Here’s my final Nuffield report. Just need to do the presentation in November and I’m free.
***WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS TRACES OF SWEEPING STATEMENTS***
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
- 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.
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.
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:
It really does remind me of Scotland. But wait, it get’s even better just over the next hill.
The entrance to Peter’s farm reminds me of the lyrics to Hotel California.
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?
I stayed in the same area today, so no map this time.
I’m very grateful to my first host, Matt Wyeth, who I phoned out of the blue at 7.30am to ask if I could visit that morning. He is a sheep and beef farmer living about 20km west of where I had been the day before. The landscape is much hillier, which means arable cropping is not possible. It also means that they get 1800mm of rainfall each year, over twice as much as yesterday’s nearby farms. The farm is 800ha, 650 ha of which is native grasses, and the rest is in a forage crop rotation. 7000 breeding ewes are the main residents, as well as a herd of 220 pedigree Angus cattle.
Matt has recently changed his forage rotation, and it is currently 5 years of plantain/red clover mix, followed by 1 year of rapeseed. This is a popular mix as the red clover works well in the summer, and the plantain stays active in the cooler winter temperatures – and it also has good drought resistance. The rape is drilled with a bit of fertiliser, grazed, fertilised, and grazed again. These fields are used in the winter to hold the cows as if the soil is damaged then it does not mater too much, as the field will be reseeded regardless.
As it happens I turned up on an interesting day, as a load of ewes were being weighed, drenched for worms, and vaccinated. This is a pretty intensively stocked farm, but there are only 2 and a bit men working on it. All the sheep have eID tags, which allows this super bit of kit to work.
This will automatically weigh 300 animals per hour, and as it can read the eID tags, the data is automatically recorded. A few clicks on the screen will show individual stats, like daily weight gain.
An automatic gate is linked in, so that animals that are either too light or too heavy can be separated into different pens. There were a few light animals, maybe 1%, which would be fattened and sold off. All the others will be replacement breeding stock.
This data allows some pretty clever optimisations. Lambs that grow well are put onto the slightly less nutritious grass, and the slower performers go onto the plantain. The idea is to even up the growth rates. In this batch the daily gain averaged 170g from grass – on plantain this can be as high as 300g. Matt aims for a lifetime rate (birth to slaughter) of 150g/day, and his best was 160g. To put this into perspective, the NZ average is 90g.
The system has a high stocking rate, with 12-13,000 livestock units on the farm every year. However it is set up very efficiently, so costs are kept low. The biggest expense is fertiliser, which was being applied today by a contractor.
All field work is done by contractors, including drilling. The Cross Slot debate comes up again here – “For the same price I can get 2.5ha direct drilled with a normal drill, or 1ha with a Cross Slot. Which is better?”. Matt is not a CS convert.
Before I left, a truck/lorry showed up to take some rams to the meat works. They get sent in at 40-45kg, depending on how good the grass is at the time. Prices are currently at NZ$120/£60, which is acceptable but not great.
I’m by no means a sheep expert, but this looked like an impressive operation to me. they were looking after a huge number of sheep with minimal work (per head – I’m sure plenty of hours are put in!), and getting a 7-8% return on capital which we could only dream of. If I was going to farm sheep it would have to be using a similar sort of system. Imagine trying to lamb 7000 ewes inside, UK style?
Next up I retraced my footsteps of the previous day, to Mark Guscott’s 800ha mixed farm. There is a local Jersey farm at home, and when the farmer there explains to me all the animal group they have, and how it all works, my head isn’t big enough to hold it all in. This place makes that look like child’s play, as they can have over 40 separate groups at any one time. Talk about management intensive.
Out of the 800ha, 600ha is hill grass. This holds 2400 ewes, plus another 4000 bought in lambs. 7000 lambs a year are finished here, and the rest kept as replacements. There are also a few hundred cattle – heifers, steers and bulls. Mark obviously doesn’t want a simple life.
The other 200ha is arable, 150ha of which is irrigated. You can see the circular pivot fields in the picture above. Some conventional crops are grown, like winter wheat (9t/ha), spring wheat (7t/ha), tiny little peas for seed (3.5t/ha), silage maize, and the fashionable plantain/clover mix.
More interestingly, there are some exotic seed crops grown here. Phacelia had just been cut yesterday, but the yield isn’t known yet. Kohlrabi is grown every year, and there are two fields growing hybrid sweetcorn and hybrid maize.
I’ve always wanted to see this. The tassels are removed from the female plants, so that they can only be pollinated by the thin strip of male plants. After pollination the males are destroyed, and the the female cobs picked by hand. It is a very labour intensive operation, and they even fly a helicopter up and down the field to increase the wind pollination [or is this what Mark tells gullible Poms?]. The rewards can be pretty incredible. A bumper maize crop last year resulted in a net margin of NZ$15,000/ha. If you think that is good, onion seed regularly nets NZ$20,000/ha. I’ll have some of that – I wish.
Big thanks to both Matt & Mark.
To finish off, I have just noticed that my visits tomorrow are in a different place to where I thought they were. That’s what happens when you get Wednesday and Thursday mixed up. Oops.