What really drives profitability in pastoral agriculture?

Unique, profitable, and complex

New Zealand pastoral agriculture is uniquely based around grazing pasture in the paddock while it is growing. In most countries agriculture is relentlessly dependent on diesel, machinery and chemicals to establish forage crops, spray weeds, harvest them, transport them, wrap them in plastic for storage, then fed them out often in capital intensive feeding systems.

If one side of the coin is fossil fuel hungry, high cost, monocultural farming then New Zealand is on the other side of that coin. Our farmers are skilled shepherds who ensure pastures are abundant and nutritious through their understanding of the ecology of perennial pastures as livestock follow a natural grazing pattern that meets their changing requirements with room to feel freedom and contentment.

We often define farmers who are in the top 5% in profitability. We can also define a group of farmers that have grazing systems that are well designed and are implemented with precision. There is no group of pastoral farmers who have sub-optimal grazing systems, make mediocre grazing decisions and who then find themselves in the top 5% for farm profit – that combination don’t exist.

I have been fascinated by this fact. It has taken me on a unique journey through 35 years of farm consultancy, farm system analysis and development of models to help grazing decisions. When computers became common-place in the late 1980’s I started using spreadsheets to perform tasks that I had performed long-hand with a calculator. I developed the view that if I did a task regularly it was worth developing a spreadsheet and as my interest developed, develop a simple software application.

The true potential of software is in handling complexity and in the mid-1990’s I managed AgResearch’s Decision Support Group and we built industry platforms that are now standard in New Zealand agriculture. These perform tasks that were previously impossible such as managing nutrients (Overseer), modelling farms (Farmax), and evaluating genetic potential (SIL).

In 2004 we left AgResearch and formed Rezare Systems. We loved working with the inspired people New Zealand agriculture seems to be good at producing. They have a spirit about them that I think comes from being part of a biological system. We needed to develop a way of working that could keep pace with them and shares their inspiration. To achieve this we work hard to grasp how software development technologies can be relevant to their biological systems and core staff who have a good grounding in what drives profitability on a farm.

Growing and managing plants that thrive in the environment

This is the first of three blog posts for readers who are interested both in the technologies and the business of farming:

  • Growing and managing plants that thrive in the environment (this post)
  • Designing a feed demand that fit with changes in feed supply
  • Making timely meaningful decisions

The fourth pillar is the importance of people, and I’ll incorporate this topic in each of the posts.

In my experience sheep and beef farmers are stock people who understand their farms through observing the behaviour and performance of their stock. When I get down on my knees and start looking at their pastures few can name more than five pasture species, and none can name all 20 that probably make up their sward. When I studied for my degree in agriculture our agronomy lecturer, Parry Matthews showed how the presence and absence of species and their condition was a lens through which we can understand the environment, soil fertility, past management practices and future growth potential. Indeed, the pastures on a farm are perfectly adapted to the farmer – it is the result of everything that is being done, both the good and the bad.

In most farm systems the pasture species that can support a highly profitable farm system are present on-farm, in the sward or on a neighbour’s farm. To encourage these to be more productive involves understanding their ecology and therefore how we must manage them. In a pastoral system management can only control two factors: soil nutrients and the frequency and intensity of grazing. We could add to this control of competing plants but if you cannot get the first two right then competing plants become a bigger problem than they need be.

I spent some years working in the drier regions of the South Island. It seemed obvious to me that lucerne was a plant that thrived in high pH, well-drained soils. After a drought it would rise like a phoenix from the burned landscape providing abundant high-quality feed well before any other plant had woken up. And, amazingly the drier the environment the longer it lived – a lifespan of 15 years being commonplace. Did farmers see this? Many farmers were planting grass/clover swards. Many were choosing drought tolerant ryegrass. But on the spectrum of drought tolerance across all pasture plants grass and lucerne do not even overlap.

