater Regulations which came into effect 1st July last year, synthetic nitrogen application on all pastoral land is capped at 190kg/ha/yr – meaning it became illegal to spread more that 190kg of synthetic nitrogen per hectare per year on any grazed land. This is both the maximum averaged over the whole farm and the maximum per hectare of pasture. It is possible to apply a higher rate than this on forage crops, but only if it is offset within the farm block, by putting lower amounts on pasture.

The first reporting deadline for this regulation comes up on 31st July 2022. It requires all dairy farm operators to report to Regional Councils on their synthetic nitrogen fertiliser use (any manufactured product of greater than 5% by weight of N) for the previous 12months, ending 30th June 2022. So, usage from 1st July 2021 to 30th June 2022, reporting on 31st July 2022. The nitrogen cap applies to all pasture and forage crop land but excludes arable land. Only dairy farms are required to report at this stage, and organic sources of N and effluent applications are excluded.

To meet this reporting requirement, it is important that usage information is recorded (or accessible from fertiliser companies) throughout the year, to enable accurate reporting. This includes: area of land (hectares) in pasture, forage crops and other; receipts for Nitrogen fertiliser purchased; type of fertiliser and it’s percentage of N by weight; dates, rates and areas of application for each type of N fertiliser for each application to pasture, forage crop or other land.

At this stage the exact reporting process is still under development and updates are expected soon. Central Government is working on constructing a national database to hold information. It is likely that fertiliser companies and/or Fonterra will assist farmers with reporting requirements to Regional Councils. The simplest solution will probably be authorising your supplier to supply the information for you. Alternatively, Regional Councils may develop a webpage to allow farmers to upload information directly. Keep an eye out for further information over the next few months on the specifics of how to report nitrogen usage to Regional Councils and have a talk to your fertiliser supplier.

If you believe you may exceed the nitrogen use limit, it is possible to apply for a non-complying activity resource consent from your Regional Council. It should be noted that these consents are not meant to allow businesses to continue as usual with high nitrogen use but to give some flexibility in managing reductions over time if immediate compliance is impossible. Talk to your Regional Council about resource consent options, if you think you may exceed the nitrogen cap.

 

In the meantime, the advice is to ensure you:

Know how much synthetic N fertiliser was applied throughout the year over each hectare or paddock of the farm as well as on average over the whole effective pastoral area and forage crops.

Have good systems in place for recording the tonnage, date and type of all synthetic N fertiliser applied on farm, the area it was applied and whether it was in pasture, crop, or other. When using a mix of products make sure all sources of synthetic N are accounted for and the application rates.

For more information on the nitrogen cap regulations go to Dairy NZ, Ministry for the Environment, regional councils or find the full Act here.

 

Why do we need the Nitrogen cap?

Throughout New Zealand, we are using almost 8 times more nitrogen in than we were in 1990 and, on the whole, the quality of our waterways is diminishing. Nitrogen leaching from pastoral land is a significant contributing factor. Best farming practice manages nutrients to keep them cycling within the farm system and reduce losses to the environment. Over-fertilising not only risks expensive nutrients being washed away but can also damage the environment. The more you use the greater the risk.

Data indicating that pasture growth rate curves flatten out with nitrogen usage of over 200kg/hectare has led to the cap being put in place for most farming sectors. The cap level will be re-evaluated in 2023.

 

How can we lower Nitrogen use?

There is growing concern around the over use of synthetic fertilisers. Consequently, information on strategies to make reductions or be more strategic with usage is readily available. A great starting point for Dairy farmers is the Dairy NZ information on reducing nitrogen fertiliser use.

Strengthening your soil health to optimise nutrient cycling for plant growth is one strategy for reducing reliance on synthetic inputs – allowing the microbes in the soil to flourish and do their work in making nutrients plant available. The ability to balance the use of synthetic inputs with more sustainable options, such as soil bio-stimulants, is a great tool in the kit for farmers. The number of great success stories of farmers doing just this is growing all the time and with it, a real sense of excitement that innovations in this area are going to benefit soils, pastures, farmers and the environment.

“With the addition of Fish It we now use 70% less urea across the entire farm, we have better pastures, better crops, healthier animals and no need for pesticides. We don’t need to buy in bales for feed any more because we’ve increased our output.”

Georgie GallowayLivestock & Mixed Cropping Farmer, Southland
Halthy soil

Soil Health: The Challenge of Modern Agriculture

By Management, Productivity, Soil Health, Sustainability

Soil is essential for the maintenance of biodiversity above and below ground. The wealth of biodiversity below ground is vast and unappreciated: millions of microorganisms live and reproduce in a few grams of topsoil, an ecosystem essential for life on earth

From: Australian Soils and Landscape, An Illustrated Compendium

If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right?… but maybe it is broke.

