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Change: it’s not easy, but it can really pay off…

By Education, Productivity, Soil Health, Sustainability

Albert Einstein once said: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”.

Fast forward to today.

Normally the Venn diagram of academia and farming is two discrete circles. But in this case, I don’t think you have to squint too hard to find a useful lesson for innovative farmers. Farming is going through an environmental evolution – both because we all want to do things better and because we are being propelled in that direction by regulation and incentives.

The truth is, nothing changes if nothing changes. But nothing can move unless something sparks it into action – the very fact that you are reading this post tells me you are ahead of the curve and thinking change is needed.  You are looking for answers and ready for action.

Why change?

Since the post war era, farms have relied on chemical fertilisers to provide nitrogen to their pastures and crops. Without better options, growers depended on repeated application of chemical nitrogen fertiliser to ensure their fields were productive. Around 50% of New Zealand’s entire land area is dedicated to agriculture and this intense application of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser has contributed to water and air pollution as well as depleted microbial diversity in the soil.

The response rate of synthetic N is dependent on:

    1. Amount of available mineral N in the soil – the greater the deficit, the higher the response
    2. Soil temperature – the warmer the soil, the greater and more immediate the response
    3. Plant growth – the faster the growth, the greater and more immediate the response
    4. Moisture – too much or too little water will lower the response
    5. Rate of N applied per application – there is a diminishing response at high application rates (>50 kg N/ha).

The same nitrates that can leach into waterways and the atmosphere when not utilised efficiently by plants can also pull key nutrients out of the soil, including magnesium and calcium. This can make soil too acidic, such that plants are unable to take up nutrients properly, again reducing production response from the application and requiring further inputs to try to balance out soil health.

Synthetic nitrogen has undoubtedly enabled us to intensify our farming production, but with it has come unintended impacts to our soils. The microbes stop converting nitrogen into fuel to help pastures and crops grow.

Without a robust microbial community, soil becomes dirt. Chemical nitrogen fertiliser has microbes burning through the carbon that makes soil able to hold nutrients, water, and roots. It can become sodden, airless, and compacted. We’re now at a critical turning point, and with the help of new technologies that facilitate more sustainable farming practices, we can restore soil health and improve farm productivity to provide greater returns for input investment whilst enhancing land stewardship.

How will you take action?

If you took the sledge-hammer to N and slashed inputs by 70 to 80% this season and did nothing else would your production fall of a cliff?  Of course, it would! To maintain productivity, synthetic nitrogen inputs can be reduced when replaced with something, preferably better…

Your journey to action starts with investigation into strategies that could improve return on investment and stewardship of the property.  These two objectives don’t have to be mutually exclusive.  There is a constant drive in the New Zealand agricultural industry to develop innovative products and practices which deliver both. But this means keeping ourselves informed and being prepared to try new ideas or think outside the square.

Making changes aimed at improving soil health in an environmentally sustainable way can really pay off.  It could be applying nutrients in new ways, reducing tillage, aerating, planting biodiverse pastures, and/or trying a biostimulant (such as Fish IT) to feed the microbial activity in the soil, thereby improving its natural biological functions.

Great advice

Sometimes change can start with talking to someone new.  Farmers who take the time to seek expert advice reap excellent returns from this investment.  One of the most important is soil health advice; after all, soil health underpins the productivity of the whole operation.  Using soil and herbage testing as the basis for advisors to work from, farmers can apply specific nutrients to the farm areas that require them in the right quantity, in the right form, at the right time.  The improved results and savings, especially in the current high-cost environment, can be significant.

Set benchmarks, action the plan and monitor

The hardest part is often the decision to actually implement the change. Innovative farmers seeking a better way to achieve production will often dip their toes in gently by trialing change and monitoring results.

They record baseline data, input types and rates, and management practices used on specific paddocks. Having a monitoring plan to follow as the growing season progresses, means they end up with the ability to compare their practices and results with other paddocks on the farm or in some cases other farmers in the region.  If everything is working well, they can then roll out the change on a broader scale.

It’s a marathon not a sprint

Farmers are always thinking about the future. The next week’s weather, the next season’s crop, the land they’ll pass to the next generation – looking forward is in their nature.

That’s why it makes sense to take a long term view of soil health. Increased soil health is associated with greater nutrient retention and less leaching of nutrients like nitrogen into the surrounding environment. Research has shown that soil microbes, when fully optimised, have the ability to fix 250kg of urea equivalent per hectare per annum.

For the majority of Fish IT’s customers choices are being made as part of a mix of inputs built into a long-term programme that runs over a number of seasons and years.

Suggestion for change

Nitrogen is one of the building blocks of life for humans, animals and plants. The pastures we grow to feed animals rely on tiny bugs (microbes) in the soil that turn nitrogen from the soil into life. It is a masterful and complex biological process.

Fish IT feeds soil life, including those tiny nitrogen-fixing bugs or microbes which form symbiotic relationships with legumes, such as clover.  The bacteria use the amino acids from the Fish and clover is stimulated which helps optimize the nitrogen fixing microbes.  Similarly, worms are stimulated and help soil health through better aeration, nutrient cycling and improved soil structure.

The Final Word

Farmers want to be good stewards of their land, but they are also signing up to an alternative approach in the pursuit to reducing ever-rising costs. Other opportunities include introducing bio-diversity, to try out alternative pastures species and mixes, along with other biostimulants. In the long run, these combined practices hold the promise of making farms more resilient to extreme weather events. Pairing best practice land management with careful nutrient management can have a substantial impact on reducing fertiliser inputs while improving productivity.

It is widely accepted that soil is the foundation for agriculture and the medium in which nearly all food-producing plants grow. Healthy soils supply the essential nutrients, water, oxygen and root support that our food-producing plants need to grow and flourish. Soils also serve as a buffer to protect delicate plant roots from drastic fluctuations in temperature. There is no place better to start your journey than your soil.

If farmers just stop using synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, then the world would starve. The trick is to encourage steady reduction of use, incorporating technological improvements, better products and by stimulating the natural processes.  It is crucial that productivity is maintained. At Fish IT we consider this should be a staged approach. “There is no silver bullet, pragmatic balance is required, but, at some stage we really all do have to take the first big step and make some changes – that’s what we’re trying to encourage here at Fish IT,”

Fish Hydrolysate: A Better Way To Grow

By Education, Field Outcomes, How To, Productivity, Soil Health, Sustainability, Trial Results

There’s a better, more efficient and cost-effective way to apply nitrogen to plants. Fish IT is a biological food source designed to stimulate soil life and supply nitrogen at the plants’ roots in a slow release as the plant requires it, without the waste associated with synthetic nitrogen fertiliser.

Here at Fish IT we are getting an influx of enquiry from farmers unfamiliar with fish hydrolysate. We have seen a considerable increase in interest over the past twelve months driven by the price increases of traditional fertilisers, scarcity of supply, the nitrogen cap and an increasing desire to do better by the environment. We thought we would take the time answer a few questions about the role of biostimulants and fish hydrolysate in particular. To address the “what is it?”, “what does it do?”, “how can it benefit my farm?” questions, we spoke to Stan Winters and Rudi Woutersen. The underlying question is “can it help me reduce my fertiliser, particularly Nitrogen, usage? Before we dig into what they had to say, a quick primer on what biostimulants are.


Life below ground develops mainly in the rhizosphere, that is the area of the soil near the roots of the plants. Its composition is roots, fungus, microorganisms with various functions, nutrients organic substances, oxygen and water. In this area the interaction between soil microorganisms and plant roots occurs, creating an ecosystem conducive to plant development.

Agricultural biostimulants act on the plant’s natural biochemical processes that are of value to improve pasture growth, quality and productivity. Biostimulants are an important cornerstone to soil and pasture health, supported by the physical and chemical properties of the soil too.

