NZ – Final Thoughts

***WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS TRACES OF SWEEPING STATEMENTS***

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…

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
IMG_2702

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 Ten

There was a bit of a drive today, heading south down the coast, just past Timaru.
Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 18.00.43This farm is a bit different to those I have been seeing in Mid Canterbury for the last few days. It is out of the prime dairy area, and as such land sells for about NZ$20,000/ha, half the price of that found further north. The climate here is not dissimilar to East Anglia, with 550ml or rain per year, although it is generally hotter – a limiting factor on the wheat yields they can achieve.IMG_2655Michael Porter farms 400ha of cropping land, and a further 80ha in permanent pasture. It is all unirrigated. He runs a flock of 1,000 breeding ewes, and finishes all the lambs himself – along with a few hundred more that are brought in each winter. Almost all his meat is taken by Waitrose in the UK, who like the fact he can provide full traceability from birth to plate. This pays a 10-15% premium, which seems pretty handy to me.IMG_2664The sudden removal of subsidies back in 1984 had a big effect on this farm, and Michael says they are only really starting to get out of its shadow now. One of the results of this was a lack of funds to invest in machinery – hence the 40 year old tractor and 30 year old combine that are still in use today. Michael was pretty excited that a new combine was going to be coming for next season, as a lot of the farm is on steep slopes of up to 37%, and these old combine sieves lose a lot of grain at those sort of angles. You can tell he farms somewhere steep; he is the first person to tell me “I know from experience that my sprayer tips over at 27 degrees”.

IMG_2657Rotations here are broadly similar to what we grow in the UK, but he does still have access to the lucrative and soil-improving ryegrass seed market. Wheats yield an average of 8-9t/ha, OSR around 3.5t/ha, and a typical rotation would go Winter Wheat -> Winter Barley -> Ryegrass -> OSR/Peas. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Michael says his biggest problem is with grass weeds! For the last decade he has been using a Cross Slot, having given up the plough. He uses starter fertilisers on all the crops, and to satisfy some (one) of my readers I shall now list these more precisely. Please feel free to skip ahead.

  • Ryegrass has 90-100kg/ha of DAP, depending on soils
  • Wheat and barley has 80-90kg/ha of DAP, depending on soils
  • Brassicas have 150kg/ha of DAP, plus 90kg/ha of SOP, and small quantities of boron
  • Peas have a blend called Cropcare 15, which I cannot find the precise analysis for. It is an NPK blend (Michael thought maybe 20-10-10), plus sulphur and trace elements [Edit: It is called Cropmaster 15 and is 15-10-10 + 7.7S. That’s elemental P,K,S by the way]
OSR stubble cut very high

OSR stubble cut very high

When we dug some holes in the OSR field (pictured above), there was an incredible population of worms – perhaps even more than in David Ward’s field on Day Eight.

No-Till vs Yes-Till

No-Till vs Yes-Till (ignore the colour difference, that is not a true representation)

Once again I was lucky enough to be able to compare a long term no-till soil to a min-tilled (some sort of Lemken disc cultivator) one literally just over a fence. The cultivated land had been growing peas, and so had been untouched since the spring, the no-till had been growing wheat. Predictably, the no-tilled was much more crumbly, particularly in the top two inches. The cultivated soil would compress into a plasticine-like ball, which was not possible over the fence. Most noticeable though were the worms. Each small shovel full from the no-till had maybe 4-5 easily findable (less though than in the OSR field earlier), but in around 10 holes next door we saw two worms in total.

No-till vs Yes-till

No-till vs Yes-till

Against my expectations, the no-till soul was actually lighter coloured than the cultivated – it would be interesting to measure the organic matter levels in each of them. It is fairly clear in the picture above though that the texture is significantly different between the two samples. there are many more little roots present on the left, but I suspect this is probably because of the wheat crop that was growing in it.

Cause

Cause


I asked Michael if his soils had improved much since he started no-till. He answered “Yes, but not as much as I thought they were going to”. This is not the answer I was expecting, and he explained that some of the fields had been on a gradual decline for years, which he had expected no-till to turn around. when it did not, he had to look elsewhere for answers. One particular field yielded 40% less than its neighbour, and had soil that stuck tightly together, making biennial subsoiling necessary. Having run out of ideas, he got in a local fertiliser firm that uses the Albrecht method. The test results are shown above.

