Day 24

I’m still in Bsimarck, ND, tapping the rich vein of knowledge that lives in the area. On Friday morning I met up again with the French tourists, and went to visit Gabe Brown. To be honest, I was a little disappointed to have to share this visit, as Gabe is someone really operating on the bleeding edge, and I had hoped to have him to myself. Unfortunately for me, the timing didn’t work out for that.

In the late ’90s Gabe Brown went for 4 straight years with almost no crops to harvest, either through hail damage or drought. Unsurprisingly, this almost wiped him out financially. He found himself unable to afford any inputs at all (seed excluded), and so he had to find a way to farm without them.

Grazing triticale & hairy vetch

Grazing triticale & hairy vetch

Today he still does not use any inputs, aside from seed and occasionally a pre emergence herbicide. No insecticides, no fungicides, and no fertiliser. The county average for maize is 100bu/ac, his is 127. Two years ago his cost of production for a bushel of maize was $1.43, and it was sold for $6.90. At that cost of production he is always going to make money, something that cannot be said of probably any other farmer in the country. Naturally, he does not only grow maize, but they are scaling back on cropping whilst increasing the livestock business.

It should come as no surprise that livestock are involved. The main operation involves cattle, but they also keep pigs, sheep and chickens. The cattle are generally grazed with daily moves, or quicker, and are used as a tool for soil health, as well as for producing beef. On the day we visited, they were grazing a mixture of triticale and vetch. I say grazing, but it was very obvious that they did not relish this particular forage. Gabe’s son Paul says they do not eat a lot of it, just enough to maintain condition, but the main benefit is trampling the plant residue. This field will soon be seeded into another cover crop, and perhaps next year into a cash crop.

No monocultures are grown, and every field has a cover crop every year, with the exception of permanent grassland. The cover crop may be before, during (technically a companion crop) or after a cash crop, or alternatively it will be in all year long. This is where the fertility comes from, both in terms of nitrogen and carbon that are fixed, and other nutrients that are made available through increased biological activity.

This brings up a couple of interesting points for me. The first is, how many times is a field cropped in a given period, say 10 years? Obviously if it is cropped once in that time, the average maize yield of 127bu/ac looks less impressive. However, it is important to consider that this is a system of “stacked” enterprises, and arable farming is just one of them. Therefore we must look at the $ return per acre, not the crop yield. I have not seen Gabe’s bank balance or accounts, so will have to take his word for it when he claims to have made enough money by 2007 to have retired. Not bad in 7 years, starting nearly bankrupt. In a similar claim, he says it would easily be possible to earn a living for two families off 160ac; a conventional system in this area would need probably 20-30 times that amount.

Soil with an organic matter level over 10%

Soil with an organic matter level over 10% (not including the two worms)

The second point is one of sustainability. It is a fact that when you sell produce off the land, you will be selling nutrients with it. Most of the produce will probably be carbon and nitrogen, both of which can be naturally replaced. The others, be they phosphorus, potassium, magnesium etc etc, are not coming back. On a personal level this worries me, as I do not want the soils on our farm to be denuded in a century or two, which is how much phosphorus I am told we have. Gabe insists that he has enough for “thousands of years”, which may be true, but I do not think he has actually tested it on his farm.

The difference may come from using a different testing methodology. Our tests are done on the top soil only, but perhaps, by using deep rooted perennials, it is possible to access nutrients much deeper in the subsoil. If this happens, and new soil is formed with these nutrients, then we need to measure the total levels throughout a much larger profile. On a personal level, whilst I have a problem with mining something that will last for 100 years, I think 1000+ years is OK. I’d hope by then mankind will have found a solution to the problem, or more likely, another planet to exploit.

A cover crop mix (very similar to Pedders No. 1) where the sunflower will actually be taken through to harvest

A cover crop mix (very similar to Pedders No. 1) where the sunflower will actually be taken through to harvest

What did I learn from visiting Gabe (or visiting with Gabe as they say over here)? Not much specific, but seeing someone practicing what they preach, and making it work financially, shows what can happen if you think outside the box. The climate is so different here to the UK that it would be silly to try and copy the system; in the same way that Gabe says he loves the idea of Colin Seis’s pasture cropping, but it would not work with the very cold North Dakota winters.