The use of biostimulants in agriculture is almost as old as agriculture itself. Farmers have always tried to maximise plant growth by using natural products that help improve productivity. Traditionally, biostimulants such as manure, liquid waste or other extracts have been utilised.

Unlike fertilisers, biostimulants do not provide nutrients directly to the plant, but they facilitate the acquisition of nutrients by supporting metabolic processes in soil and consequently uptake of those nutrients through the plants.

Benefits of Biostimulants

The biostimulant developed by Fish IT offers multiple benefits:

  • Promote plant growth and vigour by optimising nutrient availability and uptake.
  • Complimentary to the use of fertilisers and generate co-action to promote effectiveness, optimising the supply of nutrients and water to the soil and plants.
  • The fish oils feed the fungus which improve soil fertility.
  • Increase pasture tolerance to abiotic stressors like flood and drought.
  • The plant produces more roots and maintains a greater absorption of nutrients and water on a continuous basis.

Agricultural practices and natural events can inadvertently strip soils of their healthy biology and this is where fish hydrolysate comes into its own. Harvesting, exposure to UV rays, floods, droughts, monoculture crops, sudden changes in PH, all contribute to decimate microbial concentrations in our soil. Amino acids in the form of fish hydrolysate can be part of the farmers weaponry to build it back up.

Stan WintersSoil Scientist

A soil scientist based in Southland with more than 40 years experience, Stan spent 26 years as a Fertiliser Chemist Technical Manager studying interactions between soil, climate, plants animals and fertiliser. For the past 25 years he has worked as an independent soil/fertility consultant. He really is the best one to answer “what is it?”. Stan has been working with the product for the last 6 years and knows it front to back. Stan’s scientific knowledge is extensive – so bear with us!

What is Hydrolysate?

Hydrolyzed protein is a solution derived from the hydrolysis of a protein into its component amino acids and peptides, which can then be more quickly and easily uptaken for subsequent utilisation. This process has been around for over a century and is commonly used in medicines, pet foods and even infant formula. Fish IT uses a hydrolysation process to break down waste salmon into peptides and amino acids by prolonged heating and the addition of food grade acids to keep it stable and contaminant free. It means we are recycling a waste protein into an applicant that is easily uptaken by microbes to improve biological activity and benefit soil health.

Fish Hydrolysate Properties

Fish proteins differ to other proteins in that they contain all 20 amino acids. The Fish IT product utilises the whole fish rather than the waste parts meaning the protein and oils from the flesh is incorporated. Because Salmon are not bottom feeders, they are less likely to take up contaminants and heavy metals than ocean floor scavengers.

How Does it Work?

Fish hydrolysate assists to optimise the natural processes within the soil. Plants are basically a factory taking CO2 from the air and converting it to oxygen and sugars. But they can’t do it on their own, they require assistance from bacteria and arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi in the soil. Read more on biological nutrient availability here.

If microbes can’t access the food they require, fish hydrolysate can correct the balance of amino acids present, giving them a fighting chance to get the correct suite of amino acids that they need to make the proteins that the plants need to grow.

Everything needs to be balanced for the system to function optimally – nutrients need to be supplied in the right balance (NPK and trace elements), along with healthy soil structure. The three legs of the soil properties stool – physical, chemical and biological. So, while fish hydrolysate will almost always assist by boosting biological activity, it will rarely be the only input that a production system requires, which is why we work closely with partners who can advise farmers on their individual needs.

There has been a bit of a mindset in modern farming practices of increasing chemical inputs to rectify or mask production issues or imbalances in the system “put more on, it can’t do any harm”. However, we have got the point where we now know that actually, it is inadvertently doing harm. “Little and often with any inputs is always better – it will always do less damage to the microbial life in soil”.

My opinion is that as a nation we need to do major research into farming with less fertiliser while maintaining productivity levels. Other countries are forcing their farmers to farm with less. If we are proactive - we can be leaders in the field. We just have to learn how to do it well. Fish is absolutely a helpful tool in that regard.

Rudi WoutersenSoil Expert

We talked to Rudi Woutersen, owner of R&J AgriSpray about his experiences assisting farmers to reduce fertiliser use. He has seen great success stories over his 25 years in the industry.

Soil Health

Rudi says his approach to fish hydrolysate is to incorporate it into a total solution. Still utilising traditional fertilisers but with a plan in place to reduce over time. He says fish is a great start to working on soil health. He particularly recommends it in situations where there is soil compaction, a lack of clover and other signs of inactive soil biology.

Reduce N

“50% of fertiliser applied on any given day is lost and therefore unutilised and that’s why we need to work on soil health. Our philosophy with the tow and fert system is to use less nitrogen but apply it in smaller amounts more regularly. If we work on the whole system, get it optimised and in balance then I reckon we can make a massive impact on the leaching problems we have in New Zealand. When we boost the soil biology, really get that N fixing bacteria working, then we can start to reduce chemical applications quite comfortably.”

“Clients are generally fully aware of the new regulations coming in too – so we add fish to the mix and slowly reduce the N inputs, starting by 20% and then working our way up from there.” He says that it is not critical that the plant takes it through the leaf. Getting that fine particle application onto either the leaf or soil and evenly spread makes it easier for the bacteria to utilise it.


We asked him about his observations from clients who have been using fish in their systems. “Clover, clover, clover!” he remarks. “Also better pasture utilisation – the cows eat the paddocks out more evenly. And they are happier – less lameness. The reduction in nitrogen boosted pastures means they are eating a more nutritionally dense food, leading to overall health benefits.”

He points out that fish is not a silver bullet and there is always a balance. Fish should be used alongside other inputs and land management practices to get the system optimised. He says fish in conjunction with aerating can have a massive impact that will feed biology and add oxygen. He has also seen good results with humic acid and fulvic acid which gives better utilisation and uptake of NPK applications when applied together. “Carbon feeds bacteria and fish feeds fungi”.

Rudi mentioned that the use of whole salmon is what he believes makes Fish IT Refined a superior product. “Salmon aren’t bottom feeders, and a lot of meat goes into the product.”

How To Get Started

We find our customers fall into three camps when they start their journey toward using less synthetic fertiliser and ultimately lowering their input costs while maintaining or improving output.

The whole of farm approach is taken when the farmer has done enough research and taken appropriate advice to commence the transition with an ongoing test (soil and herbage), measure and adapt approach to ensure nutrients and trace minerals continue in the right quantities for production as the land transitions from topical synthetic nitrogen application to soil generated nitrogen.

The worst paddock approach is sometimes used to simply suck it and see. The idea being that nothing else has worked so I’ll make a small investment and get started. We’ve seen our customers turn their worst paddocks around using this method and in the process make the move to incorporate Fish IT into their entire platform.

The test and measure approach has a little more thinking behind it than the worst paddock. The idea here is to change one variable, potentially run multiple concentrations and take a measurement to determine impact. The graph below shows the outcome of 11 different farms and paddocks in Southland where a 300sqm block in the centre of the paddock was Fish IT applied (30L per hectare concentration in this instance) and dry matter was measured against a control of standard synthetic fertiliser application to the rest of the same paddock. The farmers measured an average of 612kg/ha of dry matter (55% increase) with Fish IT compared to the control.

Regardless of the approach, one thing our customers learn very quickly is that this is a journey and not a quick fix. It takes time to transition but with the right guidance in the form of a safe pair of hands: a mentor, a contractor, an agronomist or even sometimes simply being incredibly well read via google; they are able to make those steps forward with confidence and great results.

At Fish IT we have been busy establishing a network of partners on the north and south island to help our customers looking to make the move. We’d encourage you to give us a call on 0800 FISHIT or send us an email if you’d like us to provide you some independent guidance specific to your needs.

