American scientists observations of NZ farming shows we are not all we are cracked up to be

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American scientist’s observations of NZ farming shows we are not all we are cracked up to be.


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First off, I am interminably grateful for the experiences I had in New Zealand, for the vast amount of knowledge farmers shared with me, and the genuine kindness that was consistently shown towards me. You all live in a wonderful country. So, it is with respect that I offer a brief summary of some insights born out of my nine month ’08 study of NZ farming. I offer an abbreviated list of my personal synopsis of problems and their potential solutions, along with references for further investigation.

I came to New Zealand because kiwis are world-renown for expertise in rotational grazing, low-cost and grass-based production, stellar cattle genetics, thriftiness, and healthy, clean and green food products. But after scouring the country and visiting over 50 farms, I have largely encountered quite the opposite of my expectations. While the best farms I have seen have been biological and/or organic, these ‘healthy’ farms are few and far between, easily lost in a green sea of NPK grass, or, more specific to the drought, a unnecessary brown cloud of pastures and dying, oxidising, unbalanced soil.

I find it dis-heartening to see this resilient nation being led down a path that many other counties, especially America and many parts of Europe, have already proven does not work; a path that cannot sustain. While there are many very impressive and very positive aspects of NZ farming, this article focuses on what are, in my opinion, the indicators of the slippery slope that NZ agriculture is needlessly on.

Soluble Fertiliser

Poisoning of the world’s soil with artificial fertilisers began when Justus von Liebig, mistakenly interpreted his experiments and determined that the sole requirements of plants is NPK, which is now the basis for chemical fertilisers. A more appropriate name could not have been given to this man, who in fact, 10 years later realised is grave error, his “big lie”, and found that proper fertilisation of soils lay in organic matter, not chemicals. Von Liebig fought to undo his terrible mistake until his death, but he went ignored by the chemical companies and unheard by farmers. “By that time the chemical companies were off to such a profitable start there was no stopping them in their headlong race to destroy the soil and all that it supports.” (Secrets Of The Soil, Tompkins and Bird).

Chemical/artificial/soluble/salt-based fertilisers reduce soil nutrient levels, especially phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, sulfur, and trace elements, increase nitrates in the pasture, reduce clover numbers, burn humus (making a farm a carbon emitter instead of a carbon sink), kill soil microbes (fungi, bacteria, earthworms etc.) increases negative effects of drought and excessive rain, and make the soil pH decline.

In most cases the observable green up or growth in the pasture after synthetic fertiliser application is actually only a short-term illusion of increased productivity. For example, applying urea increases length of grass by expanding the plant cells rather than increasing the dry matter or nutrient content. Applying Superphosphate makes magnesium soluble and easily available to the plant, which results in a green-up, but a large amount of magnesium is lost from the soil as it is leached away in the form of epsom salts (MgSO4). When chemical fertilisers are used, plants become addicted to them as the decrease in soil health and the decline in humus occurs. Often the loss of soil health occurs at a rate that will go unnoticed unless the farmer monitors soil health overtime. You can see that the farmer and the soluble/chemical fertiliser representative have conflicting objectives.

Health or Illness Begins in the Soil

As Nobel Prize winner Dr. Alexis Carrel stated, “Soil is the basis for all human life”. He knew that “our only hope for a healthy world rests on re-establishing the harmony in the soil that we have disrupted by our modern methods of agronomy…all of life will be either healthy or unhealthy, according to the fertility of the soil”. Malnutrition and its insidious link to health complications, begins in poorly managed soil.

In NZ in general, I have seen far too many dead and unbalanced soils, most all of which are lacking primarily in lime. Often the first step to improving NZ soil health is raising the pH and balancing the calcium to magnesium ratio, as often obtained through liming (many would say that the first step actually is to stop applying chemical fertiliser). Although pH is not the sole indicator of the need for lime, most NZ soils need to be at pH 6.2-6.5 for optimum performance, rather than the 5.7 often promoted by AgResearch. Most nutrients are the most available at a pH of 6-7. Once adequate lime is applied, the micro-organisms that live in the soil eagerly act to make available the tonnes and tonnes of stored nutrients that lay ‘locked up’ in the soil. The consequence is that a small financial expenditure on lime, over time unleashes a massive amount of nutrients that were ‘locked up’ because the fertiliser that was applied in the past was in the wrong form; it was the synthetic-chemical-petroleum, soluble, acidifying fertiliser.

