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Soil Health

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.

Regenerative Agriculture. You’re probably doing it already.

By Regulation, Soil Health, Sustainability

Regenerative agriculture is a term that is slowly gaining a level of acceptance in the New Zealand agricultural sector.  For many years the term and its principles have been scorned in some corners. We are now seeing an increasing uptake by farmers utilising many of its principles, an increase in media coverage and broader acceptance of the term and practices generally.

Nestle’s “Net Zero” sustainability initiative is tackling emissions in its own business and supply chain. This in turn has created a great opportunity for Fonterra to ensure that sustainably grown dairy product is sourced through their supply chain. This represents a premium return on milk solids for participating dairy farmers in New Zealand.

Corporate initiatives like these combined with the New Zealand government roll out of nitrogen cap legislation and the recommendations of the Climate Change Commission means there is a shift in mindset occurring within the sector.

The truth is that many New Zealand farmers are already undertaking some of the guiding principles of regenerative agriculture and reaping the benefits.  As such, they have the ability to move further along the continuum towards environmentally friendly, economically sustainable farming through evolutionary rather than revolutionary means.

Here are six regenerative practices and benefits that you may well be doing right now.

1. Reduced soil disturbance

Minimising soil disturbance by methods such as zero-till, reduced tillage or direct drilling are becoming more common place in New Zealand land management practices. Be it through capital investment or contract drilling, farmers are looking to direct drilling technologies to hold in the moisture, minimise soil disturbance  and incorporate more carbon and nitrogen fixing from the residual crop.

The transition to healthier soil does not happen overnight, but it does happen.

No-till farming leaves crop residues on the surface, which absorb water and limit runoff. This water retention can be critical to farmers in drought-stricken areas and can lead to improved crop yields due to the additional water retention.

2. Increase plant and microbial diversity

Crop rotation is defined as the intentional planting of different types of crops in different paddocks through each season in a sequential manner. It also requires seasonal periods of no planting to give the land time to recover.

Crop rotation helps increase soil fertility and improves crop yields.

Because each plant type uses different nutrients and promotes different micro-organisms through its growing cycle, this improves soil fertility by replenishing nutrients that are not available or utilising nutrients in abundance as you cycle through each season.

The improvement in the nutrient availability through crop rotation will, in time, lead to improved yield.

Soil structure will improve through crop rotation which helps prevent soil compaction, improves soil aeration, reduces soil erosion and delivers better water retention.

3. Keep the soil covered

Cover crops are a long-term investment in improving soil health, controlling erosion, improving water filtration and managing the natural production of nutrients.  The benefits can begin to accrue in year one and build over a few years.

Because cover crops take up space and light, they shade the soil and reducing the opportunity for weeds to establish themselves.

Legume cover crops such as clovers, peas and beans can fix a lot of free nitrogen, from the air, for subsequent crops within the nodules on their roots.  This can range from 60-180kg of N per hectare depending on season and species.

To help build resilience in soil a diverse range of plant species is needed above the ground to cultivate a diverse microbial ecosystem below the ground.

4. Diversify to reduce risk

Diversity in crops brings stability with the ability for the plants to manage abiotic stressors such as flood, drought and temperature extremes better. The more diverse the soil-borne organisms that inhabit a farming system, the more diverse the populations of pest-fighting beneficial organisms a farm can support. For example, healthy soils enriched and revitalised by rotation and cover crops promote root development and water infiltration, thus are less prone to disease.

5. Stimulate organic matter

There are many practices that will stimulate and increase organic matter in the soil.  Anything less than about 20% organic matter in the soil (as scientifically measured with a soil test) means you have room for improvement.

Adding compost, returning crop residues, adding micro organisms from EMNZ, crop rotation and diversification and the planting of nitrogen-fixing legumes all play a role in stimulating organic matter in your soil.

Of course, with organic matter you need to feed it and that is where the application of Fish IT Refined comes in to its own.

