Soil Organic Matter - Remember Your Blessings

Richard Dawkins in his book “The Selfish Gene” coined the word ‘meme’ to describe “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” Soil organic matter, or to use its historical term ‘humus’ is possibly a good example of a meme. Generations of farmers have passed to their sons and daughters the cultural idea that dark soils are good. They may not have known that that dark brown-black coloring in soils was due to, but experience taught them that darker soils are naturally more productive. “This is strong country, you can tell from the size of the trees.”  Civilizations have crumbled because they did no fully appreciate the truth of this meme.

Just in case some Organic Movement faithful think I am having a “Damascus moment” I must, in asserting that humus is important, make it clear. Plants do not need soil organic matter to grow – the hydroponic industry proves the point. Organic matter is not as the Organic Movement might assert the elixir of plant life.

However the importance of soil organic matter (SOM) has been known for centuries. Most standard soil text books will list the benefits of SOM (relative to soil with little or no SOM) as a) improved soil structure b) improved water holding capacity c) improved storage of nutrients and d) better heat absorption. In addition SOM is also home and the food for the myriad of soil micro and macro organisms from earthworms and insects down to bacteria and fungi, to the tiniest protozoa.

We are blessed in New Zealand because our well-developed pastoral soils, taken in the international context, contain large amounts of organic matter, typically 100 to 300 tonnes/ha. This is a consequence of our temperate climate and our clover-based, grazed pastoral system.

SOM comprises the breakdown-products of plant and animal (dung) material returned to the soil. This material is food (energy) for soil bugs who get to work in a sort of chain gang and break this material into increasingly smaller and more stable units, which are then often joined together (polymerised) into stable large complex organic substances. This gives soils their dark colour and as a general rule the darker the colour and the deeper it extends into the topsoil, the better the soil.

In our grazed, clover-based pasture, carbon (the major component of SOM) comes into the system from the atmosphere (as carbon dioxide) via plant photosynthesis. Some goes into the soil as plant residues (from tops and roots) and some via the dung. The amount of carbon added from these sources is of the order of 1-3 tonnes/ha/yr annually. Losses of carbon occur from the animal because it breathes out carbon dioxide (respiration) and belches methane, and from the soil via the oxidation of organic matter.

The key point is this: if the sum of the inputs is greater than the sum of the outputs then carbon and hence organic matter is accumulating in the soil. Studies in the ‘50s and ‘60s showed that SOM accumulated (inputs > outputs) following pasture improvement (i.e. clover + fertiliser + animal). This accumulation continues for about 20-50 years and then reaches a steady state (inputs = outputs). The time required to reach this steady state, and the amount of SOM present at steady state, depends on the climate and the soil group. Generally, the wetter and warmer the environment the more SOM. Thus, the management recipe is simple; sow grass and clovers (to add N), add fertiliser (especially PKS to maximise clover growth) and introduce animals (to do the recycling). With time SOM accumulates.

The situation under cropping is very different.  Cropping exploits SOM (outputs > inputs) and this is especially so when the crop residues are removed. So management lesson number 2: do not crop if you can help it or use zero-tillage or make sure there is a good rotation including clover-based grazed pasture.

Recent research generally confirms the steady-state idea of SOM under pastures but with some qualifications. There is some suggestion that under some circumstances SOM may be declining slightly under our intensive grazing system. It is speculated that this could be a consequence of lower pasture residues being returned to the soil under intensive grazing systems or that the residues from modern cultivars are somehow more readily broken down in the soil. Either way the total inputs of organic matter into the soil are reduced.

So, pass this meme along the evolutionary chain into the future. And please, if possible put away the plough and move into tomorrow – zero tillage!

Doug Edmeades : June 15 2016

International Year of the Soil

The United Nations has declared 2015 as the International Year of Soils. They list a number of reasons for this initiative, the most important of which are: raise awareness about the “profound importance of soil for human life” and “educate the public about the crucial role soils play in food security, poverty alleviation and sustainable development.”

So why should we celebrate this thin skin of weathered rocks which we call soil?

The soil, as one of NZ most famous pedologists, Norman Taylor, declared, is a living body. Just like humans, soils age, albeit over geological time, not human time.  The endpoint can be soils that are leached and bleached of all goodness (nutrients). Think at this point of the highly weather pakahi (West Coast) or gumland soils (Northland). And plants grow in soils, if the climate is conducive, and whenever this happens organic matter in the form of dead roots and leaves are returned to the soil. This is the food that supports the teeming abundance of macro and microorganisms that call the soil home. Healthy soils must breath in oxygen and as the organic matter decays breath out carbon dioxide. Soil must have water –too much or too little is disadvantageous. 

One of my mentors Prof Walker took the analogy to the extreme: treat soils like a baby: keep them warm, don’t let them get it get waterlogged and feed them properly. He like most soil scientists got annoyed when soils, our magic mantle, was crudely referred to as dirt. Dirt is what you get under you figure nails – soils are altogether a far more noble thing. 

