Farming practices evolving for the better

Farming is seen as a major problem for New Zealand in relation to emissions – cows and sheep burping methane, and meat production is also increasingly under fire from minorities. But farmers are reacting, learning and changing some of their methods.

Farming practices have always evolved, especially through advances in technologies. The gradual switch from horse power (I watched  horse powered hay harvest at Chard Farm, Gibbston in the 1960s) to tractors obviously made a huge difference.  s did the application of fertilisers, which went far too far and is now more often more moderate. Chemicals like weedkillers and animal remedies have been overused and are still a concern –  use of antibiotics to improve animal and poultry growth rates and survival rates a particular problem with wider implications than farming.

The surge in dairy farming and cow numbers this century has resulted in a huge increase in dairy production – and methane, which is coinciding with increasing pressure to reduce carbon emissions.

I’m puzzled about one thing. Cows don’t create carbon, they convert it to methane through digestion of grass. Where does that carbon come from? Absorbed by growing grass? If so it’s just a cycle, so what’s the problem? The conversion from CO2 to methane?

People, for example Greens, have called for cow numbers to be reduced, some saying drastically. But the numbers seem to have at least plateaued.

Stuff: ‘Cow census’ shows NZ farms producing more milk from fewer animals

The latest “cow census” shows Kiwi dairy farms are producing more milk from fewer animals.

While total cow numbers were stable, the animals produced more milk than ever before last season, according to the New Zealand Dairy Statistics report released this week.

Issued by DairyNZ and Livestock Improvement Corporation (LIC), the report showed the country hit record milk production per herd and per cow in the year to May 31.

Dairy companies processed 21.2 billion litres of milk containing 1.88b kilograms of milksolids,  both up 2.4 per cent on the previous season.

However, the latest bovine headcount showed New Zealand had 4.946 million milking cows,down 0.9 per cent from the previous season.

The statistics showed farmers’ focus on productivity and efficiency was paying off, DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle said.

“Farmers have been focusing on improving their environmental management in recent years and they have been doing this while stepping up their on-farm efficiency to produce more milk from fewer cows,” he said.

“More efficient milk production has benefits in areas such as greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient losses.”

Dairy cow numbers had remained fairly stable over the last five years and the days of significant growth in the national herd could be over, Mackle said.

These are only small shifts (up in production and down in numbers) but they’re in the right direction, and improving practices and technologies should help further changes.

Stuff: Kiwi farmers are joining a revolution – farming the regenerative way

With many New Zealand farmers facing financial and environmental challenges, a growing number are showing an interest in regenerative agriculture.

Consultant Jono Frew calls a “revolution” that has people “engaged and excited”.

Frew, who hails from an agricultural spraying background, coaches farmers in the new methods espoused to require less intervention and says he can often save farmers 30 per cent in inputs in just one visit.

He’s a founding member of Quorum Sense, a Canterbury-based network promoting regenerative agriculture and supports farmers wanting to learn more.

Simon Osborne is happy to share the knowledge he’s garnered from a long-term, non-traditional approach on his arable farm. He describes regenerative agriculture as having a focus on soil and ecology.

Osborne grows varieties of plants, as many as 15 species in the same paddock, to provide soil functionality.

“Different species of plants have different types of roots and encourage different types of organisms in the soil to be fed and to thrive.”

Osborne says regenerative agriculture is also about keeping the ground covered at all times, and that means no tilling. He says that also results in carbon being retained in the soil, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

South Canterbury farmer Mike Porter reaches down to grab a chunk of freshly-dug Leeston soil. “There will be as many living organisms in that handful of soil as people living on earth.”

Less fertiliser.

One mentions he hasn’t fed out for four years and hasn’t put any fertiliser on for five years.

Less sprays required, healthier soils, healthier stock, and less carbon emissions all have to be good things.

And less water required.

With a lake and streams nearby, dairy farmer John Legge says the farm was under pressure in terms of water usage. “My whole idea was how do we farm without using water at all?”

The answer, according to Legge, was regenerative agriculture.

“We grew everything that we needed last year on the farm and we only irrigated for six weeks.”

These are all positive signs of changes in farming.

Many farms stay in families for multiple generations, so there are good reasons for keeping farms healthy for the long term.

The world still needs food production, and New Zealand is very good at doing that efficiently, despite our distance from markets. The signs are that this will get better as emissions are reduced.

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8 Comments

    • Duker

       /  3rd December 2019

      Thats right… the changing practices PG talked about are fine, but remember farmers on average are fairly old and can be set in their ways. Probably the improvements are coming from more of the corporate type farms who have them run professionally and can afford advisers and better equipment.
      Better to look at say quintiles, and not just praising the top 20% who are great, but also look at the bottom 20% who may not changing or improving at all.
      The link above was a couple who had previous serious problems
      https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/farming/dairy/117727295/dairy-farmer-jailed-after-longterm-neglect-results-in-mass-deaths-of-cattle

      Reply
      • Kitty Catkin

         /  3rd December 2019

        Even if I thought that most farmers had no compassion for their animals, which I don’t, of course, I’d know that it would be bad business practice to illtreat them and shorten their lives.

        Reply
        • Duker

           /  3rd December 2019

          Thats just animal maltreatment, what about farming practice, breaching resource consents.
          Then there is M Bovis and how it came to NZ
          Clearly the tracking rules have been flouted for stock transport. How many $100s mill will the taxpayers have to pay, as the directly affected farmers arent – they as a group are supposed to ‘share’ but its all very vague on the details ….always is when costs land in farmers pockets , no doubt they will as always plead ‘poverty’

          Reply
  1. Alan Wilkinson

     /  3rd December 2019

    I’m wary of commenting on stuff I know little about but it is certainly true that the agricultural methane CO2 grass cycle does not add to atmospheric carbon as fossil fuels do and much criticism of it is unjustifiable. And the only reason methane has a bigger impact than CO2 is because there is so little of it relatively in the atmosphere. The impact of each decreases logarithmically and separately.

    Reply
    • Duker

       /  3rd December 2019

      Yes . The carbon hysteria means they tie themselves up in knots with little evidence. Rice growing in water logged paddies seems to be far worse, but isnt a ‘problem as its vegetarian farming’. Anything with cows or meat is bad and even worse ‘western’
      The whole concept has more holes than Trumps wall.

      Reply
  1. Farming practices evolving for the better — Your NZ – NZ Conservative Coalition

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