Nicole Masters pitches soil improvement to Hawke’s Bay farmers

Back in February, Hawke’s Bay was visited by Marlborough sheep and beef farmer Doug Avery. He spoke to a group of 100 or so fellow sheep and beef farmers, plus a handful of the curious, like me.

Avery is what you might call a ‘superstar farmer’ … he’s been the South Island Farmer of the Year (2010) and NZ’s Agricultural Communicator of the Year (2013).

His message was quite simple. He presented a strategy that enabled his 1,500 hectare Bonaveree Farm to, as he put it, “make a high profit in a good year, and not lose money in a bad year [meaning: a drought year]”.

Avery offered plenty of data to support his approach to dryland farming – superior lambing rates and weights, higher production of the dry matter required to feed stock, and tonnage of meat produced off his land.

All leading to his bottom line: In 1998, Avery generated sales off his farm of $320,000; in 2013 he generated nearly $2 million.

Nicole Masters pitches soil improvement to Hawke’s Bay farmers

Although Avery’s system has a number of components, all aimed at optimizing use of scarce water, at the core of his farming success is lucerne. Respected farm columnist Jon Morgan calls him, admiringly, a “lucerne lunatic”. About a third of Avery’s property is planted in lucerne, whose growth pattern allows him to wean lambs earlier and bring them up to saleable rates in half the time it takes most farmers … by early December, avoiding the driest weather.

“The plant shows you don’t have to drain a river to run a profitable farm,” he says.

Avery farms in one of New Zealand’s consistently driest areas, averaging 573mm with very high evapotranspiration due to exposure to winds. But he showed photos of his property and his neighbor’s, taken at the driest time. Avery’s land was green; his neighbor’s was parched. He made the same point with similar comparative photos taken in Hawke’s Bay.

Simply put, his methods capture and hold more water in the soil … otherwise known as ‘water storage’.

Avery is a sterling example of the ‘Top 20%’ farmer the farm trade press is constantly talking about, as in … ‘what’s the matter with the rest of these guys?!’

One does wonder: what’s the difference between Doug Avery and his struggling neighbor, who sits right across the fence watching Doug’s success, but stands pat?

To achieve its claimed benefits, all irrigators using water from the proposed Ruataniwha Dam must, according to its advocates, be ‘Top 20%’ farmers, whatever animal or crop they are growing.

Avery’s experience demonstrates how unrealistic that assumption is in the real world … naive, at the very least, about how long it takes change to occur in farming practices. Thereby illustrating one of the key obstacles to achieving the benefits claimed for the dam scheme.

At the same time, Avery’s track record points to a proven alternative strategy, especially with respect to sheep and beef farmers, who account for the preponderance of farming in Hawke’s Bay … if change can be promoted and accelerated.

In his article in this BayBuzz, farm economist Barrie Ridler cites evidence presented to the Tukituki Board of Inquiry by Beef & Lamb NZ:

“The [HBRIC] plan assumes that irrigation is essential to increased production from dryland sheep and beef farming. This is not altogether correct as the recent development of lucerne grazing and other novel forages and feed sources has demonstrated. Recent work in this area has shown that equivalent levels of production can be achieved on dryland lucerne as are achieved from irrigated pasture.”

Evangelists and superstars

Avery shows how to make sustainable profit in the driest of conditions, without irrigation. His work attracts national and international attention. His oft-delivered presentation is called ‘Beyond Reasonable Drought’.

Avery isn’t the only ‘smart farming’ evangelist. Way back in Baybuzz #9 (Nov/Dec 2012) we wrote about consultant Alison Dewes, who was working with dairy farmers in the Waikato (and who more recently gave evidence supporting Fish & Game’s position before the Board of Inquiry).

One of the farmers in her project was leaching less than 20 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare, half the catchment average, and still managing a return on assets of 5.4%. More recently, another Waikato dairy farmer she’s worked with hasn’t used superphosphate fertilizer in four years, has cut nitrogen use by 80% and says his net profit has rocketed.

These sound like superstar farmers in the making as well.

Hawke’s Bay has its own ‘smart farming’ evangelists. Barrie Ridler, writing in this edition, is one.

And Baybuzz has regularly featured the work of locally-based Phyllis Tichinin and Nicole Masters. Both are soil consultants and advocates of biological farming, which focuses on rebuilding soil health. Both have clients across Hawke’s Bay – orchardists, wine makers, croppers and, yes, even dairy farmers. Approximately 60,000 to 80,000 hectares in Hawke’s Bay are committed to biological farming methods, with great success.

Tichinin notes this comment from a CHB sheep and beef farmer: “Phyllis, the reason we all farm like this and meekly take the 250 kg Sulphur Super recommendation from the fert rep every year is because we don’t know enough about soils to challenge them and we’re afraid to admit our ignorance, so we just go along with it.”

Masters runs the Association of Biological Farmers. She writes: “Techniques that focus on soil health and soil biology are better adapted to hold on longer during dry spells and bounce back quicker when rains do come. Research shows that biologically managed systems have increased nutrient and water storage, improved soil structure and resilience to climactic extremes. Soil carbon acts like a giant sponge; a 1% increase in organic carbon can increase the soil’s ability to store water by 144,000 litres/hectare, roughly a bucket of water per square meter.”

She adds: “I personally believe that the most cost effective strategy would be educating farmers around methods to increase the water holding capacity of their soils directly.”

To the Regional Council, however, ‘water storage’ means only one thing – build a dam. Narrow-gauge thinking; hardly considered ‘cutting edge’ on the world scene.

Why isn’t our Regional Council climbing all over ‘smart farming’ and drawing upon the experiences of Avery, Ridler, Tichinin, Masters and others here in the region? These experts are hands-on, dirt under the fingernails, not policy wonk planners. They can point to success stories right here in Hawke’s Bay. They represent the kind of expertise in which HBRC should invest if it really wants to build resilience into Hawke’s Bay farming.

Why doesn’t HBRC create and lead a programme to help farmers excel at dryland farming? (Today’s answer: it lacks the will and the in-house expertise.) Better still, why not create a ‘Farming Resilience Centre’ – an education and training institution, a physical hub for our local experts, perhaps at EIT, to help any farmer in the region understand and adopt ‘best practices’ whatever their type of farming?

Why not create financial incentives for farmers to embrace ‘best practices’ and reap the rich economic return for our region? After all, we subsidise clean heat and insulation for ‘public good’ reasons.

The bottom line is that there might just be better ways to accomplish water storage, improve farm productivity and incomes, and grow premium food attractive for discerning global markets than building a $300 million dam, which requires another $300 million from farmers to use.

It’s called ‘smart farming’ … and we should make it our mission and signature here in Hawke’s Bay.

Editor Note: A 17-minute version of Doug Avery’s presentation can be viewed here:

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