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Mitigating Farm Risk from El Nino

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

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

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

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

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

Prior Planning…

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

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

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

What is Healthy Soil?

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

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

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

Some Good News

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

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

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

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

Improving Soil Fertility

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

Take Action

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

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

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

The Narrows – A Farm Management Case Study

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

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

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

Taking the right approach

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

The Narrows

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

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

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

Five years ago

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

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

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

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


A step change today

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

Dry Matter

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

Animal Health

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


The path to improvement

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

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


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

Direct Drilling

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

Improved grasses

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

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

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

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

Nitrogen Use

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


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


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


Looking ahead at The Narrows

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

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

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

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


Less Stress and More Profit – A Case Study

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

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

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

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

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

The Crisis

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

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

The Investigation

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

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

The Transition

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

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

Raymond BurrKing Country Dairy Farmer, now owner of QLabs

A Positive Impact

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

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

The Final Word

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

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

Now that’s something worth thinking about.

fertiliser cost

Frustrated by the Fertiliser Price Squeeze? Steps to take.

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

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

Two years of increasing fertiliser prices

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

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

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

The impact on cost of production

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

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

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

Profitability Strategies

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

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

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

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

Reference Sources:

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

With input from Alexis Perez, TAC: Tasman Agricultural Consulting

Fish Hydrolysate: A Better Way To Grow

By Education, Field Outcomes, How To, Productivity, Soil Health, Sustainability, Trial Results

There’s a better, more efficient and cost-effective way to apply nitrogen to plants. Fish IT is a biological food source designed to stimulate soil life and supply nitrogen at the plants’ roots in a slow release as the plant requires it, without the waste associated with synthetic nitrogen fertiliser.

Here at Fish IT we are getting an influx of enquiry from farmers unfamiliar with fish hydrolysate. We have seen a considerable increase in interest over the past twelve months driven by the price increases of traditional fertilisers, scarcity of supply, the nitrogen cap and an increasing desire to do better by the environment. We thought we would take the time answer a few questions about the role of biostimulants and fish hydrolysate in particular. To address the “what is it?”, “what does it do?”, “how can it benefit my farm?” questions, we spoke to Stan Winters and Rudi Woutersen. The underlying question is “can it help me reduce my fertiliser, particularly Nitrogen, usage? Before we dig into what they had to say, a quick primer on what biostimulants are.


Life below ground develops mainly in the rhizosphere, that is the area of the soil near the roots of the plants. Its composition is roots, fungus, microorganisms with various functions, nutrients organic substances, oxygen and water. In this area the interaction between soil microorganisms and plant roots occurs, creating an ecosystem conducive to plant development.

Agricultural biostimulants act on the plant’s natural biochemical processes that are of value to improve pasture growth, quality and productivity. Biostimulants are an important cornerstone to soil and pasture health, supported by the physical and chemical properties of the soil too.

The use of biostimulants in agriculture is almost as old as agriculture itself. Farmers have always tried to maximise plant growth by using natural products that help improve productivity. Traditionally, biostimulants such as manure, liquid waste or other extracts have been utilised.

Unlike fertilisers, biostimulants do not provide nutrients directly to the plant, but they facilitate the acquisition of nutrients by supporting metabolic processes in soil and consequently uptake of those nutrients through the plants.

Benefits of Biostimulants

The biostimulant developed by Fish IT offers multiple benefits:

  • Promote plant growth and vigour by optimising nutrient availability and uptake.
  • Complimentary to the use of fertilisers and generate co-action to promote effectiveness, optimising the supply of nutrients and water to the soil and plants.
  • The fish oils feed the fungus which improve soil fertility.
  • Increase pasture tolerance to abiotic stressors like flood and drought.
  • The plant produces more roots and maintains a greater absorption of nutrients and water on a continuous basis.

Agricultural practices and natural events can inadvertently strip soils of their healthy biology and this is where fish hydrolysate comes into its own. Harvesting, exposure to UV rays, floods, droughts, monoculture crops, sudden changes in PH, all contribute to decimate microbial concentrations in our soil. Amino acids in the form of fish hydrolysate can be part of the farmers weaponry to build it back up.

