Days 32 – 34

Screen Shot 2014-06-30 at 20.59.25I’m fairly certain it is a legal requirement of a Nuffield Scholarship to visit at least one of Dwayne Beck, Gabe Brown, or Neil Dennis. I feel now that my life is complete, as I have accomplished the trifecta. Why bother with anything else?

Neil Dennis is a grazier who lives just south of Wawota, in Saskatchewan. He farms 1200ac with his wife Barbara, and the occasional helping hand from a summer intern. But Neil is no ordinary grazier, he is an über-mob-grazier [For a very detailed, and readable, explanation of mob grazing, I would suggest reading Tom Chapman’s excellent Nuffield Report]. In brief, it is the practice of grazing cattle in a tight space, but then moving them frequently before all of the grass is eaten. Most importantly, and what really differentiates it from standard rotational systems, is that the pastures are left to recover for a relatively long time after they have been grazed. The exact period depends on a number of factors, such as climate, time of year, and what plants are present. It could be as little as 50 days in perfect conditions, or over a year in a brittle climate. Neil will not return within 60 days at a minimum, and preferably 80. The reason is because it takes this amount of time for the ammonia to dissipate from the urine patches, and so the cattle will be happy to eat all of the grass.

Notice the layer of decomposing plant material under the surface. Soil building in action

Notice the layer of decomposing plant material under the surface. Soil building in action

I’ve been doing some mob grazing at home, and am pretty sold on the benefits, having compared it myself with more traditional methods. But I am an amateur compared to Neil; I move the cattle once a day, Neil will do it 6 times. If this sounds like a lot, it is. However, the process is pretty streamlined, and normally he will have all the day’s moves set up in a couple of hours each morning, and from then on the automatic gate openers do the hard work.

The two most important factors for Neil are the rest periods, and the amount of animal impact. Longer rests mean healthier plants that grow faster and more efficiently, and recover quicker. Animal impact is basically the density of cattle at any one point, and the higher the better. Higher stocking densities mean that urine & dung is more evenly spread, and the uneaten leaves are pushed effectively into the ground, which increases soil quality and plant health – a great, positive, cycle. Most farmers will look at this system and see the trampled grass as being “wasted”, as it has not gone through a cow. But consider that Neil manages to stock his farm with almost twice as many animals per acre as his neighbour, and achieve almost the same growth rate. When you’re being paid a daily rate to look after cattle, this is a good thing. Bear in mind also that he uses effectively no inputs at all, including any type of fertiliser.

A paddock after grazing. It will now be left to recover for at least 80 days

A paddock after grazing. It will now be left to recover for at least 80 days

Unfortunately my visit didn’t follow the script it was supposed to. As I’ve mentioned in the last couple of blog posts, this area of Canada is very wet at the moment. The day I arrived it started raining, and kept on all day, and all night. We went for a drive around in Neil’s UTV (no doors or windows), and within an hour or so my wellies needed the water emptying out of them – and my feet were probably the driest bit of my body. The next morning there was 4″ of rain in the gauge, and a LOT more water everywhere. Time to call Noah.

If you click on this photo to enlarge it, you can see the top of a fence post sticking out of the water. Bearing in mind that this is an electric fence, the problem is fairly obvious

If you click on this photo to enlarge it, you can see the top of a fence post sticking out of the water. Bearing in mind that this is an electric fence, the problem is fairly obvious

I had come hoping to see some stocking rates of over 1,000,000lbs/ac (that’s around 3,500 animals per hectare, or one animal per 3.5 square meters), but the farm was, to quote Neil “wetter than I’ve ever seen it”. All plans went out of the window, and instead of 6 moves a day, they went to one. I guess it goes to show that flexibility is important – there’s no point sticking to a plan too dogmatically if the situation changes; a good lesson for life. Actually I was lucky that this rain didn’t come 5 days earlier – the main road across Canada was closed due to flooding, so I would have been stuck in Winnipeg.

Soil from a no-till arable field next to a mob grazed paddock. The arable soil would not hold together in a lump. When we inspected them up close, Neil said "I can see they are different, but I don't know how". Join the club!

