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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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