Day 49 – Biodynamic cattle

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I really needed a helicopter today, it was a long drive for a short distance. I’m very jealous that these guys can grow such a wide variety of fruits in their garden: apples, apricots, figs, oranges, lemons, limes, quince, mulberries, plums… I guess there are not many climates that would support all of them.

This was another last minute Nuffield phone call, but there was a double chance of success as both people living in the house are past scholars: Cathy Harvey is a trained vet, and Dave come from a farming family. They are farming 2,000ha of non-wetting sandy soils, which supports a herd of purebred Angus which they breed and take all the way to finishing, and also a 250 cow dairy.

A flood irrigated lucerne paddock, before and after grazing by the dairy herd

A flood irrigated lucerne paddock, before and after grazing by the dairy herd

Having spent the first part of his farming career as a high input/high output farmer, Dave tried out some biological farming techniques, and found they worked pretty well. After a few years of doing that, they discovered a demand for Biodynamic milk had opened up near by. The move from biological to certified Organic, and from there to Biodynamic, was not a huge leap, and so they went for it.

Beef production was unaffected, but milk production went down from 7,000l per cow to 5,500l, although at the same time they stopped using pure Holstein animals, and started crossing with Jerseys: the famous “Kiwi Cross”. With around a 30% premium for the Biodynamic meat and milk, it seems like a no-brainer when production levels stay similar.

It's common around here to graze cattle on cereal stubble, with no supplemental feeding either

It’s common around here to graze cattle on this tall cereal stubble, with no supplemental feeding either

Around 10% of the farm is cropped each year, normally with barley, which is then fed to the dairy cows as a supplement. Vetch is often grown before the barley, and then incorporated – they have measured up to 50kg/ha of nitrogen from this in a good year. After barley, it is common to plant a lucerne ley, which will stay in place for a decade, this is used to fatten the Angus steers on.

Dave sees the main benefit of his system as being the lower risk which comes from having much lower inputs. This is something I’ve heard before in Australia, particularly when comparing livestock enterprises with arable. He also claims a quadrupling of profit from the old system to the current one. In addition it makes them both much more content with how they are treating their farm.

Angus steers being fattened on grass and lucerne

Angus steers being fattened on grass and lucerne

We spoke over lunch about Biodynamics, and some of its stranger prescriptions. I’m still of the opinion that the techniques and formulations they use could have sound principles backing them up, but I do not buy the explanations about atoms’ vibrations etc etc. But as Cathy said “just because you don’t understand how something works, doesn’t mean it won’t work”. Just ask Gregor Mendel. We don’t yet fully understand the chemistry of soils and plant nutrition, let alone how microbial life interacts on top of that; so we should not be hasty in rubbishing different ideas.

That then brings up the question of proof. It’s fair enough if something unexplained works, but then it must be able to be measured – I do believe in the scientific principle. I’ve seen no proof here that Biodynamics works. BUT I have been to plenty of other farms (almost everywhere in fact) where at least once I have asked why someone does something, and how they know it is better. The answer is almost always that they have no proof, it’s just a feeling. It could be the type of drill they use, a grazing technique, or anything else; although rarely does it involve cows’ skulls, or stags’ bladders. Or Field Broadcasters.

Day 48 – Biodynamic cherries

Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at 12.42.39People often wonder why bother with Nuffield, you could just do it yourself. True, in the main part; but there are benefits. Like when you call up a stranger at lunch time on a Saturday and they agree to give you four hours of their time at zero notice.

Kym Green asked if my project was going into left-field, and warned that he may be what I referred to as “Wacky”. Well, I can confirm now that he probably does fit into that category…

Kym is a cherry and apple grower, and I fluked an excellent time to visit. The cherry season started just yesterday, which meant there were tonnes (literally) of perfectly ripe fruit just waiting to be eaten by me – yum.

It isn’t just birds (see caption below) that are dangerous to the ripe fruit, too much rain at the wrong time can cause them to split, and become ruined right at the very last second. Some varieties will apparently burst, leaving just the stone hanging by the stem.

