Friday, 31 January 2014

Visit with Michael Tayler a fellow Nuffield scholar

I caught up with Michael who did his Nuffield last year on future arable technologies, which is similar to my study so I was keen learn about his findings and see his farming operation. Michael farms with his brother and father, near Winchester in Canterbury. They grow wheat, barley, ryegrass, potatoes, carrots and forage maize, across their 800 ha farm.
The carrots are grown for juice for the Japanese market. Michael formed a joint venture company with another local grower Pyegroup and setup a carrot washing business, and washes 30,000T per year. The carrots can yield up to 110T/ha during the winter, and are much bigger than normal carrots. The whole process can be seen on a youtube video, Carrot Washing.

Irrigating Carrots

Michael also grows potatoes and has a contract with Bluebird foods to supply chipping potatoes from the south island to the north island, as and when required. The inclusion of the carrots and potatoes in the rotation spreads the workload out throughout the year and means that a small experienced team of full time employees are kept busy year round. Not all the land is irrigated, the dryland block has been growing continuous wheat and yielding 9-10T/ha, whereas irrigated wheat yields 11-12T/ha. Some of their land used to be a traditional sheep and beef farm, which has now been converted to cropping and irrigation added, the transformation is stark.

A traditional grass paddock without irrigation

A next door field of wheat with irrigation

The new block of land has only been converted from sheep production for 8 years and is right up to the coast, and now with irrigation is capable of growing roots, cereal and forage crops, just add water at the correct time.
The edge of Michael's farm!

The other side of the tree line to the field of potatoes, is the pacific ocean, which is reclaiming the land at a rate of 30cm per year. One day Michael hopes to meet his neighbours in Chile the otherside of the ocean!

 Grass seed delivery

We took a load of Grass seed to the local seed plant in Timaru in the morning. The grass seed will be dressed and either used for the domestic market or exported as are many of New Zealand's crops. All the produce from the farm is moved by trucks, including potatoes and carrots off the paddocks either to store or direct to the consumer. It would be impossible to run trucks alongside potato and carrot harvesters in the conditions we have experienced in the last couple of seasons!

Forage Maize, No Genetic Modification in this Paddock!

Forage maize is also grown to supply dairy farmers, it is sold by the Kg of dry matter. This is different to the UK, in that most dairy farmers grow their own forage or rent land off other farmers to grow forage on. Whereas NZ dairy farmers get better returns from using all their available land to grow grass for the pastoral system. Selling a crop by yield as opposed to an acreage basis seems a much better way for all parties involved. This a good example of how arable and dairy farms can work together, and could be done more in the UK. The distinction between an arable farmer and a diary farmer is getting blurred in NZ, as many arable farmers will have an interest in a diary business, the Taylors included. Simply because dairying in NZ is the most profitable sector currently, and everyone was a piece of the action.
Michael along with 3 other farmers were expecting delivery of a Veris Electro-conductivity machine with on the go pH measuring capabilities. Initially the farmers are going to use the machine themselves to learn its capabilities and map the soil variability on there land, then will offer a service to other farmers in the area.  

The Taylors, Michael and Sally with Sam, William and Henry

Thanks for a great visit, and looking after me, I hope to see you in the UK in the future.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Another visit to a top cropping farmer

Eric Watson, in a high yielding wheat crop
I had the pleasure of spending sometime with a very good and passionate cropping farmer, Eric Watson. Eric farms 490ha  between Ashburton and the coast, growing wheat, grass seed, fescue, plantain, radish, forage maize and other vegetable seeds. We discussed various issues from stubble burning and herbicide resistance to general agriculture. It is interesting how closely New Zealand farmers follow UK farming and are aware of the current issues in the UK, to the point that Eric had one of the latest Farmers weekly at his house. Some of the problems we have at home with herbicide resistance are not seen in NZ, such as Fop and Dim resistance in grass weeds because varieties change quickly and don't get time to build resistance. Herbicides are often used with SOLA's (statutary off label restrictions), as they are not registered in NZ, but are known to be safe from use in the UK.
Triticale grown on light land, currently in a triticale and forage maize rotation. Eric has grown 12t/ha of triticale, but doesn't expect it this year
 As previously mentioned irrigation is a major part of arable farming in NZ, Eric can irrigate 96-97% of his farm. The irrigator shown below is able to cross the road and ditch with the help of strategically placed bridges, it's hard to imagine being able to that in the UK. It is a lateral, ie moves in a straight line, but when it gets to a certain place in the field one end is chained down on a concrete pad and the other end continues and turns the irrigator. Once it has turned far enough the fixed end is released and it then continues in a straight line, this allows fields which aren't straight to be fully irrigated.
A lateral irrigator about to cross the road and access the next field over the bridges.