Example of system change – Marlborough

I started working with Doug and Fraser Avery on a project called the Starborough-Flaxbourne Project initiated by Don Ross of the Landcare Trust. Doug was emerging from a period where he had been beaten by drought and unable to see the opportunities directly under his control (his words).

The project was initially focussed on establishing saltbush on eroded sunny facing slopes. It seemed too easy to say “there is the problem, those eroded sunny facing hill slopes – lets fix it by growing saltbush there”. My biggest contribution was in questioning this focus. On the team was New Zealand’s expert on grazing shrubs. He was passionate about saltbush, but he had no understanding or interest in the farm system. He couldn’t tell me how much it would cost to establish and how much forage it would supply.

It also seemed that for grazing to suit the physiology of saltbush on New Zealand farms, it couldn’t be eaten when you needed it and you had to graze it when you had ample feed elsewhere. When we started to develop estimates of the cost of establishment and the forage produced it seemed to me an illogical investment in the farms most unproductive soils and in my rough estimation I concluded the more you planted the broker you got.

In comparison lucerne produced five times as much forage, at the right time, of higher quality and for a tenth of the establishment cost. I simply asked Doug and Fraser how much area could they possibly grow in lucerne – why not base the farm system round this plant. In reviewing livestock grazing habits they concluded lucerne could be grown in the same paddocks that included uncultivatable hill slopes. This increased the potential area from about 8% to 20%. Given the cultivable 20% produces threes time the pasture on hill slopes, it would provide around half of the feed supply.

They worked with Professor Derrick Moot from Lincoln University to understand the plants ecology and how they could base a grazing system around it. Derrick has an incredible knowledge of the lucerne plant and, what is most important a real desire to understand how it fits into the grazing system. I co-authored a paper that describes this system (Avery et al, 2008[1]) so I won’t go into further detail here.

Systems in the North Island

In the North Island where I now reside hill country pastures are based around browntop which thrives and can out-compete all other species if it is poorly managed, particularly if soils are low in phosphate, more acidic and particularly if this acidity causes a high level of aluminium. Browntop has a deep rooted aggressive rooting system that if allowed will completely take over the root zone tying up available moisture and nutrients.

Management is about controlling the aggressive nature of browntop so that more productive ryegrass and clover can thrive through grazing frequency and intensity. To do this well a farm needs paddock sizes that match the size of mobs – ideally, a mob should enter a paddock well before the pasture starts producing reproductive stems and take no more than four days to graze the pasture down to the required pasture height – called the post graze residual, which keeps the sward in a vegetative state.

Under the right management browntop is kept at less than 50% of the sward and ryegrass and clover can thrive. At this point a good financial return is achieved from increasing soil fertility (particularly phosphate) and soil pH. The difference between a sward that is well controlled and one dominated by browntop is an increase in feed production of 30-40%, proportionally more of this extra production being grown in the shoulders of the season when it is most valuable – autumn, winter and early spring. This is equivalent to a 400ha farm purchasing a further 140ha but at a tenth of the cost.

In summary, if a farm system is based on plants that thrive in your environment and management is based on the plants ecology then it allows nature to work with you. If it isn’t nature will beat you at every turn.

Technology and ecology

How has technology helped farmers understand plants that thrive on farm and their management requirements? I would conclude this is not where digital technology has helped. What does help is being able to see what other farmers are doing then trialling these in a meaningful way. It is then no coincidence that farmers who are out-going, ask plenty of questions, participate in farmer groups and are keen to experiment are more successful in changing their systems. Clearly, there is a whole mindset involved in change and Doug Avery’s[2] book The Resilient Farmer describes this better than anything I can write.

People and ecology

When I read Doug’s book it seemed clear to me the Avery’s had been growing lucerne successfully for many decades mainly for making winter supplements and feeding lambs. It wasn’t until Doug and Fraser (with the help of Professor Derrick Moot) really studied the plants ecology and how it could provide half of all livestock grazing that the farm’s profitability soared. So, who in the farm business needs to understand the ecology of the plants it is based on? Is it enough to send the shepherd on a pasture management course?

