Day 59 – Irresistible oats

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Carmen is a huge farm – 10,000ha in an area where the average is 200. Not only that, but it is the biggest dairy in Argentina, with over 6,000 cows producing 100,000l of milk every day. It’s a massive operation, and is owned by one of the country’s agricultural behemoths, Adecoagro.

A 700ha field. The drill goes for 5km before it has to turn around and come back

A 700ha field. The drill goes for 5km before it has to turn around and come back

Eddie Nolan is the arable manager, and luckily for me he speaks great English because that’s the only way he could ask his Irish grandmother for sweets. Like everyone else in this country (continent?) they grow a lot of Soya, both on its own and as part of a double crop with wheat. The third part of the rotation is maize, which is either grown for grain, or for silage that is fed to the dairy cows.

There are two 3,000 cow units, each with an 80 place rotary parlour. The plan is to double up and have 12,000 cows within a few years

There are two 3,000 cow units, each with an 80 place rotary parlour. The plan is to double up and have 12,000 cows within a few years

As well as normal grain maize, they also grow hybrid seed for Syngenta (more profitable) and popcorn for cinemas et al (more delicious). Most of the maize is GM, and does not need to be sprayed with insecticides. Contrast this with the three sprays that the non-GMO varieties get: “I know which one I would rather eat” says Eddie.

A popcorn plant (left) vs a normal grain maize plant (right). the popcorn yields half as much but is sold for double. It is also not taxed by the government, so it's a more profitable crop

A popcorn plant (left) vs a normal grain maize plant (right). the popcorn yields half as much but is sold for double the price. It is also not taxed by the government, so it’s a more profitable crop

Eddie is mindful of his soils, and so after taking maize silage he tries to grow a cover crop. They have been doing this for about 12 years, which makes them incredibly early adopters in Argentina. The cover crop is usually wheat, but they are just starting to play around with adding vetch as well. I asked why he didn’t grow Avena Strigosa/Black Oats/Bristle Oats/whatever else you want to call them. The answer was that they are so good that the dairy boys sneak in and cut it for silage, so there is no organic matter returned to the soil, which somewhat defeats the purpose.


The soil here is pretty sandy, but it is a very fine textured sand. Like at La Florida, there are high and low areas, called Loma & Bajo. Now I don’t speak Spanish, but I’m going to take a guess that these mean high & low… The soils are very deep; I couldn’t get an exact answer, but it is apparently much deeper than the roots will go. Eddie confirmed what I had heard a few days ago, that maize will root to 2m and wheat/soya to 1m.

Why this photo? Because I can, and it still amazes me that a phone will take these photos. On the right are a couple of aphids, slightly bigger than the ones at home

Why this photo? Because I can, and it still amazes me that a phone will take these photos. On the right are a couple of aphids, slightly bigger than the ones at home

Water is a big deal here, and the dairies use 1,000,000 litres (yes, million) per day in total. Almost all of this finds its way into a lagoon, where is waits until it can be used to irrigate the maize being grown for seed. Each pivot irrigator covers 150ha, and can put out about 10,000,000 litres of water in a day, which is 7mm over the entire area. Like I said, it’s a big operation.


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.

Days 35 & 36

Screen Shot 2014-07-03 at 19.18.31This leg of the trip has had precisely zero relevance to my study topic, but it’s been very interesting nonetheless. I had left these days unbooked to see what came up, and in the end it was…dairies. A friend called a friend who called a friend etc, and eventually I was emailed by the head of Genus/ABS for North America [well done Nuffield network], and he sorted out a few visits on the way down through South Dakota.

1600 cows in one building

1600 cows in one, air conditioned, building

The smallest operation I saw was run by an English family, and had 900 cows. The largest was around 3,000. I knew nothing about dairies a few days ago – and not much has changed. Most of the visits were spent with me saying thing like “Wow”, “that’s amazing” or “very interesting”. All of these were true, but I did not have many penetrating questions to ask…

One common theme was expansion. All of them were looking to build numbers, sometimes only a couple of hundred, often more. They all had plans, and permission, to double in size. Obviously the dairy industry here is very strong at the moment. At one point one lady was showing me the new barn extension they were putting up, and telling me about the 120 cows that were going to fill it. I remarked that she must have a friendly bank manager; “No, last year was good, we don’t need the bank for this”.