Pyper Farm Trials – Meet Chris Pyper

By Customer Stories, Education, Productivity, Soil Health

Southland farmer Chris Pyper has teamed up with Fish IT to embark on a three-year trial programme to assess the impact of a more sustainable, more cost-effective land management practices by incorporating Fish IT across three separate platforms: a 42 hectare cut and carry block where the primary interest is in dry matter growth; a 150 hectare home block that is used to rear 200 R1’s and 200 R2’s in preparation for the 300 hectare milking platform – the Aerodrome of which we will be trialling on 50% of that block. We’ll commence the trial this coming spring.

Chris isn’t new to Fish IT, he has been using it with great success on parts of his farm for the past few seasons although he had a bit of work to do aerating his pastures to get them started. The Aerodrome block had been used to grow spuds and carrots for several years prior to its dairy use today.  The soil was rock hard and depleted creating some mighty tough paddocks. Chris worked his James aerator followed by a Groundhog into the soils followed by varying rounds of Fish IT to get some improvement into the soil. And it is working.

We recently spent a few hours with Chris, visiting the trial sites and digging holes. In our view, Chris’ father, Nelson, has the right approach by looking at the soil beneath one’s feet.  Chris says “I was brought up understanding the importance of using a spade.  And that’s my old man, he loves digging holes.” Chris continues “That first round when we started here at the home block, we averaged one to two worms per spade dig in the seven paddocks that I dug. Now we’re sitting at almost probably eight. That’s within about eight months.”  That’s a great sign that the biology is starting to work its magic.

When it comes to grass, Chris was amazed at the undergrowth that kicked in when he started using Fish IT.  Chris says “Usually after a few days in a paddock, the mobs will chase you to the gate saying ‘I want out’ when there is still plenty of grass left.”  This year, after applying Fish IT, Chris continues “I’d have to open the gate and say ‘What are you doing ladies?’ and they’d be like ‘No, we’re not ready’”.

Chris likes his roast analogy when talking about nutrient management “It’s a roast dinner” he says. “Fish IT is my peas, I still have my ‘nuts and bolts’ meat and I season with urea which is like my salt – used sparingly and required to give the roast an overall balance”. To this end, every paddock gets its own unique treatment that is determined by the paddock’s annual soil test result and the turning of a sod.

A common theme across the agri-sector, inflation has hit hard this year.  Even on a 150 hectare block, Chris knows that between fuel and fertiliser alone they have seen a hefty price increase on the prior year.  It’s time to adapt and the learning from this trial will set up the Pypers and those tuned into the outcomes well for more productive, profitable, sustainable farming.

In the next article in the series on the Pyper Farm Trial we will take a closer look at the approach we will be taking for the trial:  the methodology, the measurements, and the timing.

One thing is certain.  Chris has a primo spot for a field day when we’re ready to do so.  Take a look at the view from the hut looking out across his man-made, or should we say Chris-made, lake! Stay tuned.


The Rising Cost of Farming – Considering your Options for Nutrient Management

By Education, Field Outcomes, How To, Management, Productivity, Soil Health

It’s no secret that costs are on the rise and certainly farming is no different.  The Economic Service Sheep and Beef On-Farm Inflation Report released by Beef and Lamb New Zealand last month shows on-farm inflation is at its highest level in almost 40 years.  Sheep and Beef farm input prices increased by 10.7 percent in the year to March 2022 and are continuing to rise.  However, although this is a tough time, it does present an opportunity, and the impetus, to review on-farm spending and start some serious consideration of options.

Price Pressure

The price of some fertiliser products has doubled over the last 2 years and fertiliser companies have signalled further increases to come, possibly another 25%.  Global volatility, supply issues and freight charges are all adding cost pressure.  Approximately 70% of the mix of products in fertiliser are imported with 30% locally manufactured, so New Zealand has little control over traditional fertiliser price volatility.

Work within your budget

Steve Haswell, of BioAg, has good advice on looking at options. “We’ve been advising and assisting farmers for 28 years now on optimising biological functionality of their soil. There are a few pre-conceived ideas out there about making changes from traditional methods – one is that it will be an additional cost, and another that you will experience a production dip.” “Our soil and fertility programmes have always cost generally less than mainstream fertiliser programmes, and that gap is getting wider now. It’s not about spending more of your money, it’s about optimising the effectiveness of what you are applying”. Steve says that the crucial role of the advisor in implementing a good agronomic programme is to make the transition seamless in terms of production. “There should be no loss in production, even short term. The change needs to enhance production”.

BioAg and Fish IT are embarking on a co-lab, partnering where applicable to work with mutual clients.  The aim is to pair expertise in nutrient management alongside a great product.  “I want to reassure people that our programmes don’t omit anything that is needed for production.” Steve emphasises. “Traditional minerals are never overlooked or ignored – they are still in the mix.  What we do is help make informed choices about the most effective form and rates for the specific farm scenario.”

Marshall Farm Approach

Georgie Galloway, Farm Manager on Marshall Farm, had just come in from shifting cows on a cold easterly day in Southland.  The cows wintering on the 140-hectare farm are well set up to cope through winter with daily shifts onto a back-fenced dry block each day, with a portable water trough.  “This means our soils suffer way less damage, as well as being easier on the animals, with no heavy pugging back and forth to a trough.”  It is just one example of the thoughtful operations at Marshall Farm.

Five years ago, the Marshall Farm invested in a Tow and Fert and changed their nutrient management plan accordingly to a system where they apply all their own applications – targeting a reduction in urea use by lifting the natural function in their soils with Fish IT.

The farm is a complex system incorporating wintering 1300 dairy cows, 2-3 cuts of bailage, rearing calves (with cows they milk specifically for that purpose) and trade stock.  Getting their nutrient management right is critical as they achieve all this on 70 ha of Kale and 70 ha of grass on a 3-year rotation.  The programme they are now following is working so well for them, it allows them to plan for repeatable application year on year with some variation depending on soil testing.

Nutrient Planning – the long and the short

We talked to Georgie about nutrient management and their journey improving the biological functionality of their soils.  Georgie, and farm owner Graham Marshall, are well along the path in considering their nutrient management in both long- and short-term respects.  “We’ve actually already purchased our fertiliser for the spring to try to beat some of the price hikes” she says.

“Everything has changed for us under our new system.  We now apply 3-4 times per annum using the Tow and Fert to liquidise as many products as possible but still apply Serpentine Super with our 1tonne Bulky.   Fish IT, a much-reduced amount of Urea and other inputs, that soil testing indicates are required, go through the Tow and Fert”. “When we apply liquid products, we can more or less apply half the rate compared to solid/granular fertiliser and get same results.” This year they are adding in Sulphur Gain to address low elemental sulphur levels.  They also aerate with their James aerator and apply MOP, Lime, and Boron.

The annual spend for the current fertiliser programme is $80,010 compared to $151,800 for the previous programme at today’s pricing.  Georgie says that the Kale crop is now so much more resilient that they have basically stopped using pesticides.

Less Inputs, Same Production

“We’ve been able to operate with minimal Urea for years now, and we have real confidence in our system.  Our grass structure has changed dramatically since starting out with fish – I would say almost 70% of the sword in our grass paddocks is clover.  And no bloat!  The worms in the soil are crazy.  Even under the Kale you can see the castings everywhere.  They help naturally aerate the soil and are adding to the nutrient balance.”  The Tow and Fert/Fish IT system has been a game changer for us in terms of maintaining production, enhancing animal health and at the same time actually driving input costs down.

Do Something Different

Steve from BioAg says that now is a great time to be planning nutrients for new season while the workload is somewhat quieter.  “Once we get into lambing and calving then it is a pretty hectic run right through until Christmas.  And with fertiliser prices going the way they are, it pays to think about possibly doing something different this year.”  Whether that be alternative products, applying less in total annually, but more often, or doing research into credible options.”  Just as the Marshall Farm has seen, he believes there is a huge opportunity to change from solid applications to liquid, and to be smart about application timing.  He recommends considering the whole holistic system when trying to optimise biological functions and manage nutrients – and that there is a variety of approaches that can be implemented, from a tweak to a whole system sea change.

