Anecdotal Evidence

According to my dictionary an anecdote is “ a short narrative of an incident of private life.” Anecdotes are frequently used to sell dubious products to unsuspecting farmers. Their use is rife in the area of fertiliser products. 

You will all have heard them. “The chap at the end of the road put on some of that stuff – my word his lambs looked good this year” or “This guy sold me some humate, I chucked in on a bad paddock down the back – now there are earthworms everywhere.” And one that has always intrigued me comes from the south,  “Joe put some of some of that seaweed liquid fertiliser on and now hundreds of seagulls follow his plough.”

The seductiveness of anecdotes is that they are derived from observation and only a fool would dare tell a farmer that his observations are BS.  More than a few scientists have found their scientific certainty undermined by a well sounding anecdote.  So what is the difference between an anecdote and a scientific conclusion and why can they sometimes appear contradictory?

Let me tell you an apocryphal story – a story which is not true but contains a truth, like a fable.

The story is set out-west in the corn-belt in America. A salesman comes into the County. He sells a magic crystal – it fits nicely into the palm of the hand. He claims that it increases corn production by 10-20%.  The crystal is to be placed on a post in the center of the field. It captures energy from the sun and reflects and focuses this natural energy into the growing crop.  The only management required was that the field must be visited once a week and the crystal rotated by 10 degrees to ensure even distribution of the magic life-promoting rays.

Some farmers tried it, diligently following the salesman’s instruction. They reported excellent results.  Word spread around the county and sales increased A trickle became a steady flow of new business. More farmers, more experience, more believers and more conviction.

Before long the county became divided between believers and skeptics.  It turned nasty and very divisive especially when farmers came together at sale-yards and field-days. The County Mayor was eventually drawn in to diffuse the mounting tension.  After much fractious discussion it was agreed to contract an independent scientist to undertake research to test the claims made by the salesman about the magic crystal. Properly designed replicated trials were established and measurements made. 

The County Hall was full to the gunnels for the big night when the scientist reported his results; the ayes on the left and the noes on the right. The mood was tense – reputations were at stake.

The scientist described the design and conduct of the trials. He moved tentatively to the results. He announced that measurements showed that the crop yields were significantly higher in those fields with the magic crystal. The Hall went berserk as the ayes expressed their pent-up delight. Vindication - down with the skeptics!

The Mayor eventually restored calm and the scientist continued in monotone: The reason why the yields were higher was nothing to do with the crystal per se but due to the better husbandry of the ‘crystal’ crops. Because the crops were visited every week those farmers had better weed and pest control of their crops – they were ‘on to it’ speedily and effectively.  The Hall fell silent. The value of science hung silently and sensitively in the air. The salesmen slipped into the dark night. 

So next time you hear a salesman giving you the sales patter about product A or your neighbor tell you a decent yarn about how product B change his farming just remember the crystal story and ask, you can do this silently: I wonder how many other things were changed, deliberately or unintentionally, after the snake oil was applied.

Answers could include: it was a great growing season; the grazing management was changed; I remember now, I did put some nitrogen fertiliser on at the same time; with better product prices I’ve been more diligent with my animal health program. There could be any one of a large number of co-factors, which more logically explain the outcome. That is exactly why the scientific method has been developed – to sort the wheat from the chaff. That is one reason why science is so important to all humanity. Without real science, pseudo science and gooble-de-gook would blossom, just as it has done in our post-modern, PC, deregulated   fertiliser industry.




Doug Edmeades : July 08 2014

AgLeadership - A Many Headed Monster?

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. This insight was gifted to humanity by the Spanish philosopher George Santayana.

If you cast your mind back to the halcyon days of agriculture research and extension in New Zealand you will notice one important feature – the bulk of the funding for research and extension passed through one organization – the Ministry of Agriculture and its various antecedents to either the Research Division or the Advisory Service Division.

Under this organizational model decisions on how the taxpayer’s money was spent on agricultural R & D were made at the national and regional level, and importantly, they were made at the information-rich interface between industry personnel, farmer leaders, farm advisors and scientists (all science managers were scientists in those days)– people who knew science, agriculture and farming.