The job of the successful biological and/or organic farmer is to keep the soil habitat for the microbiology (which make up a healthy “Soil Food Web” via beneficial bacteria, fungi, nematodes, protozoa, earthworms etc.) as close to optimum as possible so those microbes can govern the fertility in the soi
l, and thus supply nutrients to your plants and animals (see Soil Food Web Institute in Roxburgh and Environmental Fertilisers outside Ngatea). These proactive farmers let the microbiology do their job of increasing the fertility in the soil, by building humus, which the microbes create from organic matter. When lime and calcium levels are adequate, earthworms (an indicator species of soil microbe health) proliferate and they do not have soil sticking to them. Artificial chemicals destroy earthworms and other microbiology. Each typical application of urea halves earthworm numbers. Applying increasing amounts of chemical fertiliser over time with diminishing pasture quality indicates, while common, is not sustainable. Once a soil is healthy, application of urea, Superphosphate, and potash (NPK) become unnecessary. Additionally, when soil microbes build humus, which is the primary determinant of soil health, carbon is sequestered from the atmosphere back into the soil.

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Worms in a healthy, biologically active soil. Notice no soil sticking to them. Near Edgecumbe.
An unhealthy worm at Ruakura, with ample soil sticking to it, indicating severe lack of lime/calcium.

Neglecting to fertilise at all (with stable, microbe-available products such as lime, serpentine, reactive phosphate, trace elements, etc.) does not foster a healthy system. When meat or milk is sold from the farm, nutrients go off the farm too and they need to be replenished.

Farmers are wise to take both a soil and herbage test and send them to the right lab. See grazinginfo.com for ideal test levels and comparisons to other ideal test levels (such as AgResearch, which are often too low). Farmers need to dig some holes in the pasture and observe and record changes in the soil over time. See Graham Shepherd’s Visual Soil and Pasture Assessment booklet (BioAgriNomics.com)

Livestock Management

Healthy soil results in healthy animals. In the past nine months, I have seen far too many sick animals, especially during calving. Vet bills of $70/dairy cow/yr are not normal or acceptable. 90% of the organic dairy farms I visited reported vet bills of less than ten dollars per cow per annum. Most animals health problems (and weeds) are caused by improperly managed soil. Of note is a biological dairy farm near Whakatane that located right down the road from a conventional focus farm. Using the same parameters (but different dry-off dates) for comparison in the same year, the biological farm produced milk at $2.42/kgMS while the conventional focus farm produced milk at $4.50/kgMS.

I am surprised to see that Holsteins’ are in NZ, of all places. The American Holstein, with their predominately white coats and large frame, has been selected to be reliant on a high-input farming model. What they offer is more milk at a greater cost per cow accompanied by a decrease in fertility and longevity. These high-producing animals need more feed (especially starch-based feed, which is great if you sell the feed) and more chemical props to keep them alive (great if you are a pharmaceutical company), accompanied by corresponding decrease in fertility and longevity (great if you are a semen company). All this to achieve the much-coveted high production levels, but at what cost? Let’s start coveting high net profit per acre (which often means running fewer animals and the right kind of animal)! The Holstein, in fact, any large cow, is often not profitable. As Jerry Brunetti stated “everyone is making money off the modern dairy cow except the farmer”.

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A Fresian with Good Pukeroro Genetics, near Te Aroha.

The near heifer, while not ideal, is much better and more profitable than the far heifer. The far heifer, with her poor coat, poor gain-ability, and low live weight:meat yield ratio has much better EBV’s than the near heifer.


An animal that is ‘correctly’ put together is going to have a small to medium frame, longevity, hardiness, high fertility, early maturation, good health, and easy fleshing ability. In short, the most profitable animals share similar phenotypes. An animal should be selected by its phenotype, which is the outward physical expression of the genetic composition and production attributes of that individual. Often the most profitable animals have poor EBV’s or BW’s. Why is it that the Devon, for example, is largely ignored in NZ, but they are so highly sought after in The USA to the extent that huge sums of money was recently spent sending one of the largest NZ Devon herds to the USA? See ‘The Vision Tender’ booklet at classivelivestock.com and bakewellrepro.com to learn about visual appraisal of livestock. Ian Smith in Te Poi has good Jerseys, resurgumangus.com breeds and studies good Angus genetics, and I was told that AmBreed still has some Pukeroro (Friesian) semen.

Grazing Management

Rotational or break grazing is wonderful and necessary, but in-spite of NZ’s reputation for good rotational grazing, overgrazing still runs rampant. Overgrazing occurs when 1) animals continuously graze pasture to about 50-75mm for most grass species 2) animals re-graze a plant before it has fully recovered from prior grazing or 3) a plant gets grazed too early after a dormancy period. In these scenarios, the plant must over-utilise carbohydrates stored in the roots to re-grow to the point that photosynthesis can resume. The best grass-based farmers know that they are really in the business of growing grass. Livestock are merely a tool to manage and harvest the pasture resource. Thus, the pasture takes management priority over the livestock, especially in a drought. See stockmangrassfarmer.com

