Theory is fine but results are the bottom line, so I have focused upon the achievements of a variety of biological farmers in this issue. I have just returned from a ten day visit to New Zealand where we conducted our four-day Certificate in Sustainable Agriculture, a one-day Human Health seminar and I spoke at a new festival celebrating all things organic. All of the events were well attended and there was tremendous enthusiasm everywhere, in spite of the fact that NZ has been much harder hit by the recession than Australia. The last day of the four-day course typically features a bunch of grower stories where we look at their problems and the relative success of their biological solutions. There were so many good stories circulating during the breaks I decided to ask some of those present about their results, instead of presenting the standard Australian success stories. I’ll share a few of these with you here.
Exciting Dairy Improvements
Andrew and Vicky Watt farm two properties in the Ashburton region of the South Island. They have been experimenting with a more biological approach for the past twelve months. This has largely involved the inclusion of NTS Soluble Humate Granules™ with their urea in both granular and liquid form. They are also tissue testing every month and applying foliar correctives based upon their results. The foliar applications typically contain 20 kg of urea, 12 kg of calcium nitrate, Nutri-Key Shuttle Seven™ and NTS Fast Fulvic™, but other inputs may be included based on the leaf test data. Vicky was kind enough to email through some of her results and they include the following:
- Their nitrogen usage has been reduced by 42.5% in 12 months.
- Animal health costs, on a per animal basis, were reduced by 41.4% during that same period. On a per hectare basis that reduction was 40.12%.
- There was a substantial saving from a breeding perspective with costs per animal down by 37.8%.
- On one of the farms the somatic cell count was down to the lowest levels ever, but it was acknowledged that climatic conditions may have played a role in this reduction.
- The incidence of rye grass staggers has fallen dramatically during the 12 month period, where it had been a problem the previous season.
- Milk production to date, is up 13.5% on the previous best year ever.
- The trend in pasture tissue analysis has been towards an increase in Metabolisable Energy (ME). It appears to be up from an average range of 11.8% – 12% to 12.5% – 12.7% at the current time. However, Vicky would like to see 3 years of data to be sure that the biological inputs are responsible for this increase.
One of the farms has used the urea based foliar every month, including the other inputs mentioned. The other property has just involved the inclusion of 3 kg per hectare of NTS Soluble Humate Granules™ with the granular urea. It would initially seem that the foliar approach is superior as it involves so much less nitrogen but there are other considerations involved and more analysis is required. The application costs need to be factored into the equation as does the precision timing factor – i.e., foliars should only be applied when there is sufficient biomass present to achieve a foliar response. Otherwise you are effectively just doing a soil treatment, which is many times less effective.
Kiwifruit Quality Gains
Keith Holbum grows kiwifruit in the Katikati region. He has passionately embraced this more sustainable approach and is educating himself at every opportunity. This was the second time he had attended the four-day course and he felt he learnt more this time around. This is a phenomenon based upon the mechanics of learning. There is a huge advantage in prior knowledge and experience when learning and understanding a new set of skills and growers often say that it all seems to fall into place when they hear it a second time.
Shelf-life is a direct reflection of nutrient density and crop quality. Keith reports an amazing quality improvement since embarking upon the biological path. He brought kiwifruit samples along to this most recent course that had been sitting in a bin in his shed for almost 6 months! The fruit was still sweet and edible. These were seconds that had been thrown in the bin during grading. How long does your kiwifruit last in a fruit bowl? I usually get a couple of weeks from the local produce.
Keith has applied soil correctives based upon his soil analysis and he fertigates with liquid fish, humic acid and molasses each month to support and stimulate his soil life. He has noticed a substantial improvement in soil structure and a fascinating reduction in weed pressure during the past year. He has noted that herbicides never actually get rid of weeds. In fact, it is common to see an increase in weed pressure. Since removing herbicides from his program and correcting the mineral balance there has been a marked reduction in weed pressure and weed species.
Keith favours mixed species, inter-row ground covers, which include red and white clovers along with deep-rooted plants like chickory and plantain. The legumes, of course, offer more than just extra nitrogen. They release acids that solubilise locked-up phosphorus in the soil and deliver biologically-available calcium to the vines. Ground covers are a very productive addition to any vine crop program.