This model was not perfect primarily because it was, from an employment point of view, based on the inefficient, inflexible public service employment model and funded through the vague Public Finance Act.  But it had two outstanding management features that were thrown out with the bathwater in the early 1990s by the CRI reformists hell-bent on management by ideology.

But one glaring advantage of this model, arising because it was one organisation, was that clear leadership was possible across the whole agricultural R & D landscape. Consequently it was possible to focus the R&D dollar with some sort of precision on long and short-term, and national versus regional, problems. And very importantly decisions about spending priorities and allocations were made as noted in a wisdom-knowledge-data-rich interface between science and the agricultural industry.

Our new Ministry of Primary Industries has been stripped of it roles in both Agricultural Research and Extension. Thus while the Minister the Hon Nathan Guy can give the appearance of leadership and announce aspirational goals for the primary industry (remember 50% increase in production by 2025) he has in fact very few levers to pull. In any case the MPI proudly tells us that the new boss is ex army and I am reliably informed that there are now very few people in MPI who have any deep knowledge and experience of agriculture. A leadership black hole I suspect.

The bulk of the government’s agricultural R & D money now arises in the headwaters of the Ministry for Innovation and Economic Development. Unfortunately the political commitment which feed these headwaters in the past has run a little dry since the reforms – down from about $130 m to about $70 m. Worse the decisions about R & D priorities and allocation are made in the thin arid air of Wellington bureaucracy, some distance from the wisdom-knowledge-data-rich interface alluded to earlier. If asked about their role in agricultural leadership I am sure they would defer to their political masters. Another black hole? 

We were told that one of the major reasons for the agricultural science reforms in the 1990s was to encourage industry investment in R & D. It hasn’t really worked – the NZ industry contribution to R & D remains poor. What it has done, thanks to levies and other financial instruments, is enable every participating agricultural industry to have its own magic Aladdin-like pot of R&D gold. Each pot is governed by it own industry-focused goals and leadership. We no longer have Leadership – we have leaderShips - a veritable armada. Leadership in agricultural research and extension now comes in quantum lumps not quantum jumps.

This funding situation of course only serves to send scientists mad as they waste time (in management speak it is called transaction costs) going from one begging bowl to the other – Oliver Twist like – please sir can I have some more!!!  The same sad tale applies to technology transfer. It is currently something of a buzz-word in Wellington circles because the science reforms excised all institutional memory:  what, did we really have the best agricultural extension service in the world? What happened? Opps?

The agricultural science reformers should be brought to account - they have left agriculture without Leadership, without institutional wisdom, with high transaction costs and with little money. The unified leadership, funding and decision making, a feature of our past, has morphed into that mythic beast the “Lernaen Hydra,” a many-headed beast, which ensures ongoing confusion by growing two new heads for every one excised by reason and logic.


Doug Edmeades : July 08 2014

A Big Clover

If I Ruled The World?

Fred Dagg alias John Clarke butchered the words of many-a-good song. The one I frequently recall starts “If I ruled the world certain people would have to jack up their ideas.”  I want to put myself into that role – I wonder, if I ruled the world of agricultural research what would I make as my numero uno priority?

I would build on the foundation rock of our agricultural competitive advantage – our clover-based pastoral system. This biological factory should be modernized to meet our future needs. Can we?

While clover is a marvelous plant but it was born with genetic deficiencies. It has a frail and shallow rooting system making it drought prone and requiring higher soil nutrient levels. Red clover is tap-rooted but hates being grazed. Ryegrass has a fibrous deeper rooting system but is does not fix nitrogen. Can’t we get these cousins to have sex? If they could what would there babies look like?

These are not idle ideas now that we have this rapidly developing technology called biotechnology. Yes that is what I’m endorsing. Those people who oppose gene technology will need to ‘jack-up their ideas’. I accept that new technology can make folk fearful but like those irrational childish fears of ghost and goblins fear evaporates when confronted with the truth.  I love to remind people that the first steam engines provoked great concern.  Surely the human body will fall apart if it went faster than a horse? The snorting monster will fright humans and animals to death?  The solution to these fears was a man with a red flag running ahead to announce the warning.