Soil from a no-till arable field (left) next to a mob grazed paddock (right). The arable soil would not hold together in a lump

This was the arable field that soil sample came from. I've never seen such soft ground in a field. Lucky I didn't lose my boot...

This was the arable field that the soil sample came from. I’ve never seen such soft ground in a field. Lucky I didn’t lose my boot

Despite the weather not playing ball, it was still a useful visit. Neil makes it look easy, but he obviously has a natural, and unusual, talent for working with cattle. He makes use of a lot of his senses (although not taste as far I can can tell) to monitor how things are going. The paddocks will smell just right after grazing when the protein levels are correct, and the cows’ digestive systems are in order when “the shit sticks to the wheels” just so. I don’t think I will ever be at this sort of skill level, or have the dedication to stock at such intense levels. Even though Neil says he has a lot of spare time, I suspect it would be a difficult system to manage without one’s full attention. But, as with Gabe Brown, I love to marvel at what is possible, even (especially?) when most people say it isn’t.


Neil’s modified UTV. The front attachment means it can be driven over electric wires, and fence stakes are always to hand for setting up new paddock subdivisions

Day 25

Today I met with a couple of researchers from the Agriculture Research Service. One of them was Kris Nichols, a well known soil microbiologist who specialises in mycorrhizal fungi. The other was Mark Liebig, who is also a soil scientist, but more in the physical rather than biological sphere. I can’t be bothered to structure this as an article, so I will go through the areas that I thought were interesting, point by point.

Mark showed me around the research farm, which has been operating since 1916, and currently has a few trials going on rotations and cultivations. It is not located in a terribly suitable place, as the soils are incredibly resilient, fertile, 2m deep, silt loams. This means that both positive and negative changes to the soil structure and makeup take a long time to manifest. Some of the trials have not yet shown significant results, even after many years, or sometimes decades. Here are some of the things I learnt.

  • Tillage vs no-till trials showed that in most years there was no yield difference. However, in drought years, no-till performed better. I would take from this that there is no point in performing tillage in this location. Mark pointed out that another interpretation was that tillage was generally not harmful, and if it was needed, say in an organic system, then it would not be a big problem.
  • One trial compared continuous wheat with the straw being chopped against continuous wheat with straw removed. Over a period of time (I think 10 years), the field with the straw removed had higher SOM than when the residue was kept. This is obviously counterintuitive. Mark’s explanation was that when the straw was removed, weeds would germinate and grow, before being killed in the spring. This is effectively a free cover crop, and shows the potential benefits that covers can bring.
  • They use a tool called SMAF to measure soil quality. It is “not farmer friendly” and is really a research tool that measures physical characteristics. Often, but not always, the results correlate to SOM levels. The same can be said for humus testing when compared to traditional SOM tests.
  • The fields were last cultivated in 1983, with a chisel plough. Even now, after 31 years of no-till, there is still a compaction pan in some plots. The more diverse the rotation, the less obvious the pan. However, Mark does not think that this compaction is enough to significantly effect rooting, or yield.
  • In a set-stocking grazing system, lower animal density generally results in more native species being lost from the pastures.
  • As in the rest of the world, researchers in the US are uncomfortable giving direct recommendations to farmers!
This is a soil library, with over 5000 samples dating back almost 100 years

The ARS soil library, with over 5000 samples dating back almost 100 years

Now on to Kris Nichols.