He is also bemused as to why his neighbours don’t copy him, and why anyone would ever grow a monoculture. I think he fails to realise that not everyone wants to run a system like his, which will unquestionably take more management as it does not come out of a book. But perhaps there will come a point where anyone who wants to farm does not have the option of doing it any other way?

Day 23

Bismarck ND: a surprisingly  big town

The first port of call this morning was to the NRCS, where I met with Jay Fuhrer. His job title is “District Conservationist”, and he is well known for hosting curious farmers from around the world. For some reason Burleigh County, which encompasses some of Bismarck, has a concentration of farmers and researchers who are interested in soil health.

There is that term again, so I ask Jay how he defines it. The answer is the same as I read last night in the USDA papers, and not terribly satisfying. I can’t help but be a little skeptical when people are telling you to do something that they can neither define nor measure. Maybe I am too cynical?

I ask Jay whether he thinks SOM correlates with soil health, and the answer is no, the system is too complicated for that. Having thought about this subject a bit more today, it occurs to me that there is a bit of a problem with the literature. The common method for measuring SOM is to perform the “loss on ignition” test. This involves the following steps, or a variation thereof:

  1. Heat soil to 105C for 90 minutes
  2. Weigh soil
  3. Heat to 500C for 2 hours
  4. Weigh soil. The carbon will have burnt off, and so the difference in weight is considered to be approximately the weight of the organic matter that was present.

Now if we consider the following USDA quote, there is a bit of a problem.

“it takes at least 10 pounds of residue to decompose to 1 pound of organic material”

If you test a soil sample with 10 pounds of residue and 1 pound of organic material in it, the result will show 11 pounds of organic matter, or something close to that anyway. This begs the question, how do you measure true SOM (sometimes called humus), and what is the USDA actually referring to when it talks about the value of SOM? Further investigation needed.

A name I am hearing a lot at the moment is Rick Haney, a scientist for the USDA, based in Texas. He has apparently developed a test which measures several factors and combines them into an overall soil health score. I wonder how well the test results correlate with real world productivity, that is the real key in my opinion. It sounds like I should have planned a visit down there, but it is probably not doable now.


At this point I was whisked off by another USDA employee, Darrell Oswald. He moonlights as a farmer (sorry, rancher) too, and we drove up to his farm (sorry, ranch) near the town of Wing, population 2oo.

Darrell grew up on the ranch, being told by his dad that he should really get a proper job when he left school. It was hard work running their 200 cows, and making hay to feed in the winter. After he took over from his dad, he met Ken Miller, another rancher who also works for the USDA. Ken is in to holistic management, and intensive rotation grazing. Darrell described him to me as “one of the top 10 graziers in the world”.

The traditional ranching method around here, and probably the rest of the country too, is to leave a group of cattle in one field for the entire year, and then use the rest of the land to make hay. This worked fine on Darrell’s ranch, but they had to rent in extra land, and then feed hay for 6 months a year.

Just like being at home: a field of canola (oil seed rape)

Just like being at home: a field of canola (oil seed rape)

Following advice from Ken, the first thing Darrell did was split the 4 existing paddocks into about 25, and then combine the 4 main groups of cattle into 1 large herd. This meant that instead of being grazed all year round, each paddock only had around 10 days with cattle on it, and 345 resting (if you think these numbers don’t add up, remember the winter period has no grazing).

Within a few years, the grazing season had extended from 6 to 8 months, and they no longer needed to rent land for hay production. Before you ask, they do not buy in any forage either. This seems like an excellent result to me, as the main cost of keeping cattle is incurred over winter. It is also a pretty low intensity grazing system, with the cows moved on average only every 4-5 days. Darrell thinks that if he was a full time rancher, and could move cattle at least every day, then he may be able to double his herd in size without taking on more land. I hope he tries one day.

Compost layer

Bag it up and sell it

He does still make some hay, and one field I saw had been in production since the 1970s. By 2006 the fertility was so low that it was difficult to get anything meaningful from it. Since then it has had several years of all-year cover cropping with plants like oats, peas, millet, turnips and clover. In 2011 he considered the fertility to have been built to a point where maize could be grown. This crop was partly fertilised with nitrogen at three different rates, 90lb/ac, 30 and 0. There was no difference between the three treatments.

