Thursday, 27 February 2014

The end of my visit to New Zealand

My Final visit in New Zealand was at Lincoln Agritech with Armin Werner and Jess Roberts. Lincoln agritech is a subsidiary of Lincoln University, and is involved with developing products with industry. There is currently a focus on how NZ agriculture affects the environment and Agritech are looking at how precision agriculture can help to quantify these effects and minimize them.

Variable rate irrigation monitoring using microwave sensors on irrigators to measure the water availability in real time without disturbing the crop is one example. VRI application maps are built using soil type data and measuring soil moisture with moisture probes, but it is not known how much water is actually in the plant. The microwave sensors can collect this data in real time and lead to better informed management decisions.   
Agritech are also researching variable rate seeding for maize, as the crop is growing in popularity due to demand from the dairy industry. By using soil zones from EM maps, yield potential can be estimated and plant populations manipulated to match that potential. If this is coupled to the vast research being done in corn (maize) production in the USA, and the improvements in planter control and monitoring, there are many ways precision agriculture can improve maize production.
Jess Roberts’s research is based in Australia and is around monitoring cattle movements and pasture management to see if the cattle can tell the farmer when they are starting to get hungry. By logging their movement using GPS collars, and recording the feed availability using biomass sensors, it was possible to see how they dispersed and how far they travelled as feed levels declined. Also in the extreme environment of remote cattle stations, can this information be used to indicate if an animal is so hungry that it will just stop grazing completely? This data could be used to prevent over grazing of pastures and ultimately improve grass production.
As I travelled back to Christchurch I went past a tribute to past ploughmen of New Zealand which celebrated hosting the world ploughing championships, and recognised previous farmers efforts in breaking the Canterbury plains. It is always good to remember your past as you move forward.



After 2 weeks in New Zealand is very clear that the whole agricultural sector is heavily supported by the dairy sector, but the dairy sector is not isolated and very well integrated with other sectors. It is the diversity and options available to New Zealand that is most compelling, that along with the productivity levels being achieved are very inspiring.

Precision Agriculture is still in its infancy but the uptake is growing. The wider adoption of VRI will lead to the biggest productivity and profitability gains for farmers. Purely because the difference irrigation makes is phenomenal and there is a growing demand for regulation and justification of irrigation and its effects on the environment, which is the jewel in New Zealand’s crown.

I had a wonderful time meeting new friends and visiting old friends, and I thank everyone for their time and hospitality, which I hope to be able return to any of them visiting the UK in the future.

Another world record holder

Chris farms right on the pacific coast and was the second world record holder I visited. Chris’s farm is similar to ours in size and cropping rotation, based around cereals, mostly autumn sown but growing more spring crops due weed control, sound familiar. That is where the similarities end as Chris also has a 220ha dairy farm running 780 cows with a share milker, and the whole farm is irrigated. Not to mention his oilseed rape averaged 5.9T/ha last year and his 5 year wheat average yield is 13t/ha. Chris had the world wheat yield record before Mike Solari, broke it in 2010.

You can't get much closer to the Pacific ocean

So how does he do it?

The wheat is sown early in mid april, or the latest you would plant oilseed rape, aiming for a plant population of 125 plants/m2, using min till techniques. The base fertilizer is applied before the final cultivation and will include potash, magnesium, copper and zinc. Zinc has been seen to be very beneficial  and will be applied again in the spring as a matter of course. Nitrogen is applied at a rate of 25kgN/T of yield, following a SMN (soil mineral nitrogen) test, in 3 to 4 splits of Urea, the timing depends on crop development.  A five fungicide program is used because of the very long growing season. The key to high yields is grain weight and size, when Chris grew his record wheat crop the grain weight was high.
Chris in a crop of Oakley Wheat, but not a record breaker this year!

Oilseed rape is managed in a very similar way to in the UK, but the yields are higher. How much of that is down to climatic differences such as higher winter temperature, lower winter rainfall and higher solar radiation in NZ, and how much is management I don’t know? Interestingly Chris thinks the average yield last year was still below the crops potential.

Chris showed me a spring barley stubble which had been harvested for whole crop silage and then direct drilled with forage oilseed rape, which would be grazed by the dairy cows as winter feed. When you consider that paddock has produced 13T/ha dry matter of spring barley and will produce 12T/ha of dry matter of forage rape in a year, it demonstrates the enormous productive capacity of the land.
Drill used to direct drill the forage rape below


When arable farming of this standard is described as a hobby that the dairy farm supports it is a clear demonstration of the influence of dairy farming in NZ. Added to that the fact that Chris will soon be the only person in his area to run a combine, is a clear indicator how farming is changing in Canterbury. What will happen in the next 15 years I wonder? 