  • SOM testing is a useful, but basic metric. It is probably just as good as testing for humus, but neither method actually measures the most useful forms of organic matter. The Haney test is probably the best currently available.
  • Mycorrhizae can link the roots from different species of plants together. For example, a legume and grass growing next to each other can share nitrogen fixed by the nodules on the roots of the legume. This has been scientifically proven using labelled nitrogen, and some 50-70% of the nitrogen present in these grass plants can originate from the legume. She does not know if this means that the grass has any more nitrogen in it that it would have done without the legume present. This lends support to the idea of growing leguminous cover crops in with a cash crop, and then reducing nitrogen applications. I am still skeptical.
  • Crops with higher levels of mycorrhizal associations are more tolerant of drought. This is because nutrients are available in the fungal hyphae, so the plant roots do not have to exude water to extract them from the soil.
  • Plants which are not under stress do not form as many mycorrhizal associations, as there is a cost to doing so, and little benefit. Also, microbes that unlock a particular nutrient are unlikely to thrive if that nutrient is freely available in high concentrations, such as when it is applied as fertiliser. This means that in order to build up the soil life, and therefore increase nutrient efficiency of the plants, it may be necessary to go through a period of plant stress that results in lower yields. This may be 2-3 years in duration. It could be possible to mitigate this either through the use of cover crops, or by weaning off fertiliser rather than going cold turkey.
  • There seems to be a benefit through using livestock to graze plants cover crops, rather than either mowing or drilling directly into them. Experiments have shown that this is not due to microbes coming from the saliva, urine or dung. Kris believes it is due to the grazing action of cattle (and perhaps sheep too?) which rips the leaves in a way what stimulates the plant to produce a burst of root exudates. These in turn kickstart microbial activity in the soil. As long as soil temperatures are above freezing then the effect can be seen. This theory could explain why mob grazing can provide such quick results in soil improvement.
  • Plants take 3 weeks to start forming mycorrhizal associations. Do not skimp on starter fertilisers if reducing total fertiliser applications, so that establishment is not compromised. She also thinks that for this reason it is always valuable to plant a cover crop; even if it does not create a lot of biomass then it will still be feeding the microbes.
  • It is possible that varieties are being bred which make less use of microbial assistance, as they are designed to achieve maximum yields in situations where nutrients are easily available. This may reduce their efficiency of nutrient use.
  • She is ambivalent about glyphosate. Although it becomes inactive in the soil as far as the plants are concerned, she thinks it feasible that there may be an effect on microbial life. The same is true of fungicides, which do not harm mycorrhizae directly, but may do so to the other organisms that are associated with them.

So, once again, no real concrete pieces of research that make anything definitive, but perhaps some more pieces to the puzzle?

One quick fact to end on: a field of oilseed rape in flower produces 100l/ha of nectar. That’s a lot of pollinator food.

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 21

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 18.05.19This blog is a bit later than scheduled, as I ran into some Brits who were a bad influence; blogging at 2am was not really at the top of my agenda. I did get to see a crop duster today though, which was fun. Hardly the most accurate way to apply pesticides.

Yearling Red Angus

Yearling Red Angus heifers

Jim Faulstich was at school with Lewis Bainbridge, and kindly gave me an introduction. Jim farms 8000ac with his son-in-law, Adam. 1500ac of this is cropped land, and the rest is pasture for grazing cattle.

They have 350 cows for breeding, and on top of this a large part of their business is guiding hunters. Therefore it is very important to not just try and maximise beef production, but also provide a good habitat for the pheasants and white tail deer.

Their biggest problem is the invasion of non-native species into the traditional prairies, specifically smooth brome, and occasionally sweet clover. I say problem, but it is not as bad as it may be. Both these species are highly palatable to cattle when they are young plants.

Smooth brome : Sweet clover : Tall bluestem

Smooth brome : Sweet clover : Big bluestem

The smooth brome is a cool season grass, so it gets going early in the spring. This is a problem as it will swamp out the less competitive warm season native grasses, such as big bluestem or western wheatgrass. One solution that they use here is to get in some extra animals for a few months in the spring and summer, to really graze the brome hard as it starts growing. Ideally this will stop it from seeding, or at least reduce its competitiveness. This year there were an extra 360 Angus steers on the farm to do just that.

So the big question is, does it work? Jim says that he thought they were on top of it, until 2012. This was the drought year that comes up at least once with every farmer I visit. Here its effect was to really knock back the native grasses, and the following year all the brome had returned. The seed bank must be huge, and also very resilient. Even if a field is farmed with crops for 3 years, and the brome controlled 100%, it will still come back soon after pasture is re-established. I don’t know the answer, although I suspect much tighter grazing cells could have a beneficial effect, and encourage more seed heads to be eaten. Easy for me to say though, I don’t have to work out the logistics for them to do it.