6. Sustainable grazing practices

There are many variables to sustainable grazing practices including such matters as stock count, grazing intensity and climate. The focus in this blog is around delivering resilience to your pastures to better handle the stresses of climate and deliver nutritious feed to your healthy livestock.

Pasture growth is determined by a combination of rainfall intensity and the ability to store your rainfall in the soil, ground cover, soil type and condition, evaporation, slope and tree cover.

In short, better quality soil leads to better quality pasture. Soil health has a direct impact on protein levels in pasture. Low soil phosphorous and nitrogen are the most common restrictions on pasture growth.  By taking the approach of cover crops, crop rotation, multi-species diversity and nitrogen-fixing legumes you will maximise your pasture yield, quality and resilience to abiotic stresses whilst being able to manage downward some of your synthetic inputs and associated cost.

Farmers across New Zealand are adapting to new production methods brought on by changes in legislation.  Taking a sustainable approach to your farming practices does not need to be “big bang”.  You can take a test, measure, learn approach by utilising any of the approaches discussed here.  Think of it as a biological transformation on your farm, applying your father’s production values with your grandfather’s methods.

Ready to understand the biology of your soil?

Download The Definitive Guide to Benchmarking the Soil at your Feet to learn methods for evaluating your soil and solutions for starting the journey to optimise soil health.

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.” 

Big Plans for South Canterbury

By Customer Stories, Field Outcomes, Soil Health, Sustainability

Sam Clearwater, Clearwater Contracting

If you need something done, ask a busy person.

We met up with Sam Clearwater and I think it is fair to say that this expression embodies the work ethic of Clearwater Contracting quite well.

Sam runs a fertiliser application contracting business out of his base at Peel Forest in South Canterbury with a focus on the application of liquid fertiliser to get results above the ground in pasture growth and below the ground with emphasis on improving biology in the soil to deliver sustainable results.

The Approach

Sam explains “My background is organic dairy farming at Peel Forest in South Canterbury. We’ve been organic for 22 years now and this has driven my direction into liquid fertilisers. Fertilisers are a precious resource, and we need to utilise them as best as possible.  We need to be increasing our biology count in our soils tenfold and bio-stimulants like Fish IT play a big role in achieving that.”

It’s early days for Sam as he is transitioning from his family dairy farm operation to a contract application business – Clearwater Contracting – but he’s picking up new clients and is running hard at the opportunity.

“We’ve invested in a Tow and Fert 4000, which is an upgrade from the Tow and Fert 1000 we’ve been using for a few years on our own farm, and a tractor to tow it. The Tow and Fert allows us to mix multiple products together in liquid form which gives a much better uptake compared to solid fertilisers and the 4000 allows us to cover greater areas efficiently. Our customers may require a mix of urea, DAP and other fertilisers but in much less volume due to the benefits of liquid application. Using Fish IT gets biology into the equation and we get fantastic results”

A Key Concern

Sam’s biggest concern on the farms he visits is long term sustainability. Sam says “I see a lot of guys pouring huge amounts of potent fertilisers onto their soils. I get out and dig some holes and there’s no worms there. There are compacted soils, heavily bacterial dominant, which creates compaction. It’s concerning to see that. A change is required and through liquid application of appropriate recipes, we believe we can help that change.

“Fertilisers are a precious resource, and we need to utilise them as best as possible. We need to be increasing our biology count in our soils tenfold”

What’s Next

Clearwater Contracting are in a growth phase as they build their client base in South Canterbury. Sam comments “We want to see more clients and we want to see them carry on their success. We’re already seeing fantastic results and we want to take them further. We’re doing herbage tests and we will continue to do our Visual Soil Assessments as part of our on farm analysis. We continue this process with our clients to make sure we’re doing everything properly and help our clients succeed at what they they want to achieve.”

Sam continues “Success for me is two things.  We want to provide a decent, reliable service – the best service possible – and we want to help our customers achieve real sustainability. They’re at a serious turning point at the moment environmentally, and we want to help them get in front of the game. We want our clients growing as much grass as they can with little or no synthetic inputs.”