Stan WintersSoil Scientist

A soil scientist based in Southland with more than 40 years experience, Stan spent 26 years as a Fertiliser Chemist Technical Manager studying interactions between soil, climate, plants animals and fertiliser. For the past 25 years he has worked as an independent soil/fertility consultant. He really is the best one to answer “what is it?”. Stan has been working with the product for the last 6 years and knows it front to back. Stan’s scientific knowledge is extensive – so bear with us!

What is Hydrolysate?

Hydrolyzed protein is a solution derived from the hydrolysis of a protein into its component amino acids and peptides, which can then be more quickly and easily uptaken for subsequent utilisation. This process has been around for over a century and is commonly used in medicines, pet foods and even infant formula. Fish IT uses a hydrolysation process to break down waste salmon into peptides and amino acids by prolonged heating and the addition of food grade acids to keep it stable and contaminant free. It means we are recycling a waste protein into an applicant that is easily uptaken by microbes to improve biological activity and benefit soil health.

Fish Hydrolysate Properties

Fish proteins differ to other proteins in that they contain all 20 amino acids. The Fish IT product utilises the whole fish rather than the waste parts meaning the protein and oils from the flesh is incorporated. Because Salmon are not bottom feeders, they are less likely to take up contaminants and heavy metals than ocean floor scavengers.

How Does it Work?

Fish hydrolysate assists to optimise the natural processes within the soil. Plants are basically a factory taking CO2 from the air and converting it to oxygen and sugars. But they can’t do it on their own, they require assistance from bacteria and arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi in the soil. Read more on biological nutrient availability here.

If microbes can’t access the food they require, fish hydrolysate can correct the balance of amino acids present, giving them a fighting chance to get the correct suite of amino acids that they need to make the proteins that the plants need to grow.

Everything needs to be balanced for the system to function optimally – nutrients need to be supplied in the right balance (NPK and trace elements), along with healthy soil structure. The three legs of the soil properties stool – physical, chemical and biological. So, while fish hydrolysate will almost always assist by boosting biological activity, it will rarely be the only input that a production system requires, which is why we work closely with partners who can advise farmers on their individual needs.

There has been a bit of a mindset in modern farming practices of increasing chemical inputs to rectify or mask production issues or imbalances in the system “put more on, it can’t do any harm”. However, we have got the point where we now know that actually, it is inadvertently doing harm. “Little and often with any inputs is always better – it will always do less damage to the microbial life in soil”.

My opinion is that as a nation we need to do major research into farming with less fertiliser while maintaining productivity levels. Other countries are forcing their farmers to farm with less. If we are proactive - we can be leaders in the field. We just have to learn how to do it well. Fish is absolutely a helpful tool in that regard.

Rudi WoutersenSoil Expert

We talked to Rudi Woutersen, owner of R&J AgriSpray about his experiences assisting farmers to reduce fertiliser use. He has seen great success stories over his 25 years in the industry.

Soil Health

Rudi says his approach to fish hydrolysate is to incorporate it into a total solution. Still utilising traditional fertilisers but with a plan in place to reduce over time. He says fish is a great start to working on soil health. He particularly recommends it in situations where there is soil compaction, a lack of clover and other signs of inactive soil biology.

Reduce N

“50% of fertiliser applied on any given day is lost and therefore unutilised and that’s why we need to work on soil health. Our philosophy with the tow and fert system is to use less nitrogen but apply it in smaller amounts more regularly. If we work on the whole system, get it optimised and in balance then I reckon we can make a massive impact on the leaching problems we have in New Zealand. When we boost the soil biology, really get that N fixing bacteria working, then we can start to reduce chemical applications quite comfortably.”

“Clients are generally fully aware of the new regulations coming in too – so we add fish to the mix and slowly reduce the N inputs, starting by 20% and then working our way up from there.” He says that it is not critical that the plant takes it through the leaf. Getting that fine particle application onto either the leaf or soil and evenly spread makes it easier for the bacteria to utilise it.


We asked him about his observations from clients who have been using fish in their systems. “Clover, clover, clover!” he remarks. “Also better pasture utilisation – the cows eat the paddocks out more evenly. And they are happier – less lameness. The reduction in nitrogen boosted pastures means they are eating a more nutritionally dense food, leading to overall health benefits.”

He points out that fish is not a silver bullet and there is always a balance. Fish should be used alongside other inputs and land management practices to get the system optimised. He says fish in conjunction with aerating can have a massive impact that will feed biology and add oxygen. He has also seen good results with humic acid and fulvic acid which gives better utilisation and uptake of NPK applications when applied together. “Carbon feeds bacteria and fish feeds fungi”.

