Friday, July 1, 2022

MPI-funded partnership to study soil health

A new MPI-funded research project has been announced, which will examine the impact that regenerative farming principles have on soil health.

Synlait, Danone and AgResearch will undertake a five-year study on 10 farms in New Zealand to examine the effects regenerative farming has on soil health.

A new MPI-funded research project has been announced, which will examine the impact that regenerative farming principles have on soil health.

The project will study soil health on 10 farms in Waikato, Canterbury and Otago over five years, to determine the impacts of changes in soil health on production, farm resilience and the environment, including climate change.

The project is being done through a partnership between Synlait, Danone, AgResearch and the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI).

Two paddocks on each of the 10 farms will be used to compare conventional practices and regenerative practices, focusing on greater pasture diversity and reduced nitrogen fertiliser use.

The farms will also provide a wide range of soil types and farming systems for the project.

The findings will help respond to a need for evidence that regenerative practices can make a positive difference in sustainable food production.

Through the course of the research, the farmers involved – supported by AgResearch scientists – will do sampling, testing and modelling to assess the changes in soil health and its implications.

Research by AgResearch, commissioned by DairyNZ, demonstrated that New Zealand has the lowest carbon footprint for milk production compared to 17 other countries, including major milk suppliers.

However, the dairy industry is still striving to identify areas where it can make further environmental gains.

AgResearch soil scientist Nicole Schon says the research will provide important scientific knowledge around soil health in the NZ context.

“This is a five-year study with the aim to provide information for farmers throughout New Zealand on how to measure soil health and how we can better manage our soils. By optimising the soils’ ability to function, it may help meet increasing constraints faced by the industry,” Schon said.

“There is a lot of anecdotal evidence around the impacts of regenerative practices and there is a lot of discussion on this topic. Part of the research will look at how regenerative practices impact soil health and I think it will be particularly interesting to understand the impact on the soil biology and its functioning.”

The study will go beyond just looking at soil fertility and will examine the soil’s organic matter and biological activity, as well as trace element levels and carbon.

Schon says assessing all of these factors in the soil will give them a more complete picture of its health.

“These will be measures farmers will all be able to do to assess their soil health across their farm that will better inform their management decisions,” she said.

The project’s five-year timeframe should give scientists the time required to record any changes in the indicators they are measuring.

Assessment of soil health on farms is not routinely measured in NZ, so practical tools are needed to help farmers understand the detailed state of the soils and how best to manage them.

As well as on-farm production and performance, improved soil health is expected to benefit the wider environment with improved fresh water and nutrient outcomes, support for biodiversity, enhanced soil carbon storage and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

The Government has committed $2.8 million to the research through MPI’s Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund, with Danone and Synlait contributing a further $1 million.

 AgResearch will gather data and report findings of the research. Some initial assessments of soil health have been conducted and the trials on the 10 dairy farms involved are expected to begin early in 2022.

Results will be made available from the research.

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