Blue Baby

If you stand back far enough with a fish-eyed perspective you can detect some time-dependent themes - modus operandi - methods of operation - that have guided the development in the pastoral sector over the years. For most of our farming pioneers, the initial goal was simply to survive, some did not – they walked the bridge to nowhere. This spirit of survival gave way, after World War II, to the production mode; more sheep, more cattle, more cows was called progress. Grow two blades of grass where previously there was one as Jonathan Swift the Irish author put it. This narrative in turn morphed in the 1970s and 1990s to productivity – utilize those two blades of grass better - the drive for efficiency was on as farmers consolidated their mainly family business. With the introduction of the RMA (1992) the new imperative became grow 2 blades of grass, use them efficiently and at the same time, look after the environment. Water quality was the primary issue.

With this broad historical perspective in mind, what amazes me is the speed at which farmers have adapted to meet each of these challenges. Some will not agree with this conclusion, for example Greenies want unattainable goals of perfection now.

Within a decade this generation of farmers have learned that there are 4 water pollutants: nitrogen, phosphorous, sediments and pathogen.  They have learned that the last 3 get into water bodies via surface movement of water. Riparian buffers are the control levers. They have learned that nitrogen is different – most of it gets into groundwater by the leaching of nitrate, mainly from N rich urine patches.  Managing the frequency and time of urinations onto the soil is the lever.

They have learnt, or at least I should say given what follows, have been told, that they must focus on reducing nitrate N leaching and have been introduced to a tool called Overseer, which is being used as the key nitrate management tool.

To focus farmer’s minds on the nitrate issue, they are told that the critical concentration of nitrate N in drinking water is 11.2 ppm. If babies drink water with > 11.2 ppm they may get methaemoglobinaemia (blue baby syndrome). Regional maps, peppered with Red Dots, where water wells have exceeded 11.2 ppm, have a strong visual impact and, based on these, statements of impending doom are offered by some extremists, including some Regional Councils.

But recent research throws serious doubt on this old WHO ‘gold standard’.  It is now being realized, and this includes WHO, that there is “a strong association between infant methaemoglobinaemia and microbial pollution in water….” What this means is that providing water is “microbiologically safe it can be used for bottle-feed infants” providing the nitrate N concentration is < 22.6 ppm. In other words the safe upper limit is double the old standard providing the water is microbiologically safe.

Applying this new information, two New Zealand scientists have proposed new risk categories (high, medium, low), for water nitrate N concentrations.  The new low risk category sets the critical level at < 22.6 ppm nitrate N, providing the microbial contamination is < 1 cfu/100 E.coli. Applying these new categories to a national set of data, increases the proportion of water samples at low risk in terms of animal health from about 75% to about 95%. There was a strong regional effect. For the sets of data from Canterbury and Waikato the frequency of samples in the low risk category increase from 65% to about 95%. The effect on the Taranaki data was much less, from about 80% to 90% - Taranaki water is inherently cleaner. When this information was transferred onto those spectacular, provokingly visual, ‘Risk Maps’ that the Regional Councils so love most of the Red Dots turned Green.  Green for ‘Go - Farming’? 

It seems to me that this new science must be assessed immediately by the specialists in this discipline to test its veracity in New Zealand. Some additional science may be required. Some time may be required. Some of the Regional Council plans might need to be paused for a while. But this must be done given what is at stake. We have learned in the last few years that meeting the 11.2 ppm standard is going to cost farmers money – in some cases large bucks.

I can hear the central and regional bureaucrats throwing their desperate hands into the air – we can’t do that, our plans are in place – we can’t do that, it will destroy our credibility - we can’t do that because we will not be told what to do - we can’t do that it will cost too much money - we can’t do that………! The irony will be palpable – for too long they have been telling farmers to stop resisting change.


Doug Edmeades : March 13 2015

Elephants and Pastures

There has been an elephant standing silently and patiently in the discussion room of the dairy industry for a long time – since the 1950s is my guess. Some scientists from our past – I’m thinking of McMeekan, Hutton, Bryant and Holmes, but there were many others - driven by their science and reason, put it there.  They thought it would be a perpetual reminder to future generations of dairy farmers of a wisdom they had found – the holy grail of the pastoral industry. They reasoned that subsequent generations would need to be blind not to see it. Or stupid? Unfortunately they did not realize just how stupid. 

The first doses of myopia were injected into the dairy industry when some vets decided that per cow production was the way to dairy utopia. This cause was given great impetus with the realization that the genetic potential of our cows, in terms of milk production, was not being realized. Pasture must be supplemented in order to ‘shoot’ for per cow production. The cow must be weaned slowly from the all-pasture breast. 

Then thanks to the Muldoon Government’s Big Thinking we got our first urea plant; the white prills of progress were spread onto to increasing areas of pastoral soils at increasing rates of application. What was seen initially as a tactical option to increase shoulder pasture production became a strategic necessity. An addictive management drug? 