Cure

Cure

I won’t go through them in detail as I am not clever enough, but the basic problem seemed to be a lack of Magnesium and Potassium. The recommendation for this field cost NZ$1,000/ha to apply, but they went ahead anyway. Michael’s attitude is that if he is going to try something (and there are lots of little experiments happening all over the place), he will do it with 100% commitment, “otherwise if it goes wrong, I will always wonder what could have been”. In the first year there was no yield effect. In the second year things started to improve, and after the third year yields were no different to the other fields around it. I don’t know how long the payback period for that NZ$1,000 was, but with a 40% yield increase it cannot have been very long. He now takes his two worst fields each year, and runs them through this sort of program. Fair to say Michael is a believer in the system.

Holding hands

Holding hands

Just going back to yesterday for a second – Ben Tait said that on some of his land “the stones hold hands”. I thought this was an exaggeration until I was out for a walk today and came across this field with what looks like a new crop of ryegrass. No wonder the drills wear out.

Day Nine

This will not be a very long post today (hooray). This afternoon I visited Ben Tait, a farmer and drilling contractor who lives near the town of Mayfield. He farms 370ha, all arable. 150ha of this is under a pivot irrigator, and here he grows silage maize, wheat, barley, potatoes, and of course ryegrass for seed. The dry land is not vastly different, with a rotation consisting of wheat, ryegrass, radish seed, oats for green animal feed, and various brassicas for dairy cows to graze in the winter.

Oats DDed into winter wheat straw

Oats DDed into winter wheat straw

Ben’s contracting business revolves around a twin disc maize planter, and a drill he has designed himself, using Bourgault disc openers imported from Canada. These openers are a fairly conventional single disc design, making use of a compound angle disc. This means that as well as being angled sideways 7 degrees, it is also tilted 10 degrees off the vertical.IMG_2645The double angle allows the disc to bite into the soil, creating a bit more tilth for the seed. I have also heard that it may provide a slight element of self sharpening for the edges, meaning the discs last longer. This drill is used in all situations, from mouldboard ploughed land through to true no-till. Because of potatoes in the rotation, plus some of the oddities of tetraploid ryegrass seed production, Ben does not feel it is possible to have a full no-till regime. Of course, being New Zealand, there are several thousand lambs around during the winter who no doubt compensate for the sins of the potato growers to some degree!

The JD750a graveyard

The JD750a graveyard

Before the Bourgault was created, Ben used a John Deere 750a. Over the course of 15,000ha he got a fairly good idea of the pros and cons. Overall he seemed to like the concept, and how it worked agronomically, but there were though three main drawbacks.

  1. No option for placing fertiliser. This is a pretty obvious one, and something that many people have flagged up as an issue in the past.
  2. Durability. The ground can be pretty stony in some places around here, but even without that Ben found that the openers just did not last long enough. There were several specific problem areas which all added up and meant that he had to replace large portions of the assembly twice a season.
  3. General usability. Calibrating these drills is not an ergonomic pleasure, and as his was a 6m it had to be done twice on each occasion. Not so bad if you have 100ha to do on your own farm, but if you move around to 3 different farms in a day, and have to empty the seed and recalibrate each time, I can imagine the pleasure wears off pretty soon – probably on about day 2.

I don’t know how much of this would be a problem back on our farm, mainly because we do not have the stones. Interesting all the same.IMG_2649How much do you trust your neighbours? The farmers here are members of a fertiliser cooperative that works on an honesty basis. There is yard in the town which contains open sheds divided into different compartments for different fertilisers. When you need some DAP, urea, MOP etc, then drive down here, tare your trailer, jump in the loader, fill the trailer up, complete the docket, and drive out. All done on trust, no cameras, locks or anything.

Mayfield is obviously more of a farming community than any of the villages around us; I cannot imagine this sign on the door of our pub.IMG_2648

Day Eight

Now we are in the prime time – Canterbury plains. This area used to be all arable, beef and sheep, but now it’s almost wall to wall dairy.
Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 17.53.36This is my kind of landscape. Nice and flat to farm on, but a great backdrop.

IMG_2613Having said in a previous blog that I do one visit a day… well it turns out I lied. Today’s first farm is owned by Craige MacKenzie, a fellow Nuffield scholar. He has a 200ha arable block, and right next door a 330ha dairy, with 1200 Friesan/Holstein crosses. All of the land is irrigated. I did look around the dairy, which was fascinating to me. As I don’t have a clue about it though, all my questions were childishly simple and I won’t bore anyone with them here.