A sucessful family company

 I visited Peter Mitchell who farms near Omarau, and is a fifth generation farmer. The farm business structure is relatively uncommon for NZ as Peter farms with his uncle and cousins, and run the Mitchell and Webster company. All the different family members have different skills which are matched to the role they play. The company is split into four separate smaller companies, each with its own board of directors. Each board holds a bi-monthly meeting and includes external consultants to add skills and expertise the family members may not have

Peter Mitchell in a crop of canary grass

The arable business forms one company and comprises 1400 ha of owned and leased land of which 600 ha can be irrigated. Crops include wheat, barley, canary seed, sunflower, forage maize, lucerne forage, ryegrass for forage and seed and oilseed rape.  RTK guidance is used on the tractors to improve efficiency. Some variable rate lime and phosphate applications are used to correct specific areas using grid sampled data.  Variable rate irrigation (VRI) is used to control water applications, the land has been EM (Electromagnetic conductivity) mapped and divided into soil zones which have moisture probes installed. Peter has been working with Landcare research on a water monitoring project where the moisture sensors are monitored remotely using telematics, every 15 mins. This information is accessible from either the office computer or a smartphone, there is the possibility it could lead to a fully automated system. Weather data is also monitored and is used in the decision making process, which would be improved if an option to look at what if predictive modelling was also possible, according to Peter.

A dairy conversion was just starting on a 170ha block of arable land. The conversion will be run as a separate company and will be milking 600 cows by August in only 6 months time. When I visited it was all arable land, with no irrigation, milking shed or dairy infrastructure, the speed at which a conversion happens is breathtaking. The decision to start dairy farming was multifaceted it is more profitable than arable cropping on that block, to the point that irrigating arable crops is too expensive but grass it down and add some cows makes it sensible. Dairy farming is scaleable, helps with succession planning bearing in mind the business structure, and  adds diversification. One more reason is that converting marginal dryland arable land to an irrigated dairy farm doubles the value of the land overnight! In a country without capital gains or inheritance tax it all makes perfect sense.
Arable land to be converted to a dairy unit

 Peter commented:  “If you don’t keep growing, you get run over!”

The third business is a bird seed business, Topflite. Topflite started in 1993, after growing sunflowers for oil which was not profitable, and a buyer in Christchurch become unreliable. It started small with all the seed mixed by hand in a concrete mixer and has grown to an automated process producing 1400 T of Bird and small animal seed per year. Not all of the seed is grown on the farm as some has to be imported to get the correct mix for the different products. The majority is sent to the north island, due to the larger population. The business is based on offering a good product with good service, to maintain a higher price, and deals primarily with pet shops and not supermarkets.
New Topflite bags
Products ready to be delivered
Range of products produced

The last company is a passive company with commercial property assets including a rest home.

Farming in Southland

I had the pleasure of spending a few days with Steve and Heather Wilkins, who farm near Athol in Southland. Their farming business, Wilkins Farming, is large and very diverse, including cropping, diary, sheep, deer, grain handling and a farm shop. It was fascinating to see how all the different enterprises and family members worked together harmoniously. Steve was under considerable pressure as his own Nuffield report, on the “synergy between cropping and diary” was due to be handed in the day after I visited, so thanks for making time for me.

Steve checking some grass seed

The cropping part of the farm involved wheat, barley, various grass seeds and green feed crops for diary support (grazing other farmers stock over winter). Some of the land was irrigated using centre pivots and laterals; VRI was going to be installed in the future, to manage the soil water holding capacity variability. All of the grain produced was sold locally in southland, rather than being trucked to Canterbury in the past, due to the increased demand from the dairy industry. In fact grain now comes down from Canterbury and southland is a net importer of grain, this has increased the value of grain above the world market price, with wheat worth in excess of $400/T (£210/T approx.).  The Wilkins buy in grain from other farmers and process it at their grain mill to sell back to dairy farmers locally. Grass seed formed an important part of the rotation, with ryegrass grown for seed and also crested dogs tail, which is a weed in NZ but exported to the UK for stewardship grass mixes. We have enough problems controlling grass weeds in the UK, without importing them from the other side of the world! Another big part of the rotation is green feed crops of turnips and kale, used to graze around 7000 dairy cattle for the winter, some are their own from the dairy farm and the rest belong to other farmers. Dairy support is proving to be a much more profitable alternative for traditional sheep and cattle farmers in NZ, and is leading to the development of land that was previously unproductive, simply because it is profitable.
Grain processing plant