Sam Clearwater and Clearwater Contracting are on a mission in South Canterbury.  If you’re in their area, would like an assessment of your farm and are looking to liquid fertiliser as a path forward get in touch.

Innovation, not regulation is the future of farming

By Education, Regulation, Soil Health, Sustainability

Time and time again we are being told that our farming system is broken – that we will not be able to sustain the amount of food we are producing to meet the demands of our growing population. Media coverage of carbon emissions and the degradation of our water resources are at an all-time high, whilst soil health and biodiversity levels are barely mentioned.

There is a lack of support and resources for farmers in the NZ. We are using damaging practices to meet the demand for food. And yet, that demand is not being met. So what’s going wrong? We must find a way to produce more food, in a more sustainable way – causing less environmental damage.

Some suggest the solution lies in changing our diets, to buy from local sources and to reduce meat consumption where possible. Or, a move away from traditional farming and implementing regenerative and organic practices as the possible key to the future of sustainable farming.

Natural doesn’t always mean better

Many champion a return to traditional and organic agriculture as the ultimate sustainable option. Moving away from intensive farming of the land to enable farmers to protect and restore the health of our soil.

A completely organic and regenerative food production system is appealing. However, it is important to acknowledge that these methods produce less food, with the same amount of land. “Natural” methods of food production are effective and sustainable, but in some ways, romanticised. 

Nature can also be unforgiving and unfair, bringing along with it its own range of issues for the farmer or grower. It’s why many of the unsustainable practices we criticise today were developed in the first place. An unexpected change in weather conditions or a pest infestation can be devastating to farms, crops, and a disappointing yield can have huge consequences for both farmers, growers and consumers. 

Producing less food is simply not an option – we need to find a way to intensify food production without having to industrially farm our natural environment. Therefore, we see reducing synthetic fertiliser use and increasing the use of natural bio-stimulants such as Fish IT as a low impact solution to maintaining production levels alongside sustainable practices.

Giving nature a helping hand with balance

The use of synthetic fertilisers are hugely beneficial but too much of a good thing is just that – too much of a good thing. It creates instant plant growth and that’s a great short-term solution for farmers and growers motivated to increase yields. This approach however ignores soil health considerations. A healthy soil is productive sustainable and resilient to withstand the impacts of farm management practices and changing climatic conditions. Healthy soils undertake many functions for healthy plant growth, including storing and providing water and nutrients, maintaining biological activity.

Soil organic matter makes up a small component of the soil mass, yet it has an important role in the functioning of the physical, chemical, and biological properties of the soil.

Ultimately, improving soil health can lead to better plant establishment, growth and ultimately productions.

Management practices

Because every farming environment is unique, the following management options aren’t the panacea. We aim to help you to understand your options for improving the condition of your soil by improving soil structure, reducing losses of carbon, nitrogen and building soil organic matter. By improving soil condition it will ultimately enhance the plants’ ability to access nutrients; capture and retain soil moisture for longer; and reduce losses of nitrogen to the atmosphere, groundwater, and waterways.

There are ways to improve soil health while also increasing productivity, water holding capacity and nutrient cycling.  Overall these practices target the reduction of input costs and produce wider land management benefits, whilst responding to regulatory changes.

Monitor soil nutrient levels:

  • Test your soil to check the nutrient status and structure to develop a plan to improve constraints to nutrient and water access e.g. physical (structure, compaction, drainage), chemical (pH, salinity, toxicities/deficiencies), and biological (micro-organisms).
  • Monitor soil organic matter/soil organic carbon over time via testing. We recommend adopting Graham Shepherds Visual Soil Assessment (VSA).
  • Manage soil structure to maximise water infiltration and retention for plant uptake and aeration.

Consider application of soil amendments:

  • Addition of organic amendments where practical and economically viable. 
  • Manage livestock manure to minimise nitrous oxide emissions

Manage the soil resource:

  • Use direct drill, minimum/conservation tillage and controlled traffic techniques in cropping operations to avoid compacting soils and losing carbon and nutrients through soil cultivation and erosion.
  • Cultivate soils at an appropriate moisture content 
  • Avoid over fertilising, use available nitrogen and avoid losses by leaching.

