Just 21 days into a trial that is looking to prove synthetic nitrogen could be removed entirely from New Zealand’s farming system, significant results and early interest have encouraged its organisers.
The Total Replacement Therapy programme, implemented on Whakatane dairy farmer Alan Law’s farm, is a unique process that gets clover fixing nitrogen naturally – the way it used to happen – so synthetic nitrogen can be switched off and replaced with the natural biological process.
Spearheaded by biological farming consultant David Law, the ground-breaking TRT process is the result of a team of international specialists combining their expertise in soil biology, chemistry, agronomy and animal nutrition.
“Only 21 days into our first on-farm trial, we are seeing exciting changes occur,” says Alan Law.
“Clover growth has increased dramatically, and we’ve started to see the pink colour that is present on clover root nodules when clover is fixing nitrogen naturally.
“The results will give us confidence and produce firm evidence that farmers can grow more grass with less synthetic nitrogen, at a lower cost.”
Alan says it’s an idea that may intimidate farmers, many of whom have high debt levels and are hesitant to make drastic changes to their farm system.
Unsure of how
“Farmers can’t afford to take any risks with loss of production or feed,” says Alan.
“They may want to farm differently but are unsure what to do, when to do it, or how to do it.”
The Law family currently milks 850 cows on three farms, which includes land the family has farmed for 100 years.
“We feel a lot of pride and responsibility to look after the land, and with two sons sharemilking in the enterprise it will go to the next generation as well,” says Alan.
He bought his first farm in 1980 and has always farmed conventionally, using chemical fertilisers.
However, during the last few years he’s started making changes that will allow the family to farm more sustainably.
“Wendy and I are committed, loyal and proactive dairy farmers; you’ve got to keep your eyes open to new ways of doing things,” says Alan.
“We’ve cut our stocking rate back by 20 per cent on one farm, and for the last eight months we’ve voluntarily reduced our nitrogen use by 33 per cent. That led nicely into this change of system.”
Before agreeing to the trial, Alan stipulated that the transition period must not have any negative impact on the amount of pasture grown on-farm, or any negative financial impacts to the business.
The new programme also had to be in line with the farm’s average fertiliser spend.
In addition, every measurement relevant to government regulations going forward was to be monitored including greenhouse gas emission, water pollution, and carbon sequestering, as well as comprehensive pasture composition, worm population and soil structure measuring and testing.
By autumn 2020 there will be comprehensive data available that will prove farmers can survive without synthetic nitrogen, and grow more grass at a lower cost as a result, according to trial organisers.
Trying something new
The wider team behind the trial – Forward Farming Biological Consultancy, Kiwi Fertiliser, Terragen Biotech and Full Circle Nutrition – presented their position to a number of Bay of Plenty Regional Council staff and farmers at a council-hosted meeting in mid-November.
Australian agronomist and animal nutritionist Peter Norwood presented the science behind their approach to around 30 attendees.
The meeting was followed up by an on-farm discussion where interested farmers saw early trial results first-hand.
For many years, farmers have been victims of an “addiction to nitrogen,” according to David Law. “When facing a feed shortage, the first thing they do is turn to synthetic nitrogen.”
However, Alan has had the confidence to try something new; not only for himself, but to become an example of catchment management for other farmers in the area and throughout the country.
Farmers interested in reducing the amount of synthetic nitrogen they use on-farm, and those interested in becoming part of the trial, are invited to contact the Forward Farming team.