The Fungi Highway

We got talking about bio-stimulants and he has some fascinating knowledge. “Fish nutrient products containing fatty acids are known to support mycorrhizal fungi, the main fungi associated with supporting plant and legumes to exchange nutrients and water.  The fungi provide the highway in the soil for nutrients to reach plants, particularly phosphorus and calcium and for the transportation of water.”  So, it makes sense that he believes bio-stimulants can be a game changer, and it certainly backs up Georgie’s experience at the Marshall Farm.

“Interest is coming slowly in the agricultural sector,” he says – “The early adopters are taking it up and the rest of the industry is coming along reluctantly as they start to hear about the results.  But he says that is it important that the starting point is a discussion with someone knowledgeable in biological functionality, because there is no “one size fits all”.

Incorporating bio-stimulants and fish nutrients provides food for the plant and soil biology to build biological function in the soil.  “We are only now starting to realise that the microbiome in the rhizosphere – basically the stomach of the plants – is as important as the microbiome in our human gut.  In fact, they parallel each other.  Under a microscope, microbiome of the soil, mammals and humans are almost indistinguishable.  They function the same way, and the level of diversity is the same.”

And just as gut health is gaining momentum, so too is soil health.

If any of this has piqued your interest in investigating options for spring please get in touch with the team at Fish IT.  We will be happy to direct you to an advisor who can work with you to look into your particular situation.

Sustainable Farming: Where on Earth Do You Start?

By How To, Management, Soil Health

Farmers are currently facing unprecedented pressure to change their farming systems from traditional practices towards more sustainable methods with the added context of increasingly high inputs and a focus on maintaining or increasing production.

The Scene is Set

The drive to add sustainability into the farming system is becoming relentless and unavoidable, and it is coming from multiple directions;

  • Prices of inputs hiking at phenomenal rates,
  • Restrictions in short-term supply and long-term availability of traditional fertilisers,
  • Government regulations including the Freshwater Policy and nitrogen cap,
  • Councils requiring and enforcing environmental farm plans,
  • Customers demanding environmental accountability,
  • Urbanites critiquing farming practices,
  • Emissions reduction requirements and pending He Waka Noa pricing,
  • Personal satisfaction from land stewardship done well.


Production Full Steam Ahead

However, looming food scarcity means we can’t make changes that impact production.  The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says it is critical that the world achieves food security in the face of climate change:

“The overarching challenges being faced are the growing scarcity and fast degradation of natural resources, at a time when the demand for food, feed, fibre and goods and services from agriculture (including crops, livestock, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture) is increasing rapidly.”

“However, the transition of our global food systems will take time, policy change, an evolution of on-farm practices, and an overall shift in mindset. Farmers, in specific, must implement a new set of practices in the field to transition conventional systems towards more sustainable farming systems. We must empower farmers with research, education, support. Applaud those making changes and be careful not to villainous those slower to uptake.”

Pragmatic Ideas on Taking Steps to Sustainable Farming

While this pressure can seem overwhelming and, let’s face it, change is never easy, it’s important for farmers to remember that along with pressure, there is also fantastic support in New Zealand for those ready to start on a journey to change. Whatever your driver for making change – and for some of us it’s as simple as the high price of fertiliser – it doesn’t have to be a big shift or total overhaul of what you know and what works. In fact, of the experts that we spoke to, almost all suggested that staged, incremental change – baby steps – was a great approach.

“Every farm is different and there is no prescribed set of rules. Usually, it starts with identifying what it is you would like to change; animal health, pasture growth, fertiliser reduction; then find people who can help you.”

Canaan AhuAgrownomics

Transitioning agriculture systems to embrace sustainability without loss of production is not just a New Zealand issue.  But, as always, it could well be New Zealand that leads the way.  At Fish IT, we continue to talk to some of the players in the incredible advisory network in New Zealand that are out there and armed with the knowledge and expertise to support and guide farmers along the way.

Start Small and Build

A recent podcast with Tow & Fert, featuring Canaan Ahu, Soil Consultant and Director of Agrownomics, gave some great advice. “When the pressure comes on, we go back to our defaults. We think, we cannot afford to take any risks here. And that’s why it becomes hard to implement sustained change. A ‘safe to fail’ strategy can work so well. Start with a small area that won’t cripple you if it goes wrong. Once you build trust that the strategy holds truth on a small scale, then multiply it out”. “Every farm is different and there is no prescribed set of rules. Usually, it starts with identifying what it is you would like to change; animal health, pasture growth, fertiliser reduction; then find people who can help you.” He says that it is understandable that new clients are testing the waters. Results build trust. Success stories build confidence. “The Regen model is not the only one out there, but answers do start to appear when we look with open-mindedness. Our aim is to reduce pressure on farmers and restore pride in what they are doing.”

The beauty of the farming industry is that we can share our knowledge and successes for the greater good of all farmers without diminishing the value of our own business. So as increasing numbers of New Zealand farmers go along this journey, we are getting better and better at what we do.

Manage the Natural Nitrogen Cycle

Raymond Burr of Qlabs in Waipawa points out that for some, these practices are not even particularly new, and there is plenty of expertise out there. “Some of us have been practicing this stuff for 30 years, before it even had a name. Now it’s being called regenerative farming. New Zealand started relying on synthetic nitrogen in the 1990’s and now we’ve almost lost the ability to manage the natural nitrogen cycle. We need to transition back to where we were but use our knowledge to do so without impacting production.” Qlabs works with clients to build healthy soils, plants, animals and profits. “We work to drive the natural carbon and nitrogen cycle by optimising soil functionality – that combination of physical, chemical and biological soil factors. Of the 16 essential soil elements, we need to identify and remedy the limiting factors for growth and quality of pasture. Then implement best practice methods of grazing management, rotation lengths, spelling pasture and adding a good carbon source – which is where Fish IT or other biological stimulants come in.”

Raymond says that often the desire for change is driven by increasing animal health issues. “To get unhealthy animals, you have to have unhealthy soils and unhealthy pastures”. It backs up Canaan Ahu’s principle that you are what you eat and so are your animals. “They can’t go looking for gaps in their nutrition. If they are eating nutrient dense food with the right balance of minerals then they are going to be metabolically healthy and resilient. By taking a preventative approach to animal health, we are avoiding the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff of remedying issues with expensive drugs and loss of production.”

Keep it Simple and Move Forward with a Safety Net

Reagan Bayly of Soil Matters, a soil consultancy based in Christchurch, says that it starts with a plan. “I often get clients to white board some simple points. 1. What do we want to achieve broadly? Just a couple of words. Then 2. What are our non-negotiable production outcomes. 3. How do we measure those outcomes? Then we can start putting in place steps to head towards our goals but with a safety net, which is measuring those non-negotiable production outcomes. This helps manage the risk of a new approach and forms the basis of a decision-making system as you move through the season. So if your goal is a reduction in N usage of 20%, you can put in place a methodical approach of how to get from A to B ensuring you are keeping tabs on those critical measurements of non-negotiable production as you go along, making sure as you manipulate what you do, you don’t go too far.” Something Soil Matters finds when working with clients is by careful analysis of the farm data they can often identify the ‘Low Hanging Fruit’ and work on those first. That is changes that won’t cost much (or are easy) to implement that address obvious issues.

Low pasture production due to soil compaction can be a good example of low hanging fruit. Even a simple grazing management change can pretty quickly improve results. Leaving larger residues behind post-grazing can protect the soil structure, prevent damage and improve soil that is functioning below its optimum. “You interrupt the cycle of low grazing due to lack of pasture supply leading to worsening supply, but it takes a conscious change.”

