Thursday, July 7, 2022

A life of science

Dave Clark remembers clearly having to make a special request to his employer to purchase the first calculator which would replace the slide rule he was using for all his calculations. He still has the slide rule, a reminder of the significant changes in technology and scientific techniques he has witnessed during his 40-year career which came to an end early this month. The basic principles have remained the same though, he said. Applied science is about solving problems. It just takes time. In the early 1970s Clark, now 63, started off his masters degree by looking at feed conversion efficiency traits in LIC bulls, but the research was unsuccessful. Recently, with a lot more spending and much better techniques, other scientists have identified genetic variations in feed conversion efficiency (FCE).

“That’s just what happens in science,” said Clark. “You’ve got fairly gnarly problems and sometimes you just don’t have the techniques to solve them so you’ve got to put them on the back burner till you do.”

Clark started his career as an agricultural scientist after graduating from Massey University with a Bachelor of Agricultural Science in 1972 (Agronomy and Animal Nutrition) and a Masters with honours in 1974.  

His parents had sharemilked in the Waikato and South Auckland regions when he was growing up, so he was interested in the dairying industry. His first job, however, was working for the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) where he predominantly worked on hill country research. He spent 20 years working with almost every agricultural animal except dairy cows.  

At that time, dairying was considered in the doldrums and was seen as a sunset industry, but in the late 1980s there was a change in New Zealand when it came to science funding, Clark said.  

Joint funding from the Government and the Dairy Board formed what would become the Dairying Research Corporation (DRC) at Ruakura.

“I came to dairying because I’d always felt that dairying had a clearer view of the value of research and development than some of the other primary industries,” he said.

“Ruakura also had such a great name nationally and internationally for dairy research, which really made me look at a shift.

“They employed a lot of people like me and young people like Tim Mackle (now chief executive of DairyNZ), Eric Kolver, Sharon Woodward and John Penno. A lot of those people came in at that time and we developed some really strong teams. We really formed the basis for the research side of what DairyNZ is now.”

Clark worked for the DRC for 10 years, its successor Dexcel and then DairyNZ when it was formed in 2007.

Changing systems

In the 20 years Clark has researched the dairy industry, the dairy production side has changed dramatically from when most farms were predominantly grass-based systems. Intensification, increased use of supplementary feed and nitrogen (N) fertiliser and the consequential environmental impacts have steered science research significantly.

The three main threads of Clark’s research work have been feed production, the environmental impacts of intensification and the social and labour aspects of dairy farming.
When it comes to feed utilisation and production, Clark still believes NZ dairy farmers are not utilising pasture as efficiently as they could be.

“I’ve always been a strong advocate, along with others, that efficient use of pasture is where you start,” he said.

“That’s the absolute underpinning of any profitable dairy system. Some farmers are doing extremely well, but for me there is huge room for improvement in how we use it.”

The frustrating thing is that the industry has developed all the tools necessary to help farmers be more efficient said Clark.   

“Thing like the feed budgeting tools and the spring rotation planner are all freely available to farmers to use.  

“They do take time and effort to get familiar with them, but what I’ve seen of profitable farmers is they use them, and they use them really well.”

Utilising pasture more efficiently is not only profit-driven, but it’s also going to be vital for farmers as they face increasing environmental pressures, he believed.

He has spent a lot of time in the past 20 years working with AgResearch scientists to understand what actually happens to the environment when the dairy system is intensified. More production simply means potentially more damage to the environment and Clark’s role has been to find ways to mitigate that impact.

But he’s come to the conclusion that there are very few magic bullets so farmers are backed into a corner. That means they will have to become more efficient in their farming systems.  

“I can understand that farmers don’t like scientists telling them to become more efficient, but the time has come that if we’re going to keep getting production, keep remaining profitable and protect the environment, I can only see that we’ve got to become more efficient.”

It’s been an interesting, and at times frustrating, subject to be working in. It’s an emotive issue and everyone has a different perception of water quality, he said. But the community needs to decide together where the trade off is.

“If we want the wealth that dairying brings there has to be some trade off.”

DairyNZ and Fonterra are putting a lot of effort into this area, but Clark said the industry has to get past the idea that fencing off waterways and having better effluent systems will solve all the problems. The bigger problems are the N and phosphorus (P) leaching from urine patches and through soil and dung movement.

“It’s a biological system so it’s just a consequence of it, but I think we’ve got to use science to help solve those things rather than hiding behind science – just saying we need more and more science. We know there are issues.”

Another area of research Clark has focused on during his career has been trying to make life easier for farmers and their employees. He has put a lot of work into researching once-a-day (OAD) milking systems.

“I think the OAD system has a lot of potential and I’ve been really lucky to work with LIC and find significant genetic variation in cows in terms of their response to OAD milking.  

“We’ve got cows who produce very high levels of milksolids (MS) when they’re milked OAD and we’ve been able to develop highly profitable systems.”
But like the environmental impacts of dairying, OAD has also been a contentious issue to work on.

“You’re brought up to believe cows are milked twice-a-day (TAD), end of story. Once farmers could see udders weren’t going to explode and cows weren’t going to become useless for the rest of their lives and you could still get significant production, it gave them a lot of confidence.”

Production will drop, but again, it’s about trade offs, Clark said.  

“What is your time worth? I think the hours worked on farms are too long and the turnover of staff is too high. Part of our job is to find ways to reduce those hours.

“In OAD systems, cows might produce 20% less, but that’s because they’re eating less. Farmers could increase the stocking rate and their overall workload will still go down.” 

Funding driven

A lot of people have the view that mad scientists sit around with test tubes coming up with research ideas, but in reality, scientists are steered by funding, Clark said. The levy that dairy farmers pay to DairyNZ is a significant sum of money out of their milk cheques and he appreciates their commitment to that levy and their demands for what they want out of it.

“I think it’s a real strength of the industry,” he said. “We’re all cogs in the machine – that’s why the dairy industry works so well, all the cogs are turning. I think farmers are well served in the huge range of things that DairyNZ, AgResearch and universities do for them.”

He said it’s been rewarding to work alongside farmers and to see his findings actually being used on-farm.

“I have spent a lot time speaking with farmers,” he said. “Hopefully they’ve got something out of it, but I’ve certainly got a lot out of it.

“Farmers are very deep thinkers about systems and they have a very good understanding of what will work and what won’t work.”

Clark said his career has allowed him to work with extremely talented people, including scientists, farmers, technical staff, DairyNZ farm staff and all the people in the extension areas.  

“They’ve all got very good training and they’re all committed to what they’re doing.”

Clark plans to keep his mind active and has enrolled to do a history paper at Waikato University. He is also keen to pursue his hobbies including running, mountain-biking, tramping and travelling.

Despite the challenges to the dairy industry, Clark believes its long term prospects are positive.

“There are problems to be solved, but no long term impediment,” he said. “We need to find an acceptable community solution on environmental issues, and I believe we’ve quite close to that.”

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