Walston's First Law of Dairies: The maximum number of cows that can be put in one mob is half the number that exist on the farm in question

Walston’s First Law of Dairies: The maximum number of cows that can be put in one mob is half the number that exist on the farm in question

The arable farm specialises in seed production, but from a very wide variety of plants. Fescue, ryegrass, festolium, winter & spring wheat, Asian radish, plantain, carrots, onions, chicory, faba beans – and probably more that I have forgotten.

Winter wheat can yield up to 14t/ha, but averages about 12.5.  It does however get fed 350kg of nitrogen to get up to this sort of level. Craige would probably describe himself as a pragmatist – he will use whatever method of cultivation necessary to get the best crop. This could be ploughing, min-tilling (tines to 20cm), or direct drilling.

What is this novel implement?

What is this novel implement?

Craige is of the opinion that it is not possible for a farmer to change the levels of organic matter in his/her soil, and he points to a study conducted nearby that has been going for 14 years to support this. I will be seeing the guys responsible for it on Friday so that will be enlightening. He is also in to straw burning (stop hissing at the back), mainly to control slugs, and also to reduce residue and make planting small seeds easier.

Carrot seed almost ready for harvest

Carrot seed almost ready for harvest

Interestingly Craige said to me that people had realised is that by getting rid of animals they made more money, and had an easier life. This sounded pretty much like what would have happened in the east of England 40 years ago, but it turned out to not be strictly true!

Every NZ farmer I have met has had grass and livestock somewhere in the system. Here the leys used for seed production will be in the ground for between 18 months and 5 years, depending on species. Each year they will produce seed, silage and grazing, either for dairy cattle or sheep. Cows pay NZ$27/hd/wk, and sheep NZ$1.50/hd/wk. These relatively long term perennial sections of the rotation can only help with organic matter levels, as the root masses are so large.

Plantain for seed production

Plantain for seed production

In my opinion this effect from the grass probably makes the system sustainable from a soil carbon point of view, although the fact that levels are not building suggest that the input:output of carbon in the soil is in equilibrium. The farm I visited next is towards the other end of the scale in philosophy, and gives a good counterpoint. These two farms gross the same income per hectare, but use very different systems!

David Ward is a pretty well known guy around here – I must have had at least half a dozen people telling me that I should go and see him. He farms 385ha of irrigated land in a single block not far from Ashburton. Again, the focus is almost entirely on seed production: wheat, barley, ryegrass, clover, peas, carrots, beetroot, radish, Pak Choi, spinach… the list goes on.

There is also a massive livestock element, with up to 20,000 lambs and 1,000 deer being finished annually. Some of the lambs are kept throughout the year, although most come in over the winter, where they could graze ryegrass, oats, or some type of brassica.IMG_2622The speciality here is ryegrass seed, and the sheep are as much of a tool for optimising this as they are for meat production. Over winter all the ryegrass is grazed down low, as in the before-and-after picture above. This means it emerges more evenly in the spring, increasing pollination and thereafter yield.

David is a Cross Slot user, which he really values mostly for its versatility; “Most drills work perfectly 80% of the time, this one does 95%”. On the other hand he says “it’s just part of the system”.IMG_2631He is also a man after my heart, who drives around with a spade in the back of the truck. I have never seen worms like this. A spadeful will probably contain 15-20 good sized ones, with countless more little white babies right under the surface. The estimated population is 700/m2.

In 1992 two thirds of the farm was in pasture, and one third cropped. The grassland was measured at 4.5% soil organic matter, and the cropping land, with a 20yr history of ploughing, was 3% SOM. At this point David started no-till, and 9 years later SOM in the same paddock had increased to 5.4%, and it is now nearer to 6%. Obviously this is not a scientific trial, but anecdotally it is an impressive result. Straw is also burnt here sometimes, or sold off-farm if the price is right. Both of these farmers do not believe much is lost when burning residues.

Yes-till vs No-till

Yes-till vs No-till

Here is a great comparison. On opposite sides of the road are David’s paddocks, and a farm operated organically – with full cultivation. The photo above shows the difference in structure between the two, which are only about 50m apart. The tilled soil collapsed instantly when dug up,and could be rolled into a worm easily. This was impossible with the un-tilled; it would just crumble apart. I think it is fair to say that the organic soil will smear, compact and crust much more readily.