Dairy farmers have always dabbled with cropping, particularly with brassicas to fill in production-curve holes, whether winter or summer, but then they found amazing maize! 20 to 30 tonnes of DM per hectare in 6 months! Bring it on - big is good.  And then bigger - PKE!  And better - full mixed rations.  El Dorado – the mythical city of gold had been found and the dairy industry was now insulated against mother-natures droughts.  Peace of mind at least. Who cares about elephants and what they may say.

But ignoring the elephant in the room comes at a cost. Dr Tim Mackle, CEO of Dairy NZ recently sounded the first alarm bell. Reporting on last season’s economic farm survey data, he highlighted that farm working expenses had increased by $1/kg MS, largely due to an increase on feed costs, up from 80c/kg MS to $1.40/kg MS. A recent report expressed the problem differently; a typical dairy operation is making $20,000 less money than it could have, by intensifying and milking approx. 400 cows, rather than remaining milking less than 300 cows.

You must wonder where the dairy industry is heading. The farmer owned cooperative Fonterra, keeps demanding more and more milk – with commodities more volume, it appears, equates to more profit. And farmers have responded by using more fertiliser N and supplementary feeding (more production per cow and more cows). The ironical result is that Mr Average Dairy Farmer appears to be making less profit as a consequence. So what is good for Fonterra may not necessarily be good for the individual farmer, in terms of profitability. Do we have a house divided against itself?

What the elephant has been saying since the 1950s is that our New Zealand, low cost, clover-based pastoral system, with all weather grazing in situ, is a winner.  It is the source of our competitive advantage internationally. It is the reason we can compete globally even though we are far removed from the markets.

The question must be asked – where is the leadership in this industry? Dairy NZ has introduced us, over the last decade, to the Five Production Systems typically used in NZ, on a continuum from no supplements to about 50% supplements. But they have been steadfastly non-committal about which system is best. But that in turn begs the next obvious question; best for whom; Fonterra or the individual farmer. And I can see Dairy NZ’s dilemma – who is paying the piper in this case?

Despite the inherent conflict I think it is time for DairyNZ to show some good, clean, straight forward leadership: For the majority of dairy farmers, Systems 1 and 2 - those depending largely on pasture production - are the most profitable year-in-year-out and surely what is best for Fonterra in the long-run is to have profitable shareholders.

The good news is that there are now some baby elephants running around with the same message. Some, like Allison Dewes, are motivated by environmental concerns. Others, like Dr John Roach, are motivated by economic concerns and then there are others, like me, who have discovered that we can greatly increase the production of our clover-based pastures simply by getting the soil fertility right.



Doug Edmeades : November 14 2014

A Funding We Will Go

One of the themes that I have been fostering through this column is the importance of that marvelous forage plant called clover to New Zealand’s economy. To recap: It adds about $1.7b worth of free nitrogen to our soils, plus a further $0.8b because it is a superior feed than grasses for ruminants. Recall also that I suggested that we should be aiming to develop a SUPER clover - one that combines the N-fixing ability and forage value of white clover, to the drought tolerance of tap-rooted red clover, and the nutrient scavenging ability of the fibrous rooted grasses. This would be my number one research funding priority.

Alas the truth. My sources tell me that New Zealand invests a paltry $6.0m annually on clover research most of which is spent in the laboratories in agResearch - there is, it appears, very little clover research being conducted in the field.  By contrast about $22m is spent annually on research on ryegrass - $12m from the crown via agResearch and a further $10 from the commercial seed companies.

Given the importance of pasture to New Zealand, these numbers are woeful and furthermore it appears we have gotten our priorities wrong – more R&D on grasses than clovers? This is reflected also in the large recent investment developing the Forage Value Index (FVI), which oddly, does not include the most important component of our forage system, clover. How can that be? I thought that one of the goals of the science reforms, which began in 1992, was to get better alignment between the goals of science and the needs of industry. And I’m referring here to farmers not the seed industry. 

Perhaps that is the problem here. Does the seed industry make more profit from developing and selling ryegrasses and if so why? Cynically, are we breeding ryegrasses doomed to fail under farm conditions, and hence developing a self-perpetuating market? Are ryegrasses a more attractive marketing proposition to farmers, with all that cerebral, sexy talk about endophytes, ploidy and flowering date? Perhaps clover, with its hard, long-lasting seed plus its stolon propagation, is simply too successful for its own good. Once the soil fertility is right, and this is frequently not the case, it persists year after year, drought after drought, insect after insect.  No external seed required.

Whatever the motivation of the seed industry, they are well supported these days by the fertiliser co-ops and its minions who sell N fertiliser and supplementary feeds - who needs to bother with clover?  The conflict of interest is quietly stark:  optimise the profit of the co-op, or its owners, the farmer?   

Maybe it is a consequence of the remarkably inane science funding system we have developed. Prioritizing and allocating research dollars is difficult, that is appreciated. But wisdom says that the best outcomes are achieved where there is optimal richness of knowledge, intelligence and experience of all the stakeholders relevant to the decision making; funders, scientists, industry and farmers. Such a combination of expertise and skill is unlikely to be found in Wellington where these decisions are made.

Maybe Ockham’s Razor should be invoked to find an explanation: to paraphrase - ‘the best possible explanation is typically the simplest’. And the simplest reason for the lack of research investment in clover is that we have simply forgotten about its importance to our pastoral industry.