Reagan emphasises that the key is to get good advice. Look for someone who approaches the farm as a whole system, because everything on farm is interrelated. “It takes time to get biological systems functioning and the reality is, a lot of people give up. Nitrogen masks a lot of problems and there is a mindset that it is the answer to those problems, but it’s actually inhibiting good practice and progress. We need to be honest about what the problems are because most issues happen due to a previous action or actions.”

“New Zealand started relying on synthetic nitrogen in the 1990’s and now we’ve almost lost the ability to manage the natural nitrogen cycle. We need to transition back to where we were but use our knowledge to do so without impacting production.”

Raymond BurrQlabs

Little and Often

One thing every expert we spoke to was in agreement on was that it all starts with the soil.  Rudi Woutersen, from R & J Agri Spray says that the question of where to start has a surprisingly simple answer “Just start using less fertiliser, but more often”.  “Change is not that scary if you take small steps all the time.  Get your confidence levels up with what you are doing”.  He says he would never recommend a farmer just suddenly stops or makes radical changes but goes gradually towards the end goal. “We need to build trust.  All of us advisors in this space are trying to prepare farmers for new regulations.  We can be doing better in New Zealand, but some of the traditional advisors are not helping farmers to change.”

One of the R & J products is ‘LMO16’, which stands for Little More Often and contains the 16 soil nutrients, plus a carbon source to boost soil biology. It is applied as a fine particle foliar application using a Tow & Fert and is generally applied more often, but at a 30 to 50% lower annual rate than traditional fertiliser. He says it’s important to give the soils time for natural processes to build in response to the carbon source and not to fall back on N reliance too quickly. “We keep checking pasture growth rates and soil fertility levels.”

Rudi tells a story of a farm he has worked with that has gradually reduced their annual fertiliser use by 50%. “It’s been mind boggling, after 5 months we have seen the levels of every single soil nutrient go up, despite much less going on. It’s amazing what can be done by tweaking our practices. By going little and often and adding a biological component to provide a carbon source, you are making the whole process of putting nutrients on more effective. And massively reducing leaching.” “Nitrogen is only one part of it, P is the other component. We are putting on massive amounts at once, paying shitloads of money for it, and it’s not getting utilised”.

Keep up the Kaizen

Kaizen is a Japanese term meaning “change for the better” or “continuous improvement.” It is a Japanese business philosophy regarding the processes that continuously improve operations and involve all employees. Kaizen sees improvement in productivity as a gradual and methodical process.

At Fish IT we understand that there are no silver bullets out there, nor is there a one size fits all. Farming is a complex, constantly evolving system that requires expert management and advice. As a source of carbon and soil bio stimulant, Fish IT is simply one of the options in the broad toolkit for moving towards a more sustainable but high production system. We recommend 3-4 applications per year for best results, but obviously every farm is different and it’s important to get specific advice. Another good starting point is to download our Definitive Guide to Benchmarking the Soil and start the journey towards understanding how to improve your soil health.

By speaking to the experts in the farming industry who are out there every day working with clients we have been so impressed with the depth and breadth of knowledge in our industry. There has never been a better time to broaden our search for best practice and the rewards are many. Not the least of which is the well-being that results from pride in what we are doing, competently responding to the new pressures on farming and the satisfaction of knowing that we are helping lead the way to resolving a global problem of food security in a fast-changing environment.


Aeration: Let Your Soil Breathe

By How To, Management, Soil Health

We all aim to set ourselves up to get through winter as best we can – to hit the ground running early in spring when our production needs to kick into gear and quickly ramp up. One tool in the kit is aerating the soil. Aeration is perhaps under-utilised in New Zealand, but studies have shown that this land management practice can have a big impact on production levels. Mechanically or via crop species with rooting structures to do the job naturally, aeration deserves serious consideration.

Heading into winter we all know what’s coming – cold, rain, and mud… But what does this mean for our soils and how can we help them get through winter, and all its puggy glory, in the best possible shape to support spring growth?

Benefits of Aerating

Aerating the soil can be hugely beneficial. Just like above ground, air is a crucial component for vigorous life below ground – so compacted and waterlogged soils are naturally less productive.  

Soil compaction occurs over time as soils are repeatedly subjected to stock trampling and machinery usage. Farm systems with heavy soils, larger animals, densely grazed areas and high traffic loads within or across paddocks are often more compacted. Aerators disrupt and penetrate compacted layers creating an open and porous soil that air, moisture, and roots can penetrate more easily and deeply.

Improved soil aeration allows: 

  1. Improved Soil Drainage: the ability of water to drain improves – surface water can drain down into the subsoils reducing ponding and surface runoff.
  2. Deep Root Growth: when soil compaction is reduced, roots can grow deeper and more vigorously – resulting in enhanced plant health & yield. Productivity can be improved by up to 30% in a relatively short time frame.
  3. Fertiliser Response: There is a higher percentage of fertiliser waste on compacted soils as it is more likely to vaporise into the atmosphere or wash off. When soils are permeable, fertiliser absorbs down to the plant root zone more easily, resulting in more fertiliser being accessible by the plant and reduced surface runoff.
  4. Better Soil Porosity: As compaction is removed & the amount of macropores increases, so does the amount of moisture and nutrients available to the roots.
  5. Productivity Gains: All of these benefits promote a healthier, more resilient, higher productivity plant.

How do I know if my soil would benefit from aeration?

Stan Winter, Soil Scientist gives some great advice on how to determine whether your soils would benefit from aeration. “The most obvious indicator is surface water being held in your soil – those wet spots that you can’t drive easily through and never seem to improve. Rushes are also an indicator that you are likely to get a good response from aerating.”

Spring is usually touted as the best time to aerate due to stronger root growth at this time of year, but autumn aeration deserves consideration too. If winter pugging or water logging is a concern, it may be of significant benefit to aerate the soil in autumn (either instead, or as well as spring) to reduce damage throughout winter. Improved soil drainage creates a more resilient soil structure with less surface water retention. Waterlogged soils coming out of winter reduce ground temperatures, meaning a later start to your spring pasture growth.

Stan advocates a simple test – dig a hole to spade depth under a fenceline as your control site, then another out in the paddock. Note the difference in the difficulty to dig the two holes – this indicates compaction. The root depth of the turf from these holes will also indicate whether there is a problem or not. Roots should be growing deeply to the depth of the spade or more. Rusty flecks in the soil indicate water being held in soils above a compacted pan. “Patchy grass growth is a real indicator too”, says Stan, “especially where fertility levels are increasing but not being matched by increasing productivity”. And finally, no mushrooms! “Lack of fungi growth is less well known but pretty indicative of compacted soils”.

Good structure

sample taken from under the fence-line demonstrating good structure.

Poor Structure

Sample taken from the paddock demonstrating poor structure.

Cooper Walton, from Rata Equipment comments, “You can get powerful results in terms of reducing the propensity for pugging and water-logging by aerating in autumn. Particularly if you get strategic with your pull direction and land slope”. “Prevention is always a better option than trying to rectify pugging afterward, so this builds the case for autumn aeration for a lot of farmers.” “You may not get the same immediate lift in initial production level as you do by aerating in spring, because you are not going into such a growth period, but it means you can come out of winter in better shape.” “Timing in spring is also more crucial as you want to avoid going straight into a dry period after aeration.”

