Getting started

I’ve already forgotten half of what I’ve heard today, so better get it written down quickly. Too much information. Well, not too much, just a lot.

This is where I have spent the day – the first of my proper travels.

Day 1

First stop was Karen & Mick Williams, who farm 245ha of great land near Carterton. I think it’s fitting to start a project about soils on a farm sitting on over 3m of silt. This is my first time in New Zealand, and my first real look at a farming system like this. The climate seems pretty similar to ours, but about 5 degrees warmer. This means there is always something growing, and often they will get two crops in the same year. A bit like a turbo charged version of our cover cropping system.

Arable crops include spring barley, spring wheat, peas, and seed production for ryegrass, red clover, sweetcorn and onions. I’ve eaten onion seeds (or Nigella seeds as they seem to be sold as) before, but have never seen them being farmed.

Onion seeds

Onion seeds

The yields these guys get are pretty impressive – last year the spring barley yielded 9t/ha, although it did receive a bit of irrigation. Everything here is drilled with a Cross Slot. Finally I get to see one of these [in]famous machines.

Cross Slot

They seem to be built from unused sections of motorway bridges – perhaps a bit over engineered?! This one has a hydraulic arm on the side for lifting tonne seed bags into the hoppers without needing a loader. Great idea! I was a bit surprised at the amount of soil disturbance compared to a JD 750a. They do also roll most of their fields here, and I can see why.

CS

Drilled on right, undrilled on left

Livestock plays a big part on this farm. Often ryegrass is planted straight after barley, and grazed a few months later by lambs which are fattened up and sold in the spring or summer. These fields then go back into cropping, normally barley. Longer term ryegrass/red clover mixes are also used, which can support Friesian bulls for fattening, or sheep. Occasionally they will grow rape or a similar brassica for the forage crop.

Next up I drove a few km to visit Mick’s parents, Jill & Jim, and his brother Nathan, who farm a bit more than 300ha near Masterton. The setup on this farm is pretty similar, except the soil is much shallower, and also much heavier, with a high clay content. Flooding can be a really problem here, and too much moisture is a constant worry.

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How about this for a view from your living room?

The cropping here is pretty similar, although they are also growing some winter wheat. This will yield 8-12t/ha, unirrigated, depending on weather and which fields are used – we all know some fields are better than others. There are also sheep and beef cattle here, grazing on either 6 month or 2-3 year leys. The long term grass could also have red clover mixed in, and is often cut for silage before being grazed.

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Jim was keen to tell me that he was interested in profit from these heifers, and wasn’t worried about what they look like, a sentiment I agree with entirely – slightly hypocritical coming from someone breeding fullblood Wagyu…

It’s really difficult for me to get my head around the systems and rotations here. Nothing is fixed too far in advance, and one crop could lead into a wide variety of others, depending on what the conditions, prices etc make look the best. Flexibility is a powerful tool.

The crops looked good, and obviously yield very well. The whole system seems very efficient as the land is almost constantly in use, and the wide variety of crops means that weeds are not a big problem. There is quite a lot of volunteer ryegrass, as it does shed plenty of seed in the longer term leys, but this isn’t much of a problem as the fields will always go back into grass fairly quickly. Apparently the profit is split roughly 60:40 in favour of the arable crops, which is excellent in my opinion. When you take into consideration the not easily measurable benefits of having so much grass and livestock in the rotation, they must provide at least 50% of the money long-term.

The family started no-till straight from a plough based system in the late ’90s, when the heavier clay land could sometimes take up to 13 passes to create a seedbed. Not quite as impressive as Geoff Claydon’s 22, but still plenty. They claim that yields have improved steadily since the introduction of no-till, but do acknowledge that this is not just due to the no-till. The main benefits have been in timeliness of work, ease of creating a seedbed, increased resilience to animals’ feet, and moisture retention both at drilling and throughout the growing season.

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Jim’s neighbour (also no-till for 15 years+) was having a 12″ (!) field drainage pipe put in, and so I got to see a serious scale soil pit. This farm has a similar depth soil to us, of around 25cm. Underneath that is solid clay. The soil was obviously pretty tough, but even a dry clod will crumble in your fingers. Apparently before no-till these sorts of clods wouldn’t break up even if you threw them onto concrete, so it has made a big difference. Not surprisingly, worm numbers are also much higher, and the drainage has improved a lot as well.

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Top soil & sub soil

I’ll write about my Cross Slot thoughts in more detail at the end of the NZ trip, as I will see a lot more of it in the next fortnight. Its fertiliser placement capability is seen to be essential by these guys, who use it for most of their crops. I remain to be convinced it is worth the £££s [££££££££££££££££], but it is obviously a very good and versatile drill.

It is undeniably doing a great job on these two properties, as are the farmers. They seem to have nailed a good system that doesn’t need too much input from the sprayer, spreads risk across different crops, and also between arable & livestock. Most importantly it makes money.

NZ farmers are living up to their reputation.

One thought on “Getting started

  1. Hi David, it was a pleasure to meet you and to read your blog (you’re a natural!). All the best for the rest of your travels. Cheers, Karen Williams

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