We are blessed in New Zealand. Our soils are relatively young geologically. With the exceptions noted above, they have not yet had time to weather and wither. Hop across the ditch to that much, much older landscape and check out the difference. I love baiting the Australian farmers with that old good-news-bad-news routine: The bad news is that your soils are poor; the good news is that there is plenty of them!

We are also blessed because our major land use is clover-based pastoral agriculture. It is the ultimate in conservative land management. It is almost, but not entirely, a closed system in which the animal returns plant material and nutrients to the soil from whence it came. The current challenge in pastoral agriculture is the close the system more effectively so that we do not lose the nutrients N and P to waterways.

In comparison to the pastoral system, cropping is exploitive – organic matter and nutrients are removed from the soil. Civilizations have collapsed by not ensuring a legume-based crop at some stage in the rotation to restore the soil fertility. It is a cruel law of mother-nature that what you take off you must replace. This is the fatal flaw in some organic farming enterprises. Sure purchasing your neighbors wastes, whether animal manure, effluent or compost, may be good for your land but it comes at the expense of depleting the neighbor. As the good book says: The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Free lunch anyone?

Recent surveys, of the biological, chemical and physical quality of NZ soils, which are ongoing by the way, show that by and large we are in good shape. The negatives, and they are by no means serious or irreversible yet, are 1) a decrease on soil organic matter levels and increase in soil compaction is some cropping soils, as we might anticipate, 2) an increase in some regions in soil compaction on some soil under dairying, as has been predicted by science and 3) excessively high Olsen P levels on some dairy farms, a suggestion perhaps that the fertiliser industry is overzealous in its salesmanship. This should not be taken to suggest that farmers are using too much fertiliser – too much P perhaps, but in my experience, not enough of the other important nutrients we must add like K and S. It is called nutrient balance.

So we have much to be thankful for in this year of the soil. We are in good shape and it puts to rest all that doomsday nonsense that the fringe fertiliser companies blather on about; that chemical fertilisers like superphosphate, potash and urea are destroying our soils. That is something to celebrate. As the ad says: crack a bottle of the good stuff Kevin.

Doug Edmeades : June 15 2016

In Situ

“Maybe we could clean the river in situ without the need to change anything on the land.” I have been asked to expand this thought that I threw into the ether of public discussion in my last column.

My task has been given a very sharp edge, because as I write (Saturday 28th November), I am being lectured by John Luther Adams, (he is being interviewed on the radio by Kim Hill): He worries that humans are destined for extinction by their own hands. He holds that we cannot rely on technology to get us out of our own poo on this occasion. He reasons that it was the industrial mind-set that caused the problem, and therefore it cannot be part of the solution. Other environmental extremists, such as Dr Mike Joy, have also expressed this view to me. I do not share it. I am like Matt Riddley, a “rational optimist,” to use the title of his excellent book.

I am suggesting industrial rather than farm management solutions to deal with the water quality issue.  To give some plausibility to the idea consider this: De- salinization plants have been and are being built to extract the salts out of seawater to produce drinking water. So why not giant chemical plants along say the Waikato River to extract N, P and sediments and at the same time kill of the pathogens. Could we not extend the use of the current hydro dams – in addition to generating electricity they could be cleaning the water.  The problem is being dealt with in situ – on site.

Try this. Large tracts of land in NZ have been tile drained to improve their naturally poor drainage. I’m thinking particularly of the Southland Downs. The large expense of doing this was offset by the economic advantage of improved soil and hence production. Why not clean up the water as it emerges from the tiles? Sure we may need to redesign things so that large blocks of land drain to a single point.

Extend this thought. There are large areas of flat land used for intensive dairying – the Canterbury and Matamata plains spring to mind. Why not tile-drain them to a central outfalls, extract the nutrients for recycling back to the farm and let the clean water go on its merry way.

We are familiar with, or at least should be, the important functions of wetlands in the landscape. Among other things they trap soil particles, reducing sediment and P runoff, and, the naturally present microbes convert nitrate N in the water into nitrogen gas into the air – a process called denitrification - thus reducing nitrate leaching. Scientists are industrializing these processes. Stage 1 is making constructed wetlands – what nature does we can do better!

Industrializing this further; scientists now talk about “denitrifying bioreactors.” These are essentially beds – either walls or trenches - of bark through which the contaminated water is passed. The bugs - the denitrifying bacteria - feed on the carbon rich bark, converting nitrate to nitrogen gas.  I like these ideas. Nitrogen to the air not to the water - cool eh – further examples of the clever ape at work.

