Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Liberated, they sold the plough

Neal Wallace
Mike Porter reckons he has re-educated himself how to farm in the last five years. Neal Wallace meets the South Canterbury arable farmer who is not afraid of change.
Reading Time: 3 minutes


Mike Porter is a considered man.

His views and actions are more than opinions formed from spending too many hours behind the wheel of a tractor on his South Canterbury arable farm.

Porter has carefully considered and studied options to some of the big issues he faces on his 480ha arable and livestock farm at Lyalldale, which he runs with wife Lynne.

He has tailored solutions to his problems but fears solutions being touted for national issues such as the environment have become politicised, that politicians are pushing an agenda of reducing dairy cow numbers and curbing capitalism rather than addressing actual problems.

That generates arguments over petty issues while opportunities, such as using whole farm systems to address environmental problems, are being missed.

“It’s not too many cows. It’s how we are farming the cows,” he says.

Porter believes some farm systems do need to change.

“It’s almost like we need to press the reset button and go back almost 80 years.

“Every time there is a revolutionary new product, service or management system for how we farm, every time we make an adjustment, it is included within the present system and nothing drops out the bottom.”

This means that for every solution often two more problems are created.

After the spring harvest a cover crop is sown, which means over winter it anchors the soil profile preventing any erosion with that vegetative cover and plants securing nutrients from leaching from rain and runoff.

“What I’m doing is transferring nutrients from soil to the plant over winter.”

He did grow kale for winter stock feed but his dislike of bare soil is prompting a change to a specialist winter feed cover crop.

The crop mix is 21 different varieties of small seeds, clover and herbs chosen for their nutrition, nutrient values and variety of growing season.

The experiment will enable a lift in winter stock numbers and the crop will be managed so stock will graze a third, trample a third and leave a third standing, by which stage he will then drill a new crop.

It is an example of how a farm system can address an environmental issue but politically such a move would be shunned by officials as intensification, he says.

“It would be seen as intensification but all we are doing is changing the system.”

He estimates the combination of no-till drilling and cover crops has reduced soil erosion by more than 90% and while he still uses artificial fertilisers and chemicals, Porter says has cut nitrogen use by 20%, saving about $15,000 a year, and herbicide by 10%.

Tractor hours has fallen by about 60% with his main tractor now running about 320 hours a year.

These changes have made life easier.

Porter says the soil takes care of itself, the slug issue has been reduced and cover crops provide early warnings of the emergence of any pests.

“I have lower tractor hours, I have stopped soil moving and not taken a hit with crop yields. That to me is a win-win.”

He also runs up to 600 Coopdale ewes and trades in calves and rising two-year-old cattle, with about 50 on the farm at any one time.

Another significant change has been to buy a harvester which levels itself on two axes.

They were spilling up to 10% of a crop when harvesting on hills, the steepest of which is nearly 30 degrees.

But by investing in the self-levelling harvester they no long have that waste.

Porter fears he could be caught by the generalised nature of legislated changes proposed for climate change and freshwater, that environmental improvements he has made to sequester carbon, enable cropping on the hills and reduce nutrient and soil loss will be ignored by new legislation.

“This one-size-fits-all approach really concerns me.

“At the moment all the legislation around environmental footprints is based on punish and reduce.

“There is no account taken of the good things happening or any rewards for good environmental stewardship.”

Porter knows his stewardship is improving the soil and environment and says he has been able to tap into some experts to help him achieve that, such as Jono Frew of Natural Performance and Craig Smith from Grain and Seed Brokers.

The Porters employ two full time staff. Sons Sam and Isaac are both mechanics and daughter Roseanna is studying at Canterbury University.

Five fundamentals

Mike Porter has five fundamental principles crucial to sustainable cropping:

Minimum or no cultivation of land;

Arm the soil to prevent evapotranspiration by having it covered all the time;

Grow a diverse range of crops including multiple species of pasture and animal feed crops;

Living roots in the soil help the biology to cycle nutrients and sequester carbon and;

To reintroduce livestock which adds to soil depth and helps soil biology.

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