Monday, 14 September 2015

Early days but PGP trial farm excited by potential


The opportunity to precisely manage a fertiliser analysis and application programme, on highly variable hill country, has East Otago farmer Rob Lawson excited.

The trial is a part of Ravensdown’s Pioneering to Precision Primary Growth Partnership programme in partnership with the Ministry for Primary Industries and supported by Massey University and AgResearch.

Rob, who farms with his brother Willie, father Jim and their families on their steep-to-rolling hill country, is also looking forward to the reduced workload. They run about 10,000 stock units on a ratio of about 70% sheep and the remainder cattle on their 2,330 ha property just south of Waikouaiti.

The programme aims to improve the use, and application, of fertiliser, and Rob has welcomed the opportunity for his farm to be a part of it.

“Fertiliser is an essential tool to boost pasture production,” Rob says, “but it can be tricky working out how best to apply fertiliser to get the best out of the land and our animals without running over the margin on the cost to benefit ratio.”

Rob says that on highly variable hill country like his family’s farm, it can be a particular challenge to get fertiliser regimes right, and the old blanket approach to fertiliser application – put the same amount everywhere and hope you got it right - is not viable.

This is why he was keen to participate in Ravensdown’s trial, which combines aerial sensing technology and soil testing to establish exactly what areas of land would be expected to see a boost in pasture production from fertiliser and, just as important, which areas wouldn’t. Smart mapping technology then allows more precise targeted fertiliser application with a recipe specific to each of those differing areas.

“We’ve only been in the programme a few months,” Rob says, “but already we’re seeing promise in the technology to reduce our costs, and, potentially, make it easier to meet resource consent requirements for nutrient management and run-off into waterways.”

The Lawsons already operate the FarmIQ system, developed by the FarmIQ PGP programme and see that Pioneering to Precision will complement this. “Through the use of EID tags, we are able to compare stock performance between blocks and compare this with applied fertiliser,” Rob says.

He believes regional councils will welcome this technology developed through the Pioneering to Precision programme as an effective tool for the control of fertiliser application to mitigate potential nutrient losses to waterways.

The system gives us the precise measurement and data analysis to be able to demonstrate that the fertiliser has been applied at the correct rate and in the right place. That will help the farmer prove he is complying with the rules.

“There is clearly going to be a real benefit from an environmental point of view, but I’m also hoping that it will mean we can also save money by not using fertiliser where it’s not needed, and using the right type and amounts of fertiliser where it is needed, boosting efficiency and production.”

Rob says another potential advantage he sees in the PGP is that it will help meet customer expectation.

“I like to grizzle about all these rules that the regional councils and other authorities expect us to comply with. But the truth is that, increasingly, our customers also want us to use a system that shows we are farming in a responsible and environmentally sustainable way. PGP will help achieve that.”

“From what I can see, it is all going to end up being a lot less onerous for the farmer as well.”

Michael White, Ravensdown Technical Development Manager, adds that the PGP trial farm in East Otago complements the national network of research farms so that benefits of the new technology can be tested for New Zealand conditions.

“Our specially-modified planes with computer-controlled hopper doors have been showing what map-driven dynamic fertiliser placement can achieve for over a year.”

He believes the co-operative’s multi-million dollar PGP programme has the potential to transform hill country farming.