Over the centuries, modern agriculture has advanced significantly, leading to the highly researched, technical systems and unprecedented production levels that we have today. Developments allowing agriculture to evolve and expand include increased availability and use of synthetic fertilisers, herbicides, and pesticides; genetic improvements; increasing understanding of plant and animal nutrition and improved mechanical equipment. All leading to efficiencies for production systems and the resulting development of global markets and delivery.

Unfortunately, soil biological responses to these developments were often overlooked or not recognised, with greater emphasis on physical and chemical manipulation than on soil biology. Agriculture’s evolution has also resulted in unintended consequences, especially regarding soil health, environmental impact, and long-term agricultural sustainability.

Quality is key

Soil quality 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.

So, can we fix it?

Scientific research is exploring new and exciting possibilities for the restoration and promotion of healthy microbial populations in the soil, with significant benefits in both net production and environmental outcomes. Biological fertility is under-studied and our scientific knowledge of it is incomplete, however, new research and field trials are delivering a quiet confidence that modern agriculture can again evolve, and that this evolution of biological practices will benefit the animals, the farmer and the planet.

Soil health and fixing carbon

Soil microorganisms are both components and producers of soil organic carbon, a substance that locks carbon into the soil for long periods. Abundant soil organic carbon improves soil fertility and water-retaining capacity. There is a growing body of research that supports the hypothesis that soil microorganisms, and fungi in particular, can be harnessed to draw carbon out of the atmosphere and sequester it in the soil.  

Soil microorganisms may provide a significant means of reducing atmospheric greenhouse gases and help to limit the impact of greenhouse gas-induced climate change.

Soil health and fixing nitrogen

Nitrous oxide emissions are produced by a range of bacteria in the soil, which convert nitrate into nitrous oxide. These losses are greatest when soils are warm and waterlogged, and in those with high nitrate contents. It is vital environmentally, to apply nitrogen fertilisers only at times, and in quantities and forms, useful to plants – overuse of fertiliser can vastly increase levels of emissions.  

Nitrous oxide is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. One unit of nitrous oxide is equivalent to 310 units of CO2. Conventional tillage also releases more CO2 into the atmosphere than no-till systems and results in more carbon being respired by the microbial community. No–till systems tend to lock up more carbon in the form of organic matter.

A large soil microbial community can tie up carbon and nitrogen that might otherwise be released into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases and in addition, make these nutrients more readily available for plant uptake.

The impact of soil health on phosphorus and biology

Phosphorus is a major nutrient with dwindling global supplies and rising prices. Only a small amount of P applied is taken up by plants in the year of application. The remaining P becomes sequestered in the soil, with limited availability to plants, or is lost by erosion and leaching to the watershed where it may impact downstream ecosystems and water quality. Similarly, only about one-quarter of annually applied N is taken up by crops in the year of application; some of the remaining N enters the watershed by leaching.

Nutrient-use efficiency is often defined based on the amount of N or P accumulated by a crop in comparison to the amount applied. However, a portion of the P and N in the crop has originated from within the soil, where it was already present and probably in a stable organic form. Therefore, traditional nutrient use efficiency calculations often overestimate the efficiency of fertiliser application and fail to reflect the applied nutrients that were lost from the soil by leaching and/or erosion.

Research aims to reduce inputs, while increasing the amount being provided by the soil through biologically fixed N, or mineralisation of P and N from organic matter. In the case of P, there are substantial amounts of P already in the soil, unavailable to plants without the appropriate microorganisms and proper levels of activity. By considering the nutrient balance of the entire system, agricultural soils could be managed to stabilise at lower soil nutrient levels that make more efficient use of soil mineral resources.  

Some P exported with the crop will have to be replenished from external sources, but there is great room for improvement in promoting organic P cycling in soils and biological mobilisation of “occluded” P already present in the soil.

It’s time to do something different

The challenge for modern agriculture, going forward, is to implement more sustainable farming systems that are economically viable and accommodate changing technologies and climate. The production of food and fibre continues to increase agriculture’s carbon footprint through the increased use of fuel and fertiliser and contributes to widespread soil and water quality degradation. To decrease this footprint, nutrient management and soil health in sustainable systems must be a top priority.

Soil biology is the foundation for soil health and the biological processes which determine nutrient availability to plants allowing for a decreasing reliance on synthetic fertilisers. You can see nature in action in our blog post on the Kauri forests in Waipoua.

In addition, helping to buffer plants from changes in water availability and pest, pathogen, and weed pressures. It is key to reversing the degradation of soils by modern agriculture practices; key in the evolution of agriculture in both an environmental and economically sustainable manner; key to ensuring the enduring ability to “Feed the World.”