Eric was an early adopter of VRI (Variable rate irrigation), because of the way his irrigators were set up there was 8 ha (20acres) of overlap on his farm, which is now eliminated by using VRI. A great example of using precision farming to manage variability was highlighted in a field which straddled the old river terrace that has now been levelled off, but is still treated as two fields but with no physical boundary. The top of the old terrace was a heavier soil type and had a crop of peas, which were nearly ready to harvest, whereas the lighter soil below the old terrace was growing forage maize.
Forage maize and Peas

By using VRI, not only is it possible to change irrigation rates as soil types change, it was also possible to keep watering the forage maize without watering the peas which would be harvested as soon as the irrigator got to the end of the field which would be about two days. Eric would then have small window to harvest the peas before the maize needed irrigating again.

Irrigating Maize but not the Peas using VRI

A field trail looking at how much N is fixed by different legumes
The vast majority of crops are hauled from the combines to store by trucks, unlike tractors and trailers in the UK. Eric had modified an old fertilizer truck to be his specification, with twin wheels on the front and triple wheels on the back, to reduce compaction. His trailer was a triaxle and featured a hydraulic tailgate and hydraulic rollover sheet, to make sure any small seeds were not blown out going back to the store.

As compaction is a concern Eric has a tracked combine and also runs a quadtrac to do all his cultivations and drilling, which he was all done by himself last season.

Combining Plantain seed

Sunday, 26 January 2014

A very diverse cropping rotation

I arranged to visit John Evans who farms near Rakaia in Mid Canterbury. John had one of the most diverse cropping rotations I have seen, with between 10 and 13 different crops each year. The rotation includes corn salad, chrysanthemum, hybrid cabbage, hybrid mustard, linseed, red beet, spinach, radish, forage maize, feed and milling wheat, festulolium and brown top (grass seed). John's farm is also a test farm for Trimble, and therefore he utilises RTK guidance on his tractors and sectional control on his sprayer.
John Evans and Kye
 John has not used variable rate applications as he EM scanned one of his paddocks and did not see enough variability to justify the need. All the land is irrigated with a flat rate, but moisture sensors in each crop are used to assess the need and which crop is the most urgent. Dry years tend to lead to better crops as the right amount of water can be applied through irrigation and the soil is maintained as an aerobic medium.
When a new irrigation reservoir was built the surrounding earth banks were planted with native species as part of the "Trees for Bees" program, with a high number of vegetable seed crops grown it is important to encourage bees for pollination. A recent survey shown that only a small percentage of pollination was actually performed by bees, with the majority by other insects.
Native species planted around reservoir
A seed crop of hybrid cabbage, netted to protect it from birds, the males have been removed and the females left to be harvested. The seed is sold for $100/kg, and yields 300kg/ha to give a gross output of $30,000/ha less costs of $15,000/ha. 

Spinnach seed crop

Chrysanthemum seed crop
John's very varied rotation of crops also leads to the need to plant seeds in a variety of ways and row spacings. John has adapted a forklift side shift which he fits to the three point linkage of the tractor and is used to steer the drill independently to the tractor, using its own GPS receiver mounted on the drill.
Sideshift linkage on Drill
John also uses the sideshift linkage when inter row cultivating to increase the accuracy, and even though the tractor is using RTK guidance the cultivator moves side to side using its own RTK receiver. Sometimes he will use the drill on the front of the tractor to put down fertilizer between the rows and use the cultivator on the back to incorporate it.
Precision planter which is also used to place fertilizer

 Corn salad has to be planted in 75mm rows, but the drill interrow spacing is 150 mm, therefore the field is planted once then by using RTK guidance the original AB line is shifted by 75mm and planted again with the seed placed in between the original rows.
Drill used to plant the corn salad. High tech planting with old equipment!
Kye runs a rouging business for local seed potato growers, she used a self propelled machine drive through the potatoes and carry three people who watch 4 rows each. Weed potatoes can be pulled up and carried on the machine to the edge of the field, increasing the area that it is possible to cover in a day.