Shame on us – our forbears would be turning in their graves if they knew we had lost sight of this fundamental principle. I’m thinking here of the great names in New Zealand pastoral research; Paul Smallfield, Peter Sears and Prof Walker who never tired of telling farmers that our competitive advantage internationally was based on our low cost pastoral system: clover-based pastures grazed in situ.

I can still hear the echo of their message and I am by no means alone: Dr John Roche (DairyNZ), Prof Holmes (retired, Massey University) and Dr Derrick Moot (Lincoln University) are all disciples. But our voices are not as clear or crisp as those of our antecedents – this simple message is fuzzed-up by all the commercial chatter encouraging farmers to use more fertiliser N and more supplements and provide Fonterra with maximum production.

Perhaps the prospect of a low MS payout will be sufficient to remind dairy farmers what the sheep and beef sector learned back in the early 1990s – maximum production does not always equate with maximum profit.  Lets purge ourselves of this inefficiency? 






Doug Edmeades : November 14 2014

Cadmium - Alarmism v. Realism

If I wanted to alarm you I would tell you that cadmium is a toxic, carcinogenic heavy metal. I would tell you that it is being applied to our soils at about 30-40 tonnes per year, according to Dr Mike Joy of Massey University, as a contaminant in fertiliser. I would tell you that Dr Jan Wright, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, in her recent report on the disposal of drilling wastes in Taranaki coastal sands, noted that, “Cadmium is a particular concern because it bio-accumulates in animals.”

These statements are all true and when taken at face value will alarm most people. After all, they are all consistent with what the mainstream media have been saying for years – we are going to environmental hell in a handcart. Down with industry, down with farmers, down with progress! 

Now let us look at some very important qualifications - qualifications that considerably change the perception of this ‘problem’.

Cadmium is a contaminant of phosphate rocks. So whether you are using a manufactured P fertiliser or applying untreated phosphate rock you are adding cadmium to the soil. In the bad-ol-days Nauru rock was the main source of P imported into NZ. It had a cadmium concentration of between 400-600 mg Cd per kg P. These days because of voluntary restrictions by the Fertiliser Industry the weighted average cadmium content of imported phosphate rocks is about 180 mg Cd/kg P. It is called intelligent progress.

A large amount of soil testing has been done in recent years and indicates a mean soil cadmium concentration of 0.44 mg/kg soil, with slightly higher mean levels in dairying (0.59) and orchards (0.55) and the highest levels in the Waikato, Taranaki and Bay of Plenty (0.74, 0.70, and 0.58 respectively). Background non-farmed soils have levels around 0.20. So there is enrichment due to P fertiliser use.

Soil minerals bind up cadmium so the next question becomes: how much of this total cadmium is in fact ‘plant available’ and therefore likely to get into the pasture-animal-human food chain.  Our best estimate is that the plant available cadmium represents about 1000th of the total cadmium. Mike Joy’s figure of 30 to 40 tonnes of total Cd becomes 0.03-0.04 tonnes of available Cd.

Although its availability in the soil is low, pasture plants do take up cadmium. Typical concentrations are 0.08, 0.04 and 0.20 ppm for grasses, legumes and weeds. It is wonderfully ironic that if P fertiliser is withheld to reduce the soil cadmium loading, the weed content of pasture will increase and hence the animal intake of cadmium is likely to increase.

And yes, pasture cadmium is ingested by animals, where it accumulates over time primarily in kidney but also in the liver, but most importantly, not in the muscle.  It is for this reason that there is a strict policy in NZ to condemn for human consumption all kidneys from animal over 2.5 years old.  A recent paper, examining NZ pastures and applying a simple model concluded that, “no pastures tested resulted in sheep and cattle ingesting cadmium at a rate that would result in breaching muscle-tissue food safety.” 

In case that is insufficient precaution, New Zealand has put in place a “Tiered Fertiliser Management System” to screen soil cadmium levels over time. As, and if, soil cadmium levels increase, “increasingly stringent P fertiliser management conditions apply to the point where if the cadmium levels exceeds 1.8 ppm no further cadmium accumulation is permitted without a site specific risk assessment.” Another example of objective management.

It was noted earlier that virgin soils, which have never seen a ‘sniff’ of fertiliser P, contain cadmium (about 0.20 ppm). Cadmium is ubiquitous in the ecosystem. Alarmists need to understand and appreciate this simple fact. The presence of cadmium per se in the soil is not reason to throw the toys out of the cot. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment appears to fall into this trap. She says in relation to the Taranaki Land Farms,  “Cadmium is a particular concern because it bio-accumulates in animals.” So what and does it matter?

Commissioned by the Taranaki Regional I analyzed the soil and pastures at the completed ‘Landfarms’ in Taranaki, following incorporation of drilling wastes in to the soils and the establishment of pastures, as allowed by the permits issued by the Taranaki Regional Council. The cadmium levels in the soils were similar to those found in non-farmed soils and the pasture cadmium levels were at the low end for typical NZ pastures.  So the Commissioners comment in her report, “Cadmium is a particular concern because it bio-accumulates in animals” is barren of any real practical meaning, unless she means we should also be concerned about natural accumulation of cadmium in the ecosystem. 