After my quick visit to Jim, I headed off to Dakota Lakes Research Farm, following in the footsteps of about 1,000 Nuffield Scholars, and 99,000 other farmers. Dwayne Beck is one of the big names in the world of no-till and conservation agriculture systems. I don’t know if that is how he would describe himself, but it will have to do. This research farm was originally established to look into irrigation efficiency. The end result was developing a system that meant irrigated maize only averages 10% more yield than dry land crops; making it un-economical to irrigate any more. This must count as a very large success!

Good worm population, some soil plating though

Good worm population, some soil plating though

I was supposed to rendezvous with a group of mainly French farmers at 4pm, led by Frederic Thomas. Luckily for me they were a bit late, so I had some time to speak to Dr Beck by myself. After asking a few questions about rotations and openers, I was scolded for thinking “incrementally” and not “transformationally”.

Well, OK, I suppose that was accurate. Dr Beck’s view is that in order to increase efficiency (he aims to have the farm fossil fuel neutral by 2026) we need to emulate the natural ecosystem we find ourselves in, and get totally away from our current methods. The closest example I could establish of this technique being used now is pasture cropping in Australia; I will have to try and visit Colin Seis to see for myself.  Dwayne also railed against short term policy makers (a fair complaint), and suggested we think too short term when designing our farms. He suggested a time scale of 500 years. Both good points in theory, but can we realistically do anything about them? Unlikely in my opinion.

Dr Beck's ideal double disc opener. The discs are different diameters, which gives them a much greater ability to cut residue. It is also mounted on a walking beam for depth control superior to a parallel linkage

Dr Beck’s ideal double disc opener: The discs are different diameters, which gives them a much greater ability to cut residue. It is also mounted on a walking beam for depth control superior to a parallel linkage. the closing wheels at the rear are extra large so they have a gentler action

At this point the continentals turned up, and we set off on the farm tour. Rather than me recounting it all, it is easier to watch the numerous videos on Youtube (see below). Basically there is not much new from my previous blogs. Wide rotations, low disturbance, high carbon residues, cover crops etc etc. Sorry if that sounds flippant, but it is a great place to visit, although somewhat diluted with 50 other farms in attendance.

Now where is my paracetemol?

Day 20

Screen Shot 2014-06-16 at 20.22.48I first met Lewis Bainbridge just over a year ago, when I was travelling around the US looking at Wagyu cattle. I had a few spare days, and Dwayne Beck suggested that I should visit these guys (Lewis farms with his wife and two sons) in Ethan, SD. Back then they were  drilling soybeans about a month behind schedule, and praying for a long overdue rain.

Drilling soybeans in May 2013

Drilling soybeans into dust, May 2013

This year I found them a bit happier. 2013 had turned out OK (rain came soon after I left), and the yields had been good. They also have about 400 cows, and the beef industry seems to be in fairly good shape.

They farm a total of 5000 acres, in a fairly conventional maize and soybean rotation, with some wheat on the less productive land. They are trying hard to improve their wheat agronomy to make it profitable enough to fit into the main rotation. As I head further north on this trip, I see people starting to use more fungicides, maybe soon they will use 4 like we do?

Excellent residue levels from previous maize crop

Excellent residue levels from previous maize crop

Lewis is a big fan of wheat as it allows them to plant a cover crop afterwards, (oats, brassicas, lentils) that can be grazed by the cattle over winter. He considers this to be “free” grazing, on top of the main benefits the cover crop brings in terms of soil health and structure improvements.

He also finds that when the rotation includes wheat, it is much easier to keep residue on the surface, even two years afterwards. In the picture below, both crops have been planted after soybeans (maize on the left, soybeans on the right, both no-till). The difference is that two years ago, the left hand crop had been maize, and the right hand wheat. I find this a surprising result, as there is normally so much more bulk left from a maize crop that I thought it would have lasted longer.

Two crops following soybeans

Two crops following soybeans

Although they were not super desperate for rain today, they were hoping for some. They showed me their live weather radar apps, which are much more sophisticated than anything we can get in the UK (that I know of anyway). I use Google Earth at home for this, but the resolution is poor, and it is not updated very often. I wonder if there is a niche there for someone to exploit?