Winter green feed crop for dairy cattle

Wilkins farming also has a dairy farm with 1400 cows, which is run by a share milker and links well with the cropping, by using grain, grazing green feed crops and helping to introduce some organic matter to the land.
The land that is not suitable to cropping or dairy is used for sheep and deer farming. The lambs are grown on a contract for Waitrose in the UK, and also sold through the farm shop  “The Veg shed”, and via the website Athol Valley Meats. The deer produce venison and velvet from the antlers which are cut off. An annual stag sale is also held on the farm with stags sold either for breeding or to the hunting industry as trophies.
Sheep waiting to be shorn

Deer Velvet

The Veg shed was opened in an old converted woolshed, to enable produce from the farm to be sold directly to the consumer, regaining the link between producer and consumer  is something that Heather is passionate about. Alongside the lamb and venison from the farm many other local and traditional NZ products are offered. The location of the Veg Shed on the main road between Queenstown and Milford sound, which are both popular tourist destinations, is a big benefit.
Inside the Veg shed

My fantastic hosts Heather and Steve


Tuesday, 18 February 2014

FAR field day in Southland

Steve  took me to a local field day organised by FAR, I was looking forward to seeing how FAR deliver their research to local farmers, having visited them early on my trip. On the way to the field day we went to an oat growers group meeting looking at the difference between spring and winter oats.
Spring Oat trial

It was interesting to see the differences in management between the UK and NZ. We are both targeting the same yield, but NZ farmers are applying 50 % more nitrogen than we do, using more PGR resulting in taller crops which are more prone to lodging. The comparison between autumn sown and spring sown oats was showing that often spring oats would give the best return. Growing spring oats could be an option in the rotation at home, if we can achieve comparable yields and harvest the crop early enough. As a spring crop would be an advantage in weed control and could also give the option to grow a cover crop or even a winter forage crop. The oat group was also looking at how oats could be better used and marketed, either as a dry ingredient in food stuffs or using it to produce oat milk for the growing lactose intolerant Chinese population. The oat milk plant could have the potential to use 75,000 T pa, and considering only about 5,000 T pa are produced in southland at the moment, there is substantial growth required.
After lunch we went along to the FAR field day and looked at forage spring barley trials, winter wheat trials and were given a demonstration of the Gardyne's drone. The spring barley trial was looking at nitrogen application rates and timings, varying from 0 to 300kgN and Growth stage 22 to GS 39. The high rates of N had the best appearance and highest yield potential, but time will tell.
Spring barley nitrogen trial
Winter wheat trials were being carried out similar to the 20/20 project at rothamsted and fellow Nuffield scholar Jake Freestone's topic. They were focusing on PGR usage to increase yield through more targeted applications and possibly using a PGR in the autumn. Alongside that cultivar or variety selection is being investigated, and looking at the selection process in reverse, starting with yield potential and working backwards to find the correct cultivar. A broad fungicide trial is also being carried out to try to identify how the triazole chemistry is standing up to resistance, comparing different active ingredients, rates and timings. Some new SDHI (Succinate Dehydrogenase inhibitor) fungicides which are only just available in NZ. All this work had resulted in trial plot yields of 16.9 T/ha, but were not at that level consistently in the field.
It was a good day and well attended by local farmers and clearly showed how well FAR delivered the results of their research to farmers in a useful way which could be easily adopted by them.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Southland the land of Drones

After spending a fantastic weekend in Mossburn and Te Anau with friends I started to travel north again, but only as far as Athol. I met up with Steve Wilkins and Heather Wilkins, Steve is a Nuffield scholar in my year. He was just getting to the end of writing his report with the deadline loaming at the end of the week. Steve had arranged for a local farmer and his son, Neil and Mark Gardyne, to call in and show me their drone, UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle).

The Octocopter ready to fly

  Neil is a sheep farmer and is developing ways in  which some of the daily workload and management of his farm can be done remotely and automonously. The octocopter has a flight time of 45 mins, it can either be flown manually or follow a pre planned route, or "mission" as described by Neil's 13 year old son Mark, who is also the pilot. Neil and Mark have identified over 30 different applications for the drone, imagination is the limit, but are focussing on the following three main tasks.

