Farmers challenged by nitrogen losses

GREENING: Hawke’s Bay farmer Andy Hunt and MyFarm consultant Rachel Baker took part in a project aimed at helping farmers meet their nutrient loss obligations. Picture supplied

Two dairy farmers and two dry stock farmers from the Tukituki catchment took part in the Greening Tukituki project, which aimed to help them meet their nutrient loss obligations under the plan change.

The project ends amid growing disquiet about the shortcomings in nutrient software system Overseer.

A recent report by Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton found problems with Overseer that undermine confidence in its suitability as a regulatory tool.

The Hawke’s Bay plan change requires farmers to match their nitrogen losses to their Land Use Capability (LUC) classification based on the property’s physical characteristics and attributes.

The results from two farms have highlighted the successes and challenges that face many farmers throughout New Zealand as every region starts to grapple with plan changes for nutrient losses.

Takapau feedlot farmer Rob Foley found the project invaluable in presenting him with some options when data identified the 1100 dairy cows he grazed over winter as a key source of nitrogen losses.

His options were either to undergo expensive bore testing to determine just how much nitrogen was being leached from cow urine or to consider a lower nitrogen loss type of farming.

He opted for the latter, dropping the cows for half the number of bulls and reducing his LUC loss from 41kg nitrogen a hectare a year to 36kg.

“While the cash flow is definitely reduced by not having the dairy grazers, financially it is still profitable running the bulls instead,” Mr Foley said.

Other areas being examined through the project have included losses from winter wheat and examining different grass species, including plantain to absorb nitrogen.

“For us, the project was definitely worthwhile. It has been good to be part of a project focused on how to become more compliant and to also demonstrate to council just how hard it is to not only do these things but to still make a profit.”

Ashley Clinton dairy farmer Andy Hunt has not had all his nitrogen issues solved by the project, but it has revealed some of his options and highlighted to the regional council team how challenging meeting nitrogen loss targets can be.

Hawkes Bay Regional Council was one of the supporters of the Tukituki project.

Significant time and energy has been invested into working out options for the Hunts’ 360-cow operation to get it within 30 percent of its LUC nitrogen leaching rate limit of 21kg of nitrogen a hectare a year. At present it is about 40 percent over its LUC allocation.

The Hunts accept there is no “silver bullet” solution to getting the farm within that limit, but one tool presenting itself has been to plant more plantain in the farm pasture mix. This has been shown to help reduce nitrogen losses.

“But the project has also highlighted that plantain is not included in the Overseer model, and until it is this possible tool is out of our hands to some extent,” Mr Hunt said.

However, he was encouraged by the regional council’s positive attitude to incorporating plantain into the farm system for nitrogen loss mitigation.

Another option presenting itself is to construct a compostable barn, but the $500,000 plus price tag means he needs more assurance from the regional council the operation will be compliant if he goes ahead with it.

An alternative is to further reduce the stocking rate of the already low-stocked farm, but this impacts on profitability and long-term viability.

“You could say the project has not solved our problems, but it has certainly raised the profile of them and has also highlighted to the council these challenges that we face to meet these standards.” Project manager and MyFarm agribusiness consultant Rachel Baker said there was considerable uncertainty about how farms in the catchment were going to meet the plan change standards.

“And this is from farms that at face value are picture-perfect –– well run, with healthy stock and owners who really care about the environment,” Ms Baker said.

“Plantain looks like it could prove a game changer in helping reduce nitrogen losses, and that is supported by peer-reviewed science. It’s something many farmers including Andy Hunt have also been sowing in their swards for a few years now.

“And in the case of Rob, he took some steps very quickly by stopping dairy cow grazing and replacing them with bulls, and immediately reducing the magnitude of nutrient loss. However, this in turn presents a challenge for where dairy cows will be wintered in future.”

She said the project had been instrumental in putting the practical realities of the council plan change in front of those who would implement it, and had helped build greater understanding between council staff and farmers about the plan’s impact.

