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.