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Clear soils, clear choices for Clearwaters

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Clearwaters Field Day 3

With demand for organic produce rising and restrictions on inputs becoming tighter, a recent field day on Non-Leaching Fertilisers drew an interested crowd to Peel View Farm in South Canterbury, New Zealand.

Rabobank clients Bryan & Jackie Clearwater, son Sam and daughter Rose (Clearwater’s Organic Dairy) hosted about 60 people as speakers Phyllis Tichinin and Graham Shepherd gave presentations on the best way to maximise the potential of soils for animal and human health.

Organic milk producers received $9.20/kg MS in the 2015/16 season, and demand for organic dairy produce in the US has been growing around 20% annually. With demand on the rise, local producers were keen to find out more about organic methods.

Attendees at the field day included organic farmers from across the South Island, a number of very good farmers who use traditional farming methods, regional council staff, vets and some non-farmers involved in conservation work.

Clearwaters Field Day 4

The first presentation from Phyllis Tichinin, an expert in the fields of soil fertility, environmental management, and biological agriculture, focused on microbes.

Phyllis identified the link between the microbiome - the zillions of microbes in the soil, on our skin and inside our guts and cows’ guts - and our health. Imbalance in gut microbes leads to poor digestion, affects our mood and encourages a march towards Alzheimer’s disease, she said.

Her presentation also covered the impact of chemical-based fertilisers on the naturally occurring soil microbes. In broad terms, non-biological fertilisers destroy the naturally occurring soil microbes, creating a cycle of chemical reliance. The soil becomes less free-draining and won’t fix free atmospheric nitrogen nor sequester carbon.

Clearwaters Field Day 2

Graham Shepherd runs BioAgriNomics, an agricultural and fertiliser advisory company. He has studied 71 NZ soils in depth, and presented on linking soil conditioning, plant nutrition, animal health and farm productivity with ‘smart fertilisers’ and smart farm management practices. 

Graham noted that products used as replacement for nature can show very wide variation, depending on who is giving the advice - for example, a fertiliser company rep may have a limited range of options compared to a soil scientist. 

Graham recommended that anyone doing soil tests for fertiliser should also do a herbage test as this will give much clearer indication of any elements that are required. In general terms, Graham suggested Phosphorus (P) is overused in NZ - there is enough naturally occurring for pasture growth - NZ is short of Calcium (Ca), the interaction provided by Ca with other elements in the soil drives pasture growth.

Clearwaters Field Day 1

After a break for lunch, Graham demonstrated his Visual Soil Analysis, confirming that the Clearwater soil showed the benefits of 17 years of organic management. This included the smell of the soil, number of worms, colour of clover root nodules, texture and free-draining nature. A Brix test of the pasture was also done to demonstrate the sugar content of the pasture, and the crowd had a good discussion around the value of Brix testing pasture because of the changes in levels during the day. 

Further discussion centred on the opportunity to lower GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions, store carbon in soil and use N from the atmosphere - all very topical. Both presenters suggested that farmers have a choice to move on from using water-soluble nutrients to biology-friendly ones, reducing GHG emissions immediately, reducing nutrient loss to water, and reducing use of Glyphosate to create functional soils which sequester carbon from the atmosphere into the soil as humus.

One of the key messages was that farmers are definitely looking for better ways to farm with a lower environmental footprint. A number of traditional farmers present indicated that while they were not going to go the “full organic way”, there were elements of organics that they would be introducing into their business, such as monitoring the use of chemical fertilisers on their farms alongside animal health.