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The Root Zone Reality Project

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Paul Johnstone - The Root Zone Reality Project

Many farmers around the country are currently playing host to some important science initiatives that are set to benefit the wider industry and play a role in building New Zealand’s ability to deliver sustainable production.

Paul Johnstone is the science group leader at Plant & Food Research for field crops in the Sustainable Production Portfolio. He is working on a project known as “Root Zone Reality”, an industry initiative supported by MPI through the Sustainable Farming Fund, regional councils and other industry participants, that is accurately measuring nutrient losses under good management practices across New Zealand.

Paul says it’s about getting a better understanding of nutrient movement through cropping systems and is probably the first attempt to measure actual nutrient losses across multiple crops, sites, and seasons. He says it’s important to do that to compare existing models and management practices, to get a better understanding of how each system is performing.

2016 marks the second year of the project, with sites located in Canterbury, Manawatu, Hawkes Bay, Waikato and Auckland. The sites are going to be in the ground for at least three years and Paul hopes the network will endure and the information that’s coming will be of real benefit to the growers and councils that are involved.

One farmer involved is Hugh Ritchie who, along with his wife Sharon, is a former Hawke’s Bay Farmer of the Year. The couple run Drumpeel, a 2050ha block of cropping and livestock. A very small part of the farm is fully cultivated, but most of Drumpeel is strip-tilled. Eight hundred hectares is in cash cropping, a combination of process vegetables, cereals and seed. The rest of the property supports finishing beef and lambs.

Hugh says he’s looking forward to some robust science around the real impacts of how he is farming. “A lot of the work I’ve done off farm has been around nutrient management, so I suppose a lot of our research dollars in all industries is going into how we manage within limits. So it was naturally interesting to see what it is. I know everybody moans about models and its not quite correct, so this is really exciting in terms of actually seeing what is really going on. That’s not to say we don’t have to use models going forward, it’s just a case of let’s get the models as good as they can be.”

Paul says, “What we’re seeing I think at the moment, is that in a number of situations, good management practices are resulting in small losses. And the next step is to test that against models and compare kind of the outputs of what we’ve measured against what the models predict. Most of the sites in the network are irrigated. Paul says irrigation is a key driver of productivity but also managed well, it doesn’t need to be a risk in terms of loss.

“The good practices that Hugh is obviously implementing, good emphasis on soil testing, matching demand with supply, good irrigation practices to really reduce the risk of leaching losses as well as using cover crops over the winter, to lock up any nutrients that are sitting there so he can use it again next year.”

The Root Zone Reality Project story was first shown on air in episode 16 of Rural Delivery on Saturday 18 June 2016 and available to view on TVNZ on Demand until June 2017.

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Rural Delivery: www.ruraldelivery.net.nz

TVNZ on Demand: www.tvnz.co.nz/ondemand

What other stories or initiatives around sustainable production are you aware of? Do you know of other farmer/scientist collaborations? Share them with us below.