Both Dr Joy and the Commissioner could also do well to consider that, according to the most recent (2009) NZ total Diet Survey by MaF, our human exposure to cadmium has decreased significantly since the late 1980s and is currently at about 25% of the Tolerable Monthly Intake, as set by the WHO. 

Alarmed or informed? That is the beauty and power of this process that man has developed called science. Without it mankind degenerates back to alarmism and ultimately mysticism.  Witches and goblins anyone?   



Doug Edmeades : November 14 2014

Impossible Dream

Don Quixote went on crusades to revive the principles of chivalry. He was asked why he bothered and his answers are recorded in the popular song ‘Impossible Dream”.  Recall he intended to “march into hell for a heavenly cause.” I now know what that’s like.

Last week I gave a paper to the Second National Conference on Biological Farming. Most of the attendees were of course devoted organic growers and farmers. Most of the speakers were advocating organic principles. My paper was entitled “The Fallacy of the Organic Movement.” My heavenly cause was to inject a dose of science and logic into the proceedings.

Prior to our modern scientific understanding of soil science and plant nutrition it was believed that humus (organic matter) was the ‘life force’ of the soil, the active ingredient that made plants grow. Such a view was understandable because accumulated experience showed the soils rich in humus (i.e. dark topsoils) were more productive than lighter soils and that adding composts and other organic wastes to soils improved soil productivity and soil quality.

This view collapsed, starting with Liebig and others in about 1850s, as knowledge and understanding improved.  We now know that nutrients (and there are 16 essential nutrients) are the active ingredients in soils and that plants grow healthily and normally in the absence of humus. Hydroponics is proof of this fact. This is not to say that organic matter is not important in soil fertility – it is – it improves storage of moisture and nutrients.  The point here is that there is nothing magical or mysterious about humus.

The magical-humus theory should have died at this point but for a Sir Alfred Howard. In the early 1900s he worked for a time in India and showed that adding compost to impoverished soils enhanced soil productivity and quality. No surprise there. What was surprising is that he explained his results by reasserting the old myth that soil humus was the vital life force in soils.  Whether he knew about the emerging nutrient research or simply chose to ignore I do not know but the legacy he has left his followers is that they are now trapped in an agricultural system, which properly belongs to the Middle Ages.

A Lady Balfour picked up the organic torch armed with Howard’s result and false conclusions, rallied support and formed the Soil Association promoting what they called “humus farming” which perpetuated the mantra “feed the soil not the plant” and this meant feeding the “magical component” – the soil humus and its living biomass or in modern parlance the soil-food-web. 

The organic movement probably would have remained a tiny footnote in history if it were not for the emergence, in the late 20th century, of post-modern philosophy and its practical offshoot Political Correctness. PC‘ism promotes the view that all opinions are of equal value irrespective of what the evidence says. Truth in other words is what you wish to believe to be true. After years of fighting the science establishment for legitimacy and credibility, the organic movement at last had a socially acceptable platform from which to perpetuate their false claims.

Today the movement rests on three major claims: Organic products are healthier and more nutritious than conventional food; Organic farming has a lower environmental foot-print and, organic practices are better for soil quality. My paper to the Conference presented a summary of the research showing that the scientific evidence does not support these claims.

International research comparing conventional and organic farms indicates that the production from organic systems is lower by about 60% to 70% relative to conventional farming systems. Furthermore, the environmental footprint of organic farming systems is no better or worse that from conventional systems, when compared at the same level of production. And long-term trials comparing manures with chemical fertiliser show that organic fertiliser when applied at the equivalent amounts of nutrients are no better or worse that chemical fertiliser in terms of crop production and soil quality.  Three recent meta-analyses of the international literature conclude that there is no evidence to support the view that organic produce is healthier or otherwise better than conventional food (for more detail go to 

Later in the Conference there was discussion session inviting ideas about the future needs of the Biological Farming movement. It was seriously suggested and widely supported that they needed more science. I pointed out that there was already a large amount of science on the subject. This was rejected on the grounds: “that is your science, Doug, we need our own science.” This is PCism in practice - ones opinions are tantamount – they are the ‘truth’ - and ‘science’ is simply a tool to support that opinion. This of course is the antithesis of the science method.  It is gloriously ironic that while the organic/biological movement rejects science that disproves their claims, it craves the credibility and power of science.  Like a symbiotic rata vine it must choke the life out of its support to survive. Post-modern philosophy and its illegitimate children such as the organic movement are in essence anti-science. It is this hell that must be challenged with the heavenly cause of science. 

Doug Edmeades : July 08 2014

If You Can Keep Your Head?

If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you; ”. This is of course the opening line to Kipling’s well-known and much loved poem “IF”.  It wandered into my mind when contemplating recent developments in managing water quality.

There should be no doubt that improving the quality of the water in some of our rivers and lakes is a major challenge confronting our pastoral industry. We must find ways of cleaning up our act without going broke in the process.
But two Regional Councils, Horizons with their “One Plan”, and Environment Canterbury with their “Land and Water Plan”, have, by ignoring sound science advice and the wishes of the societies they purport to serve, introduced plans that set unachievable levels for nitrate nitrogen leaching. Unachievable in the sense that to achieve them farmers will go broke.