So lets use our mighty human intellect and apply all our clever knowledge and technologies for the benefit of all. Lets play god and make a SUPER CLOVER.  It will be tap-rooted with a fibrous root system.  We will increase it photosynthetic efficiency by making it more upright so that ryegrass does not shade it out. We will tweak its ability to fix nitrogen from the air – we want more N per kg dry-matter. And while we are dissecting its genome we might as well get rid of those chemicals it produces that cause bloat and enhance those properties that make is a superior ruminant feed?

To do this I would gather all the gene jockies, biochemists, agronomist, soil scientists, biometricians, and other assorted clever people together under one research banner: SUPER CLOVER.  I would tell them - here is the goal, here are the research dollars, here is the raw material, here are the facilities – don’t call home till you are finished. The Manhattan Project or the Man on the Moon Project is what I have in mind – here is Mount Impossible, go climb.

Major changes in our science organization will be required.  Out with competition, profits, dividends, bidding and begging for funds. Lots of people especially in Wellington would have to ‘jack up their ideas’. Some asset stripping is required to recover the bodies and minds of the scientists trapped in the current managerial and fiscally engorged science administrative system.  This process, phase 1, is to be known internally as ‘releasing the prisoner.’  Once released the prisoners will be allowed to re-inhabit their organisations with their bulk funding plus the large loads of loot previously consumed by those now redundant managers with their inflated salaries, perks and advertising budgets. The phase 2 mantra will be ‘science for science sake’. This will be psychologically difficult as the scientists come to terms with the fact that their job now is not to make money or promote the institution but to use their scientific skills the serve the public good. Special medication may be needed.

I envisage it will take the scientists about 1 micro second to understand the need for such deep reforms. And they will, with delighted sighs, embrace “SuperClover”.  They will ‘dig’ being ‘on the team’ to produce a super forage plant that is drought tolerant, reduces the need for fertiliser N, reduces the requirement to operate our soils at such high soil fertility levels, reduces the potential of runoff of P and leaching of N, that makes lambs grow plump quickly, and doesn’t give daisey a bellyache. And at the same time fixes free nitrogen from the air, lots of it..

Down sides? It could annoy the Green Movement who are opposed to GM but ironically want clean water. Perhaps we could use some of the saved research dollars to buy them little red flags!


Doug Edmeades : July 08 2014

NZ Pastoral Farming Ltd

Imagine. Imagine that there was a real entity called NZ Pastoral Farming Inc, covering all sectors of pastoral farming in NZ. Imagine that the Board of NZ Pastoral Farming Inc. had just appointed a new CEO. Imagine that he was given the brief to increase the productivity of pastoral farming at national level as soon as possible. He calls a meeting of his senior executives and asks them the question: “how can we increase the productivity of the pastoral sector? “

He gets the standard answers: his animal advisor says, “animal genetics”. His plant advisor says “plant genetics”. He agrees, “yip they are important in the long-term, but too slow to meet the ‘as soon as possible’ goal.” His engineer says “more irrigation schemes.” The boss responds … “too capital intensive and too long a lead time”. His plant man insists, “more pasture renewal.” Everyone looks blank – they all know that these new pasture species do not persist. They continue on around the table. “Pasture pests are the problem”, says the entomologist. Arms remain firmly folded. Pest come and go, everyone knows that – localised damage in localised areas, and in any case are not cost effective to control.

Dr Dig, the soil fertility man braces for his turn – he has been mocked before. “Well Dig – your thoughts please?” Others interrupt – mature industry, we know it all, been there done that, most farmers soil test, every farm has a nutrient budget, soon they will all have nutrient management plans, besides the Fertiliser Industry tell us all is well ……, let’s get real!

Dig draws air deeply. He agrees and then goes on. “Despite the industry hype, despite the maturity of the science, despite all the new jargon, things are not well in the world of pasture nutrition and soil fertility.” He explains. Most of the farms he has visited in the last 10 years have one or several nutrient deficiencies limiting pasture production. He has audited the fertiliser policies and plans on many large farming operations including Landcorp, Maori Incorporations and private enterprises. Major nutrient imbalances limiting pasture production are the norm. Silence falls.

The new Boss pricks up his ears. “Dig, in your experience how much could we increase pasture, and hence animal, production by optimizing the soil fertility across NZ?” Dig does not hesitate – “about 20% Sir!”

