Production without pollution.

Better environmental outcomes, better production outcomes, and better financial outcomes. ‘Yes Matilda, you can have it all.’

What is the one thing that defines smart farming?

N

Yes, one single letter. You may know it better as nitrogen.

Defining Difference

The primary difference between regenerative organic production systems and external input reliant systems is not sprays or yield or beards.

It is N. From this all other differences flow.

The understanding of this N difference and how N works and its input into farming systems provides the knowledge to understand the fundamental difference between organic and industrial farm management systems (see The Triumph of Biological Nitrogen).

It also provides the knowledge to appreciate that there is no sound scientifically justifiable reason to support the belief that “organic only does 50% of the production”. That is a philosophical position, with no basis in fact.

Addiction

Industrial mode agriculture is increasingly reliant on high cost external supplements in order to boost production because the right pastures are not being created to generate performance from cows (and other relevant ruminants).

It is not dairy farming per se, but the type of dairy management that creates nutrients that pollute our water and atmosphere. It is not water (irrigation) per se that is the problem either, again it is the management system that is the issue and that means N.

The sad irony is that sometimes smarter more profitable, better environmental farming is perceived as being less productive. The implication being that the sole predictor or determinant of a farm’s production is the size of the nitrogen bag. This view is devoid of credible scientific underpinning.

Silver Bullets

Nutrient pollution mitigation through riparian plantings, fencing cows out of waterways and reducing stocking rates is not addressing the root cause of the problem. These are dealing with outcomes or symptoms. They are positive actions to take but by themselves are insufficient.

The theme of seeking ‘magic’ solutions, the proverbial ‘silver bullet’, is a common approach to major agricultural issues such as nutrient pollution, and GHG emissions etc. These avenues are expensive and often fail to deliver outcomes of material practical use. What is strange is that there are simple means of addressing these issues that are low cost and farmer positive as well as environmentally positive.

Send More Drugs

The application of urea on NZ dairy farms has increased dramatically in the last 20 years. This has created an overreliance on external nitrogen to generate pasture growth.

The increase in pollution and the increase in ‘synthetic’ nitrogen application is no coincidence.

The response seems to be a rush to find the silver bullet referred to above. The very sexy term ‘agtech’ is often alluded to as the answer. Once again this is treating the symptoms much like seeking to find a ‘treatment’ to reduce methane emissions from ruminants (there is an easy ‘non-tech’ way to do this).

Production, Production, Production

Ensuring pasture plants have sufficient N does not depend on a bag and therefore neither does pasture production, quality of feed or milk production.

High clover levels in pasture and creating an environment for legume performance through good soil structure, soil carbon, water efficiency and good soil nutrient balance, ensures good nitrogen fixation which ultimately delivers good milk production (and therefore financial returns).

Supporting soil health (and life) and pasture diversity (see Regenerative Pastoral Agriculture) also facilitates better N levels.

The additional advantage of this approach is the cost saving it provides. It also acts to mitigate the high loss of nutrients from soils that is causing such problems throughout NZ’s waterways.

Use More Gain Less

Unnecessarily large amounts of nutrients are applied to dairy farms in NZ. The irony is the plant uptake of key nutrients is actually suppressed by the oversupply of certain nutrients.

The excessive application of N supresses the production of dry matter, undermines clover and the uptake of other key nutrients.

N creates lazy, ‘sappy’ plants that are more susceptible to disease/pests and with a shallow root system because of the easy availability of N at the surface.

If we avoid the suppression of nutrient uptake then there is not the same requirement to apply so many nutrients. This avoids cost to the farmer and environment.

Being Smarter

We need to move beyond the intellectually flawed thinking that what is good for production is bad for the environment and vice versa.

The N difference in management systems is fundamentally about being smarter and creating better environmental and financial outcomes.

In understanding the difference, it is clear that production is not compromised because we are farming smarter. In fact over the long-term it is the opposite, we can expect production to increase.

The first step to smart farming, farming that generates positive environmental and financial performance, is being smart with your nitrogen strategy.