Managing dairy shed effluent is a pain in the butt. Most dairy farmers, I am sure, would agree. Industrialize it, I say. We have 4.9 m dairy cows and each one produces about $25 worth of nutrients in the form of dairy shed effluent. That’s about $120 m worth of nutrients nationally. We send tankers to farms to collect the milk. Why not send tankers to the farm to collect the effluent for transport back to a central processing center, which then uses this raw material to produce fertiliser (capturing the nutrients), electricity (from the organic matter), and clean water. No more expensive storage ponds, no more blocked nozzles, no more shifting irrigators. No more, well ……,, no more shit to worry about.

Here is another kite. We know that the N footprint of a cow is about 12-15 kg N/ha/yr and 95% of this comes from the urine patch. We know from desktop studies that this can be reduced by 50% by housing them full time. No more indiscriminate piddling on the pastures. The in-house dung and urine is carefully carefully collected and then returning to the land at a rate that the soil and pasture can cope, with inducing N leaching.

There are farmers doing this now for financial reasons. Consider how enticing this solution will be if the cost, or part thereof, of cleaning up the waterways is internalized onto the farm budget.  Indeed I will go on the public record and predict that in 20 years time most dairy cows in the Waikato will be indoors for precisely this reason.

I can see those at the extreme end of the environmental and animal welfare movement shaking their heads.  What will peeve them is the thought that if we solve the environmental problems by further ‘industrializing’ our most important industry to make it sustainable, it will undermine their sacred belief – their small-minded ‘reason d’etre’ - that the only way to save the planet is by going backwards. Humans and their energy guzzling and polluting industries are not part of the utopian carbon-free future? Can you see the writing on the wall? “Green” and “Safe”. Bollicks. Have a merry one!

Doug Edmeades : June 15 2016

An Ill Wind

An ill wind is blowing across the dairy industry at present. I can only imagine the feeling: slogging through another day of mud, calves and the cold weather knowing that all that effort equates to going backwards financially. For this season at least.

I can hear you muttering – why are the salaries of those Fonterra fat cats in HQ and abroad not linked to commodity prices?

I can hear your expletives – they convinced us that China would take every ounce of product. Double-ewes – thats all they are!

I can hear your rage – even the effing tanker driver will do better than me!

I can hear you screaming. All those menacing vultures in the market-place conniving to peck profits from my financial skeleton. Bloody snake-oil merchants greasing me up with the patsy pater about their product being just as effective as real deal!

And then I see the PR department of the collective seed merchants – the so-called Pasture Renewable Trust – (why the last word?) – greasing the MPI about how important pasture renewal is in tough times. BS. I’ve already wasted heaps of dollars on pasture renewal – expensive waste of time if you ask me.

And now we have DairyNZ running around as if they are they are some modern incarnation of the Social Welfare department, treating us like moronic dole bludgers.  Levy this, levy that,  - I didn’t pay a levy to have my hand held like a day-one school kid.  And now they are muttering Farm Systems 1 and 2 are the way forward after years of being non-committal. Hypocrites! 

And where are all those self-proclaimed analysts with their forward-looking wisdom – China China China, Asia, Asia Asia, India India India! Parading ponies!       

And what about all those pricks who said Fonterra is the future. The meat industry should restructure in its image! You’re silent now you dick heads! 

It is of course a human failing. When the gold rush is on – and the gold takes many, many forms from the sharemarket, Fanny Mae, kiwifruit, Rugby World Cups - we just cannot contemplate the possibility that the gold will one day stop. Myopia sets in. Good times are an anesthetic to reflection, contemplation and wise analysis. 

But it is an ill wind that blows no good. Listen closely. Remember the Elephant in the Room I spoke to you about – his trumpeting is getting louder and louder. Do you remember what he was saying? He was repeating a truth from our past. Our pastoral sector was globally competitive because of our low cost, clover-based, all weather, in situ grassland system. You cannot avoid hearing him now. Take heart and learn from the ill wind.

And we all have our own personal ill-wind story. Even those famous farming raconteurs like Steve Wyn-Harris and his buddy Jamie McKay have shared theirs recently. This is mine, or at least one that fits the current theme.   
My father told us – yes, 10 children – his story. He was compelled by life’s circumstances to leave school in the early depression years and work on the farm so that his father, a qualified plumber, could return to the trade to keep the farm from the bankers – a 100 acre dairy farm then milking about 20 cows. The butterfat price had fallen suddenly from 2/6d to 6d.  This experience cast a shadow over his whole life – he was greatly interested in farming, agriculture, crops, soils and plants and read very widely, but I think that being a farmer was not stimulating enough for him.

Thus, Dad was adamant in his advice to us – “secure your future first” he would say “get a trade or an education”. Most of us did. For me being the youngest of six boys and being coded with some intelligence gene, I had no option. University was for me. My father’s ill-wind became my good fortune.

So take heart. It is possibly that the current situation will teach this generation of dairy farmers the basic biological and economic truth about pastoral farming in New Zealand. While the dairy industry remains largely a commodity based we are only competitive internationally, year in and year out, up and down, cycle upon cycle, if we stick to our proven low-cost system.

