Ecological science and smarter land management systems drive farmland productive and investment performance thereby creating wealth. This is the science of transforming farms from underperforming conventional orthodoxy into healthy, resilient, successful ecological systems. The value created being:

  • healthier water ways
  • improved biodiversity
  • reduced GHG emissions
  • higher value production
  • more profitable farming systems.

Given recent political announcements, the conventional orthodoxy around dairy farming in particular appears to be over. The projected returns from conventional dairy investment are unlikely to be delivered.

“…..overall, I think we’ve kind of got to what they might call peak cow,” – Damien O’Connor, Minister of Agriculture

More fertiliser more grass (monoculture), more cows, more feed and more milk…. is over. Historically, it has been the only investment strategy applied in NZ but it pollutes, it is unacceptable to society and now the government is taking action to change it.

The ‘slam dunk’ of smarter management is that measurable environmental outcomes are improved – reduced N leaching, sediment and E.coli in waterways, biodiversity, GHG emissions etc. as well as financial performance.

No trade off. Better environmental management drives superior long-term resilience, system stability and investment outcomes.

Input Substitution – Just Say No

Recent research undertaken in New Zealand strongly indicates that material environmental gains can be made from the conversion of farmland to organic management. It is not, however, a simple case of converting a farm and the environmental gains just falling into place along with the product premiums. In practice it takes specific management understanding, actions and strategies to achieve these results. They are not delivered just because you are ‘in-conversion’ or have the ‘organic stamp’.

There is a deep and widespread misconception that the organic certification standards are some sort of ‘management guide book’. Over and over again, it is a misconception that has proven costly and damaging to those attempting to convert production systems but it is one that persists.

At the risk of over emphasising the point, organic standards are definitely not a management guide book!

‘Input Substitution’ is the name given to the approach that seeks to remove conventional inputs and replace them with organic inputs. This is effectively the same system with different brands. It is a ‘popular’ version of organic management particularly for those with little or no background in organic conversion and management systems and those starting out on an organic journey or seeking ‘proof of concept’.

As a slight aside organic agriculture is commercially practiced in 179 countries, representing 50.9 million ha of certified croplands and pastures. You could say the concept has been proven.

The input substitution model is fundamentally flawed and only delivers mediocrity at best.

Ecological Systems Design

What is required to succeed and deliver measurable environmental gains is sophisticated ecological system design, implementation and management at the farm/grassroots level.

The themes of management importance that create wealth are:

  • soil
  • fertiliser/nutrient
  • pasture/feed
  • water
  • livestock/breeding

The characteristics and benefits of shifting to functional, ecologically literate systems are:

  • lower cost production
  • more energy efficient
  • more efficient in terms of output delivered for input supplied
  • measurably better by environmental metrics
  • superior system resilience
  • achieving strong product premiums and supply contracts (for certified organic products)
  • improved financial performance

If investment goals include impact investment criteria, such as improved and measurable environmental performance from farming systems (particularly farming systems that are otherwise associated with negative environmental outcomes (think intensive dairy)), then this is the type of system to implement.

Perhaps the simplest message to understand is that well designed examples of ecologically sophisticated farming systems are more resilient and therefore more consistently profitable. They better create wealth and by a broader range of measurement.

The Five Themes

Soil/Soil Biology

Beneath your feet, in the soil are unseen life forms essential to healthy food production.

Soil and soil microbiology are fundamental to agroecosystem performance.

Soil science is a largely neglected, under researched and poorly understood sphere of science. Sadly ironic given that life on Earth is entirely dependent upon the soil and its ability to grow food either directly for humans or via ruminants in the form of meat and milk.

The health, complexity and vibrancy of soil microbiology is essential and a strategy to enhance it is a key ingredient in delivering a healthy and successful farming system.

Stopping ‘the drugs’ (agricultural inputs) is not a strategy alone, although it is a good start.

Fertiliser/Nutient

The primary difference between ecological management and input reliant industrial farming is fertiliser and the absence of synthetic nitrogen from an ecological system. This is hugely advantageous from a climate change point of view but also drives a system that grows differently, rewards different crop/animal species, supports greater diversity, superior health of plant/animal and soil life. The latter perhaps the most important as it underpins the entire system.

Pasture

Grass is grass, even if it is sometimes greener the other side of the fence.

Not really. Palatability, production, root depth, persistence, compatibility, resilience, biological fixation. These are aspects of interrelated and high importance achieved through species diversity which creates a pasture sward with greater productive value, nitrogen fixation and resilience to extremes of dry and wet.

This highlights the advantage of knowledge and the importance of getting pasture right as a key theme in creating productive agro-ecosystems.

Water

Water quality is a topic of importance in NZ with an expressed government desire to improve/reduce the negative aspects of farming on water quality. Ecological management, as a result, is a means of risk and cost mitigation as well as generating a superior resource for system use, e.g. crop irrigation and/or stock water.

The flow on for other stakeholders being reduced E.coli, nutrient and sediment pollution etc.

Water is essential for crop/livestock growth but with the right biological set-up it may not be required other than through rainfall. At the very least, a well set up system will ensure less water is used and that water used will be more efficiently utilised.

If water is introduced for irrigation of pasture it has a cost, in some cases high. The ability to run a more resilient system ensures less water is required which becomes advantageous in, and supportive of, lower cost production. It is, in addition, supportive of water quality.

Breeding/Selection

Not eugenics. Although good people are critical to success and superior performers are required to succeed in the more intellectually challenging ecological management systems.

This refers to selection with respect to livestock, i.e. those biological organisms (they are not machines) that convert grass into dollars.

The type of animal and the key characteristics it offers must be appropriate for an ecological management system, including resilience, health and a lack of ‘design extremes’.

The aspects of performance must be strong both in terms of genotype and phenotype. What is required is an animal that will perform in an ecological system in terms of management, property characteristics, and delivery of productive value.

If selection/breeding is not right you cannot expect to achieve optimal animal performance and more realistically you expose the system to an increased risk of negative outcomes.

The Tight 5

These themes are all interrelated and operate collectively to create improvements in operating performance. The simplistic industrial management idea is anachronistic and incapable by design (even if unintentionally) of utilising and optimising these themes in order to create wealth.

Five key themes to understand, design and manage to optimise farm system performance.

Soil, fertiliser, pasture, water, breeding.