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It All Starts In The Soil

The Fish IT team came through Balclutha last month on a road trip from Invercargill and caught up with agronomist Reece Johnston who owns and operates Highland Nutrition – a soil consultancy with a biologically and mineral based farming system, focusing on soil fertility that delivers profitable, sustainable, and environmentally sound farming outcomes for his clients. If that all sounds interesting, read on.

Reece has always had a keen interest in biology, starting in high school and continuing as he watched his grandfather grow crops with little need for chemical fertilizer. Fast forward to today and the importance of biology remains at the fore.

Highland Nutrition’s approach is to focus on mineral nutrient balance in the soil, unlock tied up minerals for us and use biostimulants to feed the microbes and drive soil fertility and natural systems of nutrient cycling. Their approach with their customers is to undertake annual soil tests and quarterly herbage testing. Reece says “We use Perry Laboratory in the USA who run the Albrecht fertility system and focus on beneficial nutrient percentages to optimise plant growth.  We send another sample to Environmental Analysis Laboratory in Lismore, New South Wales to do a heavy metal and total nutrient test.  From there we work with Peter Norwood at Full Circle Nutrition to formulate our recommendations”

The recommendations will be a combination of nutrients to balance the soils and Fish IT fish hydrolysate to feed the soil microbes allowing nutrients to be unlocked and made available to the plant as well as to substantially simulate worm activity and clover production.

The Big Three

In terms of mineral recommendations, sulfur and boron, being anions, continually leach out of the system and need top up so these minerals are always required.  Reece explains “They don’t lock up in the soil like cations, so we know every year you are going to need a minimum of 20 kilos per hectare of boron and 80 kilos of sulfur 90.  The other mineral that is very deficient in New Zealand soils is silica.  Our goal is to get silica to a minimum of 2000 parts per million. Silica is great at tying up the excess aluminium that resides in NZ soils after decades of synthetic fertiliser treatment”.  Reece continues “Within 10 weeks of tying up aluminium what we are seeing through herbage tests are significant increases in copper, magnesium, calcium and phosphate without applying any of those products.  All these nutrients have been tied up in the soil for years and begin to unlock. You’ve paid for that fertiliser, you may as well be using it.”  One of Reece’s dairy customers has been five years without any phosphate application and is it still way above where it needs to be. “By doing the total nutrient test with Peter Norwood, Highland Nutrition have an inventory of nutrients and we know where things are at as every nutrient is given a rating” Reece explains.

The biological system seems to make clover grow, like urea does to grass. And then you’re fixing your nitrogen from the air for free instead of buying it out of a bag. Yep, we're getting Mother Nature to do all the hard work.

Reece JohnstonOwner, Highland Nutrition

A Sustainable, Viable Approach

Farming sustainability is at the heart of what drives Reece to help his clients.  Reece says “All decisions need to be profitable for the farmer. Because at the end of the day, if it’s not economically sound, the banks will lose interest. So, it’s got to start there. In the process, we can help our clients cut back on animal health costs to trim the bottom line, that’s where it’s all at”.  Reece strives to work within existing fertiliser budgets as his customers transition to better, higher yielding, more profitable systems. For example, Reece explains “Our mix that we put on with the Fish IT in it is $67.70 a hectare. It’s equivalent to 50 kilos of urea in price. Only a one or two dollar per hectare difference in price, but the big thing is, we may only put two, maybe three applications a year on”

Great Results

Another of Reece’s customers has between 3,100kg and 4,700kg DM / ha cover on his dairy platform. A phenomenal amount of grass. Reece says “And the thing is, it’s not llike it’s above your knees. It’s just that the pasture is so dense underneath. Even when a paddock’s been topped and grazed they still have over 2000 (kg DM / ha) cover and the clover comes back big and fast.”  He continues “the biological system seems to make clover grow, like urea does to grass. And then you’re fixing your nitrogen from the air for free instead of buying it out of a bag. Yep, we’re getting Mother Nature to do all the hard work”.

Yet another of Reece’s clients who has been with him for a few years made a comment that hasn’t seen any mastitis this season, no laminitis, none of the ‘itises’ which are inflammatory diseases, caused by excessive iron in the pasture. Another issue with excess iron is reproductive issues. Reece states “In our system iron levels need to be 100 to 150 parts per million.  We’ve tested palm kernel supplement feed from a new customer that has recently come on board, and we saw iron levels at six to eight times higher levels than our recommendations.  The client moved away from that quick smart”.

Reece looks after customers on the North Island and South Island with active projects currently from Waikato to Southland. He can currently be emailed or found on Facebook but watch this space, he tells us – a website is coming.

What Does Good Look Like?

I asked Reece what good looks like to him “At end of the day, to see my customers’ milk production up on historic averages by 20 percent or something like that. To know that farmers are putting some dollars in the bank or the local netball club, or that the tennis club sees a couple of bucks out of a local farmer, because he’s got a bit extra to spend. I just want to see continuous growth and profitability for farmers.” He continues “Rural communities and farming is the lifeblood of New Zealand, and we all need to do what we can to get them get back into shape”.

We couldn’t agree more Reece.