Potato rouging machine

Saturday, 25 January 2014

A visit with Craige and Roz Mackenzie

After leaving FAR I headed to visit Craige and Roz Mackenzie who farm near Methven in Mid Canterbury. As I travelled out onto the Canterbury plain I was amazed by now much it had changed since I was last here 16 years ago. The rise of the dairy industry is incredible, with dairy farms and irrigators everywhere I looked. It is a clear indication of how NZ farmers adjust their farming practices to the markets and how adaptable the very productive the Canterbury plain is.

A dairy shed with centre pivot irrigator

 Craige and Roz Mackenzie run a diversified business including a 200 ha cropping farm, 360 ha dairy farm next door, a precision Ag company, Agrioptics New Zealand and Craige is also heavily involved with precision Ag in NZ and Australia.
The cropping farm grows a wide ranging rotation, which is common in NZ, including winter and spring wheat, grass seed, fescue, festulolium, carrots, chicory and radish. Most crops are grown for seed and will be contracted to meet market demand, as opposed to the global commodity crops we grow at home. The crops are all high value and managed accordingly, to a very high standard. The input costs are high but so are the returns.
A crop of seed Carrots
The carrots are a hybrid crop, with rows of males sown between the females, as was pollinating. At the end of pollination the males will be destroyed and only the females harvested for their seed.
A crop of Radish seed
Winter Wheat seed crop

All of the land has been EM (Electromagnetic) scanned, this involves measuring the electrical conductivity of the soil which can be used to indicate soil type, texture and stone content. The data is then processed using strict protocols to produce a soil map divided into management zones. The zones are then treated individually to manage the variability and target the potential of each zone. Base fertilizer is applied according to the yield potential of each zone and other inputs such as PGR (Plant growth regulators), fungicides and nitrogen can be applied variably if it is deemed necessary. None are varied in real time, instead a greenseeker fitted to the sprayer is used to scan the crop and measure the NDVI. This data is then interpreted in the office and used to produce a prescription map for a follow up application. The map is sent using WiFi to the controller in the tractor, via Trimble's "Connected Farm".
An irrigation water canal
The Canterbury plain is kris crossed with a network of irrigation canals extracting water from the large rivers flowing from the southern alps to the pacific ocean, to be used by agriculture. The landscape and the productive potential of the plain would be totally different if this water was not available. Craige has installed VRI (Variable Rate Irrigation) on all his irrigators, and is seeing a saving of 30% in his water usage as a result. VRI allows each management zone to be treated according to its need, through the use of moisture probes to record the moisture level at depth. Each zone is assessed weekly for the need to irrigate, with the aim to keep the zones between the refill point (moisture level when water is required) and the full point (moisture level when water starts to drain through the soil profile). Access to a very accurate weather forecast, Yes it does exist, is the final aspect in the decision of when and how much water should be applied.
Soil moisture probe
VRI of Spring Wheat
The irrigators can all be controlled and monitored from the office or Craige's mobile phone, maps are sent via WiFi to the irrigator. These maps can have areas which are not watered, such as laneways or water troughs in a pasture situation.

Plane applying fungicide to Chicory
Craig harvesting his most profitable commodity!
The dairy farm is not exempt from precision, each cow is feed an individual diet at milking according to the information held in its eartag. Milk temperature is measured and if any anomalies are found the cow will be drafted off after milking to be assessed by the herdsman. One of the biggest risks of nitrate leaching from a dairy unit is from the urine patches which are very highly concentrated with ammonia. Craige is working on a system called Smart-N, which identifies the urine patches and does not apply any extra Urea to those areas, using a greenseeker working in reverse. The greenseeker uses an optical sensor to locate greenness and then applies the required product. This technology will help to mitigate the leaching of nitrate from the soil and improve the environmental impact of the dairy industry which could be a problem in the future. 
Craige & Roz Mackenzie
I had a very enjoyable, informative and inspiring stay with Craige and Roz, and thank them very much for their hospitality in welcoming me into their home. It is fantastic to belong to the  Nuffield family. 




Tuesday, 21 January 2014

A visit to FAR

The first of my Nuffield visits in New Zealand was at FAR - Foundation for Arable Research, in Templeton. I was kindly hosted by Nick Pyke, CEO and Richard Chynoweth, Project Manager.
FAR is a levy funded research organisation, like the HGCA in the UK, but I was told that is where the similarities end! New Zealand is globally a small cereal producer, 1.2 Million tonnes,  is not self sufficient and considered a domestic market of Australia. New Zealand agricultural statistics can be found on NZ Ag Stats.