For example a client of mine has a large dairy operation in Canterbury. Currently the estimate N leaching loss is about 120 kg N/h/yr. We have looked at many changes to the operation to reduce the N loading, including reducing cow numbers and fertiliser N use, introducing DCD (now banned), building stand off pads and putting in a herd home. By introducing all these measures the nitrate loading should get down to about 36 kg N/ha/yr but this will reduce farm profitability by about 30-40%.  The limit set by the Canterbury RC for this zone is 20 kg N/ha/yr!

The lunacy goes deeper. There are 4 components to water quality: sediments, pathogen, P and N, and as I understand these matters all catchments are different. The water quality in some catchments will only improve by limiting sediments. For others it is the P loading or the N loading that needs to be controlled. If this is so why is all the current focus on N loadings?

And of course all the focus is on the farmer – changing farm management policies and practices is now embedded in our minds as the only solution to the problem.

I think it is time we started to think outside the square. Why not change the focus away from a “farm management problem” to an “industrial problem.” Why not attack it from the other end. Extract or otherwise remove the pollutants after they have gotton into the water. Think about it!

With todays technology was can build and operate desalination plants. Seawater in one end and pure potable water out the other end. Why not adapt this knowledge and approach to the water quality issue?

Imagine: Big irrigation schemes are either in place, being developed or on the books in both Islands. Why not tile-drain these soils, collect the drainage water pass it through a “desalination plant”, strip the nutrients out and recycle the clean water back through the irrigation system. The accumulated nutrients of course would be tomorrow’s fertiliser.

This need not be restricted to irrigation schemes. Large flat areas such as the Matamata plains, the Hauraki Plains, some areas in Northland, Taranaki, and Manawatu could be similarly developed.

Impossible? Well BOP Regional Council is now adopting this industrial approach. Alum – an otherwise benign chemical - is being added to Lake Rotoehu   because it reacts with and precipitates the P out of solution. A physical barrier has been built to divert the ‘dirty’ water from Lake Rotorua (including some urban sewage) down river to the sea rather than into the more sensitive land-bound Lake Rotoiti.

In the same vein dairy shed effluent is a potential ‘point source’ of pollutants. We could industrialize this too. We send tankers to the farm to collect milk why not send tankers to the farm to collect the dairy shed effluent. It could be brought back to a central processing plant where its valuable components could be harvested.  The nutrients could be stripped out and recycled into the fertiliser industry, the organic matter could be utilized to produce biogas and the clean water returned to the farm our put in the municipal water supplies. 

If we can almost eradicate contagious diseases and put a man on the moon and build an atomic bomb we sure as hell can develop large scale industrial solutions to solve our puny water quality issues, rather than cripple our pastoral industry with endless rules and regulations. And don’t give me the nonsense that this is taking farming further down the industrial path or that modifying soils is not natural. Ever since our ancestors came out of the forests onto the plains they have be modifying soils and industrializing their processes.

One of our human limitations is that we look at the problems ahead through the eyes of our current technology and from this perspective they can look overwhelming. This myopia traps us into negativity – we think we must go backwards to achieve our goals. Dr Joy of Massey University for example sees the only solution to the water quality issue is to first restrict the growth in dairying and secondly de-intensify.  This approach is not sustainable – it may achieve some desirable environmental goals but it would come at avoidable economic and social costs.  Let us use our heads not lose them. 



Doug Edmeades : July 08 2014

Get Professional Advice

New Zealand pastoral farmers spend $1.5 b annually on fertiliser. It is the major item of expenditure – the average Dairy farmer spends $80,000 annually, the Sheep & Beef farmer about $60,000.  This expenditure is essential because without regular fertiliser inputs soil nutrient levels would decline, clover would disappear and this wonderful clover-based pastoral system that provides us with our international competitive advantage would collapse. The brutal chemical truth is that soils do not make nutrients they only store them. The nutrients removed from the soil in products and losses such as leaching and runoff must be put back. Mother nature is not benign.

Fertilisers are not only essential and costly but developing a fertiliser plan and deciding which fertiliser to use is no easy matter. It is, or at least should be, left to people with the appropriate scientific and technical skills. Often this is not the case. There are many reasons.

In 1976, when my science career began at Ruakura (RIP), the fertiliser industry reflected its co-operative origins. The company staff who offered fertiliser advice to farmers were called Technical (my emphasis) Reps. They had tertiary qualifications, were well trained and applied the best science they could find. Frequent interaction with the research scientists in the then MAF Research Division, both formal and informal was the norm.  This effort was matched by the national network of MAF Farm Advisors, some of who specialized in soil fertility and fertilisers and offered independent advice. This whole technology transfer system, from the soil scientists through the Technical Reps and Farm Advisors was focused on doing the best for agriculture and the individual farmer. And it was all ‘free’ providing the farmer had shares in the cooperative or paid his taxes.