In NZ the guys were going on about rotary parlours all the time, I had assumed the same would be true here. But it seems they were stung with bad reliability a couple of decades ago, and now hardly anyone wants to use them.

After the ABS/Genus tour, I headed down further south into Nebraska to stay the night with a guy called Bart Ruth. He’s an Eisenhower Fellow, and hosts a lot of Nuffield visitors. One of his neighbours is a man called Todd Tuls, who owns three dairies, milking around 15,000 cows in total; it’s quite a big business. Here are a few photos from his 6,000 cow Butler Creek dairy, which is something quite beyond my previous, limited, agricultural experience.

The silage clamp hold around 100,000 tonnes when it is full. Each year they harvest 5,000 acres of maize to make this heap, and another similar one on the sister dairy a few miles down the road

The silage clamp holds around 100,000 tonnes when it is full. Each year they harvest 5,000 acres of maize to make this heap, and another similar one on the sister dairy a few miles down the road


This parlour has space for 96 cows, and is operated by 4 men. But this is only half of it – there is a mirror image of this setup a couple of meters down the corridor. Together they collect over 2.5 litres of milk per second, every day of the year


There are no bulk collection tanks here, instead the milk is cooled and loaded straight into these tankers. Every day 9 or 10 leave the dairy, carrying about 30,000 litres each

6000 cows produce a lot of slurry, which has the solids removed before being stored in three huge lagoons. This dirty water is then pumped through 22 miles of pipes that connect it to 28 centre pivot irrigators, where it is used as fertiliser for maize crops

6000 cows produce a lot of slurry, which has the solids removed before being stored in three huge lagoons. This dirty water is then pumped through 22 miles of pipes that connect it to 28 centre pivot irrigators, where it is used as fertiliser for maize crops. Amazingly, it doesn’t smell too bad

NZ – Final Thoughts


Roughly where I went

Roughly where I went

So what have I learnt in the last two weeks? Certainly I know a lot more about the details of farming in New Zealand. But is it relevant to me how you grow onion seeds, why variable rate irrigation is better, or why all the farms here use dual tyres and not big singles? I don’t think so. I think Nuffield needs to be about more than that, it needs to change outlooks, not (only) specifics.  Here’s a ramble about what I think I am taking home.

Organic herbicide

Organic herbicide

There seems to be a fundamental difference in how a kiwi farmer answers the question “How do I make more money from my land”, compared to what we do in the UK.

  • The UK farmer will specialise into one area, grow as few different things as possible, so that they can get big machinery and make use of economies of scale.
  • The NZ farmer will try to make more efficient use of the actual land, even if it makes more work for themselves. This means trying to produce at all times of the year, and also results in less shiny machinery.

A perfect example of this would be the removal of livestock from many UK arable farms. I can see why it was done – more money, and more time to ski. But the NZ way seems to be a more complete cycle. I couldn’t believe how many grasses they have in their rotations. Sure, grass weeds are a problem, but it is one that they control. Compare this to the problems in the UK, where we are chasing out tails to control grass weeds, and losing sight of the big picture.

"The best dairy land in Canterbury"

“The best dairy land in Canterbury”

When I visited Craige MacKenzie he said “you guys are crazy. We are using the old research from the UK that pointed us to lower seed rates [for wheat], and when we did it yields went up by 4t/ha”. He considers high seed rates to be over 60kg/ha. I know we used to do this on our farm – and the yields did indeed rise. But now sometimes we are going on at over 200kg/ha; all for good reason, but at what cost?

It seems like we are only working reactively, when we should be proactive.

I can think of plenty more examples: heavy use of insecticides, herbicides that are very hard on the crops they are protecting, ploughing to remove compaction etc etc etc.

First meal I cooked for myself after 3 weeks of restaurants

First meal I cooked for myself after 3 weeks of restaurants

Pesticide resistance problems is another big one. I did touch on it briefly in a post a while ago, but some serious changes need to happen here. I can’t believe that big agronomy companies are now recommending multiple small doses of roundup. It’s literally as if resistance is trying to be selected for. Crazy! We will have to look into mixing herbicides for burndows. Low disturbance drills are critical here too.