FAR represents around 2700 farmers, has regular contact with over 200 and will engage with approximately 500 farmers through its open days. The research is farmer lead and the results are delivered back to the farmer, FAR will involve and engage with other research organisations, industry partners and other knowledge resources to achieve the best skill set for a particular project. The involvement of FAR in the projects is to validate the research and make sure it is kept relevant to New Zealand agriculture, and is of value to New Zealand farmers as ultimately it is being funded by them.

Considering the very varied cropping rotations adopted, and the high number of crops under research the FAR team is small, but through collaboration with others they are able to cover their workload. The use of contractors at the trial sites also means that the researchers are able to concentrate on what they are good at and not have to sit on machines.
FAR have been utilising PA techniques in their research for several years and started with yield mapping, this lead to a huge amount of data and variability, from crop to crop and season to season, and was not considered a reliable source of data to make future management decisions. As the Canterbury region will have a rainfall deficit of 250mm during the growing season moisture management is key to crop production. This is clear to see by the amount of irrigation equipment now in use. This has lead to EM (Electromagnetic) scanning being a better starting point for gathering soil type and most importantly water holding capacity data, and 1cm of top soil will hold 1mm of available water as a rule of thumb. Water availability and management is key to maximising crop production in New Zealand. NDVI (normalised difference vegetative index) measurements are used to monitor and record the development of trials, and can be used as a check and balance on plots even if they don't get harvested for some reason, as has been seen that NDVI and Yield correlate closely.
They are also experimenting with the use of infra red temperature sensors to measure canopy temperature, and thermal imagery for weed mapping and pest damage.
We also discussed the topical issue of stubble burning, which is an active part of New Zealand arable farming, but was banned in the UK many years ago. There is a call for some form of stubble burning to be reintroduced in the UK to help combat the escalating blackgrass weed problem. Stubble burning is an important tool for many New Zealand farmers for several reasons, which are unique to their cropping rotation. The main difference between the UK and NZ| is the production of vegetable seed, such as carrots, Chicory, Plantain and Radish. These crops can't cope with lots of residue and competition, and as these are often the most profitable crops in a rotation they need to be established efficiently. Stubble burning also helps to destroy weed and volunteer seeds, which in turn reduces the reliance on subsequent herbicides, which I am certain UK farmers with a blackgrass problem would welcome. Another big benefit from stubble burning is the control of pest, like slugs, which are very prevalent due the high proportion of herbage crops in a rotation and the use of irrigation to maintain a moist soil profile. When you consider the problems associated with levels of  Metaldehyde in UK water courses, stubble burning help to reduce this environmental impact. To reintroduce stubble burning to the UK would have distinct benefits as previously outlined, but the main difference between NZ and UK, and was the main reason why the practice was banned originally, is the population density, and the fact that the UK is an urban country. It would be a very useful tool for UK arable farmers but would have to be used responsibly.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

The Next leg of my Nuffield adventure

It's time to get back on a plane and do some more travelling. This leg of my trip will take me to New Zealand, Australia and Brazil. New Zealand because it has a similar climate and crop growing conditions to the UK. Australia because farmers have to be innovative and manage extreme growing conditions, both lead to improvement in efficiency. My last destination will be Brazil, which is country I have wanted to visit for a long time. So the opportunity to have a look around with some fellow Nuffies was to good to miss. It will be interesting to see how Brazil is developing and how far off reaching its full potential it is? 
Thursday afternoon I left a wet and overcast Shropshire to get a train from Wolverhampton to London heathrow. My first flight took me as far as Abu Dhabi, landing in the middle of the dessert, total polar opposite to home.
Sunrise over the Gulf
Couple of hours later and its back on the plane bound for Sydney 14 hours later. We were an hour late getting to Sydney and hence had a tight turnaround to catch the last plane to Christchurch, New Zealand. So it was not surprising standing by the baggage carousel and no bag turning up. Just what you need after 36 hours of travel.

Thankfully I was staying with a friend and New Zealand Nuffie, Natasha King, so it was great to catch up with her and see a friendly face.

Natasha took me for a tour round the centre of Cristchurch, to see the damage from the earthquake nearly 3 years ago. The bumpy rounds were good to stop me going to sleep. It was like driving round a deserted city, and the damage was everywhere. A lot of the buildings that are still standing are empty and due to be demolished. Some buildings are being held up by walls of shipping containers. There is a new shopping mall where the majority of the shops are made from shipping containers, which has now become a popular tourist attraction, and has been created it an attractive manner.

A shipping container shop
The new shopping area

Some reconstruction work in Central Christchurch