Are overseas purchasers calling the shots?

A close up look of clover in field.

To achieve top prices for meat, milk, apples, pears, and all other produce, overseas consumers want to know fertiliser, fungicide and pesticide inputs, and are becoming increasingly demanding.

Explaining that we are the most efficient farmers and growers is not enough. The standards required are becoming ever more stringent and for continued access to top end markets NZ growers and farmers must comply.

Doubtless there are less fussy purchasers, however, the price they pay is probably lower than required for profitable enterprises here.

Recent pasture growth

 December pasture growth in most regions was strong with astute operators able to push grazing intervals out and build covers heading into summer.

Grazing to a cover of 1500kgDM/ha, or even slightly lower, allows sunshine into the base of the pasture stimulating clover growth.

A 30 day grazing interval, the time between when animals last exited and the next grazing takes place, provides sufficient time for clover to fix enough nitrogen for maximum yield.

Work undertaken at Ruakura Research Station some years ago showed that when synthetic nitrogen was applied the amount fixed by clover declined. The percentage of clover in the sward was also reduced.

Those who have throughout their farming careers applied synthetic nitrogen in December and into summer find it difficult to break the habit and allow natural systems to flourish.

In place of vigorous protein-rich clover-dense pasture cheap supplement is often introduced and therein lies a problem. Although dairy cows are extremely efficient convertors of almost anything edible the quality of the milk becomes variable.

This means there is less scope to meet the demands of niche markets that return significantly more than high volume commodity ones.  We require both, however with costs including interest on loans escalating, more high-end returns are required if the industry is to prosper.

Its not just dairy production under pressure, the meat industry is now asking their farmer suppliers for input details.

The requirement to show that our pastoral enterprises are carbon positive i.e. steadily sequestering carbon, is already being made.

Measuring soil held carbon

The measures required are as yet unclear and fudging the issue will in time be counterproductive. The Visual Soil Assessment developed by Landcare Research is first rate, however, takes time and there’s too few competent people available to fully assess all farming operations.

The Hot Water Carbon (HWC) test provided by the major soil testing labs is essentially a measure of biological activity in the soil at the time of testing.

That activity is dependent on moisture, temperature, and recent grazing management and therefore varies. It is only over a number of years that a clear trend becomes sufficiently obvious for it to be used as an effective marketing tool.

The last Government appointed people to assess the merits of soil fertility systems outside mainstream.  Whether they still have or will retain that role is uncertain.  Governments and ministers come and go, meanwhile the big fertiliser companies have unprecedented influence.

It is up to their farmer shareholders to demand that they pay more than lip service to systems non-reliant on cheap water-soluble nutrient inputs supplemented by maximum allowable inputs of synthetic nitrogen.

In time the required changes will take place.  Having them forced on us by markets is the easy option when getting ahead of the game and having greater self-determination will take real effort, but the outcomes are preferable in all respects.

Experimentation is not necessary. There are systems proven over more than twenty years that produce more at lower cost and are genuinely sustainable in all respects. A commitment to innovation and excellence has never been more important.

For more information call Peter on 0800 843 809.


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