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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.

fertiliser cost

Why is the health of soil so important?

By Education, Management, Soil Health, Sustainability

What is soil heath?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Importance of maintaining good soil health

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

Soil health is of utmost importance for several reasons:

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

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

Reference Sources:

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

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Frustrated by the Fertiliser Price Squeeze? Steps to take.

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

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

Two years of increasing fertiliser prices

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

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

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

The impact on cost of production

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

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

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

Profitability Strategies

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

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

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

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

Reference Sources:

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

With input from Alexis Perez, TAC: Tasman Agricultural Consulting


The 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.

Healthy 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.”