Rudi mentioned that the use of whole salmon is what he believes makes Fish IT Refined a superior product. “Salmon aren’t bottom feeders, and a lot of meat goes into the product.”

How To Get Started

We find our customers fall into three camps when they start their journey toward using less synthetic fertiliser and ultimately lowering their input costs while maintaining or improving output.

The whole of farm approach is taken when the farmer has done enough research and taken appropriate advice to commence the transition with an ongoing test (soil and herbage), measure and adapt approach to ensure nutrients and trace minerals continue in the right quantities for production as the land transitions from topical synthetic nitrogen application to soil generated nitrogen.

The worst paddock approach is sometimes used to simply suck it and see. The idea being that nothing else has worked so I’ll make a small investment and get started. We’ve seen our customers turn their worst paddocks around using this method and in the process make the move to incorporate Fish IT into their entire platform.

The test and measure approach has a little more thinking behind it than the worst paddock. The idea here is to change one variable, potentially run multiple concentrations and take a measurement to determine impact. The graph below shows the outcome of 11 different farms and paddocks in Southland where a 300sqm block in the centre of the paddock was Fish IT applied (30L per hectare concentration in this instance) and dry matter was measured against a control of standard synthetic fertiliser application to the rest of the same paddock. The farmers measured an average of 612kg/ha of dry matter (55% increase) with Fish IT compared to the control.

Regardless of the approach, one thing our customers learn very quickly is that this is a journey and not a quick fix. It takes time to transition but with the right guidance in the form of a safe pair of hands: a mentor, a contractor, an agronomist or even sometimes simply being incredibly well read via google; they are able to make those steps forward with confidence and great results.

At Fish IT we have been busy establishing a network of partners on the north and south island to help our customers looking to make the move. We’d encourage you to give us a call on 0800 FISHIT or send us an email if you’d like us to provide you some independent guidance specific to your needs.


The Rising Cost of Farming – Considering your Options for Nutrient Management

By Education, Field Outcomes, How To, Management, Productivity, Soil Health

It’s no secret that costs are on the rise and certainly farming is no different.  The Economic Service Sheep and Beef On-Farm Inflation Report released by Beef and Lamb New Zealand last month shows on-farm inflation is at its highest level in almost 40 years.  Sheep and Beef farm input prices increased by 10.7 percent in the year to March 2022 and are continuing to rise.  However, although this is a tough time, it does present an opportunity, and the impetus, to review on-farm spending and start some serious consideration of options.

Price Pressure

The price of some fertiliser products has doubled over the last 2 years and fertiliser companies have signalled further increases to come, possibly another 25%.  Global volatility, supply issues and freight charges are all adding cost pressure.  Approximately 70% of the mix of products in fertiliser are imported with 30% locally manufactured, so New Zealand has little control over traditional fertiliser price volatility.

Work within your budget

Steve Haswell, of BioAg, has good advice on looking at options. “We’ve been advising and assisting farmers for 28 years now on optimising biological functionality of their soil. There are a few pre-conceived ideas out there about making changes from traditional methods – one is that it will be an additional cost, and another that you will experience a production dip.” “Our soil and fertility programmes have always cost generally less than mainstream fertiliser programmes, and that gap is getting wider now. It’s not about spending more of your money, it’s about optimising the effectiveness of what you are applying”. Steve says that the crucial role of the advisor in implementing a good agronomic programme is to make the transition seamless in terms of production. “There should be no loss in production, even short term. The change needs to enhance production”.

BioAg and Fish IT are embarking on a co-lab, partnering where applicable to work with mutual clients.  The aim is to pair expertise in nutrient management alongside a great product.  “I want to reassure people that our programmes don’t omit anything that is needed for production.” Steve emphasises. “Traditional minerals are never overlooked or ignored – they are still in the mix.  What we do is help make informed choices about the most effective form and rates for the specific farm scenario.”

Marshall Farm Approach

Georgie Galloway, Farm Manager on Marshall Farm, had just come in from shifting cows on a cold easterly day in Southland.  The cows wintering on the 140-hectare farm are well set up to cope through winter with daily shifts onto a back-fenced dry block each day, with a portable water trough.  “This means our soils suffer way less damage, as well as being easier on the animals, with no heavy pugging back and forth to a trough.”  It is just one example of the thoughtful operations at Marshall Farm.