“Dig, I do not want your opinion I need the evidence.” Dig is patient. “Sir the pasture production responses in 2 recent field trials I have been involved in. on two commercial properties were 20-25% in one case and 30-40% in another. This hard evidence is consistent with, and predictable from, current soil science. In addition Sir, it is consistent with what I see and experience on-farm every-day of the week. And before you ask the next question, I have done the sums – the return on investment from correcting nutrient limitations is in the order of 20-80% depending on the severity of the problem, based on today’s costs and prices.

“Dig, are you saying that as CEO I can make one decision and increase the profitability of NZ Pastoral Farming by 20% with a massive return on investment?” “Yes Sir!” “Dig, I’m going with you on this but if you are wrong I am going to make you eat my hat!” “Sir, as Big Joe sang some years back …. ‘you can leave your hat on’, because this science is proven.”

Doug Edmeades: 14 May 2013

Doug Edmeades : July 12 2013

Profitable Dairying

Historically New Zealand agriculture has been internationally competitive because of our low cost clover-based pasture system. Clover-based pasture costs less than 5c per kg DM. But things are changing, at least in the Dairy sector according to Dr Tim Mackle, CEO of Dairy NZ. Dr Mackle reported data from a survey of 2500 dairy farmers showing 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. Dairy farmers it appears are using more and more expensive supplements (> 30 c/kg DM) at the expense of much cheaper clover-based pasture (< 5 c/kg DM).

A similar picture emerges from the dairy statistics. The latest figures (2010/1011) comparing profit per ha to production per ha show that for those farms producing 1000 kg MS/ha the profitability ranges for about $1000/ha to $5000/ha. I wonder if this range reflects, at least in part, the move away from clover-based pasture systems to more and more supplements.

This makes me wonder where our dairy industry is heading. Fonterra keeps demanding more and more milk – with commodities more volume, it appears, equates to more profit. And farmers have responded by expanding (more farms) or more supplementary feeding (more production per cow). The net result for Mr Average Dairy Farmer appears to be less profit, as Dr Mackle is noting. So what is good in terms of profit for Fonterra is not necessarily good for the individual farmer. Do we not have a house divided against itself?

The same conflict is apparent in terms of the environmental goals that the dairy industry has set for itself. DairyNZ says it wants more production while keeping the environmental footprint constant. This can then be claimed as environmental progress – more production per unit of nitrate leached or GHG emitted, for example. But such an improvement in efficiency is not what the environment sees – it sees the same environmental footprint. Is there not an internal contradiction here or am I missing the point?

Do not get me wrong. My motivation for raising these questions is not to aid-and-abet the alarmists who believe that the dirty-dairying campaign is just, or believe we are killing the planet with our farming practices, or that we must repent immediately and take civilization back to the dark ages. I raise these questions because I want, along with many others, to help develop our dairy industry so that it is profitable and at the same time we minimize avoidable environmental degradation. After all, I want quality soils, water and air too, and I want a future of prosperity.

That is why I return to the first point. Clover-based pasture is the source of our competitive advantage. We seem to be losing sight of this simple fact. And I see it every day visiting farms. Good farmers, good infrastructure and dismally poor pastures – why? Get your grass into gear I say!

Doug Edmeades : April 29 2013

Climate Change & Drought

The doomsday merchants are at it again. The Sunday Star Times (March 10 2013) says, “Long dry spells are forecast to double by 2040 as temperatures continue to rise….” And goes on to state, “Experts warn it [the drought] could spell the end for farming as we know it.” The experts referred to are Dr’s Jim Salinger and James Renwick.  Dr Renwick was more adamant on the Sunday Q+A program (17 March 2013) stating that global warming was the only explanation for the drought. He glibly suggested that, “The present intensification of farming and dairying, in particular, doesn’t look very sustainable, given the way the climates likely to change.”