This very accurate data also means that there are companies that will insure the crops in a specific field, and then use rainfall and temperature records to decide what the conditions should have allowed in terms of yield. However, this is not part of the government subsidised crop insurance scheme, so is very expensive in comparison.

I’m obviously good luck, as over lunch it rained an inch. Maybe next time they can pay for my air ticket if there is another drought.

24m precision drill with custom made solid fertiliser application

Brad Karlen’s 24m precision drill with custom made solid fertiliser application

Next up was a massive operation, run by Brad Karlen. He farms 14000 acres of cropped land, with another 9000 of grassland that is rented out for grazing. He used to have a 2500 cow & calf unit, and a feedlot that would accommodate 7500 head. The last of the animals went this spring, and I think he is now enjoying not having to worry about them. I know this feeling, but in reverse. His cattle operation had been scaling down for a while; in 1992 they had 14000 head on the farm, including calves.

Looks like there are some worms living here

Looks like there are some worms living here, under maize residue

Brad specialises in growing seed, specifically for wheat, peas and lentils. The wheat he grows is from C1 seed, and is often a Clearfield variety. This was news to me – I didn’t know Clearfield wheat existed. It is all planted with a starter fertiliser of MAP, at a rate of roughly 100kg/ha. Good establishment is critical up here, as it gets cold enough to make winter-kill a real problem. He does sometimes beak the magic 100bu/ac mark (about 6.5t/ha), but can use three fungicides to get there.

Brad is into peas in a big way; this year he has planted 3850 acres, all destined for seed. He reckons to be the largest single producer of pea seed in the US, which I can believe. It also gives the best entry into wheat, as unlike soybeans it does not use water that is deep in the soil profile, and they are also harvested much earlier.

So this is what lentils look like. They mainly go for human consumption

So this is what lentils look like. They mainly go for human consumption

Both of his precisions drills (there is a 12m one as well as the 24m, see below) have automatic row shutoff, so that there is no overlap on the headlands. What is really clever though is that both systems are linked to the internet, where they sync up with each other. This means that if they are working in the same field, one machine will not plant where the other has already been. Very nifty!

The tried to park the tractor under cover to protect it from a possible hail storm, but it wouldn't fit through the doors

They tried to park the tractor under cover to protect it from a possible hail storm, but it wouldn’t fit through the doors. Luckily the hail never came

Just before I left, Brad told me about one of his toys, a .50BMG rifle. This is a round originally designed in WW1 to shoot down aircraft. It is too powerful to shoot on most ranges in the UK.

“I didn’t really need it, but thought I should get it while we are still allowed to”

A real American!

Day 17

I would imagine most people would have to look at a map to see exactly where this section fits into the US. Amusingly, Kansas City itself is not actually in Kansas, it’s in Missouri.Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 20.03.18

Gail Fuller is an interesting guy. He joked with me that his hippy friends call him a redneck, but these friends must be way, way off the scale. Gail has to be the most hippy redneck in the continental United States!

He farms 1500 acres spread over a distance of 25 miles. Having started off wanting to “farm the whole world”, he has cut back now, and does not use GMOs or glyphosate (ask him about Don Huber). He has been no-tilling for a couple of decades, and in the late ’90s he started with cover crops. After a few years he gave up on that idea, but very quickly saw soil erosion increase massively.

Very sticky clay soils - this field has been in permanent cover cropping for 10 years. On second thoughts, that's not really a cover crop then is it?

Very sticky clay soils – this field has been in permanent cover cropping for 10 years. On second thoughts, that’s not really a cover crop then is it?

After a harrowing experience with crop insurance a few years back (Google it if you want), he’s trying to wean himself off state aid, and hence grows a very wide rotation including the usual maize & soybeans, but also wheat, barley (winter and spring), triticale and sorghum. In addition to this, most fields will have a cover crop every year, some of which Gail describes as “extreme’. These blends contain up to 50 (fifty) species. The system has increased organic matter levels from ~2% to ~5% in 15 years.