PS. One of my brothers did not follow Dads advice. He left school, ironically to take over the farm because Dad fell seriously ill. We joke about it now: he has just retired and cashed up. I still have to work.  His financial assets are worth many, many times more than mine.  So thanks Dad – get an education and secure your future? I guess he would respond with – depends on how you count your assets son.     

Doug Edmeades : June 15 2016

Hill Country Symposium

A two-day symposium on hill country was held recently in Rotorua.  It was well attended by 300 farmers, consultants and agricultural scientists. Clearly there is a thirst for innovation, new technologies and knowledge in this sector. 

The aim of the meeting was made explicit: “What does a profitable and resilient future for our hill country farming look like?” And, “What do we, collectively and as individuals, do to achieve this future?”  The output of the symposium, and hence, one hopes, the answers to these questions, is to be formally captured in a “Position Paper.” More on that after the paper comes out.

In the meantime my contribution to these questions was a paper entitled “An assessment of the current fertiliser practices in New Zealand hill country.” The conclusion of the paper is blunt: there is currently a large amount of untapped potential in our hill country due to poor, sub-optimal soil fertility.

There are several threads supporting this conclusion. My experience over the last decade sheds some light. For example in the last 4 years only 2 of the 760 farms we (agKnowledge Ltd) have visited presented with no nutrient limitations. In other words a large majority of hill country farms are underperforming because of deficiencies of one or a number of nutrients. In order of decreasing frequency the culprits are K, S and Mo.

In the paper we presented 4 real-life case studies. The actual or predicted increases in production from optimizing the soil fertility on these farms were about 20%.

More convincing we have clients whose production is 2 to 3 times greater than the average – did you catch that – 200% to 300% better! Why? They have one thing in common – they love fertiliser. No excuses, no mucking around! These farmers fertilize their farms to their full biological and economic potential. As one of these farmers told me; he learnt about fertiliser by watching the dairy farmers.

This attitude is manifest not just their profitability but can be seen in their pastures, which provide proof to my catch-cry – clover is a weed given the right soil fertility. Serendipitously this can be seen in most districts. As dairy farming has expanded onto what was dry-stock country, suddenly the pastures are green and full of vigorous clover and ryegrass. Duh?

It seems that we have lost sight of what a good clover-based pasture looks like and have forgotten the skills to grow and manage it. This problem has been insidiously creeping up on us over the last few decades or so. I can suggest some reasons for this.

There have been very few fertiliser field trials in the last 20-30 years and hence farmers no longer have a reference point - a mental image - of what a good clover-based pasture looks like. Also farmers have been given many reasons, other than soil fertility, for the decline in pasture and clover production: the flea, root weevil, poor pasture persistence, lack of pasture renewal and of course weather extremes. These have become, in my view, excuses, which have masked the real reason for poor clover growth – suboptimal soil fertility. 

There are exacerbating institutional reasons too. Government policy since the mid 1980s has focused the two large fertiliser cooperatives to pursue market share, sales and profits. Consequently the fertiliser industry has placed less and less emphasis and time on providing sound technical advice to famers, assisting them to optimize soil fertility and hence pasture production, at the least cost. Furthermore the agricultural universities are no longer teaching courses in the basics of soil fertility and pasture nutrition and the CRIs’ are diverting their soil science resources into the important environmental-issues space. There is currently no research on soil fertility and pasture nutrition in the CRIs, and hence there is no need for them to teach and retain the relevant skills in this area.

So how do we break this vicious cycle: my farm only carries 10 su/ha and hence I can only afford $X on fertilisers and because I can only afford $X dollars on fertiliser I can only run 10 su/ha! 

We need, I believe, to upgrade our approach. Gone are the days where the fertiliser policy was set by one or a combination of such fiscally advanced reasons like: Do what we did last year – we got through okay, didn’t we? Adjust the fert. spend up or down to fit the budget – my god the accountant will be impressed? Do what the neighbor did last year – he’s a good bloke and his farm always looks green, right? Do what the salesman says – get away from the nasty chemical fertilisers and in any case what he sold me cost less than last year…. yeah right?

We now have the tools - the science and the software, to develop for a given farm, fertiliser polices based on economic outcome. The steps are simply stated: establish the biological potential of the farm; establish the current nutrient status of the farm (soil and pasture tests); develop a fertiliser plan (i.e. the nutrient inputs and the least cost fertiliser inputs) to get the soil nutrient levels into the optimal ranges such that profitably is maximized in the long term.

This is how I see “a profitable and resilient future for our hill country farming.” What am I doing it about it? agKnowledge, with funding from agmardt, is currently testing a beta version of a new econometric fertiliser model for this purpose.

Doug Edmeades : June 15 2016

Future Requirements for Soil Management

Late last year, December to be exact, the Ministry of Primary Industries released a report entitled,  “Future Requirements for Soil Management in New Zealand.” It begins with a statement of the obvious; “Soil is fundamental to life on Earth – it underpins food, feed, fibre and fuel production.” A nice piece of alliteration for a government document, I thought. Perhaps a reminder to remember your four F’s – eff-this and eff-that, all squared, of course.