Aeration and nutrients

The availability of nutrients for crops directly relates to the degree of soil aeration. Well-aerated soils provide more favourable growth conditions, while nutrient imbalance and poor aeration impede plant development. The impact of soil aeration on nutrient supply is as follows:

Nitrogen. Organic nitrogen fixation and mineralization are carried out with nitrogen-fixing plants (especially legumes), organic matter, and livestock wastes. Organic nitrogen is reduced to plant-digestible forms by aerobic bacteria that can function properly only under sufficient soil aeration. Poor aeration induces a split of nitrates to nitrous oxide (N2O), which is among the potent gases contributing to the greenhouse effect. Besides, denitrifying bacteria are more likely to deprive crops of nitrates in poor earths. This happens because most denitrifying bacteria are facultative aerobic. It means that when O2 is available, they will use it (aerobic respiration). When the O2 level is poor, they will switch to NO3 or NO2 (anaerobic respiration).

Manganese and iron have high valence in well-aerated soils and low valence in poorly-aerated ones. Although plants can consume only low-valency forms, their excessive absorption is harmful to crops. For this reason, excessive access to low-valency forms must be limited, and toxicity risks are mitigated with aeration.

Sulfur is represented by sulfate in aerated soils, which is suitable for plants. Sulfate turns into sulfide under poor aeration (waterlogging), and hydrogen sulfide is harmful to crops, too.

Nutrient imbalance results in the deviance of root formation, which will inevitably affect the whole plant and cause yield losses. Signs of poor aeration include thick, short, dark roots of abnormal shapes, poorly developed hairs, etc.

When is the right time for aeration?

Soil moisture levels are very important when it comes to getting the timing right for aeration. In both autumn and spring, soils must be moist and friable for best results. Hamish McCallum from Fish IT has worked on aeration with many clients and has seen great success stories. “You can measure soil moisture content technically, but there is an easy way to determine if soil condition is right for aeration. Take a tennis ball size amount of soil and roll it into a ball in your palm, then drop it from shoulder height. It should break into 3 or 4 pieces. If it crumbles it is too dry, splodges it is too wet.”

“Nothing can thrive in an anaerobic environment. So, when we aerate and then feed the soil bugs, we get fantastic results.”

Dennis Niewkoop of 4Seed & Nutrition Ltd agrees. “Beneficial soil microbes require air first and foremost to operate and do their job of transferring nutrients to plant roots. There is a journey to go down to get our soils functioning optimally. Once we have adequate aeration, good soil structure, and the right mineral balance then fish products are proving to be the connection to keep stimulating soil biology, particularly fungi. New Zealand soils are typically low in beneficial fungi”.

“Soil is a living thing and therefore needs to breathe” according to Rik Mulder from Soil Matters. “The soil’s ability to breathe depends on several factors, but for long term resilience in your soil it is important to start with the big picture elements like drainage and soil mineral balance. To manipulate these factors, it is very important to have a good understanding of your soil and soil type as these will have a strong impact on what the right approach is to get air in your soil. Once the big picture building blocks are in place, more emphasis can be given to the living things.”

Dennis points out that mechanical aeration is only one way to improve aeration. “We are seeing great results from multi-species pasture mixes. Species with taproot depth and width and different rooting depths can provide valuable soil aeration. “What we are finding is that a multi-species summer crop can provide really good benefits to soil structure and porosity. Once a more permanent pasture is put in place, then mechanical aeration is great for maintenance.”

For more information on whether aeration is right for you contact Fish IT. If we can’t answer your questions, we can put you in touch with one of our expert partners for more advice.

Full Circle: Old Goldmine to new Goldmine

By Customer Stories

Cam and Kayleigh McKay.  Round Hill, Southland. 
200 Ha – 125 Ha effective.  Dry stock farmers

Cam and Kayleigh have come into farming via a traditional path – Cam worked in dairy farming for 10 years and met Kayleigh, who originates from England, on the job.  “We were in neighbouring accommodation, we met and started dating on the same day and have been pretty much inseparable ever since!”  They now have a gorgeous 4-month-old baby, Arthur and have been farming together on their drystock property near Riverton in Southland for a year.

The property has a rich history, having once been the site of a goldmine.  Subsequently it was used for goldmining tours and hosted a small museum put together by Cam’s grandfather.  The farm is built on predominantly gold mining tailings and swamp land, and it was pretty run down when Cam and Kayleigh came onto it last year.  

“We prioritised stock water first up and then got into some fencing and pasture renewal.  We’ve been pretty aggressive in our developments.  Cashflow is key so we’ve taken on grazed animals on a monthly payment basis to help with that.” The property is currently running 170 R2 dairy replacements, 100 R1 dairy replacements and 100 Wagyu x cattle for First Light.  

As it was a bare bones block with low natural fertility and very limited historical fertiliser inputs, Cam and Kayleigh’s approach was to view it with a totally open mind.  Kayleigh led the charge, investigating different approaches and looking at what was happening both here and overseas with innovative farming practices.  Particularly interesting was the rapid advancements in biological farming. Eventually, Cam got on board too and was impressed with what Kayleigh had found.

We just wanted to grow a lot of feed without negatively impacting the environment.

Cam McKay

Cam and Kayleigh’s continuing online research threw up fish hydrolysate as a recurring theme in the success stories from farmers in the States and Australia who were using progressive, balanced farming practices and they became intrigued.  Focusing on strengthening soil health utilising a more biological approach could deliver the sustainable results in plant, pasture and animal health that they were after.  A quick search in New Zealand resulted in Cam contacting Fish IT who turned out to be 30mins up the road from their Round Hill property.  

“I’m keen to farm by observation”, says Cam.  So, while he is definitely interested in and embracing regenerative farming, he doesn’t see their farming practices being necessarily limited to just that.  “We want to build our soil health and are basically looking at and trying different things to see what works”.

Hamish McCallum, from Fish IT, took Cam and Kayleigh to visit some farming clients, including large scale dairy farmers who are utilising Fish IT to successfully grow high quality and quantity of feed with much lower traditional inputs.

“We were totally blown away. Meeting like-minded people who were having great results doing what we were thinking about doing just gave us the confidence to take a leap.”

Since then, Cam and Kayleigh feel like their mindset has really changed.  A holistic management approach means everything feels much more organised.  “Our paddocks are all set up, we know what we are doing each day, and everything has a purpose.  Our need to use sprays has gone down and we are figuring out what works”.

The McKay’s have re-pastured 1/3 of the farm so far and have trialled seed mixes recommended by Pastoral Improvements.  The multi species “Reboot” which has gone in over 12 hectares has been phenomenal. 

“We didn’t spray out, just ploughed and direct drilled and have since applied 30 litres per hectare of Fish IT”.  The results have been outstanding.  “We are at day 62 and have estimated we have grown 6 tonnes per hectare.  It’s just going crazy!”. 

 “We hope to apply Fish IT over as much of the property as possible, probably 3 applications per year. This should increase the microbial activity in the soil to the levels we need.”  “Basically, we want to create an oasis!”  laughs Cam.  

By focusing on the wealth beneath their feet it seems like they are well on their way to turning this historical property into a new goldmine.  We’re already looking forward to checking in with Cam and Kayleigh to see how they are getting along later in the year.

We are at day 62 and have estimated we have grown 6 tonnes per hectare. It's just going crazy!

The soil under the crop is loamy and pliable and retaining good moisture content.  “It’s just amazing to see the healthiness of all the tucker – it’s just so thick!”.

Cam and Kayleigh have also applied Fish IT to about 30 hectares of their existing pasture – most of which is relatively new grass (3-4 years old) and have been really impressed with the results compared to the non-applied paddocks. 

“I would say it has completely turned around” says Cam, “it didn’t go to seed as early, the clover came through faster and it’s a healthy dark green colour”.  They got two extra grazings out of the paddocks over the season and say that the animals utilised the pasture better leaving an even residual post grazing. “The animals loved it too and shined up quicker than the other mob”.