In the interests of economic efficiency (remember Rogernomics or should that in hindsight be Rogerednomics?) this much admired technology transfer system was dismantled. 

The 2 major remaining fertiliser companies, despite their cooperative governance, are now acting like corporates as they compete for market share. Their senior Reps are now called Account Managers (whose accounts do they manage?) and sales is the goal.  In their search for profits both the Blue and Green companies – they are color coded for easy reference - pay lip service to science and launch upon their owners new products of dubious merit. Similarly the free services offered by the independent the MAF Farm Advisors was smashed to smithereens by the wrecking ball called ‘user-pays’ and only fragments now remain. 

Other changes have made the farmer’s decision-making in respect to fertiliser even more treacherous. There is no Fertiliser Act meaning that there is no legal definition for the word fertiliser. This is laize-fare politics at it best. You can now sell anything and call it a fertiliser. And they - the market – do. Ground basalt rock suitable for roading, and liquid seaweed fertiliser suitable for nothing, are dressed up in a cloak of pseudo-science to sound to the layman as breakthrough science. The only effect such products can have is to move money from your bank account to theirs!  And equally tragic the science fraternity, whether University or CRI remains silence least their funding is jeopardized – “No one speaks the truth when there is something they must have.” 

In this brave new open economy the farmer is left alone to ponder: “Fertiliser is my big item of expenditure, who can I get to help me with this decision?” “Who can help me wade through the flotsam and jetsam of fertiliser advertising.” “I’ve been conned into some of that rocking horse poo, fringe stuff before – not going back there.” “There seems to be an endless changing of the guard in both the Blue/Green teams – and they seem to get younger and younger.” Confusion and frustration clouds out logic and despite his gut feeling that the pastures are not what they were, he convinces himself that he will apply the same fert as last year– after all it was not a bad year. 

Why should this be when it comes to the biggest expenditure item? I think the problem is this. Farmers for so long got reliable free advice about fertilisers. A change to a more professional approach is now required. I know many farmers who agree and many have made this transition.   

Farmers seek advice & assistance from many professionals to operate their businesses.  They do not hesitate to get $300/hr legal advice when required. They annually pay their accountant a hefty fee to ‘sort out the books.’ Hip replacements and other medical advice is frequently done at private hospitals and frequently the children are sent to boarding school to get the best education money can buy. Even the farm machinery gets fixed by a professional.

But when it comes to the big-ticket item of fertiliser expenditure they repeat last years recipe (even thought his instincts tell him otherwise), do what the neighbor does (his farm looks ok), get free advice from his co-op (free may not mean good) or fall prey to the muck and mystery brigade, their mystical philosophies and their useless products. 

I will repeat the advice I have been given many times as I have transitioned from public service to commerce: surround yourself with professionals who you can trust for sound advice.

Doug Edmeades : July 08 2014

Four Leaf Clover

I have never found a four leaf clover. I had a young lass working for me some time back and she was always finding them, bucking the odds of about 1:10,000. Finding one is regarded as a portent of good luck. The 4 leaves are regarded as symbols of Faith, Hope, Love and Luck. We could all do with the fruits of this mutant white clover.

I mention this because I have recently reread Paul Smallfield’s book “The Grasslands Revolution of New Zealand” published in 1970. He was one of the first “Instructors in Agriculture” recruited by the then Department of Agriculture in 1921 and spent the last 4 years of his career (1958 to 1962) as the Director General of the Department.

The development of the New Zealand pastoral industry over those 40 years of his career is a remarkable story – it was truly revolutionary.  Our forebears obviously had tremendous hope and faith, they certainly had the luck of an ideal climate and soils for pastoral agriculture, and I guess the love of being ones’ own boss gave them a sense of freedom. I see this confidence reflected in the older architecture in rural New Zealand towns; large, strong, durable post offices and public trust offices. 

The mood was progressive and positive it seemed the only limits where minds, muscles and money. No interfering Regional Councils, petty bureaucrats, rules and regulations, meaningless paper work, and no doomsday merchants to sap the energy, dull the mind, and undermine confidence. If government - its policies and officials - were represented on-farm is was largely motivated to help the developing pastoral industry. 

Mistakes were made sure – we cleared land for pasture that was not fit for this purpose. We perhaps drained too many swamps without realising their value as nutrient traps and in terms of maintaining biodiversity. We were over vigorous with some chemicals, which we now know are dangerous.

The point is not that mistakes were made – we are human and perfection is not achievable. (‘….to err is human’). The telling aspect is that we exercised that other great human attribute – we learned from these mistakes and are better for it (cf. Catchment Boards, RMA Act, wetlands and more benign chemicals etc.) Importantly, in our pastoral-past, fear of making mistakes was never an issue – progress was the goal.

This, go-get-him attitude, was understandable and justifiable. Much progress had been made since the industrial revolution began in the early 1800s – science and technology was proving to be a great asset to humanity. Don’t believe me? Try this.  Human longevity has increase from about 30 years (Middle Ages) to 50 years (about 1900) up to 85 years today. The longest soil experiment commenced in 1850 – they grew 1 tonne/ha of wheat. Today with modern cultivars, chemicals and fertilisers that some ground produces 12 tonnes/ha. Science and technology is potent.   