Five years ago, the Marshall Farm invested in a Tow and Fert and changed their nutrient management plan accordingly to a system where they apply all their own applications – targeting a reduction in urea use by lifting the natural function in their soils with Fish IT.

The farm is a complex system incorporating wintering 1300 dairy cows, 2-3 cuts of bailage, rearing calves (with cows they milk specifically for that purpose) and trade stock.  Getting their nutrient management right is critical as they achieve all this on 70 ha of Kale and 70 ha of grass on a 3-year rotation.  The programme they are now following is working so well for them, it allows them to plan for repeatable application year on year with some variation depending on soil testing.

Nutrient Planning – the long and the short

We talked to Georgie about nutrient management and their journey improving the biological functionality of their soils.  Georgie, and farm owner Graham Marshall, are well along the path in considering their nutrient management in both long- and short-term respects.  “We’ve actually already purchased our fertiliser for the spring to try to beat some of the price hikes” she says.

“Everything has changed for us under our new system.  We now apply 3-4 times per annum using the Tow and Fert to liquidise as many products as possible but still apply Serpentine Super with our 1tonne Bulky.   Fish IT, a much-reduced amount of Urea and other inputs, that soil testing indicates are required, go through the Tow and Fert”. “When we apply liquid products, we can more or less apply half the rate compared to solid/granular fertiliser and get same results.” This year they are adding in Sulphur Gain to address low elemental sulphur levels.  They also aerate with their James aerator and apply MOP, Lime, and Boron.

The annual spend for the current fertiliser programme is $80,010 compared to $151,800 for the previous programme at today’s pricing.  Georgie says that the Kale crop is now so much more resilient that they have basically stopped using pesticides.

Less Inputs, Same Production

“We’ve been able to operate with minimal Urea for years now, and we have real confidence in our system.  Our grass structure has changed dramatically since starting out with fish – I would say almost 70% of the sword in our grass paddocks is clover.  And no bloat!  The worms in the soil are crazy.  Even under the Kale you can see the castings everywhere.  They help naturally aerate the soil and are adding to the nutrient balance.”  The Tow and Fert/Fish IT system has been a game changer for us in terms of maintaining production, enhancing animal health and at the same time actually driving input costs down.

Do Something Different

Steve from BioAg says that now is a great time to be planning nutrients for new season while the workload is somewhat quieter.  “Once we get into lambing and calving then it is a pretty hectic run right through until Christmas.  And with fertiliser prices going the way they are, it pays to think about possibly doing something different this year.”  Whether that be alternative products, applying less in total annually, but more often, or doing research into credible options.”  Just as the Marshall Farm has seen, he believes there is a huge opportunity to change from solid applications to liquid, and to be smart about application timing.  He recommends considering the whole holistic system when trying to optimise biological functions and manage nutrients – and that there is a variety of approaches that can be implemented, from a tweak to a whole system sea change.

The Fungi Highway

We got talking about bio-stimulants and he has some fascinating knowledge. “Fish nutrient products containing fatty acids are known to support mycorrhizal fungi, the main fungi associated with supporting plant and legumes to exchange nutrients and water.  The fungi provide the highway in the soil for nutrients to reach plants, particularly phosphorus and calcium and for the transportation of water.”  So, it makes sense that he believes bio-stimulants can be a game changer, and it certainly backs up Georgie’s experience at the Marshall Farm.

“Interest is coming slowly in the agricultural sector,” he says – “The early adopters are taking it up and the rest of the industry is coming along reluctantly as they start to hear about the results.  But he says that is it important that the starting point is a discussion with someone knowledgeable in biological functionality, because there is no “one size fits all”.

Incorporating bio-stimulants and fish nutrients provides food for the plant and soil biology to build biological function in the soil.  “We are only now starting to realise that the microbiome in the rhizosphere – basically the stomach of the plants – is as important as the microbiome in our human gut.  In fact, they parallel each other.  Under a microscope, microbiome of the soil, mammals and humans are almost indistinguishable.  They function the same way, and the level of diversity is the same.”

And just as gut health is gaining momentum, so too is soil health.

If any of this has piqued your interest in investigating options for spring please get in touch with the team at Fish IT.  We will be happy to direct you to an advisor who can work with you to look into your particular situation.

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.


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 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.