I can’t say that my mind has been changed on the subject of no-till, but it has been exciting to see clear examples of the benefits it has, and to speak to the people making use of them. There are probably places in the UK where I could go and look at good soil in one field and bad in the next, but it has taken me a 14,000 mile trip to get there myself.

When built, this was the steepest land in the southern hemisphere with centre pivot irrigation

When built, this was the steepest land in the southern hemisphere with centre pivot irrigation

On the never ending subject of drills, if you ask me one day what my thoughts are, the next day they would be different. If someone pointed a gun at my head and said “buy a drill & tractor”, it would be a 750a. If a genie offered me whatever I wanted, I would have a CS.

Plenty of people that I have talked to have asked why we do not do XYZ in the UK. The answer is often that we do not see the benefit. But when we go deeper sometimes it is clear that no one really knows. An example of this would be starter fertilisers. It is possible to make a plausible case for or against them. But at the end of the day most people (me included) will just stick with what they “know”, even if it comes from experiments done over 50 years ago, in much different conditions. So we need more science, and science that is relevant to how to move the industry forward, not just how to get 1% more yield from a new fungicide. The risk is in saying “Something Must Be Done” and then waiting for “Someone” to do it. I don’t quite know the answer here. Who can do these trials, and does anyone other than a handful of BASE members (plus the other two) actually care?IMG_2584

And I will indulge myself in one specific idea I have come away with. Cover crop mixes are all the rage here now , we are growing lots of them. But I think I have really seen the value of plain old grass. Perhaps the kiwis could use a refresh in their thinking as well, and start using a bit more diversity, but when it comes to soil quality and improvement, roots are king. And nothing does roots like grass.

The view when I wrote this post

The view when I wrote this post

Trip stats:

  • Distance driven: 2,469km
  • Visits: 21
  • Sheep spotted: 1,000,000
  • Dairy cattle spotted: 1,000,001
  • Wagyu steaks eaten: 2
  • Good Japanese meals: 2
  • Bad Japanese meals: 2
  • Horrible cars driven: 1
  • Motel rooms flooded due to owner’s laundry: 1
  • Data used on NZ sim card: 935mb

I think that just about sums it up.

Thanks to all these people, plus the others I forgot to photograph:David Ward Helen & Peter Hobbs Jill & Jim Williams John Baker & Douglas Giles Karen & Mick Williams Mark Guscott Mark Scott Matt Wyeth Mike Porter Murray Lane & Geoff Scott Nathan Williams Scott Lawson Sharon & Hugh Ritchie 2 Simon Osborne Tim O'Brien

Day Eleven

The short loop out from Christchurch is entering its final stages. Only one more day to go and then back home. I’m going to change the format slightly here, and not go into too much detail unless it is specifically interesting or different from something I have seen or written about beforehand.Screen Shot 2014-03-20 at 20.28.44It took me a while to find Simon Osborne’s farm, as although I had an address, none of the driveways actually had numbers visible anywhere. Simon farms 230ha of irrigated land, on what they call clay soils, but aren’t really very clay-ish compared to what you can find in the UK. He is a very keen on machines (“if I hadn’t become a farmer I would have been an engineer”), and he has at least 4 sheds full of them. They may be more, but I didn’t see them.

Gleaner R62

Gleaner R62

This combine was imported from Australia, although it started its life in the USA. It is quite ludicrously wide – at least 4m. I asked if he had any problems getting it down the road; “Yes, and once I got caught speeding”. [I am tempted to write ‘LOL’ here, but will refrain]. You can tell it is from a country with a lot of space as under the covers there is enough room to camp out for a few days, and in some comfort.

Osborne Bio Till 21-165

Osborne Bio Till 21-165

I think it was John Baker of Cross Slot fame who pointed me in Simon’s direction, so I was more than a bit surprised when he didn’t own one of the drills. Instead, he has made his own design. It is a variation on the knife drill, similar to a Seedhawk/Dale type opener. The most peculiar thing about it is that the knife is angled round to the side, so that the wheel goes right over the top of the seed trench, whilst keeping the distance between these two points as short as possible. This is desirable as the wheel also sets the depth, and so the shorter the distance, the more accurate the control. It is a simple design with few moving parts, and apparently needs very little maintenance. There is no capability of placing fertiliser, which Simon thinks is unnecessary almost all of the time.IMG_2684The farm has been in no-till since 1977, and is currently growing wheat, ryegrass seed, peas, linseed, phacelia, mustard, spring barley, and radish. Simon claims average soil organic matter levels of around 10%, which is pretty incredible. The field in the picture above has not been cultivated in over a century, and has SOM of 15%. Needless to say, the texture was excellent and I could see a worm or two. Or maybe even more than that.