Naturally I read the eloquently pictured and presented report – government departments do that these days, reflecting a popular value in our valueless society, that form is more important than substance - with considerable interest.  I had, and still have, skin in this game, accepting that my skin is perhaps a little calloused and scared for the simple and sufficient reason that I have boldly, perhaps foolishly, decided to put my scientific skin on the line.

The report contains some really good initiatives. In center place, it is proposed to establish a ‘National Soil Management Group’ to provide leadership, to develop a national soil strategy, to inform and advise policy and practice, and to provide a national perspective on research. I say bravo to this. 

The science reforms, which commenced in the 1990 have devastated New Zealand’s skills in soil science. In my time as National Science Leader, Soils and Fertiliser in agResearch (1990 – 1997), I saw soil scientist numbers go from 20 to 10. It got worse after I left.  The same happened in the other new CRIs (Landcare and Crop and Food), which inherited soil scientists from their antecedents.

This culling of New Zealand’s soil science resources was given political legitimacy with the’ sunset industry’ slogan and it spilled over into future recruitment into soil science. Thus, this report notes that “enrollment remains low” [in Universities]; “Scientist roles in specialist areas such as soil science are particularly challenging to fill,” and that, “there is critical need for “more accredited rural professionals/providers to transfer new techniques and knowledge.”

I was made hugely aware of this situation following the death of my mentor Mr Micheal O’Connor. I realized that I am the last man standing with a skill-set grounded on the science of soil fertility, pasture nutrition and fertilisers. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Universities no longer teach this subject. The training and research opportunities that are available in this sector are mostly in the box ‘environment’ not the box ‘productivity.’ 

In this context I see the current report as playing catch-up. And it will be a long-haul! New Zealand had a proud history in soil sciences, especially in pedology, soil chemistry, soil fertility, fertiliser and pasture nutrition. And it is not just a matter of restoring the number of scientists – great bundles of institutional knowledge and wisdom have been lost.

So I welcome this, what I hope will be the beginning of the beginning – the restoration of the vital discipline of soil science in NZ. Yes, soils are fundamental to life on earth. Yes, New Zealand derives about $35 b in export value from its primary industries. Yes, this industry depends on maintaining productive soils, and yes that goal must be broad enough to embrace the environmental challenges we confront.

The report hints at the latent funding problem with some weasel wording: “Without clear national research priorities however it is difficult to ascertain the amount of investment dedicated to soil priorities and to evaluate the impact of this funding”. The funding conundrum (and it is just that: soils are important but we don’t want fund research in soil science) is parked for now with yet another new mechanism to rationalize science funding, “The National Science Challenges,” which is growing like an ectophyte on the warm belly of Wellington’s science bureaucracy.   
Lets assume that this good initiative proceeds and that a ‘National Soil Management Group ‘is established (pic me, pic me!), which then applies the successful formula used by the Land and Water Forum (as suggested in the report) to bring all the relevant stakeholders together (how I despise that word – it makes me think; ribeye) to set the agenda and funding requirements for soil science for the next generation or so. 

The question then begs; what research is required in the foreseeable future? The report identifies “six specific pressures as significant to New Zealand soils.” I think these can sensibly be reduced to the following three bullets:

1. Intensification of land use and its consequences on nutrient losses and on the soil quality.
2. Land-use changes including urban creep onto high quality soils, and increasing intensification onto erodible hill country soils
3. Poor vegetative cover on erodible soils due to deforestation past and current.

It is at this point I become, ….. well …… um, um…….. perplexed. We are discussing New Zealand’s future needs for soil science and scientists. But some of this does not require soil science. Things like restoring vegetative cover and urban creep are policy issues.  Sure science is needed to inform those policies but the science and knowledge is already to hand.

I would hope that the Minister for Primary Industries is also perplexed. This report, so we are told, was the consequence of three earlier reports – “huge public expenditure and all I get is this! Is the soil science fraternity not aware of my big bold aspirational goal for this sector: doubling export value by 2025! Where is the production-lead research? Don’t they have any new ideas to increase soil production and productivity? Go tell them I’m not happy”: Yes Minister!

Doug Edmeades : June 15 2016

ANZAC Thoughts

I have sat in that place – the place where he penned that immortal poem about those poppies in Flanders Fields. It was a dressing station outside Ypres where he attended to the wounded. He was John McCrae a Canadian medic. The year 1915.

We all know, because it was taught so religiously in primary school, the first few lines: “In Flanders Fields where poppies grow between the crosses row on row……”. What struck me as I sat outside the now restored dressing station, in that almost sacred place; and it emerges fresh from my subconscious every Anzac Day, is the last verse.

“Take up our quarrel with the foe/to you from falling hands we throw the torch/be yours to hold it high/If ye break faith with us who die/ we shall not sleep….”