It’s fair to say the McKay’s are pretty excited about the future on their block.  “We want to keep working with Hamish (from Fish IT).  We’ve just connected, and he’s really become someone we can lean on”.  They have dug some holes and been impressed with the mycelium visible in the soil and the improvement in the soil structure.  They plan to continue to pursue farm development and soil health using Fish IT and the multi species approach.

Environmental Compliance – Part 1: Dates to Prepare For

By Regulation

31ST JULY 2022 – Nitrogen Cap Reporting.

In this first of a three part series on environmental compliance, we hone in on the fast approaching deadline for nitrogen cap reporting discussing who it affects, why we need it and what you can do about it.

Resource Management (National Environmental Standards for Freshwater) Regulations 2020.

As part of the Freshwater Regulations which came into effect 1st July last year, synthetic nitrogen application on all pastoral land is capped at 190kg/ha/yr – meaning it became illegal to spread more that 190kg of synthetic nitrogen per hectare per year on any grazed land. This is both the maximum averaged over the whole farm and the maximum per hectare of pasture. It is possible to apply a higher rate than this on forage crops, but only if it is offset within the farm block, by putting lower amounts on pasture.

The first reporting deadline for this regulation comes up on 31st July 2022. It requires all dairy farm operators to report to Regional Councils on their synthetic nitrogen fertiliser use (any manufactured product of greater than 5% by weight of N) for the previous 12months, ending 30th June 2022. So, usage from 1st July 2021 to 30th June 2022, reporting on 31st July 2022. The nitrogen cap applies to all pasture and forage crop land but excludes arable land. Only dairy farms are required to report at this stage, and organic sources of N and effluent applications are excluded.

To meet this reporting requirement, it is important that usage information is recorded (or accessible from fertiliser companies) throughout the year, to enable accurate reporting. This includes: area of land (hectares) in pasture, forage crops and other; receipts for Nitrogen fertiliser purchased; type of fertiliser and it’s percentage of N by weight; dates, rates and areas of application for each type of N fertiliser for each application to pasture, forage crop or other land.

At this stage the exact reporting process is still under development and updates are expected soon. Central Government is working on constructing a national database to hold information. It is likely that fertiliser companies and/or Fonterra will assist farmers with reporting requirements to Regional Councils. The simplest solution will probably be authorising your supplier to supply the information for you. Alternatively, Regional Councils may develop a webpage to allow farmers to upload information directly. Keep an eye out for further information over the next few months on the specifics of how to report nitrogen usage to Regional Councils and have a talk to your fertiliser supplier.

If you believe you may exceed the nitrogen use limit, it is possible to apply for a non-complying activity resource consent from your Regional Council. It should be noted that these consents are not meant to allow businesses to continue as usual with high nitrogen use but to give some flexibility in managing reductions over time if immediate compliance is impossible. Talk to your Regional Council about resource consent options, if you think you may exceed the nitrogen cap.

In the meantime, the advice is to ensure you:

Know how much synthetic N fertiliser was applied throughout the year over each hectare or paddock of the farm as well as on average over the whole effective pastoral area and forage crops.

Have good systems in place for recording the tonnage, date and type of all synthetic N fertiliser applied on farm, the area it was applied and whether it was in pasture, crop, or other. When using a mix of products make sure all sources of synthetic N are accounted for and the application rates.

For more information on the nitrogen cap regulations go to Dairy NZ, Ministry for the Environment, regional councils or find the full Act here.

Why do we need the Nitrogen cap?

Throughout New Zealand, we are using almost 8 times more nitrogen in than we were in 1990 and, on the whole, the quality of our waterways is diminishing. Nitrogen leaching from pastoral land is a significant contributing factor. Best farming practice manages nutrients to keep them cycling within the farm system and reduce losses to the environment. Over-fertilising not only risks expensive nutrients being washed away but can also damage the environment. The more you use the greater the risk.

Data indicating that pasture growth rate curves flatten out with nitrogen usage of over 200kg/hectare has led to the cap being put in place for most farming sectors. The cap level will be re-evaluated in 2023.

How can we lower Nitrogen use?

There is growing concern around the over use of synthetic fertilisers. Consequently, information on strategies to make reductions or be more strategic with usage is readily available. A great starting point for Dairy farmers is the Dairy NZ information on reducing nitrogen fertiliser use.

Strengthening your soil health to optimise nutrient cycling for plant growth is one strategy for reducing reliance on synthetic inputs – allowing the microbes in the soil to flourish and do their work in making nutrients plant available. The ability to balance the use of synthetic inputs with more sustainable options, such as soil bio-stimulants, is a great tool in the kit for farmers. The number of great success stories of farmers doing just this is growing all the time and with it, a real sense of excitement that innovations in this area are going to benefit soils, pastures, farmers and the environment.

“With the addition of Fish It we now use 70% less urea across the entire farm, we have better pastures, better crops, healthier animals and no need for pesticides. We don’t need to buy in bales for feed any more because we’ve increased our output.”

Georgie GallowayLivestock & Mixed Cropping Farmer, Southland

Regenerative Agriculture. You’re probably doing it already.

By Regulation, Soil Health, Sustainability

Regenerative agriculture is a term that is slowly gaining a level of acceptance in the New Zealand agricultural sector.  For many years the term and its principles have been scorned in some corners. We are now seeing an increasing uptake by farmers utilising many of its principles, an increase in media coverage and broader acceptance of the term and practices generally.

Nestle’s “Net Zero” sustainability initiative is tackling emissions in its own business and supply chain. This in turn has created a great opportunity for Fonterra to ensure that sustainably grown dairy product is sourced through their supply chain. This represents a premium return on milk solids for participating dairy farmers in New Zealand.

Corporate initiatives like these combined with the New Zealand government roll out of nitrogen cap legislation and the recommendations of the Climate Change Commission means there is a shift in mindset occurring within the sector.

The truth is that many New Zealand farmers are already undertaking some of the guiding principles of regenerative agriculture and reaping the benefits.  As such, they have the ability to move further along the continuum towards environmentally friendly, economically sustainable farming through evolutionary rather than revolutionary means.

Here are six regenerative practices and benefits that you may well be doing right now.

1. Reduced soil disturbance

Minimising soil disturbance by methods such as zero-till, reduced tillage or direct drilling are becoming more common place in New Zealand land management practices. Be it through capital investment or contract drilling, farmers are looking to direct drilling technologies to hold in the moisture, minimise soil disturbance  and incorporate more carbon and nitrogen fixing from the residual crop.

The transition to healthier soil does not happen overnight, but it does happen.

No-till farming leaves crop residues on the surface, which absorb water and limit runoff. This water retention can be critical to farmers in drought-stricken areas and can lead to improved crop yields due to the additional water retention.

2. Increase plant and microbial diversity

Crop rotation is defined as the intentional planting of different types of crops in different paddocks through each season in a sequential manner. It also requires seasonal periods of no planting to give the land time to recover.

Crop rotation helps increase soil fertility and improves crop yields.

Because each plant type uses different nutrients and promotes different micro-organisms through its growing cycle, this improves soil fertility by replenishing nutrients that are not available or utilising nutrients in abundance as you cycle through each season.

The improvement in the nutrient availability through crop rotation will, in time, lead to improved yield.

Soil structure will improve through crop rotation which helps prevent soil compaction, improves soil aeration, reduces soil erosion and delivers better water retention.

3. Keep the soil covered

Cover crops are a long-term investment in improving soil health, controlling erosion, improving water filtration and managing the natural production of nutrients.  The benefits can begin to accrue in year one and build over a few years.

Because cover crops take up space and light, they shade the soil and reducing the opportunity for weeds to establish themselves.

Legume cover crops such as clovers, peas and beans can fix a lot of free nitrogen, from the air, for subsequent crops within the nodules on their roots.  This can range from 60-180kg of N per hectare depending on season and species.

To help build resilience in soil a diverse range of plant species is needed above the ground to cultivate a diverse microbial ecosystem below the ground.