Hybrid French breakfast radish. It's worth NZ$2.20/kg and so the birds are kept off with netting. Yield could be up to 1t/ha

Hybrid French breakfast radish. It’s worth NZ$22/kg and so the birds are kept off with netting. Yield could be up to 1t/ha

I was impressed last year by some photos I saw of some Westerwolds ryegrass that had been planted as a cover crop in the UK (thanks Richard). Seeing the kiwis using annual ryes as a short term winter cover has made me think maybe it would work for us too. Simon is an expert on these types of grass, and so we had a good chat about the feasibility. He thought a traditional mix with vetch would work well for us, even planted in 10″ rows. Certainly worth an experiment this year, if the price is right.

This could be our next cover crop

This could be our next cover crop

To continue on the old thread of Cross Slot vs JD750a (sorry), I had arranged a visit to see a local contractor, Tim Ridgen. He runs a company called Ellesmere Agriculture, which started off by running 4 balers – there are now 7, most of which were out working when I arrived. There are also 8 JD tractors, which are not just used for baling, but also cultivating, hauling, drilling, and whatever else needs doing. Tim is a big fan of the 750a, in fact it is the only piece of machinery he has ever replaced like-for-like when the first one wore out.

The 750a's one problem is...hairpinning. But not in this photo

The 750a’s one problem is…hairpinning. But not in this photo

What was more interesting, and not at all relevant to my Nuffield project, was the dairy that Tim is also involved in. His business partners run one of the biggest dairies in New Zealand. Currently they are milking about 8,400 cows on two sites, and will to be up to 9,000 soon. The main farm is the 2,400ha (1,600 farmed area) Rakaia Island Dairy where there are 6,000 cows, split into 4 semi-independently managed 1,500 cow units. The scale is mind boggling (“running a dairy this size is just like running a normal one, just with a zero added on the end of every number”). Here are some of the figures I can remember.

  • 241 individual paddocks
  • 60 members of staff, all living on the property
  • 23 pivot irrigators
  • 1 full time man working the irrigators
  • 2 full time carpenters
  • 250 calves born per day at the height of calving

6 month old rotary milking parlour. I don’t know how many cows fit in, but it’s big

I spent a couple of hours riding in a lorry carting 1t lucerne bales to the dairy site. Here they put them into stacks and then cover with plastic sheets. This is a cheap and easy way of ensiling them, and then over the winter they are fed out to the cows as a supplement. To do this, two feeder wagons are run all day, every day. Each wagon also has two motorbike outriders who go around opening and shutting gates so the tractors don’t have to stop. On a busy day they will get through 120t of lucerne as a supplement.

Some of the fields have 2m tall polls every 20m, with sprinklers on the top for irrigation. This is the stuff of nightmares, can you imagine having to drill, mow, roll etc a field with hundreds of posts stuck into it? This really is a fascinating place, I could have spent days looking around. I must have an inner dairy farmer trying to get out.

8t of lucerne

8t of lucerne

Day Five

I’m now at the geographical apex of my tour of the north island.

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Murry Lane is a technical extension officer at one of the big local co-ops, and he was kind enough to put me up for the night. He used to work for Monsanto, and is a big fan of biotech in all its forms. Having been at Monsanto during the advent of Roundup, he has some pretty strong views about its use, in particular selecting for resistance in weeds. We have been guilty at home of using multiple small doses of glyphosate to control blackgrass, on the advice of a certain local agronomy company. I’ve been worried about it for a few months, but the more I hear the more I’m certain that we will have to stop. We cannot afford to have Roundup resistant anything, and the methods we have been told to use seem to be designed to select for exactly this. I’ve met a few of my contemporary scholars from Australia who are using Roundup Ready crops, and some of their fields get 8 applications per year. Is it surprising that they now have a big problem with resistant weeds?

Murray’s current job has him working with fertilisers, and he was keen to show me some trials they had done on using DAP as a placed starter in turnip crops for grazing.


