Friday, 6 December 2013

Nuffield Trip Day 10 - 2 Exceptional Operators

Thursday the 5th of December and Tom and I first headed down around Ashburton to visit the first of two first class farmers operating Cross Slot drills.  First up was David Ward who has been using the Cross Slot System since 1995.  The farm is a silt farm over gravel/shingle with irrigation. The farm soils are only able to hold 80mm of stored water and when the heat comes on with North Westerly winds and hot temperatures evapo-transpiration can be as high as 8mm/day, so the irrigators need to get around the farm once a week.  David farms about 950 acres, with help from three employees, growing rye grass seed, clover seed, oilseed rape (hybrid - seed), vining peas, radish seed, spring barley, winter wheat and spring wheat.  The farm also carries and finishes 20,000 fat lambs through the winter on ryegrass and oat based cover crops and also takes weaned deer through to market weights.  The production numbers were staggering, with yields around 12T/ha of winter wheat and 11t/ha of spring barley.  I was starting to ask myself why bother with winter crops when lambs can be fattened off cover/grass crops adding to the margin/ha of a short season crop?  Might this work well in a black grass situation?  I need to think outside the conventional box when I get home!
The soil we dug up in every field was in fantastic condition, a sweet smell, lots of little worms and plenty of nodulation on the pea roots.  The crop; yes it was watered, looked stunning.  It had an even germination and was rocketing through the growth stages in the warm weather.  It was clean, even, and full of yield potential.  Still a long way to go!  We moved on to another draw dropping crop, this time of spring barley.  David put the potential yield at 11t/Ha and I would not doubt that.  The crop was planted after a winter break crop, direct drilled, and it has not looked back.  The leaves and stems were clean, disease free and stiff.  The heads were billiard table flat and not a weed in sight.
On the other side of the road we stopped to look at an organic farm that David has been asked to farm conventionally for  couple of years to 'sort it out'.  We dug some soil up which had recently been cultivated and left fallow ready to plant.  The tilth was very fine and had no structure.  If there was any kind of heavy rain event it would have slumped and capped, squeezing the air and the life out of the soil.  If the wind started blowing from the West, then a layer of topsoil would send up in the sea, through wind erosion.  I have to say it wasn't the best advert for organic farming.
The organic matter on David's soils have been increased from 2.8% 20 years ago to over 4% now.  This is helping store more valuable water in the soil, but it is not a particularly quick process and needs a mixed rotation and livestock putting some organic matter back into the soil.  The crop below is of hybrid oilseed rape seed production and will receive about 240mm of irrigation water through the growing season, which is staggering, but these farms are kitted out with high cost centre pivots or walking irrigators.  But the returns are worth the capital cost many times over with high value crops, good yields and good prices.  You have to ask how environmentally sustainable is this constant extraction of water from the underground aquifers? Can this practise continue at this pace for the next 10, 20 or 50 years?  The politicians are starting to look at extraction quantities, the environmental impact, and the potential election of the Green Party may force changes in production systems in the Canterbury area.  This could have an impact on UK seed supply as many of the varieties we grow are sourced from New Zealand seed stocks.  Less water use could see a reduction in output and therefore less seed and what seed will be produced could be exported to other countries or we'd end up pay more more for our seed.
After the flat land and soils,which reminded me of the silt soils of Lincolnshire only shallower and over shingle, we headed south of Timaru to St Andrews to meet Mike Porter.  Mike has a dry land farm, annually receiving only 22 inches of water just off the East coast in the rain shadow of the Western Mountains.  Mike harvests around 400 Ha on his farm and runs a flock of breeding ewes around on some permanent pasture.  Like many New Zealand farmers Mike stubbled during the late 1980'sduring the de-regulation, when subsidies were cut over night and the dollar was devalued by 20%, to make the country more export competitive.  This, coupled with interest rates of 20% and the worst drought in 40 years (88/89), broke many farmers and almost took out Mike as well.  Since then he has developed a great farming system revolving around the cross slot drill, reducing cost and also increasing return per hectare.  Don't forget it's all about profit per hectare rather than out and out yield!
Mike's farm reminded me of my time in Idaho with rolling hills and slopes of around 26%.  Mike farms feed wheat (8t/Ha) and barley (6,5T/Ha), oilseed (3.5T/Ha) and rye grass with a small area of vining peas seed (3T/Ha).  The system is very integrated with the lambs being fattened on ryegrass stubbles or green feed oats, through the winter and forage rape in the summer.  The crops are established by just spraying off the previous crop and direct drilling into the stubble or residue.  Mike does roll everything to reduce the threat from slugs and also uses, usually one, dose of slug pellets.  This is an interesting shot looking up a bank where the tractor has had a higher level of wheel slip, the forage rape seems to be more forward.  I think, and I'm not sure, that this is due to mineralisation of soil carbon due to soil movement under the tyres releasing nitrogen which the crops picking up.  In a couple of weeks the difference would have disappeared as the crop evens up.
Mike supplies Canterbury Meat Packers who are a dedicated supplier of New Zealand Lamb into Waitrose  of which Mike is obviously very proud.  The oats can grow about 3-4,000 Kg of dry matter in the autumn which can be stocked at around 12 stock units per hectare.  The lambs feeding on the forage rape are growing at around 300-350g/day which is very acceptable, and are stocked at around 70/Ha with back fencing which allows some regrowth and a secondary grazing.  In comparison to David's soil, Mike's deep clay soils can hold up to 220mm.  Interestingly starter fertiliser is used to establish the fodder rape making Potash available to the new seedling as soon as it germinates.  Something that the Cross Slot is able to do at ease.
This pivot irrigator is irrigating grassland for a diary conversion on a neighbouring farm and is probably the only one in the southern hemisphere working on such steep banks.  At the moment Mike is in a red zone for irrigation, i.e there are no local plans in extend the area available to irrigate.  A huge thank you to David and Mike for giving up their time to show us around their farms.  Although very different farms;  attention to deal, passion, hard work and the love of farming and growing were evidently common place in these excellent farmers.

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