Alas in todays PC, post-modern world we are now trapped by what is called the Precautionary Principle. In effect this says that if an action or policy is suspected (my emphasis) to cause harm to the environment then it is up to those proposing the action/policy to prove it is safe. In effect – if there is a risk, say to the environment, do not do it! I suspect that if this philosophy had been in force throughout Smallfield’s career, his book would have been slender indeed, because of the lack of progress.

One of the flaws in this approach is the word ‘suspected’. It is not necessary that the risk is proven – it only needs to be suspected - an open invitation for any green-tinged ecologist to stop, or at least slow down, any sensible activity. And furthermore, once suspected, it is up to those who propose the action to prove there is no risk. Costs escalate.

The other deeper philosophical problem is that there is no such thing as “risk free.” Ever since mankind set foot on the planet he has modified in some shape or form the world around him, no doubt causing harm to some other forms of life.

In the hands of the green movement the Precautionary Principle is a quasi-legal, almost religious, justification to halt progress. It is this principle which prompts the argument that the RMA Act should be altered so that it focuses exclusively on the environment as does not consider social and economic outcomes when considering resource use. It is a small step from this position to the argument that the only way to save the planet is to get rid of humans, which some extremists seriously propose.

I remain a rational optimist, to borrow the title of Matt Ridley’s recent book. I base this on the rational evidence which shows the tremendous progress mankind has made in the last 200 years – we live longer, are healthier, are better feed and have a better lifestyle than any previous generation. To invoke the song – it is vital that we do not overlook this four leaf clover.




Doug Edmeades : July 08 2014

Excuses, Excuses, Excuses

There is a cacophony of denial out there in farm-land. I am not talking about the local sports teams or politicians. I am referring to my pet hobby-horse – white clover. We give ourselves so many reasons to justify to ourselves why white clover no longer thrives on our farms like it did back in Dad’s day; it must be the dreary droughts, it must be the fickle flea, it must be the evil weevil or miss’s management or mister drug, fertiliser N. The list goes on.

I have no doubt that these events, practices and insects have some effect sometimes but I am not prepared to concede that we should all take an early shower, pack the kit and retire to our clover-less farms.

I say excuses because the science behind growing clover is mature thanks to our scientific forebears like the late great Prof T W Walker.

Clover like most plants needs 16 nutrients. Thankfully, for us, most of these are abundant in our soils.  Some are ubiquitous like hydrogen (H), oxygen (O) and carbon (C). Others are abundant in our soils - for example, Calcium (Ca), Iron (Fe), Manganese (Mn), Zinc (Zn). The ones typically lacking our soils are: Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), potassium (K), Sulphur (S) and on some soils Magnesium (Mg) and the trace element molybdenum (Mo).  There are some qualifications required. Selenium (Se) and Cobalt (Co) are added to fertilisers in specific cases not because the plant needs them (they are not one of the 16 essential nutrients) but because animals require them.

A further important clarification is to do with nitrogen. All soils and this is universal are N deficient. Thus fertiliser N is essential for all non-leguminous crops (e.g. cereals, maize, brassicas). That is why it is the dominant nutrient traded and sold around the world. It is estimated that 48% of the world’s population can and are being feed as a consequence of fertiliser N.  This simple fact of course is hardly likely to dampen the enthusiasm of the fertophobic green fringe. 

Our pastoral system in New Zealand is different because we have that mighty forage legume white clover.  It is a great food for ruminants and adds ‘free’ N to the system. An ideal clover-based pasture containing 30-40% clover should add about 150 to 200 kg N/ha/yr. I say inverted commas ‘free’ because there is a cost.  This otherwise marvelous plant white clover has a serious flaw. It was born with a weak root system – its roots are shallow and are non-fibrous, quite unlike grasses. It struggles to compete for water and nutrients relative the grasses and hence it needs higher soil nutrient levels than grasses, except of course for N. The clover plant is biophysically retarded. It needs the tender loving care of a shy but otherwise prodigious child. 

That is why it is the first component of the pasture to struggle and ultimately disappear if one of those 16 essential soil nutrients is not present.  The exception is N - because it fixes it own N it will easily out-compete grasses when the soil N levels are low, like after cropping, providing it is feed plenty of P, K, S etc. And clover, like all plants, is subject to Leibigs famous Law: A plant can only grow as fast as the most limiting nutrient.  Putting more and more super (P & S) on a soil that is K deficient for example is a waste of money. You would be surprised how frequently this occurs.

We ignore these facts at our peril and that is of course exactly what we are doing these days in pasture-land. Clover-based pastoral farming in New Zealand is in my view in a perilous state.

A sad anecdote will illustrate the point. I was asked to audit the fertiliser program on a very large dairy operation. I inspected the pasture, collected clover samples for analysis and summarized their very good soil test records. It was clear that despite above optimal levels of all other nutrients, the farm was severely deficient in K. I reported this fact to the owners and indicated what was required to rectify the problem together with information on the likely production and economic benefits.  In turn they sought an assessment of my recommendation from their fertiliser cooperative. They were told that it is not economic to correct K deficiency!!! Imagine going to the doctor and being told after suitable testing that you had Type 1 diabetes but is it not economic to give you insulin!!  If you are pastoral farm then correcting any nutrient limitation is always economic.

