Data collection key to biological system

Data collection key to biological system
Thornton-based farmer Alan Law is envisaging a two year transition to biological farming and says he is saving money compared with his previous spend on fertiliser.

Thornton based farmers Alan and Wendy Law are moving to a biological farming system on their home farm in a bid to keep up with proposed tightening of environmental regulations. The couple own two farms – a 92ha home farm milking approximately 300 cows and a 130ha unit called Oriini milking 400 cows.
Sons Brandon and Cameron are contract milkers on the farms. Their journey to biological farming started with a meeting with Alan’s brother and Forward Farming consultant, David Law, who helped them put a programme in place. “We were unsure of how to progress. David has a lot of knowledge including his past farming experience with a biological system,” explains Alan.
Alan was adamant that everything must be measured to prove the biological farm system was working for them and there was no negative financial impact on the business. They have cages spread around the farm from which they do monthly pasture cuts and also measure things such as water quality in the drains, soil structure, root depth, worm population and clover cover.
They are spraying a biological product on the pasture to assist soil biology and Alan says it has had a rapid affect, partly due to the fact their soils were in pretty good condition in the first place. The first priority is to greatly reduce the use of synthetic nitrogen applied.
“Increasing worm population will help the soil become looser which will help it to hold more moisture rather than rain water running off,” explains Alan. “We are noticing the rye grass is growing leafier and there has been significant growth in clover, which will also fix nitrogen naturally. So, nitrogen will not come out of a bag – the soil biology will produce it.”
They have also reduced stock numbers down to 3.2 cows per hectare on the home farm and the Oriini farm herd has been reduced by 20% over the last five years with an increase in milk solids produced. The drivers have been to reduce the reliance on purchased feed, particularly palm kernel, and to reduce their nitrogen usage significantly. In the past three months they have applied no nitrogen to the home farm.
More diverse grass species are being planted, including chicory, to provide a variety of nutrients to the cows as well as providing feed at different times of the season and in differing weather conditions.
Alan is envisaging a two year transition to biological farming and says he is actually saving money compared with his previous spend on fertiliser. If successful he plans to potentially roll it out on the other farm as well.
He says he is noticing increasing interest in this way of farming.Being located on a flood plain brings additional challenges and Alan says their pasture has only just fully recovered after damage from the same weather event that caused the 2017 Edgecumbe flood.
Local river flood protection systems were also damaged and will take time to repair exposing the farm to greater risk in the meantime. The farms don’t have the advantage of free draining soils which is a challenge to management.
Alan, who is the Federated Farmers Bay of Plenty sharemilker farm owners’ section chairperson and also on the national executive, feels the government is being overly harsh on farmers and says they need to work together to find the right solutions regarding the environment, water quality and planting trees on pastoral farms.
“There has been a demonisation of the primary sector and I think a lot of people are ignorant of the truth that there are a lot of farmers doing a lot of good stuff on their farms.
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