Water Trough management

As sheep are lambed outside and spread over the whole farm there is a twice daily need to check water troughs for leaks. Previously this took someone on a quad bike 2 hrs and involved opening and closing numerous gates. Now with a pre planned mission the octocopter can check all the water troughs on the 460ha property in 20 mins, without leaving the farmyard. The octocopter has a camera fitted to it which can send a live feed to a pair of googles worn by the pilot, and also record the flight footage to be review on the computer later. Any problems are quickly identified and can be solved, with minimal disturbance to the sheep, which is another benefit at lambing time.

Counting Sheep

The octocopter has the ability to photograph a field of sheep. The image is then processed on a computer and the individual sheep are counted, again without disturbing the sheep or having to go to the field. It will be possible to differentiate between ewes and newborn lambs in the future simply by the number of pixels the sheep or lamb covers.

Monitoring grass growth trends

This application has the biggest potential to improve productivity, as if you can see if your grass growth is trending up or down, by looking at the dry matter (DM) available, this makes the decision to move sheep from one field to another more informed. Through the use of image analysis these trends could be observed quicker than by visual inspection of the field, reducing over and under grazing pasture.
Mark preparing to launch the octocopter at a FAR field day
In flight

At the moment there are a few drawbacks with operating the octocopter, in that it is not waterproof this would not be ideal in the UK climate. This should be rectified with a new drone, but will cost 3 times as much as the original. Another major issue is being able to fly over other people’s property due to privacy concerns. Mark is allowed by the NZ aviation authorities to fly autonomously over his own property but not over anyone else's. Both of these issues would be greatly amplified in the UK due to the higher population density and fragmentation of many farming businesses. All that said I can see the use of some form of UAV having a role in UK agriculture, as a remote monitoring resource which could be linked to spatial data and employed in field management.  

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

How to grow a world record crop of wheat

I had the pleasure of spending some time with the current world wheat record yield holder Mike Solari. Mike emigrated to Gore in southland in 1974, having grown up on his family farm only a few miles from by home. Mike set the record of 15.636T/ha off 8.869ha in 2010 with a crop of Einstein milling wheat, this is an incredible yield and obviously I was keen to find out how he did it.

Mike in a fabulous crop of wheat, but not expected to be a record breaker
What are the key ingredients to grow a record crop? Mike attributes the yield to four key factors, rotation, climate, soil and geographical location. The rotation is based around 2 years of grazed pasture with a high clover content and no grass crops removed followed by 7 years of arable crops. The arable rotation is wheat, spring barley, peas, wheat, oilseed rape, wheat and winter barley, the second crop of wheat in year 4 is the biggest crop. After 2 years of grass and clover up to 140 kg/ha of nitrogen can be in the soil this along with the organic matter gives the wheat crop an excellent start. Mike does the planting himself, and enjoys ploughing the most, to establish the wheat he will plough in the morning and then plant the wheat in the afternoon with a power harrow combination to make sure it gets established well and the ploughing doesn't get rained on.
Spring Barley
After the spring barley is harvested the straw is chopped and ploughed in over the winter ready for a crop of peas next spring. The peas fix some nitrogen and leave 80kgN/ha for the following wheat crop. It is this crop which is pushed to get the biggest yields and is set up with a target yield of 15T/ha. It is treated differently to the other wheat crops right from the start. The land will be ploughed, subsoiled, base fertilizer applied, subsoiled again and finally drilled with a combination, but never before the 15th April at a seedrate of 80kg/ha. 380kgN/ha will be applied in five splits with the last before ear emergence, giving a total of 460 kgN/ha including the residual nitrogen, not sure how we would get around the NVZ rules in the UK with these levels. Amazingly though the wheat wasn't lodging and had had a two stage growth regulator program involving chlormequat and moddus. Moddus is popular in NZ and used at much higher rates. The crop will be treated five times with fungicides based on chlorothanonil, triazoles and strobbilurins, because the climate increases the disease risk and the growing season is very long. The climate in NZ is unique as there is nowhere else in the world at the same degree of latitude, it is equivalent to northern Spain in the northern hemisphere, that has a similar long cool growing period with high solar radiation at the critical grain filling stage. Also because NZ is an island a long way from another landmass it has a maritime climate. Unlike the
UK where the weather is affected by the close proximity to mainland Europe. Mike's soils are quite heavy with good water holding capacity and therefore no irrigation is used. Mike likes the variety Einstein as it has an erect flagleaf and is good at light interception
The Valley where Mike farms
Winter Barley ready to cut.

Not the most modern Combine!
So could we grow a record breaking crop in the UK? I think we could but it would be have to be a perfect year, with the optimal weather and be able to apply enough nitrogen to support such a big crop. Simply really!!
I look forward to meeting Mike again in the future and had a very enlightening time visiting.