Maize into chemically topped white clover

Maize into chemically topped white clover

When I was looking around, I thought we were either in a field of sweetcorn, or one that had been re-drilled. Every other maize plant I had seen in Kansas was about 2-3 feet tall, yet these were ankle height. But it was no mistake, Gail starts maize planting on June 1st, at least a month after his neighbours (and neighbouring states from what I have seen). He is convinced his yields are better, both in volume and $s. He would not rise to the bait and tell me that the rest of the country’s farmers were doing it wrong; very disappointing.IMG_3061Artificial nitrogen use is very low, with some crops not being given any at all, or a token amount such as 30kg/ha. Insecticide is a dirty word, whether for crops or animals.

Speaking of which, the farm has cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens – both for eggs and meat. The cattle are a mix of Angus & Simmental genetics primarily, but he is now a fan of British White, and the herd will be converted to that in time. All of the animals are marketed direct to the public, as well as going into Gail’s freezer; “we don’t buy very much food”.

Residue left after grazing

Residue left after grazing

The cattle are mob grazed, normally with daily moves. One of the reasons Gail is moving away from Angus genetics is that in the fiercely hot Kansas summers black animals can have real (and lethal) problems staying cool. This can also be a bit of a problem for the meat chickens, who are moved onto a new patch of grass every day in a Chicken Tractor.

The chicken tractors

The chicken tractors. Each one hold 50 birds for 8 weeks

The laying hens roam freely with the mob grazed cattle, and eat maggots from the dung, helping to keep fly numbers down. It turns out chickens are like bees, where the rule of thumb when moving hives is “move it 2 meters or 2 miles”. Gail recently moved the chicken house about 150m, but all the hens went back to try and roost in the old location, half of whom were promptly eaten by a coyote that night. Oops. Are chickens stupider than sheep?

After a lunch spent discussing selling Holstein bulls as certified Angus (perfectly possible 20 years ago), fraudulent crop insurance claims (not his), and why he is called Gail (you’ll have to ask him yourself), I drove a short way to see another farmer, Keith Thompson.

He farms around 3000 acres, 400 of which is un-cropped, but can mostly be used for grazing or making forage. Keith’s son started with 4 cows 10 years ago, and now has 110 breeding animals, mostly Brahman crosses of some description. Here too they are mob grazing, and have just put a couple of fields into a rotation of 3 years grazing followed by 3 years cropping, having seen similar on a trip to Argentina.

Laying hens in with the cattle

Gail’s laying hens in with the cattle

Not too many years ago the farm was growing a wide variety of crops, normally about 6 per year, but now because of crop insurance peculiarities (a common theme is emerging), they mainly grow only maize and soybeans. This is a very low productivity area, and the county average for maize is less than 5t/ha, although Keith’s is 10% higher. I didn’t realise there were areas of the US like this – we can grow bigger crops of grain maize in the UK even with our too-cool climate. The problem here is extreme heat, particularly when it does not go below 30C at night.

One thing that came up again was the use of pre-emergence herbicides before drilling the crop; standard practice here. I think this really could be a boon for us, especially when planting OSR at harvest, when it can be tricky to get the timing right. The pre-em could be sprayed when convenient, even in the dry, and then the crop drilled when conditions are suitable. It does of course require a very low disturbance drill, and probably needs the UK addiction to rolling to be broken as well.

In the last three days I have visited three farms with three different policies when it comes to cover crops and spring planting:

  • Dave Brandt does not want living covers in the spring, so that the soil will dry out
  • Paul Jasa does not want living covers in the spring, so that the soil will not dry out
  • Keith Thompson does want living covers in the spring, so that the soil will dry out

Just goes to show that local conditions are paramount, both with soil and climate. For what it’s worth, I think the UK  fits into the first category.


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 Seven

Time for a change of scenery. There has been the tail end of a cyclone coming through, and there were very strong winds forecasted. I was a bit worried that my flight from Wellington to Christchurch would be cancelled, but in the end it was a bit of a non-event. NZ weather forecasting is a similar quality to that in the UK.

Screen Shot 2014-03-16 at 22.32.50

The drive down to Peter Hobbs’s (known to some as JD-Kid) and his wife Helen’s farm is through some rather spectacular scenery. Seriously, just look at this for a view:


Stunning view over the bay

It really does remind me of Scotland. But wait, it get’s even better just over the next hill.


