It is amazing to witness the positive impact one group can have on an industry. Recently we have seen a flood of interest from the Tasmanian and Victorian dairy industries. In fact we have recently conducted two, well-attended four-day Certificate courses, specifically for the dairy industry, with a third one planned in the New Year. Why have these large-scale professionals suddenly recognised the potential of the biological approach in the face of an industry meltdown, which is usually the least conducive environment for change?
It is all about the influence of one guy. Andrew Angelino is a sought-after consultant and large scale dairy farmer who, in conjunction with his partner Hugh McMullen, operates a company called Animal Mineral Solutions. These guys, and a team of committed consultants, have developed a highly productive, high-input approach that has consistently delivered some of the highest milk yields in Australian dairy history. Their flagship, from a nutritional perspective, has been their superbly formulated supplement, “Go Cow”, but the approach had previously involved a rye pumping emphasis on NPK at the expensive of clover and soil biology. It worked well for a while but proved unsustainable in the long term.
Andrew first began to notice problems on his own properties where the earthworms and clover had disappeared, soil structure was deteriorating and and reproductive efficiency and herd health was faltering. He was employing an ex-Kiwi dairy farmer called Karl Stokes at the time and Karl was a biological enthusiast. His long time friend in New Zealand, was Russell Snodgrass, an ex-dairy farmer who now heads Abron, a biological consulting and supply company that is revolutionising New Zealand agriculture (Abron is one of two companies that distribute NTS products in NZ).
Karl had witnessed the results achieved by Abron on NZ dairy farms and he imparted that experience to Andrew. Andrew and Hugh eventually travelled to NZ to attend an Abron seminar featuring Dr Arden Andersen, and the journey had begun. Andrew begun to implement biological strategies on his own farms and the turnaround was both rapid and profound. He was sufficiently impressed to discuss his experiences at the National Dairy Conference in a powerpoint presentation called, “Why I Became A Biological Dairy Farmer”. Andrew, Hugh and their talented team of consultants have embraced the science of this approach and the vast majority of their clients are now dabbling with this nutrition-based biological system.
Andrew found that the clovers returned in force and the earthworms arrived in large numbers. Earthworms are a prime indicator of soil health. The castings are a potent fertiliser as they contain 7 times more phosphorus, 10 times more potassium, 6 times more nitrogen, 3 times more magnesium and 1.5 times more calcium than the surrounding soils. If you can maintain counts of 25 earthworms per shovel of soil, throughout the year then these creatures will produce 300 tonnes of castings per year. If you were to purchase these castings it would cost at least a hundred dollars a tonne. It doesnt take much of a mathematician to realise that this equates to over AU$30,000 of free fertiliser each season. It is interesting because once your soil-life is working for you there is a tremendous reduction in the need for fertiliser inputs and this is something that has proven difficult to grasp for some of these farmers.
Following the two dairy-specific, four-day courses it seemed a productive strategy to hold field days on some of the farms involved, to discuss their experiences and help out with inevitable teething problems. One of these visits was to John Lillico’s Broadmeadows farm in North West Tasmania. John and his wife Vicky are my kind of people. They are passionate achievers who have thoroughly embraced a new approach and will undoubtedly master this strategy. We walked in fields of clover that had only supported rye a few months previously. There were plentiful earthworms and John was pleased with both production and herd health. One of most dramatic improvements on the 700 cow farm was a 50% reduction in mastitis. He had found that the cows are now eating all parts of the pasture, so there is no longer any need for toppping. Cow pats that use to sit around for three months now disappear within eight days and there is an associated reduction in flies. Earthworm counts have increased from 2 earthworms per square foot to 120 earthworms per square foot.
One of the things that we have uncovered at these field days is the importance of tissue testing to determine plant nutrition requirements. So many times in the past growers have utilised a standard NPK fertilising approach where nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium were applied at regular inputs without first checking if they were necessary or not. This can prove an expensive oversight because oversupply causes mineral lockups and can also be destructive to soil biology. If you are applying potassium, for example, when you already have plenty of this mineral in your crop then you have not only wasted your money at $1800 per tonne but you may also have limited uptake of calcium, magnesium and boron. Tissue testing will avoid this lack of precision and it can prove a major cost saver.
When your soil is firing, there is a dramatically reduced need for nitrogen, in fact it may only be required when the microbes slow down in winter. When ryhizobium on the clover, free-living nitrogen fixers and earthworms are all operating well, there is a lot of N coming into the system. Then, when plant protein from dead roots is efficiently recycled and the bacteria, which contain 17% nitrogen in their bodies, are eaten by protozoa and beneficial nematodes, that nitrogen also becomes available to the system. The end result is a whole bunch of free nitrogen. It is critically important in dairy pasture to monitor your nitrogen requirements with tissue testing and/or nitrate meters as there will be many times in biological dairy farming where nitrogen is no longer needed and in those cases applied N will prove detrimental to the system.