Better environmental outcomes, better production outcomes, and better financial outcomes.

Sounds good doesn’t it?

Not through gimmicks, gadgets or apps and not through an intensive GE crop burger (a ‘claytons’ burger) in a glyphosate jus with a side order of soil erosion, either.

Start with N.

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

Defining Difference

The primary difference between regenerative organic pastoral or permanent crop 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 regenerative organic and industrial farming systems.

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 largely philosophical position, which can only be delivered in practice through poor management and lack of understanding/experience. We have discussed the input substitution model in the past and this is the type of ‘organic’ approach that fails.


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) 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 also 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 and worse can create damaging unforeseen problems. What is strange is that there are simple means of improving 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 are ‘non-tech’ ways 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 legume levels in pasture and creating an environment for legume performance through good soil structure, soil carbon, water efficiency and soil nutrient balance, ensures optimal nitrogen fixation, which ultimately delivers strong milk production (and therefore financial returns).

Supporting soil health (and life) and pasture diversity 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 (making them susceptible to drought) 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.

Future Smart

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 making better decisions and creating better environmental and financial outcomes.

In understanding the difference, it is clear that production is not compromised because we are farming in a way that delivers improved environmental outcomes. Over time, we can expect farm profitability to increase under a regenerative management approach.

The first step in transitioning to farming systems that generate positive environmental and improved financial performance, is getting your nitrogen strategy right.