If John McCrae and all those soldiers for whom he spoke, could speak to us today what meanings would they want us to apply: what “quarrel”, what “torch”, what “faith?” What is worth fighting for today?

Of course freedom and democracy are paramount but we, the baby boomers, are blessed; we have never experienced a time when these basic rights were threatened, at least not in our precious corner of the world. I do acknowledge that for the current flood of refugees staggering into Europe, the ‘quarrel’ and the ‘foe’ are well defined.

Perhaps for us the issue reduces to defining the current threats to a 20th century democracy. 

I could list a bunch of issues: feeding 9 billion mouths, land-use intensification, industrial farming, genetic modification, animal rights and climate change.  The press reminds us daily of these problems and no doubt these are important issues but, in my analysis, they are technical and political issues which will be solved given time, science investment and political will. One day I suspect we will reflect on them, with that grinning pride of a 4 year old who has just learned to ride a bike – gosh, I have just conquered a major.

For me the major threat that we must confront are not these, what I will call externalities. The challenge lies deep, often hidden within us – our philosophical settings – the mental scaffolding upon which we decide what is best, not just for ourselves but for our communities and society.

We have emerged from the age of enlightenment, the age of reason, when so much progress was made, only to find ourselves now plunging headlong and thoughtlessly into a world labeled by others as the world of “airheads” a world of “mumbo jumbo”. A place where the sound-bites and the clichés are as profound as it gets and the Sunday paper gets more and more mindless as it gets fatter and fatter.

How did it happen that the age of reason morphed into the age of non-reason: where PC ism demands that all opinions be given equal weight and respect, irrespective of where the evidence lies. Where pseudo-science is allowed and tolerated at the table of science. Where criticism, that vital activity by which science progresses, is no longer allowed. Where science is trapped in a political and commercial time warp that gags its solemn purpose in any enlightened society – academic freedom. Where politicians regard the voice of science as simply another lobby group looking for money. Where the purpose of science is no longer about the pursuit of truth and understanding. Its role now is to support the political or environmental narrative of the extremists.

Science, the foundation stone of the enlightenment, the source of so much progress since the 1700s, is today under threat. And science is politically helpless. Yes, we need lawyers and accountants to administer the laws of the land. We need doctors for health, teachers for education and engineers to keep   us safe. These are givens in a modern society. But science…….? Science is the only truly voluntary profession. The law does not prescribe that governments, societies and farmers must use science. Ask Sir Peter Gluckman how hard it has been to get science involved on policy decisions.

This reality, and our modern philosophical settings, puts science in a very vulnerable position. The foe of unreason must be fought to restore science to its noble cause.  That is my quarrel. It is my torch. It is one of the reasons that keeps me alive.

Ok boys…..? Over the top tomorrow?  Watch your back, mind. The enemy this time is within. 

Doug Edmeades : June 14 2016

Fertilisers: A Bad Rap

Paul Erhlich (1968) and The Club of Rome (1972) famously reiterated the Reverend Malthus’s 1798 prediction that the world was soon to run out of resources, and in particular food, because of the increase in human population. The end was nigh they proclaimed! They will of course be proven correct one-day, unless the cosmologist have got it wrong, and the sun’s nuclear furnace will burn in perpetuity. In the meantime we need to get on with this thing we call life.

The fact that we are here today and that there are no clear-chicken-licken signs that the sky is falling, is proof that, “It is difficult to make predictions especially when they are about the future”, an insight attributed to many wise men.

What makes prophesying difficult is that we do not know what the future holds, and this is especially the case with science and technology.  Malthus, Erhlich and the Club of Rome were all sadly wrong, at least within their timeframes of doom, because of two little events. They both occurred about 100 years ago (1914 to be exact).

The first commercial production of urea occurred at the outbreak of WWI. Haber developed the science to convert nitrogen gas from the atmosphere into ammonia and hence to urea, and later, Bosch, developed the technology to make this an industrial reality. Welcome to the Haber-Bosch process for making fertiliser N.  It is estimated that 48% of the worlds population depends on fertiliser N for its food production. If you argue that fertiliser N should be banned because it causes environmental damage then you should run for World President and announce your policy that human survival requires that we let 3b odd people starve to death! 

Another birth happened in 1914 in Ohio, USA. Norman Borlag was born.  He is regarded as the father of the green revolution and before he died aged 95 was the most honored scientist on the planet – Nobel Peace Prize, President Medal of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medal. Why?

He developed disease resistant semi dwarf, but high yielding, varieties of wheat -rice followed later. As a consequence, basket-case countries at the time, like Mexico, India and Pakistan, rather than importing wheat to feed the increasing population, became net exporters. This development is remembered as the Green Revolution and saved millions of people from starvation.

Thus were the predictions of Erhlich and the Club of Rome thwarted by science and technology. Surprise, surprise, or the modern vernacular - bugger-me! 