This is a pretty striking result, although I suspect there may be some cherry picking going on (sorry Murray). Apparently neither straight urea or straight TSP had the same effect, so he is sure that it is a combination of both the nutrients together, and the specific form they are in. However, Murray did admit that in the end the non fertilised crop did catch up – but if you wanted it to grow quickly for grazing, it could be very useful. It is also easy to imagine that weed pressure will be a lot less in the denser crop.

No-till : Strip-Till : Disc & power harrow

No-till : Strip-till : Disc & power harrow

A quick visit to a maize trial site run by the Foundation for Arable Research showed a very good, if unsurprising, example of different tillage regimes. They have been growing continuous maize for 4 years, using no-till, strip-till and disc/power harrow techniques. Looking at the picture above, you don’t really need the captions to see what’s what. I have not seen the data (should do next Friday when I visit FAR in Lincoln), but I am told there is no yield penalty from no-tilling on this site. By the way, these photos were representative, I didn’t pick specific good or bad bits.

Today’s farm visit was with Geoff Scott, who has a 300ha dairy farm about 45 minutes south of Hamilton. He milks 600 cows, soon to be 750 when his new rotary milking parlour is finished. The farm is in a micro climate, and gets 2000mm of rain annually, however, there has not been any real rain now for 2-3 months, and the whole area is DRY. There are tonnes of dairies around here, and they must be getting through some serious silage at the moment, as there is no grass to be seen. The soil here is very unusual, as it is an ash loam, with a particularly low bulk density, of about 0.5g/cm3. This is 33-50% of a normal soil, so it feels oddly light in the hand.

Top soil/sub soil horizon

Top soil/sub soil horizon

I arrived to find pastures being reseeded with a John Deere 750a. This drill had a few modifications, will will be of interest to some, and deadly boring to everyone else.

Hiab for seed bags

Hiab for seed bags

Split seed/fertiliser bin

Split seed/fertiliser bin

Weigh cells

Weigh cells

I won’t go into the details of each of these as they are pretty self explanatory. What was interesting was talking to the contractor, Greg Muller, about it, and how it compares to his main drill – a Cross Slot. First of all, he charges NZ$115/ha for drilling with the 750a, and NZ$230/ha with the CS, mainly because the work rate on the CS is about half, and also it needs a significantly bigger tractor to achieve it. Almost all the drilling he does is either grass seed, or turnips. [Edit – He actually charges NZ$155/ha with the 750a when done with seed, fertiliser and slug baiting. This compares to NZ$190/ha with the CS in the autumn, and NZ$230/ha in the spring]

For overseeding they will always use the 750a, as the CS can be too aggressive, and actually leaves strips of dead grass where the roots have been chopped up. In the autumn, when the ground tends to be drier, the 750a works very well, but Greg believes that in the spring it can have a tendency to leave slots in the damper conditions. This is a well know concern for these type of single disc drills, although maybe they would have better luck with more aggressive closing wheels, like the Guttlers? He feels that the CS is better in the spring, and  it will provide significantly better germination, especially with turnips. I got the impression that the main drawback to the 750a was really the slot closure, which is exacerbated by drilling into a thick grass root mass. Into looser or cultivated soil, Greg says that the 750a is at least as good, apart from one thing…

Greg has made one of his USPs being able to drill fertiliser, which the CS specialises in. He is a firm believer that this is really necessary. However, it again comes back to the question of establishment vs yield. He will admit, like Murray, that in the end the non-fertilised crop will catch up. So I think that there is perhaps mileage in using it for grazing covers, but I remain skeptical about grain crops – unless you care more about cosmetics than financials of course…! When I asked about yield, he quoted an example where conventional tillage yielded 6t/ha of turnips, the CS 12t/ha, and the 750a in between. Anecdotal, but some big differences. Again though, this is a dry matter yield over a few months, and so does not really bear relevance to what a grain yield may be after a full growing season.

What was really incredible to me was how much fertiliser goes onto the turnips here. 300kg/ha of DAP, and then 200kg/ha of urea top dressed. I make that about 150kg of N and 140kg/ha of P2O5!!!

IMG_2576Before I left, we dug a meter deep hole with a mini digger. Murray had been told that turnip roots go down 800mm, and he wanted to see if it was really true. Turns out it is!