I suggest that farmers take these predictions with a grain of salt or a slug of whisky. Why? Because their predictions are problematic. Let’s look at the evidence…

The records show that we have had droughts of this intensity before: the years 1945-48 were dry & so were the early 1970s and late 1990s. If we had the records it is likely that severe droughts occurred prior to 1941 when records began. Droughts, like all extreme weather events, happen and it is known that their incidence is not temperature related. More importantly there has been no global warming now for 17 years despite increasing carbon dioxide emissions. Where does this leave the theory of dangerous human-induced global warming? It appears that the two experts cited above are relying on the IPCC models to support their claims for ongoing global warming. It is a pity for them that nature does not appear to be cooperating with these mathematical contrivances. In any case it is normal to throw such models out the window, or radically modify them, when the evidence contradicts them. Oh well?

The other reason why I believe farmers should pause before acting on the advice of these experts is our recent human history. We were warned in the 1970s to prepare for the coming ice-age. We were warned by the Club of Rome that the world would run out of food in the late 20th century.  We were warned by the pernicious cockroach that the 2YK would bring the world to a standstill. We were told at the turn of this century that snow was a thing of the past in London! So on and so forth and now we get “the end of farming as we know it.”

I would not bet on it. Our little globe called earth has warmed and cooled long before humans arrived and long before fossil fuels were discovered. Yes, that implies something else and not carbon dioxide is causing it. I suspect these cycles will continue. So before you sell the farm or destock remember:
a) no warming for 17 years now
b) some models based on past climate cycles suggest cooling is on the way, and
c) those promoting a doomsday appear to be relying on (now disproven?) IPCC models.

So let’s give the last word to the IPCC boss.  The Australian newspaper, The Australian reported in Feb 2013 that the UN’s climate change chief, Rajendra Pachauri, “has acknowledged a 17-year pause in global temperature rises, confirmed recently by Britain’s Met Office …”, he went further: 

”Dr Pachauri, the chairman of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said that open discussion about controversial science and politically incorrect views was an essential part of tackling climate change.”

So, climate science is settled: Yeah Right!

Doug Edmeades : January 15 2013

Water Quality - what to ask your local Regional Council

The effect of agriculture on water quality is one of the defining technical issues confronting farming as me move into the 21st century. Can we have a profitable pastoral farming sector and maintain, or indeed, enhance water quality? I believe we can.  After all, look at the progress mankind has made since the technological age began in the 17th century – we have solved all sorts of problems! The water quality issue looks daunting at present only because we have just started to think about it.  And like all new issues we are confronted with - where do we start? How do we ‘get our head around it?’ Here are some questions that I would ask my local Regional Council before I make major and possibly costly changes to my farming operation.

There are four contaminants of major concern in terms of water quality:
a) nitrogen concentration
b) phosphorus concentration
c) pathogens (e.g. faecal contamination), and
d) sediment content

The obvious question is: what is the current water quality in terms of these four factors and is there any evidence that water quality is declining over time?  These questions are specific to a given catchment. The next question is: which of these four factors is the most important in my catchment in terms of limiting water quality? For example, restricting N losses from pasture would be a waste of effort and money if sediment, or P, or coliforms were the main contaminant. This question goes to the issue of cause and effect and note that different mechanisms are involved; the nitrate problem is caused by leaching (of urine N mainly) through the soil profile. The other contaminants get into water bodies by surface runoff of water. Thus different management techniques need to be employed depending on the contaminant of concern. 

As a farmer I would also want to know what is the proportional contribution that farming makes to the quality of water in my catchment relative to:
a) background (natural) sources
b) point sources (including effluent blocks), and
c) urban sources
This question seeks to answer the sub-question – what is the size of the problem (and opportunity) in terms of farming activities? Related to this I would like to know how close is the link between what I do on my farm (my management practices) and what is happening in terms of water quality in the catchment? This question goes to the technical issue referred to as ‘attenuation’.

Assuming that there are answers to the questions above I would ask: what is the probability (likelihood) that water quality in my catchment will improve as a result of changing farm management practices and possibly infrastructure on my farm? And has the Regional Council undertaken any cost/benefit analysis on this issue (as required under the RMA), and where can I find that information? 

Do not be shy about asking these questions – you have a right to ask them and the Regional Council have obligations to farmers under the RMA and under the directives from National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management, and the Land and Water Forum reports. As we all know “knowledge is power” so go ahead and define your own destiny!

Doug Edmeades : January 15 2013