Unfortunately we did not have a spade to hand, but I dug around with my fingers. The top inch of the field was pure compost, like you can buy at the garden centre. I have literally never seen anything like it, hopefully the photo above illustrates the point. As a rough estimate, if we assume it is half as dense as normal soil, then that inch would weigh about 185t/ha. I think a normal compost application on farm land in the UK is 10-20t/ha? OK, so the field was out of production for several years, but the time has not been wasted.

IMG_3185We went to a couple of other farms that afternoon, and took a look at some fields that were in the process of transitioning from tillage systems to continuous no-till. The picture above is the best example of a tillage pan I have ever seen (not a huge data set). The pea roots had gone down about 4 inches, hit a sudden density change, and turned 90 degrees to grow sideways. I suppose the normal cure would be more tillage – time to get off the hamster wheel perhaps?


Day 14


Pelee islandis a pretty random place to end up, but thanks to Blake for taking me there. It is a 90 minute boat ride from the mainland, which means the 300 people who live there are pretty isolated. The name is well known in Canada because of the Pelee Island Winery.Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 18.17.11Bruno Friesen is the winery’s manager, and is a plant growing obsessive (hopefully he won’t mind me saying that). When he finishes the day job of looking after 600 acres of vines and 500 arable acres, he goes to his private garden where he grows 2000 strawberry plants, tomatoes, chillies, garlic, etc etc. He loves it.

Lucerne & clover between the vines

Lucerne & clover between the vines

You couldn’t accuse these guys of being fixed in their ways. There over over 60 cultivars of grapes being grown, both red and white. Until a few years ago most of the arable land had been rented out, but now they farm it all themselves. This land is in continuous soybean production, although it is effectively double cropped with cereal rye, which is either used as a cover crop, or sometimes kept on until harvest if it is a good stand. This way they can keep their own seed, which saves a lot of money as it does not have to be shipped in.

Soybeans planted into rolled rye, and bare soil.

Soybeans planted into rolled rye, and bare soil

The theory behind this system is that the deep rooted rye extracts a lot of nutrients from the subsoil (unusually, this is made up of a 50cm layer of crushed coral), which is then available to the soybeans that follow it. Something is working, as they are getting yields 50% higher than is normal for the island.

IMG_3020Another effect was excellently demonstrated here – better than I have seen it before. I took two pieces of soil from 50cm apart, one from the bare soil, and one from under the mat of dead rye (as in the picture two above). The above picture shows incredibly clearly how much extra moisture is retained in the soil profile with the residue protection. This has to be worth a significant amount of yield in a dry time.

Crimper rollered rye & red clover

Crimper rollered rye & red clover

These guys also use a crimper roller to terminate the rye. It seems to work very well in thick crops, but when they are thin and short the effectiveness is much reduced.

A small portion of the vines are certified organic, and they have come up with a novel way of producing fertiliser. Fields of permanent lucerne/alfalfa are cut 2-3 times a year, and then composted. Some of these fields are also certified organic, but in Canada they can use a non-certified field as long as it has had no chemical applications in the last two months. I don’t think the Soil Association would go for that one?

Compost before & after

Compost before & after

It takes around 12 months for the composting process to take place, and it has to be turned and watered regularly. They weren’t sure of the exact yield, but there is only enough to use for replanting young vines. The nutrition is so good in this compost that instead of taking 6 years to start producing grapes, they now only take 1-2 years, which is pretty amazing.

Goji berries & Sea Buckthorn

Goji berries & Sea Buckthorn

The real killer for Pelee island is the shipping. Anything they produce must be very valuable compared to its bulk, to minimise the proportion of haulage cost. Grapes obviously work, as do soybeans. Maize is too bulky. They are now trying out Goji berries and Sea Buckthorn. I didn’t know that any non-leguminous plants could fix nitrogen, but there are a small number, Sea Buckthorn being one of them. You learn something every day (hopefully more than one thing actually). Here’s another fact – one Sea Buckthorn berry contains the same amount of vitamin C as a whole orange. Wait for that one in the pub quiz.

Sorry for the lack of detail here, but due to jet lag and generous hospitality I’m a bit behind on blogs so having to wiz through them a bit…




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 Twelve

My last day of visits in NZ, and no farms. Today I went to two research institutions, and one fertiliser distribution centre.IMG_2706This depot, near Rolleston, makes up custom blends of fertilisers on the fly, and they get mixed then tipped straight into either bulk trucks or fertiliser spreaders. There is pretty much everything here, from urea to DAP, elemental sulphur, MOP, TSP etc etc. These are all in bulk and get loaded with a bucket into hoppers with weigh cells attached, and from there into the mixing chamber. There is also a big stack of trace elements that can be added; the guy showing me around said they stock up to 18 ingredients in total.