Breathtaking peaks soar overhead

The entrance to Peter’s farm reminds me of the lyrics to Hotel California.


You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave

OK, that’s enough silliness for now.

I cannot repeat much of what they told me this afternoon, as the slander laws are pretty tight here, and I don’t want to land Peter in any hot water.

On the way out I noticed a soil test result on his kitchen table, and being nosey, I had a look. I couldn’t imagine a much more different result to the ones we have at home. It was from an Albrecht lab, and the results were basically this (from memory – I should have taken a photo)

  • Calcium 36%
  • Magnesium 16%
  • Potassium 5%
  • Hydrogen 33%
  • The sodium was also very high, from all the salt water spray

That’s fairly wacky IMO (sorry for the 99.9% of people out there not interested in base saturations). Neil Kinsey says “There is no soil you cannot fix, but you may run out of money, or time”. Our’s at home fits this description, and so does Peter’s. The recommendation was for 10t/ha of lime, and 2.5t/ha of various goodies, magnesium mainly, plus other bits. The cost – NZ$1,600/ha (that’s £800). Then you need to pay for an airplane to spread it. Fine on a high value crop, but this is extensive sheep land. [Edit: These results come after 7t/ha of lime, so the problem would have been even more extreme originally]

It is a  tricky situation, as they are getting Molybdenum lockup, which makes the lambs’ bones very brittle, and root nodulation on legumes is suffering too. [Edit: the brittle bones was down to a copper deficiency  probably caused by an interaction between Molybdenum, and excess Sulphur from some applied AS] I did try and convince them to do a trial on one paddock, but I don’t think they bought it.


The cloud did lift at the house, and I almost got a proper view. Is that the Antarctic you can just see on the horizon?

Day Five

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

Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 23.52.49

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!

Day Four

Not much to report today. Had a quick visit in the morning to a Wagyu stud farm run by Brownrigg agriculture. They are a pretty large cropping and lamb finishing business, but there is a sideline in Wagyu, both breeding and finishing.

Spot the cows

Spot the cows

This particular unit breeds around 200 bulls a year which go either to their share farming partners, or another slightly related company called Firstlight foods. All of the meat they are producing is finished on grass, as there is not enough market in NZ for grain fed – and the Aussies can export it cheaper than the Kiwis can make it.

Terrible photo, but I thought there should be at least one of some animals. These are F1 crosses

Terrible photo, but I thought there should be at least one of some animals. These are 6 month old F1s, Kiwi Cross x Wagyu

Brownrigg will finish anything from a 100% fullblood animal down to an F1 cross (50%), whereas Firstlight only uses crosses. This is a pretty interesting area to me, as it is something I am currently doing in a very small way (Firstlight have 10-15,000 Wagyu at the moment, slightly more than me). The conventional way to cross a Wagyu is to use an Angus mother, and a lot of these animals are this mix. Wagyu is the number 1 breed for marbling, and Angus is the number 3. Number 2 is Jersey, and a Jersey x Wagyu cross will apparently provide very high and consistent marbling levels, but with a small carcass.

I would like some of these cattle dogs please

I would like some of these cattle dogs please

However, there is a breed used a lot in NZ dairy called the Kiwi Cross, which is Friesian x Jersey. When this is combined with Wagyu, the carcass size is increased, and there is less chance of getting yellow fat – which can result sometimes from the Jersey genetics. Most of these animals will be black/dark brown like a Wagyu, but occasionally there will be some white on the belly. If someone tries to sell you a Wagyu x Friesian cross and it has white above the belly, don’t buy; it’s a fraud! [apparently]

I asked if the genetics were for sale; “If you have a millions bucks you can have this bull” was the answer. I think they liked that one.

IMG_2545After leaving the farm, I stopped off at what can only be described as a shed full of tat. How can someone make a living selling old shoes and dinner sets from the ’70s? Maybe this is what would happen in Wales if subsidies were taken away?

Lake Taupo

Lake Taupo

This evening I am, coincidentally, staying just outside Cambridge. En route I passed through Taupo, and did my first ever skydive. WOW!

Tomorrow should be a really interesting day.