Despite this amazing contribution to agricultural science and to humanity Borlag’s work has been, and still is, criticized by environmentalist. They argue that the green revolution replaced sustainable subsistence farming, reliant on animal manure, with intensive industrial-type agriculture dependent on fossil fuel to provide the fertiliser and other agrichemicals.

Borlaug responded thus (I have adjusted his figures to reflect todays reality): The world produces about 100 m tonnes of fertiliser N. To replace that with animal manure would require about 5 b tonnes of animal manure. In turn this would require about 7.5 b cattle.  Currently we have about 1.5 b head. Thus to meet the demand for manure, a five fold increase in cattle would be required together with a similar increase in the land use. The ironical end-point of his argument was that those who want to preserve natural ecosytems should embrace the intensification of agriculture.

The same logic can be deduced from more recent research showing that production from organic farms is about 60-70% that of conventional farms. Thus to feed todays population “organically” would required a large increase (30-40%) in land use, reducing net biodiversity, one of the holy grails of the environmental movement.

Of course today in our more environmentally conscious society, we can see a weakness in Borlaug’s argument. To put food into people’s mouths requires intensification and intensification requires more fertile soils, which requires fertiliser, and more fertile soils give rise to more nutrients getting into the waterways.  To minimize this outcome environmentalists argue de-intensify – in effect the only way forwards is to go backwards.

Such myopia must be challenged because it falls into the Malthusian trap – it assumes that nothing will change heading into the future. Borlaug’s immediate problem was to alleviate hunger. He did that with science and technology. Our immediate problem is to optimize production and simultaneously reduce avoidable nutrient loss. We will find solutions, we have already started. Getting rid of fertiliser and destocking is going backwards.

Doug Edmeades : June 14 2016

Fertiliser: Capital or Discretionary?

All young scientists at Ruakura Agricultural Research Centre were strongly encouraged to interact and relate with farmers – this was of course “Mac” McMeekan’s legacy - “science is no good until it is applied on the farm”. I came to thoroughly enjoy these interactions - I say ‘came too’ because I had to learn to confront and overcome my inherent shyness – yes, shyness. The late John Scott, and the now aged Drs Arnold Bryant and Clive Dalton, all helped me learn the skills and gain confidence. 

The informal meetings in the haybarn, woolshed or cowshed were the best because they allowed the natural banter to take place – the cut and thrust of debate. Because we were public servants we were always fair game. 
I remember well turning up to a farm discussion group to find the farmer’s ute strategically parked with a big banner in the rear window – Reduce Taxes Kill a Public Servant. We were often taunted with “what do you know – you are a public servant shielded from the harsh reality that is the farmer’s lot”. 

These memories have come flooding back because of the current plight of the dairy farmer. Things are grim. Some may not survive. I empathize. No longer a public servant, my business, agknowledge, depends on a financially healthy farming sector. What hurts you hurts me. I may not survive either! The best we can do is to help each other. In that spirit here is some free advice.

Fertilisers are a large component of discretionary expenditure and for this reason it is tempting to cut back on the fertiliser dollar. Possibly your accountant is advising you to do so. I suggest you think again – after all, does your accountant really know about the intimate relationship between fertiliser use and pasture production? Does he appreciate that clover-based pasture is the cheapest feed on the farm?

I think there are, in many situations, some clever ways to cut fertiliser costs in the short-term (1-2 years) without significantly affecting pasture production.

First, stick with the generic products: super, potash and urea. Don’t get sucked into using branded products - typically they are just a more expensive way of doing the same thing and the plant does not know! The plant does not think to itself – oh heck, some expensive fertiliser – I had better grow faster! Always choose the least-cost product, or combination of products, to deliver the required nutrients. I know from experience that this step alone can save significant dollars.

Phosphorus is the most expensive nutrient ($3.20/kg P) and, unlike to the other nutrients we typically need to add to our soils (e.g. sulphur and potash), it stays put. So if the Olsen P levels on the farm are in the optimal range you can go for at least one year without losing pasture production. The Olsen P levels may drop but only by 1 to 2 units. 

But you cannot do this with the more mobile nutrients, sulphur and potash. The soil sulphur and potash tanks have to be topped up annually. The good news is that these nutrients are cheaper than P. Sulphur costs about $0.70/kg and potash about $1.40/kg. The money you save from withholding P will easily cover the costs of applying the required amounts of K and S.

Lime is very cheap (about $30/tonne) relative to fertilisers (super about $320/tonne). When money is tight it is tempting to apply lime as if it is a substitute for fertiliser. Lime is not a fertiliser – it does not contain any of the nutrients we need to add to maintain soil P, K and S levels. Sure it contains calcium (Ca) but our soils already have plenty of Ca.  The reason we apply lime is to change the soil pH and if the soil pH is in the optimal range (5.8 – 6.0) you will be wasting money applying more lime.