4. Diversify to reduce risk

Diversity in crops brings stability with the ability for the plants to manage abiotic stressors such as flood, drought and temperature extremes better. The more diverse the soil-borne organisms that inhabit a farming system, the more diverse the populations of pest-fighting beneficial organisms a farm can support. For example, healthy soils enriched and revitalised by rotation and cover crops promote root development and water infiltration, thus are less prone to disease.

5. Stimulate organic matter

There are many practices that will stimulate and increase organic matter in the soil.  Anything less than about 20% organic matter in the soil (as scientifically measured with a soil test) means you have room for improvement.

Adding compost, returning crop residues, adding micro organisms from EMNZ, crop rotation and diversification and the planting of nitrogen-fixing legumes all play a role in stimulating organic matter in your soil.

Of course, with organic matter you need to feed it and that is where the application of Fish IT Refined comes in to its own.

6. Sustainable grazing practices

There are many variables to sustainable grazing practices including such matters as stock count, grazing intensity and climate. The focus in this blog is around delivering resilience to your pastures to better handle the stresses of climate and deliver nutritious feed to your healthy livestock.

Pasture growth is determined by a combination of rainfall intensity and the ability to store your rainfall in the soil, ground cover, soil type and condition, evaporation, slope and tree cover.

In short, better quality soil leads to better quality pasture. Soil health has a direct impact on protein levels in pasture. Low soil phosphorous and nitrogen are the most common restrictions on pasture growth.  By taking the approach of cover crops, crop rotation, multi-species diversity and nitrogen-fixing legumes you will maximise your pasture yield, quality and resilience to abiotic stresses whilst being able to manage downward some of your synthetic inputs and associated cost.

Farmers across New Zealand are adapting to new production methods brought on by changes in legislation.  Taking a sustainable approach to your farming practices does not need to be “big bang”.  You can take a test, measure, learn approach by utilising any of the approaches discussed here.  Think of it as a biological transformation on your farm, applying your father’s production values with your grandfather’s methods.

Ready to understand the biology of your soil?

Download The Definitive Guide to Benchmarking the Soil at your Feet to learn methods for evaluating your soil and solutions for starting the journey to optimise soil health.

Healthy soil

Soil Health: The Challenge of Modern Agriculture

By Management, Productivity, Soil Health, Sustainability

Soil is essential for the maintenance of biodiversity above and below ground. The wealth of biodiversity below ground is vast and unappreciated: millions of microorganisms live and reproduce in a few grams of topsoil, an ecosystem essential for life on earth

From: Australian Soils and Landscape, An Illustrated Compendium

If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right?… but maybe it is broke.

Over the centuries, modern agriculture has advanced significantly, leading to the highly researched, technical systems and unprecedented production levels that we have today. Developments allowing agriculture to evolve and expand include increased availability and use of synthetic fertilisers, herbicides, and pesticides; genetic improvements; increasing understanding of plant and animal nutrition and improved mechanical equipment. All leading to efficiencies for production systems and the resulting development of global markets and delivery.

Unfortunately, soil biological responses to these developments were often overlooked or not recognised, with greater emphasis on physical and chemical manipulation than on soil biology. Agriculture’s evolution has also resulted in unintended consequences, especially regarding soil health, environmental impact, and long-term agricultural sustainability.

Quality is key

Soil quality can be simply defined as “the capacity of the soil to function.” Important soil functions include water flow and retention, solute transport and retention, physical stability and support; retention and cycling of nutrients; buffering and filtering of toxic materials; and maintenance of biodiversity and habitat. Fertile soils teem with microorganisms, which directly contribute to the biological fertility and functions of that soil.  

In addition to fertility, soil microorganisms also play essential roles in the nutrient cycles that are fundamentally important to life on the planet. In the past, agricultural practices have failed to promote soil health through healthy populations of microorganisms.  Not doing this limits production yields and threatens sustainability.

So, can we fix it?

Scientific research is exploring new and exciting possibilities for the restoration and promotion of healthy microbial populations in the soil, with significant benefits in both net production and environmental outcomes. Biological fertility is under-studied and our scientific knowledge of it is incomplete, however, new research and field trials are delivering a quiet confidence that modern agriculture can again evolve, and that this evolution of biological practices will benefit the animals, the farmer and the planet.

Soil health and fixing carbon

Soil microorganisms are both components and producers of soil organic carbon, a substance that locks carbon into the soil for long periods. Abundant soil organic carbon improves soil fertility and water-retaining capacity. There is a growing body of research that supports the hypothesis that soil microorganisms, and fungi in particular, can be harnessed to draw carbon out of the atmosphere and sequester it in the soil.  

Soil microorganisms may provide a significant means of reducing atmospheric greenhouse gases and help to limit the impact of greenhouse gas-induced climate change.

Soil health and fixing nitrogen

Nitrous oxide emissions are produced by a range of bacteria in the soil, which convert nitrate into nitrous oxide. These losses are greatest when soils are warm and waterlogged, and in those with high nitrate contents. It is vital environmentally, to apply nitrogen fertilisers only at times, and in quantities and forms, useful to plants – overuse of fertiliser can vastly increase levels of emissions.  

Nitrous oxide is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. One unit of nitrous oxide is equivalent to 310 units of CO2. Conventional tillage also releases more CO2 into the atmosphere than no-till systems and results in more carbon being respired by the microbial community. No–till systems tend to lock up more carbon in the form of organic matter.

A large soil microbial community can tie up carbon and nitrogen that might otherwise be released into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases and in addition, make these nutrients more readily available for plant uptake.

The impact of soil health on phosphorus and biology

Phosphorus is a major nutrient with dwindling global supplies and rising prices. Only a small amount of P applied is taken up by plants in the year of application. The remaining P becomes sequestered in the soil, with limited availability to plants, or is lost by erosion and leaching to the watershed where it may impact downstream ecosystems and water quality. Similarly, only about one-quarter of annually applied N is taken up by crops in the year of application; some of the remaining N enters the watershed by leaching.

Nutrient-use efficiency is often defined based on the amount of N or P accumulated by a crop in comparison to the amount applied. However, a portion of the P and N in the crop has originated from within the soil, where it was already present and probably in a stable organic form. Therefore, traditional nutrient use efficiency calculations often overestimate the efficiency of fertiliser application and fail to reflect the applied nutrients that were lost from the soil by leaching and/or erosion.

Research aims to reduce inputs, while increasing the amount being provided by the soil through biologically fixed N, or mineralisation of P and N from organic matter. In the case of P, there are substantial amounts of P already in the soil, unavailable to plants without the appropriate microorganisms and proper levels of activity. By considering the nutrient balance of the entire system, agricultural soils could be managed to stabilise at lower soil nutrient levels that make more efficient use of soil mineral resources.  

Some P exported with the crop will have to be replenished from external sources, but there is great room for improvement in promoting organic P cycling in soils and biological mobilisation of “occluded” P already present in the soil.

It’s time to do something different

The challenge for modern agriculture, going forward, is to implement more sustainable farming systems that are economically viable and accommodate changing technologies and climate. The production of food and fibre continues to increase agriculture’s carbon footprint through the increased use of fuel and fertiliser and contributes to widespread soil and water quality degradation. To decrease this footprint, nutrient management and soil health in sustainable systems must be a top priority.

Soil biology is the foundation for soil health and the biological processes which determine nutrient availability to plants allowing for a decreasing reliance on synthetic fertilisers. You can see nature in action in our blog post on the Kauri forests in Waipoua.

In addition, helping to buffer plants from changes in water availability and pest, pathogen, and weed pressures. It is key to reversing the degradation of soils by modern agriculture practices; key in the evolution of agriculture in both an environmental and economically sustainable manner; key to ensuring the enduring ability to “Feed the World.”