A major change, more than a decade ago, has produced excellent results for Andrew West, at Wakanui, in Mid Canterbury on the South Island of New Zealand.
Andrew is the third generation on the 900-hectare arable farm and fourth generation in the area and for many years ran a heavily conventional style enterprise.
“We used a lot of superphosphates, and it was a standard program every year,” he said. “We felt our yields had hit a wall and it was getting a lot harder to achieve the same thing. We were having more weed problems and more issues with diseases and insects.”
A chance meeting between Andrew’s father and a biological farming organic expert on a plane pricked their interest and the family started to explore alternative farming practices.
“We started to learn a lot about the biological world and decided that actually there's a lot of common sense,” Andrew said. “The soil we knew was important, but it wasn't our sole focus - it was more about what we were growing above it.”
“That probably really flipped the switch. The soil is actually the most important thing, and we need to get that humming, and then everything else will follow."
Today the property grows around 14 different crops in a rotation with options including potatoes, grains, wheat and barley, seed crops such as ryegrass, radish, white clover, red clover, peas, as well as maize, sweet corn, soybeans and buckwheat."
“The rotation is to put more diversity in,” Andrew said. “Different crops can pull different nutrients. Buckwheat is very good for phosphate so we can pull nutrients out of the soil and help make it available for the next crop. Then they're also doing a lot to try and help with structure as well. Radish is good for freeing this soil and putting a bit of oxygen in.”
He said different crops allowed them to control certain weeds better and they were also able to put animals back into the system which adds manure.
“We've got a really good relationship with a high-country farmer. In the Autumn, we will bring in lambs for fattening. We’re using them to tidy up after harvest on some crops and on our ryegrass crops. They are a really good tool for controlling the grasses to get them to tiller and controlling some insects like slugs.”
Andrew said the change had been a challenge, but he felt they were definitely moving in the right direction.
“Yields have actually increased a little bit, and our costs have gone down. Our water retention is definitely better and we're starting to see more worms which are good indicators that we're going the right way.”
“There's still plenty of work to be done. Being a cropping farm largely producing seed does create some tricky situations and some real challenges.”
The changes have reduced the amount of urea used although the fertiliser bill has remained fairly static as different elements are being used across the farm.
Super phosphate hasn’t been used in large quantities in the last five years, being mostly replaced with options such as rock phosphate, calcium, lime and dolomite for magnesium. Trace elements of magnesium and copper are being used with rotations also playing a part in nutrition.
Andrew said each field is soil tested every two years and microbial tests are being used to understand the biology.
He said data was important to benchmark soil health and ensure the ultimate goal, of profitability is realised.
“We've been focusing pretty hard on getting calcium, magnesium potassium and sodium levels right to get a good space for biology to live.”
They are also working with a company to get a benchmark on carbon on the property, to be able to demonstrate if the regulatory environment changes in the future.
Andrew West was a part of the Corteva Climate Positive program which recognises farmers who are doing the right thing for the environment.
“There's no argument that the climate is changing so we are all going to have to adapt,” he said.
“We need companies like Corteva that have the ability to do the research and try to find new products to try to give us what we need. Some of the chemistry that we're using is not going to be here forever. And, so we need that next frontier to be coming.”
He said looking after the property and the soils were very important for their future and the environment.
“It means the future for me and my family. I've got a son and a daughter. They're still in their early stages of schooling so they don't really know where they'll end up, but my daughter is actually very keen on farming. She was out the other day counting worms. Whether they want to go into farming or not, the farm is still hugely important for their life and the rest of mine.”
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