Balance, as opposed to steep change

Ultimately moving away from synthetic fertilisers towards bio-stimulants won’t be the silver bullet for farmers, but there is a real opportunity to include bio-stimulants in the mix, while reducing fertiliser use to create sustainable food production systems right now, for a better future. 

Perhaps the most exciting prospect of our farming future is that innovation is resolving our challenges.  As we acknowledge and move away from traditional practices and move towards more sustainable, ethical and holistic methods of growing food, we can look to agri-innovation to provide solutions, fill gaps, and strengthen the food production and consumption infrastructures of the future. Its an exciting time for innovators, farmers and consumers!

amino-acids

Amino Acids Part 2: The secret compound for all living things and sustainable farming.

By All, Animal Health, Productivity, Regulation, Soil Health, Sustainability

In Part 1 of this series I gave you a high level understanding of amino acids, their extraction and uses in agriculture.  In this Part 2 of the series, we will cover the importance of amino acids to plants and the benefits of amino acids to land management practices and sustainable farming. You have already heard about how amino acids help increase the health of the soil and everything that grows in it, how the proteins found in amino acids help the soil absorb and store more nutrients, but I haven’t discussed how that relates to sustainable farming and importantly reduced dependancy on synthetic fertilisers for productivity.

Let’s first start by understanding how amino acids support plant growth;

1. Amino acids help photosynthesis

Amino acids provide many different benefits to plant health, beginning with the process of photosynthesis. Without proper photosynthesis, plants will not grow. This process relies on the production of chlorophyll, which needs to absorb energy from the sun.  Amino acids help in the production of chlorophyll, which leads to quality photosynthesis.

2. Amino acids help increase nutrient absorption

Plant leaves consist of stomata, which are small pores that help plants absorb gas and nutrients. When there is no light and low humidity, the stomata will close to help to reduce photosynthesis and absorption of nutrients.  When the sky however is clear and sunny, and the humidity is higher, the stomata will then open. This will help plants to get the proper nutrition from rain, sunlight, and soil.

With sufficient concentration of amino acids in the soil, L-glutamic acid is a type of amino acid that protects stomata cells with a microscope. This encourages the leaves to remain open, allowing the plants to absorb more nutrients.

Amino acids are also known as having the ability to chelate when proteins are combined with other sub-nutrients. Plants can use sub-nutrients more efficiently. These benefits result in increased nutrient intake.

3. Amino acids reduce stress-related problems

The plant is able to withstand stress, such as from high temperatures, low humidity, and other serious problems. Amino acids help to fight stress and help plants to recover quickly and to maintain denser growth.

4. Amino acids support plant hormones

Amino acids also support the growth of plant hormones, which is called phytohormone. The Phytohormones control the development of healthy plants by supporting tissues and cells. Almost all stages of plant growth are involved in hormonal control. The use of amino acids with soil can promote production phytohormones without having to use separate supplements.

5. Amino acids help improve microbial activity

Protein is important for all living cells, including microbial cells that support healthy soil. L-methionine, one of the amino acids, can help increase the health of microbial cells, promote better microbial activity. One of the main roles of microbes is to help circulate nutrients, including carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. The activities of healthy microbes control these components. Without microbial activity, most fertilizer is not effective. Microbes help convert organic compounds into inorganic forms, such as changing proteins from amino acids to carbon dioxide and ammonium. In general, microbes decompose compounds so that plants can absorb nutrients. Adding amino acids to the soil will improve this process.

6. Amino acids are a source of nitrogen

Adding amino acids to the soil can help increase nitrogen content by limiting the need for fertiliser with a high nutrient concentration. Plants can pick up amino acids from the soil to receive organic nitrogen. Amino acids are found naturally in the soil can provide protein with nitrogen. However, to get nitrogen, Plants must first digest proteins, which must have microbial activity in the soil. Amino acids help improve microbial activity. Soil supplementation with this substance can help the entire nitrogen cycle.