And please, please, please, do not let yourself get ripped off by the muck and mystery brigade.  They pray on farmer’s vulnerability, which at the moment is cash. If they suggest to you that they can ‘fertilize’ the farm for a fraction of the cost of normal solid fertiliser then they are selling mutton dressed up as lamb, not fertiliser nutrients. 

History often contains pearls of wisdom that can bring some comfort. Remember the late 80’s, early 90’s? The sheep and beef sector went pear shaped – no subsidies, poor commodity prices. Surveys during and after this rough period by Meat & Wool NZ, showed a clear link between fertiliser use and profit. Those farmers who continued with their annual fertiliser plan were more profitable during and after the crash. You see, the truth is that fertiliser should treated as capital, not discretionary expenditure. 

Doug Edmeades : June 14 2016

Elephants 2

Do you remember the Elephant in the room? I used this idiomatic metaphor in a column early last year to express the fact that we – the New Zealand dairy industry - has lost sight of the obvious – the foundation for our international competitive advantage. It is based on, just I case you have not been present for the last century, in situ grazing all-year-round, on clover-based pastures. 

We lost sight of this elephant because we became addicted: nitrogen fertiliser, maize silage, palm kernel. We were drugged on per cow production and that male problem - mine is bigger than yours – we liked to show off in our discussion groups.

So are you ‘off the feed-out wagon’ yet? A whole season of low payouts and still you want a fix of supplements – a shot of PKE anyone? A sneaky puff of those white urea prills in the back paddock? It can’t hurt can it?

I understand. I know addictions. None of us is clean. It takes time…….. .

You are on the couch. Your shrink in soothing – how’s it going?

Well, I was fine until a few days ago. The tear ducts swell. But the cows are now looking skinny. You understand - I’m big on animal health and welfare. That is why I ended up going down the slippery slope of supplements. I got addicted cos I cared!!!!!! Tears welled - just little trickles. 

I tried – I thought it was for the common good. Even the bosses who run the cooperative said I was doing the right thing. I remember talking to my DairyNZ consultant about my growing dependence – he encouraged me - all five systems are good systems he said. They are so bloody PC these days.

Now look at what has happened to me?  I’m so gullible. I’ve become a laughing stock – one tsp., add water, bring to boil while stirring, then, piss yourself at my expense. Every body thinks I’m foolish

There, there; he comforts, bringing a touch of realism. You have not met everybody, so how do you know everybody thinks you are foolish? I like you - and by the by, I have put me fees up. It’s the only mechanism I have to reduce my workload.

But he is wise, my shrink, He knows what is really happening. He asks - but the rain, the rain must be good for you and the cows?  Seeking to gain empathy he adds – I thought of you as I peered out of the wet tent flaps – lucky you I thought, grinning.

The tears now flow unimpeded.  He recalled the story his mum told him about the sad faced clown! Everyone was happy to see him but he cried when alone. That’s me!

He trundles home. He is aware enough to realize he has used the right adjective - trundler – something that some one else pushes around the golf course of life.  EF …… the dairy industry, he mutters.

Enough, enough, time to be my own man. Time to be like Frankie the crooner and Do it My Way. But where to start?

Clover based pasture cost 4-5 cents kg DM. Those drugs like Maize and PKE are all greater than 30 cents. Mmmmm – so if I grow more pasture and optimise pasture utilisation I will be maximising income, relative to input costs. So far so good. The Elephant might be right after all.

But I have got so many cows now, some will starve. Ah, but that’s the rot in the old thinking isn’t it? More cows equals more production and more production must mean more profit. It’s a fact is it not; my milk cheque increases with increasing cows ……… so where is the flaw?  Ah hah, got it - costs go up out of proportion to income. That’s the slippery slope the elephant was on about !!!. Why didn’t the Misses tell me, she runs the books, I do the work. That’s our deal. 

Slow down, slow down - remember what they taught you at AA. Small steps.

Step one. From now on I’ll do the work and the thinking, thank you very much!!

So if I can’t feed all my cows, why not sell some? Yip, production will decline a little, but think of the cost savings. It a ratio thingy not a ration thingy – I’ll swap Swap for my money. Clever word plays, a sign his confidence is returning. He grins to himself.

Back now in his favorite chair in his castle. No one uses My chair. My throne.  My thinking place. My holy space.

The elephant trumpets out of the first mail he opens. Is a summary of recent research which summarizes production and financial data covering 2759 dairy-farm years, from spring-calving, pasture- based dairy farms. “On average pasture harvested/ha and net profit/ha declined with every tonne of DM supplementary feed purchased/ha”.

Dam it he realizes in triumph, my intuition was right all along – I should have trusted myself rather than listening to all that cooperative, marketing, management BS. My co-op, which I thought respected me as one of their many owners, duped me big time.

Any hint of regret about lost income melts away with the more sturdy, more meaningful, and more satisfying, realization. From now on I am going to let my intuition be my own personal elephant. 





Doug Edmeades : June 14 2016