One of the best tools in pasture management, particularly in relation to beef farming, is running larger numbers of animals per group. Rotational grazing mimics natural grazing patterns seen in wild ungulates, such as bison, who graze in large mobs. Many people in the USA, such as Abe Collins, Greg Judy, and Joel Salatin, are practising a style of grazing called ‘mobstocking’ (see acresusa.com). This practice, while it could be considered extreme, involves very high pre-graze pasture heights (about 30-70+cm), very high stocking density (1-2,000 cow units/ha), frequent paddock shifts, and draws on the benefits seen in grazing large groups of animals, termed “herd effect”. In addition, the financial gain of running fewer numbers of animals in a greater number of groups, (with the goal of increasing gain/head by decreasing competition) is greatly offset by the extra labour demand to shift more groups. Considering that of the top 20% of the most profitable grass-based American farms, each full time employee generates $200,000 USD and that overhead (labour and infrastructure) is usually the greatest hindrance to profitability, it is not possible to maximise profitability by running small groups of animals with the aim of reducing competition. See ranchingforprofit.com.

Livestock performance is maximized when minerals are offered in the pasture year round to make up for the mineral deficiencies in the soil until a soil comes right. DeLaval offers the high quality soluble mineral mix ‘Solmonix’, AgriSea has a good animal health tonic, and Probitas Systems supply solid free choice minerals customised to compensate for specific soil and plant deficiencies. Dairy sheds, fences, and water systems should also be checked for stray voltage (see Peter Dewes in Hamilton).

Human Nutrition

In my observations, the diet of the average kiwi leaves much room for improvement and nutritional education is generally lacking. Meat and raw (real) milk from animals eating only forages is amazingly good for you, while pasteurised dairy and products from animals fed on starch-based feeds and artificially fertilised pasture is not. For health guidelines, seek out westonaprice.org, mercola.com, realmilk.com, acresusa.com, and nutri-tech.com.au. Nutri-Tech Solutions, specialise in human health as well as biological hybrid-farming (along with others such as bioagnz in Havelock North). This approach is a combination of conventional and organic methods, making the most out of artificial inputs and greatly reducing their toxicity on the soil but keeping the nutrient density profile in food produced as a marker of success.

Seek Knowledge

As Vaughan Jones, Hamilton-based, long-time international agricultural consultant and author of his online book at grazinginfo.com, stated, “The common trait among the best farmers is that they read, and they read the right material”. A producer paradigm shift and some re-education may be needed, as much of the industry-based research is flawed. Developing an understanding of a farm as a biological system and the dynamics of the soil/plant/animal/human interrelation are fundamental. A few key resources are mentioned here.

One such resource is the work of Dr. William A Albrecht, one of the most brilliant soil scientists produced in America. His extensive travel and experiments resulted in his observation that “a declining soil fertility, due to a lack of organic material, major elements, and trace minerals, was responsible for poor crops, and in turn for pathological conditions in animals fed deficient foods from such soils, and that mankind was no exception”. Find someone who is trained in the Albrecht system, such as Probitas Systems.

The most valuable resource is Charles Walters. His monthly Acres USA(.com), which offers a huge number of books and audio lectures, in addition to excellent articles. “No modern voice has spoken out against social injustice, environmental deception, and commercial hypocrisy as applied to agriculture more candidly, clearly and trenchantly than Charles, Walters, Jr, who since 1971 has edited and published a straight-punching and hard-hitting monthly; Acres USA: A Voice for Eco-Agriculture, the ‘Eco’ standing for both economic and ecological”. -SOTS

Many farmers need to get back in charge of maximising farm profitability and having the data for effective decision-making. Barrie Ridler of grazingsystems.co.nz (GSL) in Napier offers a dynamic computer economic farm monitoring and planning system, which is an essential farm management tool. As an aside, the GSL financial decision-making model is now quite emphatically rejecting both supplements and nitrogen solely on the basis of economics at current prices and production levels. Environmentally friendly practices are also the best economically.

The Future

The USA has tried and proven that the soluble/chemical fertiliser route is not healthy, profitable, or sustainable. In my opinion, especially considering the rising costs of production (for example, Superphosphate now $580/tonne which is up about 80% from June 2007 and urea now at $1110/tonne up from $500/tonne June 2007), the future of synthetic agriculture (based on continuously increasing level of production to match increases in cost of production) is very limited while the future of biological agriculture (based on reducing cost of production and increasing margin) has never looked brighter, especially considering the strong possibility of being paid for sequestering carbon back into the soil (see carboncoalition.com.au, carbonfarmersofamerica.com, and rodaleinstitute.com).

Each NZ resource listed above is someone who I have interviewed extensively in person. I am sure there are other people who provide quality services, but I have only listed people that I have met personally and who came highly recommended. I have no vested interest and do not receive rewards for recommendations.

Rebecca Brown can be contacted at brownsuffolk@hotmail.com. For a more positive and complete version of Rebecca’s NZ farming story, she is making a documentary that features NZ farmers sharing their experiences and speaking of the need for sustainable farming in NZ. A three-part, short introduction to this film can be viewed at youtube.com under the title “Approach Sustainability."

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