7. Amino acids increase calcium absorption

Chelating substances such as amino acids will help increase the absorption of nutrients. After plants absorb minerals, the rest will be decomposed into dissolved organic nitrogen or used directly as an amino acid.  Chelaing will have effects to help with plant health from increased calcium absorption, making plants to have more calcium and to help strengthen the vascular system, strong nutrients conveyor system. Plants will be able to absorb more water and nutrients. This calcium increase may help prevent pests and diseases. When plants are weak, there will be water in the cells which attracts the growth of mold and insects. With healthy plants, there will be more pectin in the cell wall. Thicker cell walls are less likely to be attacked. Increased calcium absorption also helps prevent pests. When these problems occur, plants release calcium and produce defenses that help repel insects.

essential-amino-acids

Amino Acids Part 1: The secret compound for all living things and sustainable farming.

By All, Animal Health, Productivity, Regulation, Soil Health, Sustainability

Amino acids, often referred to as the building blocks of proteins, are compounds that play many critical roles in the health of all living things. They are the essential compounds for life and as such are needed for vital processes like the building of proteins and synthesis of hormones and neurotransmitters.

Humans may also take additional amino acids in supplement form for a natural way to boost athletic performance or improve mood.

Soil amino acids are important sources of organic nitrogen for plant nutrition, in fact amino acids serve as a key mobilisable source of nitrogen in plants, and their transport across cell membranes is necessary for uptake of nutrients from soil.

This two part blog tells you everything you need to know about essential amino acids, including how they function, sources and methods of extraction, their importance to plants and benefits to sustainable farming.

What are amino acids?

Amino acids are organic compounds composed of nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, along with a variable side chain group. When a series of amino acids are joined by peptide bonds, proteins are formed. Proteins are important macromolecules involved in all aspects of the growth and development of plants.

There are about 20 amino acids that can help plants, animals, and humans grow and develop. Though all 20 of these are important for health, they are individually required for specific functions.

The amino acids responsible for chlorophyll synthesis are Alanine, Arginine, and Glycine. For the development of the root or to delay the senescence, there are Arginine and Methionine. If we want to achieve a chelating effect on the soil and better development of shoots and leaves plants use Glycine. For the resistance systems of the plant, the best types are lysineglutamic acid, and glycine.

Sources and methods of extraction

The main sources of amino acids are extracted from vegetables, animals, fish or synthetics. Those obtained by plants are extracted from vegetable waste of soybean, cereals, fish, etc. 

Traditionally, two processes are used in agriculture to obtain amino acids. These processes are known as, acid hydrolysis and enzymatic hydrolysis.

Acid hydrolysis method is the most basic and low-cost option. It is achieved by prolonged boiling of the protein with an acid solution. The method is quite aggressive, so the resulting amino acids are of low quality, creating a high percentage amino acids destroyed during the process. 

The enzymatic hydrolysis process is much less aggressive. It is not necessary to apply extreme temperature and instead of an acid solution, an enzyme is used. The process is more expensive and complex, but the percentage of free amino acids are much higher, so in contrast to the acid hydrolysis approach the resulting composition is mostly usable by the plant.

Benefits of applying amino acids

Plants synthesise amino acids from the N absorbed as nitrate or ammonium that is in the soil. During the process of absorbing nitrogen from the soil, the plant consumes a considerable amount of energy which is diverted from the plant’s growth activities. The main reason why it is so important to applicate these products in agriculture is the energy savings that they achieve. The energy saved is diverted to other important processes such as sprouting, flowering, or fruiting. The outcome of which is an increase in the quality and the production of the crop or pasture.

In part two of this series we will look at the relationship amino acids have with synthetic nitrogen and benefits to sustainable farming.

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Tane Mahuta and healthy soil, here’s the connection

By All, Education, Soil Health

Of all New Zealand’s Kauri forests, none is more famous than Waipoua Forest on the west coast, just north of Dargaville. As the largest remaining tract of native forest in Northland, Waipoua is an ancient green world of towering trees and rare birds.