Understanding the ecology of the plants that a business is based on is a lifetime endeavour for the farm owner and everyone who makes decisions about grazing.

It may seem curious that as a technologist I have started this article series by concluding the first step in optimising a farm system does not involve digital technology. However, in my 35 years as a farm systems analyst I have never seen a highly successful business based on plants that don’t thrive in the farm environment – so, it cannot be ignored.

In the next article I’ll discuss ‘Designing a feed demand that fits with a changing feed supply’. In this step we start to enter the world of digital agriculture. There are good programs that can assist but there is so much more that can be achieved – and I’ll discuss where technologies are being developed.

[1] Avery D., Avery F., Ogle G.I., Wills B.J., Moot D.J. 2008 Adapting farm systems to a drier future. NZ Grasslands Association Proceedings 70: 13-18.

[2] The Resilient Farmer 2017, Penguin Books, 288pp, ISBN-13 97801437707787

Going round in circles

I’ve just finished refilling my Ecover washing up liquid bottle at work. Here in our shared office facilities our landlord is trying to get us all to go green and so has invested in a large returnable drum of Ecover from which we can all recharge our plastic bottles and avoid yet more plastic into land-fill.

My eco-crusade doesn’t stop there. In the past month we’ve stopped buying milk from the supermarket and I’m now popping into our local dairy farm on the way home and refilling glass bottles from their state-of-the art milk dispensing machine (at twice the price I might add).

Now I haven’t done the carbon calculations on any of this but what I do know is the amount of plastic we are getting through as a family has reduced significantly with just these two simple changes in habit.

At a time when Greta Thunberg is making waves across the Atlantic (literally) and movements like Extinction Rebellion are on the front pages, we simply cannot ignore the fact that the planet is in crisis.

So what does this mean for agriculture?

Those who have far better crystal balls than I do are suggesting that the future of business and the economy will be in what’s known as Circular Design. Unlike our current linear way of living (design, consume, throw away – or at best recycle), Circular Design is based on the rationale of there being no more waste, only the recycling of nutrients with a goal of arresting resource depletion and exploitation. Global sailing icon Ellen MacArthur is one of the big names leading the charge.

If the recycling of nutrients and a sustainable approach to our use of natural resources is the ambition, then agriculture must be central to the mission. And that’s the bit as someone in the agtech sector that excites me.

In an increasingly data-driven world, the opportunities for machine learning and AI to help us rethink the way we do things are growing by the day. As producers of food we are already seeing the norms of food production being challenged – impossible burgers, vertical farming and insect protein to name three. Whether these are truly “circular” I can’t say but they do signal the start of a revolution that is challenging what the farming sector has done for generations – and to traditionalists it feels uncomfortable.

But the truth is there isn’t a future in comfortable. We have such an existential crisis in an environmental sense that the rule book must be ripped up and those that tear the hardest are likely to win out.

To me that means adoption of smart, data-driven tech is an obligation not a privilege. It means we need to start collecting data on farm as a matter of urgency to begin to understand the complex dynamics of food production and resource use, and to deploy the best minds and technologies to redesign how we produce what we eat, how we consume it, and how we recharge the environment throughout this process.

We have such an existential crisis in an environmental sense that the rule book must be ripped up and those that tear the hardest are likely to win out.

Myriad projects could and should emerge that can establish the best production systems optimised by machines (sounds scary but isn’t) that calculate the “circularity” of the on-farm choices being made and that could be tied to market incentives for those that are indeed truly circular.

Imagine a future where data (privacy compliant of course) from your car, home and elsewhere is all linked up to the decisions you make about what you buy. In other words, the way in which you acquire and consume a product (food and non-food) is a dynamic calculation based on its own production history and your subsequent behaviours with it. Your “circularity” could become a badge of honour.