When the cherries are almost ripe they are netted to stop bird attacks

When the cherries are almost ripe they are netted to stop bird attacks

Kym does not fit neatly into any sort of production pigeon hole. For the most part he tries to farm with Biodynamics, but he is not [too] averse to using conventional pesticides if they are needed. For example, there are certain fungal diseases which can only be treated chemically, and he also uses Roundup to terminate the cover under his trees. Insecticide use has gone from 8 applications a year to 1.

As good as they look

As good as they look

You may have heard of Biodynamics, but probably don’t know what it involves. Well one thing is for sure – it won’t be to everyone’s taste. If you visit the Biodynamic Agriculture Australia website one of the first things you will see is information on what stage the moon is currently at, which gives a little flavour of the gist. It stems from the work of Austrian polymath Rudolf Steiner, who died in 1925, who developed a system of holistic fertility management that draws pretty deeply from the more spiritualistic side of the coin.

Kym uses conventional soil tests to measure the level of nutrients in the soil, and then applies the Biodynamic principles to the results. In this system, there is a precedence of which substances are most important. The order is

  1. Sulphur
  2. Boron
  3. Silica
  4. Calcium
  5. Carbon
  6. Nitrogen
  7. Magnesium
  8. Potassium
  9. Phosphorus

The idea is that it is most important to fix the sulphur levels first, then the boron, etc etc. There are a whole range of treatments [sorry, but some of these are a little silly, “Yarrow flowers placed in the stags bladder, hung in the sun during the summer and buried in rich soil during the next winter”] that can be used to get the soils balanced, but Kym will also use more conventional fertilisers like ammonium sulphate if necessary. He has found though that he can use much smaller quantities of manure, compost tea, and other, errrmm, potions, to get the same or better fertility than applying hundreds of kilos of urea. He’s not the first person to claim increased nutrient efficiency from biologically active systems, and I think there is definitely something in it.

This is composted cow manure. But not just any composted cow manure, it has been aged in a cow's horn, and is known in Biodynamic circles as "Preparation 500"

This is composted cow manure. But not just any composted cow manure, it has been aged in a cow’s horn, and is known in Biodynamic circles as Preparation 500

Another tool he uses (and Cam McKellar too) is the Field Broadcaster. I’ve got to say, I’m pretty skeptical about this one. It’s basically a pipe into which you place soil from your farm, and various homeopathic preparations, and it then broadcasts out an energy which can either help your crops, or get pests to go and bother your neighbour instead. It is important to also include a map of your farm in the broadcaster, so it knows where to aim. Plenty of people report that these things work, but personally I believe it’s time for my favourite Wikipedia page, Confirmation Bias. However, it’s not hurting anyone, so if you like it, then go for it.

Time for a new word, to me at least. Radionics. If you Google it, the second result is the “Skeptics Dictionary”, and the Wikipedia page tells us that it is “commonly considered a pseudoscience”, which it also says of Biodynamics, incidentally. Kym uses his manually operated, and powered, Radionics machine to get information about the general condition of his soil, and what he can do to improve it. It can also be used to decide on pest control strategies.

The Radionics machine, and all the related paraphernalia

The Radionics machine, and all the related paraphernalia

It is a little box that looks a bit like an old fashioned radio, with knobs and dials. It has receptacles into which you can put whatever you want to measure, such as a bag of soil from a particular field. Certain parameters are then entered on the dials, and questions can literally be asked to the machine, like “would urea improve this soil” or “what rate of seaweed extract do I need here”. Tactile feedback gives the answer. It’s not very easy to explain!

I don’t believe it works. At least not as it is supposed to; I think it is a thinking man’s Ouija board. Now this could have been due to him just demonstrating it quickly, but the impression I got was that Kym knew the answers he wanted from it already. I don’t consider this a bad thing, it’s a tool for making decisions, and a confidence booster. That is not a bad thing in my eyes.

Obviously the answers you get out are only going to reflect how good a farmer you are, and anecdotally Kym seems to be on the ball, I’ve only got his word for it though! If you scrape away the hocus-pocus, the underlying system he’s using is not really that different to what I have already been looking at – improving soils biologically and chemically to maximise their efficiency. Kym talks the talk, and claims some pretty impressive results in a range of areas. If he’s correct, does it matter how he got there?