This forest is the home of Tāne Mahuta, the country’s largest kauri tree, which is approximately 2,000 years old and still growing. Nearly 18 metres to the first branch and 4.4 metres in diameter, Tāne Mahuta is rightly called ‘The Lord of the Forest’. So, what’s the connection between the story of Tane Mahuta and healthy soil?

The mystery of nature

A 2,000 year old Kauri tree growing from soil that were once yellow brown earths with a high sand content, very low natural fertility, and variable drainage is a mystical process. To understand the magic behind thriving pre-historic forests and to harness that productivity for agricultural production we must understand the microbes that make up soil.

Every plant, whether a tree or flower, requires a mixture of nutrients to survive. Plants cannot, however, access the nutrients that are locked in organic and mineral forms near their root systems. Even if plant roots had the ability to break down molecules and extract soluble forms of nutrients, the roots are quite large, and although they span a sizable distance, they can only access a small fraction of the surface area of the soil. Plants need help to survive, and they rely on a trusted evolutionary pathway that has formed over millions of years to do so.

Nutrient cycling – Bacteria and Fungi

The process of unlocking nutrients from otherwise unwieldly materials is called nutrient cycling. The least accessible of these materials is the mineral component of soil, but if the nutrients locked in rocks, sand, and clay can be made plant available they contain a massive supply of invaluable food sources. To gain access to these nutrients, plants rely on bacteria and fungi that utilize a combination of chemical and physical factors to free ions from there

crystalline forms. As natural weathering cracks and crumbles stones, they extend their surface area revealing untouched faces ripe for microbial migration. Once the microbes have colonized this new frontier, they begin the process of enzymatically wearing away at the rough carapace of stone. Over hundreds of years these organisms consume nutrients from minerals, slowly increasing a soil’s capacity to harbor life.

There are, however, more efficient ways to make nutrients available to plants from stable organic matter. Species of bacteria and fungi that specialise in breaking down plant and animal organic matter have a much higher proficiency for cycling nutrients. The organic matter that is added to soil through animal and plant wastes can rapidly be integrated into stable organic acids called humus in the O-horizon, or top layer of the soil. Some portion of the biproducts of that degradation will be utilised by the plant immediately but the rest will be stored as humus that can be leveraged later to provide a readily available nutrient pool. In this way humus is like a battery for the soil, storing charge until plants need a boost, and bacteria and fungi are the charger filling that battery.

There are also species of bacteria and fungi that take a more unique approach to increasing available nutrients in the soil. These species rely on symbiotic relationships with the plant’s root system to increase the efficient acquisition of nutrients from their environment. One of the best examples is a species of bacteria called Rhizobia which can store atmospheric nitrogen in an organic from. In doing so, Rhizobia give plants access to a supply of Nitrogen that traditionally would be just outside their reach. In exchange for the assistance, the plant delivers sugars and compounds that the organisms need to thrive. In exploiting these ancient affiliations, plants can rapidly gain access to nutrients in even the most inhospitable of conditions.

The interplay between bacteria, fungi, plants, and the soil comprise the lowest level of interaction in the soil. While these interactions are critical to soil health and are the block on which vegetative life must be built, they are only the first step on the journey to a balanced microbial ecosystem. To fully realize the potential of nutrient cycling,  predatory populations and their role in regulating soil ecosystems must also be a consideration.

Better results with better nourished pastures in a sustainable way

So, we now know soil microorganisms, through their metabolic activity, secrete a series of substances that serve as a source of energy for plants. In addition, they degrade complex molecules to form humus that promotes aeration, water storage and fertility.

Microorganisms also solubilise soil minerals (K, Ca, Mn, Mg, etc.) so that they can be assimilated by plants. On the other hand, there are groups of organisms that fix atmospheric nitrogen and others that favor root growth.

In short: nature at the service of nature, allowing plants to be better nourished. And what does a better nourished plant mean? It means that production will improve in terms of quantity and quality.