The outcome of the inevitable squabble was a field trial to determine whether the pasture on this soil (Soil Quick Test level 4) would respond to increasing rate of fertiliser K. Surprise, surprise, eliminating the K deficiency increased pasture production over 3 years by about 35%.  This result was entirely predictable from the known science. That is the true value of mature science – we can use it to accurately predict future outcomes. So thanks to Prof Walker and all the other scientists who contributed to accumulating all of this science know-how.  As Issac Newton, that irascibly brilliant mind, once quipped referring to his scientific predecessors;  “I can see further because I am standing on the shoulders of giants.” Is it more giants we need or just more people prepared climb up the shoulders? 


Doug Edmeades : July 08 2014

Clover Is Big Business

The late Professor Walker of Lincoln University used many aphorisms to   hammer home his messages. One he modified from Jonathon Swift: “Superphosphate has done more good for New Zealand than all the politicians put together”.  The other that I remember was more indigenous and ingenious: He famously asserted that the leaf of the white clover plant would be a more appropriate symbol for a vibrant pastoral agricultural-based country like New Zealand rather than the ‘useless’ silver fern or the flightless, nocturnal kiwi. He had good reasons. 

Clover gets its nitrogen from the air and via the grazing animal that nitrogen goes into the soil thereby maintaining the production of our pastures. That nitrogen is worth about $1.7 b annually.  Without clover we would need to use $1.7 b more fertiliser N! But there is more; animal production per unit of dry-matter consumed is higher from clovers than grasses. The value of this to the dairy industry is about $0.4 b annually. We can probably double that to include the sheep & beef sectors. Without this remarkable forage legume New Zealand’s economy would be down the gurgler by about $2.5 b. Putting that into context the value of NZ pastoral exports is about $20 b.  Clover is big business in New Zealand.  At least it should be.

Sadly we have forgotten about the importance of clover in our pastures. I see the consequences of this every day in my work with farmers – pastures with low clover content, high weed loading, dung and urine patches sticking out like the proverbial dog, and ryegrass plants waiting for their next drug-like dose of bag-N. We have been lulled into this state of clover-apathy by the overuse of fertiliser N, and on dairy farms at least, increasing use of supplements. Who needs clover in this land of plenty?

The problem is confounded by a fertiliser industry content on selling fertiliser N and now feed supplements. An industry which presents itself to its owners - the farmer - as a team of young enthusiastic sales people eager to meet their sales targets and to show you how Overseer works, but unskilled and untrained in the science of soil fertility and pasture nutrition.  It is not their fault that no one has told them how to take soil tests properly or how to ‘read’ pastures for those signs of nutrient stress. It is not their fault that they do not know the best advice I was given as a young scientists, “never believe a soil test result until you have inspected the pastures”! Nor is it their fault that they now have little time for these, the most important tasks, because they are busy doing nutrient budgets and nutrient management plans, neither of which address the real issue on the farm – pasture production, composition and vigor. 

I am not entirely unsympathetic to the fertiliser industry’s dilemma. Fertilisers are defined under the RMA as a contaminant and this is probably how most lay people see fertilisers - using fertiliser results in poor water quality. Ban fertiliser use! This is of course shortsighted nonsense – New Zealand needs to replace the soil nutrients that it exports overseas in agricultural products – but nevertheless, it is public perception.  The industry is very sensitive to this fact.  For this reason, in the last 20 odd years they have invested heavily to keep the green environmental monster from breeching the walls; the Code of Practice for Nutrient Management, the development of Overseer, the roll out of Nutrient Budgeting and now Nutrient Management Plans are all part of this activity, to demonstrate to society that they are honorable stewards – it might be a contaminant but we have it under control. And good on them. But there has been collateral damage – they appear to have taken their eyes off the management of the most important component of our pastoral system – the clover plant.

I would urge a rethink. The big picture is this: A kg of clover–ryegrass dry matter costs about 4-5 cents (marginal cost). A kg of bag-N feed ryegrass DM costs about 10-12 cent and most supplements over 30 cents/kg DM. By all means use fertiliser N and supplements to make a profit - I’m good with that. But if this is being done at the expense of clover production and/or as a substitute for clover production then does that not mean a decrease in profitability? 

This problem is best displayed in the dairy industry. Fonterra is a commodity driven co-operative.  More volume equals more profit. The dairy farmer gets the market signal and cranks up production by introducing more fertiliser N and supplements. The fertiliser industry oblige with the appropriate sales. In the process the farmer’s profits decline. Recent figures from Dairy NZ show that the profitability on the average dairy farmers declined last year because feed costs increased from $0.8 to $1.40/kg MS. The principles underlying this trend are just as relevant to the management of New Zealand sheep and beef farms.

The clover plant is remarkable – it would be, as Prof Walker asserted, a meaningful symbol for a profitable pastoral sector. Perhaps we do not want to be reminded? 

Doug Edmeades : July 08 2014