Better, shinier, newer, different; we as human beings do seem enamored with change.

Often this change can involve short-term solutions to solve the very problems we created in the first place. For example, New York in the early 1900s found the solution to ‘polluting’ carthorses was to replace them with automobiles. More recently, to combat the negative effects from fertilisers, DCD, a nitrogen inhibitor, was applied as a band-aid until it turned up in milk and in waterways suppressing natural nitrogen cycles.

Finding long-term robust solutions to the complex issues facing our planet requires far more than a short-term substitutional approach. There is a growing call for a redesign and transformation in how we tackle all aspects of society, including farming.

Soil health is key to health of entire farming operation

Management practices which reduce soil biology and soil carbon create more vulnerable systems; both climatically and economically. Research is showing when push comes to shove farmers who are already using ‘alternative’ or ‘less’ traditional practices, such as holistic management or biological farming, are more flexible and better able to adapt.

For me, this summer really highlighted the advantages from thinking outside the box. In Hawke’s Bay we expect summer-dry conditions. But the dry and cold spring lead to the driest six months on record since 1952, conditions which dragged on well into autumn. Flying in and out of Napier it struck me how farms looked so markedly different; some were reduced to a dull grey dust, whilst other neighbouring properties still held a tinge of green under tall yellow grasses.

The view inspired me to call some of those farmers and find out what they’ve been up to. The simple message that came back was clear. Although it’s been dry, these successful farmers are all focusing on strategies to work with whatever nature throws at them. Placing an emphasis on building their soils to hold more moisture and nutrients, maintaining groundcover, feeding soil microbes and good grazing management. These farmers have come through the drought with a positive attitude, talking about the ease of management, increased production and profit, reminding me a little of the tale of Rumplestiltskin … turning straw into gold!

Mob stocking

Malcolm White, Association of Biological Farmers (ABF), runs 270ha up the far end of the Puketitiri Road. He identified the severity of the drought early in the season, and proactively responded using a method known as ‘mob stocking’. Against the usual farming ‘norms’, Malcolm put all his stock – cows, calves, yearling ewes, hoggets and lambs – into one mob or ‘flerd’. They spent two days in a paddock and with 50 paddocks in the rotation, the stock didn’t return for around 90 days allowing the farm to grow grass while it could.

This method has many benefits – optimising the spread of nutrients from animal waste, trampling organic matter, and leaving a surprising amount of pasture cover. The cover protects the soil from the hot drying sun, outcompetes weeds and effectively creates an in-situ form of compost, delicious. And as I’ve heard from many a wise farmer “grass grows more grass”. Last year a visiting US holistic grazing practitioner argued that “for every blade of grass trampled, two will grow back”. This is supported by other farmers in Hawke’s Bay now using the practice.

The only downside to a season that “would’ve been a breeze” says Malcolm, was the challenge of getting enough water to supply the demand for 15,000 litres to one trough in five hours! Highlighting there’s always more to learn and improve in farming businesses.

Up the Napier-Taupo highway, Dean Martin, also an ABF committee member, has been honing his holistic grazing system for over 15 years, only returning to pastures after 90 days of growth in summer. “Droughts are inevitable,” he says, yet this year he has run the same stock numbers as last. The concern Dean has is that most farmers rotate sheep too fast, naturally selecting for short rotation grass species. When longer grazing rotations are adopted, there is a lag in quality until the species shift towards those better suited to taller grazing. The minute the rains came his dry northerly faces sprung away, with no regrassing or additional costs, which Dean’s agent commented “nobody else around here is doing that.”

Over summer, nitrogen levels naturally build up in soil. Grazing this first flush can have animal health implications, and nipping the new growth can damage plant recovery. When the rains came Dean moved stock into a sacrifice area and fed supplements for two weeks before starting his rotations again.

Steve Erickson, near Waihi, stated that this summer was the best thing for his farm, as plant roots were encouraged to delve even deeper into the soil in their quest for water. These deeper plant roots provide multiple benefits – access to water, nutrients, feeding microbes and deeper deposits of essential carbon.

Better soil holds more water

In my view, active carbon is highly under-rated in this country; a major factor that can really buffer a farm in times of stress. 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 (30cm depth) can increase the soils ability to store water by 144,000 litres/ha, roughly a bucket of water per m2.

In soils with mineral and microbial imbalances, compaction, and low carbon and groundcover, when the rains finally come, instead of seeping in, water will often move across the surface, taking sediments and nutrients such as phosphate into waterways (see slaking test image). Biological farmers I talk to report the dramatic change to how water functions in their landscapes.

From the air, observing the dried up evaporation dishes cleverly disguised as dams, it certainly made me reflect on the effectiveness of any large water-holding scheme when the rains stop. 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. Dean mirrored the general consensus I’ve heard from other farmers around the proposed dam scheme: “It’s just too expensive, production will increase, but then you’ve got to work harder and end up worse off.” Dean has calculated that it takes 750 litres to produce a kg of dry matter. At the proposed 25c for 1,000 litres and the costs for infrastructure it’s just not adding up. “The best investment for water storage is in the soil.”

 Note: If you’d like to get in touch with any farmers in your area, get in touch with the Association of Biological Farmers:

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