Governments the world over must incentivise the farming sector to make a step change. It is not good enough (in fact shameful) that something like 75% of the UK’s farmers do no electronic data recording at all. That might be fine to run an individual farm but it’s a collective disgrace when you look at the lost opportunity in a sustainability sense. Instrumenting farms and gathering good data is essential.

So as I take my refilled bottle of Ecover home via the milk dispensing machine, I can’t help but wonder what things will look like in five to 10 years from now. If it’s more of the same then we will all have failed. But if I and my children become more enthralled by sharing on social media how “circular” we are rather than obsessing about Snapchat streaks and Instagram likes, then that might suggest the tide has turned.

Or to put it another way, MacArthur won’t be the only one going round in circles!

Time to demonstrate sustainable delivery of human nutrition

As the debate about the carbon footprint of livestock farming rages on, I was encouraged to hear a very persuasive presentation from Professor Michael Lee recently.

Michael heads up the team at UK-based Rothamsted Research’s North Wyke site, a world leading centre for farm-scale ruminant livestock production research.

In the past couple of years, North Wyke has had considerable investment in facilities to support its work and it really is an impressive mix of cutting edge science and pragmatic farming knowledge.

So what was Michael saying when it comes to global warming and livestock production? His argument is many of the figures being bandied about are an oversimplification of a complicated subject. But golly did he do a good job of distilling down the key points. It is true he suggested that when you look at simple measures for global warming potential (GWP) such as C02 equivalent/kg of meat product then the much maligned beef and sheep farming systems do fare rather poorly.

But does one kg of beef have the same nutritional value as a kg of chicken? The answer according to his analysis (actually that of his colleagues Graham McAuliffe et al. he respectfully conceded) is no. And here’s why:

Recommended daily intake

The North Wyke scientists have looked at the recommended daily intake (RDI) nutritional requirements of us humans and mapped this across the nutritional content of the different forms of meat (and systems) to produce a nutrient index based on 10 encouraged and two discouraged nutrients. Then they have compared the typical measure of C02 equivalent/kg of meat with a new measure of C02 equivalent/1% RDI and this rather turns some of the analysis on its head.

As the graph below shows, beef which performed rather poorly from a GWP perspective on the old measure (see top chart), comes out best on the new one. That is to say, for every % of RDI we need in our diet, beef production produces fewer kg of C02 than even chicken!

And while lamb might seem to be lagging even in the new analysis, by looking at arable land used to support the various livestock production systems, lamb does best with chicken again performing rather less well than ruminants on the RDI measure.

The point is not to crash the cause of UK poultry (or even pork) production but to point out that ruminant bashing doesn’t stack up on a RDI basis when measuring C02 equivalency. And while human consumption of plant-based products (as opposed to meat) might be even more sustainable, North Wyke’s work provides a strong argument for grass-based ruminant systems on non-arable land, and that’s even before all the negativities associated with potentially ploughing up swathes of pasture land for arable production and releasing tonnes of sequestered carbon.

So why as a technology provider am I interested in this? Well, if here in the UK rewarding farmers for preserving (even building) “natural capital” is going to become the big game in town, then we need some ways to measure it. Right now, to my knowledge, there isn’t a livestock recording software package out there that measures performance based on (for example) delivery of the human RDI index. This seems an enormous opportunity to start creating a tangible link between human nutrition (society), farm productivity (economy) and the environment through an empirically-based approach. Indeed, these were the three pillars of sustainability that Michael opened his presentation with.

Our own pureFarming livestock recording platform is already a feature-rich white-label tool for organisations helping farmers measure, record and monitor livestock performance but how much better could we make it if we added a new set of sustainability metrics to link on-farm production with the delivery of a healthy diet? That would be bringing farmers closer to meeting the needs of the consumer in a scientifically rigorous way.

I feel a project coming on! Anyone?