Hybrid rape roots. No signs of fanging or compaction

Hybrid rape roots. No signs of fanging or compaction

Such is the improvement in structure and resilience on David’s land that it is now possible to direct drill into these fields with a Stanhay precision machine (probably the least suitable DD drill in the world?) with no loss in establishment or yields. The OSR in the picture above was planted like this, as are carrots, radish and fodder beet. The soil obviously has high fertility as it produces an average of 12t/ha of winter wheat, but uses only 220kg/ha of nitrogen to do it.

Weed control is made a lot easier for all these guys by growing such wide rotations. David has been practising a reduced insecticide program for a few years, and claims that this has allowed natural predators to take care of slugs to a large degree – something that used to be a big headache.

So is it the perfect system? (no!) They are very lucky to have the access and ability to grow lucrative seed contracts for such diverse species. I wish we were in such a position, but linseed, millet et al. are never going to be making £thousands per hectare. It is also very, very complicated, and I doubt that type of management requirement is for everyone. I do feel though that there is a potential for no-till, and also greater integration of sheep into our systems at home. Can it make proper money though? And do you factor in any soil improvements when making the calculation?

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.

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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:

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Stunning view over the bay

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

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Breathtaking peaks soar overhead

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

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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.

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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 Six

Today I spent the day with John Baker, the mastermind behind the Cross Slot. Their headquarters are in Feilding.

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If you’ve been reading this blog you will know I am skeptical about the Cross Slot. My main problem has been the cost. There is a lot of mystery surrounding the price, which puzzles the guys here, as they say “all they need to do is ask us and we will give them a quote”. Fair enough, it is not a secret, but it does seem like it sometimes. Basically, I think it will cost £25-30k per meter, depending on options. Sorry if me writing this upsets anyone…

 

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As is obvious from the picture above, some of the extra cost goes into the construction. This one will not even have any seed boxes on top, it is just a tool bar. Is it over engineered? I don’t know, but it makes any other bit of farm machinery I’ve seen look like a toy.

Let’s do a back of the fag packet calculation compared to a 750a.

  • Drill – 6m 750a £70k : 6m CS £150k
  • Tractor – Fendt 718 £110k : Fendt 930 £180k
  • Total capital – £180k : £330k
  • Extra cost of CS over 10 years – £15k per year

We farm 800ha, so that is £18.75/ha/year. Add another £5/ha for extra diesel and we get a cost of £23.75/ha/year. With wheat at £150/t, we would need an extra 0.158t/ha yield to break even. Our average wheat yield is 9.3t/ha. So, yields would need to increase 1.7% to pay for the drill. I know this is not a scientific analysis, the difference may be 2.5%, or maybe 1.5%, but I think we are in the ballpark.

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So the question is, does using a CS increase yield? Several people have said to me “it does not matter how the seed gets in the ground, it just needs to be at the right depth and covered with soil”. I do not buy this. It is a bit like me telling David Moyes that being a football manager is easy, all you need to do is get your team to score more goals than the opposition. Just because a statement is simple, it does not mean accomplishing it is easy.

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I’ve spent the day with a very passionate, but let’s be honest, not entirely impartial, advocate for the drill. He has some numbers for yield trials, which are very positive (see below). None of these compare with a single disc drill though. John claims that all trials ever done (aside from one), place the CS at the top for yield. I can’t say what a 750a would have done in these trials. I’ve never seen data or claims that it would out yield conventional tillage by 10%+, but that is not to say that it wouldn’t.

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I saw the CS working today in the field, and I am still not convinced that it is as low disturbance as a 750a – CS devotees would not agree with me though. Look at the picture above, that is still a fairly wide bit of metal to be pulling through the soil. I would like to see both drills working side by side, and also drilling at depth, rather than very shallow grass seed.

I am sure that the CS has a big advantage with hair pinning, and having one drill for everything is appealing. The fertiliser option could also potentially be useful for spring cropping. People here in NZ are amazed that we do not find yield increases from starter fertiliser. More data please scientists! (and in no-till situations please)

So after all the waffling, I’m still a floating voter. Next week I have some appointments with people who are huge CS fans, and also people who are the opposite.

I’ve also been given some data on how soil structure correlates to yield, but that will have to go in my final report, otherwise no one will bother reading it.

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.

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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!