Elemental sulphur is pelleted as the dust is not pleasant stuff

Elemental sulphur is pelleted as the dust is not pleasant stuff

What I really came for was to have a look at their urea dissolver. Liquid fertiliser is not big in NZ, but it does exist to some degree. This company has designed a continuous flow machine, that uses warm water to mix urea granules and water in a roughly 50:50 concentration – which results in a 19%N solution. It’s a nifty little machine as you just fill up the hopper and let it rip. The throughput is about 1,000l/hr.IMG_2709The Foundation for Arable Research (FAR) is a levy funded organisation whose aim is to perform research and extension for the arable farming community. It is they who did some of the research that Cross Slot quote in their sales material. These trials put the drill against triple-disc DD and conventional cultivations, and show CS beating the next best treatment by anywhere from 13-23%.

I have now seen some more results from FAR, covering a wide range of no-till vs min-till/plough scenarios. Out of 37 sets of results, 27 showed no significant yield difference, 6 were in favour of cultivation, and 4 no-till. Most of these experiments were using a triple-disc drill, but there were some tines (Horsch CO4 – not really a direct drill!), and some were CS. Most of the scenarios where the no-till yielded significantly less were into cereal straw, where they identified hairpinning as being the culprit. There were 12 results where the CS was compared to tillage, 8 of which showed no difference, 3 in favour of CS, and 1 tillage.

Trying to get a straight answer out of these researchers is a bit like watching Jeremy Paxman interviewing a politician. I did manage to get a sort of, maybe, admission (I hesitate to use this word, as it sounds like I was trying to extract a specific answer, but that’s how it sounded to me) that on dry land, and especially with spring drilling, there is a yield benefit from no-till. Almost every question can be answered with the familiar “it depends”, which is a bit boring really.

This is a mix of oats & marrowfat peas. The experiment is trying to show if shading the peas with the oats will reduce seed bleaching

This is a mix of oats & marrowfat peas. The experiment is trying to show if shading the peas with the oats will reduce seed bleaching (didn’t seem to be working)

Plant and Food research is a government funded body which works in a similar space to FAR. They set up a trial in 2000 called The Millennium Trial, which has come up with some interesting results (it has just finished this year). The premise was to come out of pasture, into cropping, and see what happened with different forms of cultivation. There were three farming modes,

  • Intensive: Plough, maxi-till, harrow, roll x2, drill
  • Min-till: Disc, harrow, roll x2, drill
  • No-till: drilling only

The same drill was used for all the drilling, which was normally a triple-disc Great Plains. They concentrated on spring cropping (wheat, barley and peas), and used a forage rape cover crop on half of each plot every winter, which was grazed prior to drilling in the spring. Unfortunately for us in the UK, the plots were irrigated, so removed drought stress from the equation. Here are some of the results, in brief.

  • Soil organic matter levels dropped quicker with more intensive cultivation. However, by the end of the trial they had all stabilised at the same level.
  • For the first 5 years, there was no difference in yield across the systems. But in years 6,7 & 8, the no-till massively out yielded the others, often by around 20%. I do not have the data for the years after ’07/08
  • Yields after cover crops were significantly higher than after fallow
  • The main problems for no-till were slugs

An experiment was performed this year looking at the effect of SOM levels on nitrogen availability. In other words, does having high SOM mean you need to apply less nitrogen. There is also work being done on the water holding capacity of the different plots. Preliminary, somewhat anecdotal, evidence is that the no-till plots held significantly more water than the others. All the plots were irrigated at the same time, which was unfortunately necessary due to how the irrigation equipment worked. However, I was told that if they could have been done independently, the no-till plots may well have needed around 25-30% less water. This is a very exciting result for me, and it could have huge significance for those of us who have moisture retention as a severe limiting factor. I look forward with eager anticipation to papers being published on both these topics, hopefully in time for my Nuffield report.

I know this post has been a bit short on actual detail, I may do a more in depth analysis of the research when I get sent the complete papers in the future. Or I may not.

PS I did ask about 750a vs CS comparisons. the short answer is that they don’t really care that much about specific drills. By and large they consider direct drilling to be direct drilling…