The full report can be viewed at www.myfarm.co.nz/tukituki.

Two dairy farmers and two dry stock farmers from the Tukituki catchment took part in the Greening Tukituki project, which aimed to help them meet their nutrient loss obligations under the plan change.

The project ends amid growing disquiet about the shortcomings in nutrient software system Overseer.

A recent report by Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton found problems with Overseer that undermine confidence in its suitability as a regulatory tool.

The Hawke’s Bay plan change requires farmers to match their nitrogen losses to their Land Use Capability (LUC) classification based on the property’s physical characteristics and attributes.

The results from two farms have highlighted the successes and challenges that face many farmers throughout New Zealand as every region starts to grapple with plan changes for nutrient losses.

Takapau feedlot farmer Rob Foley found the project invaluable in presenting him with some options when data identified the 1100 dairy cows he grazed over winter as a key source of nitrogen losses.

His options were either to undergo expensive bore testing to determine just how much nitrogen was being leached from cow urine or to consider a lower nitrogen loss type of farming.

He opted for the latter, dropping the cows for half the number of bulls and reducing his LUC loss from 41kg nitrogen a hectare a year to 36kg.

“While the cash flow is definitely reduced by not having the dairy grazers, financially it is still profitable running the bulls instead,” Mr Foley said.

Other areas being examined through the project have included losses from winter wheat and examining different grass species, including plantain to absorb nitrogen.

“For us, the project was definitely worthwhile. It has been good to be part of a project focused on how to become more compliant and to also demonstrate to council just how hard it is to not only do these things but to still make a profit.”

Ashley Clinton dairy farmer Andy Hunt has not had all his nitrogen issues solved by the project, but it has revealed some of his options and highlighted to the regional council team how challenging meeting nitrogen loss targets can be.

Hawkes Bay Regional Council was one of the supporters of the Tukituki project.

Significant time and energy has been invested into working out options for the Hunts’ 360-cow operation to get it within 30 percent of its LUC nitrogen leaching rate limit of 21kg of nitrogen a hectare a year. At present it is about 40 percent over its LUC allocation.

The Hunts accept there is no “silver bullet” solution to getting the farm within that limit, but one tool presenting itself has been to plant more plantain in the farm pasture mix. This has been shown to help reduce nitrogen losses.

“But the project has also highlighted that plantain is not included in the Overseer model, and until it is this possible tool is out of our hands to some extent,” Mr Hunt said.

However, he was encouraged by the regional council’s positive attitude to incorporating plantain into the farm system for nitrogen loss mitigation.

Another option presenting itself is to construct a compostable barn, but the $500,000 plus price tag means he needs more assurance from the regional council the operation will be compliant if he goes ahead with it.

An alternative is to further reduce the stocking rate of the already low-stocked farm, but this impacts on profitability and long-term viability.

“You could say the project has not solved our problems, but it has certainly raised the profile of them and has also highlighted to the council these challenges that we face to meet these standards.” Project manager and MyFarm agribusiness consultant Rachel Baker said there was considerable uncertainty about how farms in the catchment were going to meet the plan change standards.

“And this is from farms that at face value are picture-perfect –– well run, with healthy stock and owners who really care about the environment,” Ms Baker said.

“Plantain looks like it could prove a game changer in helping reduce nitrogen losses, and that is supported by peer-reviewed science. It’s something many farmers including Andy Hunt have also been sowing in their swards for a few years now.

“And in the case of Rob, he took some steps very quickly by stopping dairy cow grazing and replacing them with bulls, and immediately reducing the magnitude of nutrient loss. However, this in turn presents a challenge for where dairy cows will be wintered in future.”

She said the project had been instrumental in putting the practical realities of the council plan change in front of those who would implement it, and had helped build greater understanding between council staff and farmers about the plan’s impact.

The full report can be viewed at www.myfarm.co.nz/tukituki.

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