Keith uses Tri-Kelp™ and Cloak™ Spray Oil (an exceptional wetter/sticker) as a foliar every month and he is impressed with the increased health and vigour of his vines. It is always such a pleasure and a reward to see the passion that develops when this approach is embraced. Keith is having fantastic fun and he is even making compost this year on his property. It will be great to monitor his progress over coming seasons.
The Power of Improved Nutrition
Peter and Mandy Paterson are dairy farmers at Patetonga in the Waikato. They are what are called “early adopters”, as they recognised the need for change and began farming biologically some seven years ago. Peter is convinced that it was the best decision they have ever made and he is generously sharing his experiences with regular field days on his farm. Nitrogen requirements on the farm are down to 0-20 units of N per hectare, per year and these meagre inputs are only required when things slow down in winter, if they are required at all.
Peter describes grass growth this season as “phenomenal” and no nitrogen has been applied. His milk production is good, with production of 97,000 kg of milk solids from 230 cows in 2006, but that suffered a little in two subsequent years of drought. It dropped to 89,000 kg and then down to 75,000 kg last year due to the compounding effect. However, things are on track again this season, so all that is required is a continuing, much-needed increase in milk prices to ensure a good season.
There are several features of Peter and Mandy’s operation that surprise conventional growers. For example, they have huge amounts of clover on the property, but never suffer bloat. That is what you can achieve when you move away from high nitrogen inputs. Their herd is also free from metabolic issues like milk fever and grass staggers due to his nutrition emphasis, and they also have no problem with facial eczema. Peter believes that improvements in herd health has been a highly profitable gain. His vet bills are almost non-existent and his calving rates seem to improve by the year.
He is a firm believer in the benefits of free choice supplementing and the five options he offers the cattle include kelp, sea salt, elemental sulfur, humates and copper sulphate. Selenium is added via water dispenser through the troughs, as such small amounts are required that it becomes too dangerous to free choice. Peter is convinced that his mineralising program, utilising both the soil and supplements, is working and the recent pre-mating liver biopsys confim his assertion. Again, we see excellent farmers who have reduced input costs, improved animal health and maintained production while seriously increasing the pleasure involved in their critically important profession, and that’s what it is all about after all!
The NTS four-day Certificate course was hosted by Abron, a dynamic, biological company who distribute for NTS in NZ. One of the treats during this seminar was “The Big Night Out”, a feature on the evening of the second day of this course. This event featured spectacular fresh food and the guest speaker was a leading Kiwi comedian called Te Radar, who hosts a top rated television show. He really was something special and I have booked him for my next Radiance festival in Australia.
On the first evening of the course there was a mystery outing and we were told to gather in the bar at 6pm. Right on cue, as we were enjoying our drinks, a sheep herder clad in a long oilskin coat burst into our midst complete with barking dogs. We were literally rounded up and herded onto a waiting bus where we were driven to our mystery destination. En route, our host donned a sheep drenching pack and proceeded to douse us with Bio-Bubble™, a popular NTS probiotic. We were taken to a tourist attraction that features multiple aspects of NZ farming. We were transported in a large carriage behind a tractor and we stopped at a small kiwifruit planting where the Abron consultants demonstrated in-field soil and crop monitoring techniques. Then, after touring the facility we were taken to a series of linen-clad tables, exotically situated beneath the kiwifruit vines. We were waited on by tuxedoed waiters and served a delicious 3 course meal and fine local wines as the sun slowly set. Sometimes I wonder at my luck to be involved in something so important and to have so much fun spreading the word!
Megan Pitcon was the Abron staff member responsible for all of the fine points of a flawless four days, but there were valuable contributions all around. Phyllis Tichinin was a great support throughout and provided a fascinating demonstration of Kombucha preparation (an invaluable fermented food that serves as a powerful liver tonic). Jacqui Tink is a fine, committed, biological agronomist who is held in high regard by all of her clients and all of the Abron team demonstrated why they will become a major force in transforming New Zealand agriculture.