Friday, July 1, 2022

Studying the hill country for better results

An $8 million hill country research programme will assist farmers to make better decisions around pasture forage plantings.

The study, established through the Hill Country Futures Partnership programme, takes in 18 study sites from as far south as Lake Hawea in Central Otago to Waiakaia near Gisborne in the north.

The $8.1m programme is co-funded by Beef + Lamb New Zealand, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), PGG Wrightson Seeds and Seed Force NZ.

It is focused on future-proofing the profitability, sustainability and wellbeing of NZ’s hill country farmers, their farm systems, the environment and rural communities.

Sector science strategy manager for Beef + Lamb Suzi Keeling provides scientific oversight for the programme and says a key focus has been resilient forages for the future. 

It incorporates traditional science research, farmer knowledge, social research and citizen science and has a strong emphasis on forages and providing decision-making tools to help farmers select the best forage option for different land management units.

“The programme provided an opportunity to test different forage combinations in a number of research and commercial farms around NZ. 

“Being able to do this in a range of different locations has ensured we have accommodated what farmers are really interested in, while also answering important science questions,” Keeling said.

The 18 locations include 12 forage trial sites evaluating different combinations of forages, six sites capturing soil temperature and moisture data and three focused on assessing native plants as potential forage. 

“Through the forage trials we are looking at how we support farmers to have resilient forages into the future.

Headshot of Suzi Keeling.
Beef + Lamb NZ science strategy manager Suzi Keeling says an important aspect of the programme is ensuring investment is informed by good information.

“It is capturing real data on farms to make it tangible for farmers to see how forages perform in different locations. 

“We are also building a large dataset to develop tools that farmers can use to help them select which forages are most ideal for their situation.”

A further outcome of the programme has been the AgYields national forage database, a central repository for all pasture and crop yield data collected in NZ to help farmers and farm consultants with decision-making around pasture planning. 

Planned videos will include showing how farmers can set up their own monitoring on farm and then add their data to AgYields. 

The soil temperature and moisture micro-scale indicator projects recognise that hill country farms are diverse landscapes and are designed to enable farmers to use farm scale mapping to assess which forage mixes are likely to do well in specific areas of their farm. 

Research around native shrubs looks at the potential of natives for sheep fodder in terms of palatability, digestibility and protein characteristics. 

“The focus here is on improving animal productivity, animal welfare, biodiversity and soil health while mitigating soil erosion and climate change.”

An important aspect of the programme is ensuring investment is informed by good information, Keeling said.

“That means farmers know what forages suit what soil types and environments, when to sow forages and what they need to be thinking about in terms of sowing rates and fertiliser applications. 

“It means that when they are planning to establish pasture to feed their animals, they have the best information available to do that as efficiently as possible. 

“It removes the risk of taking a stab in the dark.

“If you are producing forage of better quality and yield that integrates well into your farm system it allows you to make smart decisions around pasture management and hopefully get a longer lifetime out of your forages.

“That means less frequent need for forage renewal of pasture, which also has good benefits for soil health.”

Findings from the trials have been made available as factsheets through the Beef + Lamb NZ knowledge hub. 

Many of the outputs have been through a peer review process and are now in scientific literature.

“That gives us real confidence around the level of rigour associated with the work and that the information in the factsheets is robust and useful for farmers.”

For more information on the sites go to: www.hillcountryfutures.co.nz/research-programme/pilot-farm-map

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