Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Farm adviser research creating change from the ground up

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The Rural Professionals Fund, established in 2020, is now accepting applications for its fourth – and final – round of funding.
The Rural Professionals Fund, established in 2020, is now accepting applications for its fourth – and final –  round of funding.
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Delwyn Dickey for the Our Land and Water National Science Challenge

When Whangārei dairy farmer Graeme Edwards planted up a mini plantation of banana plants next to his dairy effluent pond a few years ago and trickle-fed them the waste, he had high hopes this could be a game-changer as the northern climate continued to warm. 

Along with making use of effluent in his pond, he wanted to see if the banana plants could be a new feed source for his cows during dry summers when pasture struggles. 

It ticked a few environmental boxes, and attracted quite a lot of media attention, but Edwards became increasingly frustrated there was no on-the-ground help to test his project, and he lacked the scientific background to test it himself. 

Was the effluent causing leaching, were banana plants nutritious enough for stock feed, could they withstand solid grazing?

Then AgResearch scientists Grant Rennie and Warren King stepped in and ran a trial on Edwards’s plantation, with funding from the Our Land and Water National Science Challenge, through its Rural Professional Fund. 

While the funding wasn’t enough to carry out what would be expensive animal health trials on cattle, they found no red flags that would immediately rule the project out.  

The Rural Professionals Fund, established in 2020, is now accepting applications for its fourth – and final –  round of funding. The fund supports projects led by rural professionals, in partnership with farmers, that test innovative ideas to help farmers add diversity, increase resilience, and tackle environmental challenges for their farm, catchment, and community.

Other research led by farmers or farm advisers funded by Our Land and Water has been prompted by incoming environmental regulations. 

When the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council proposed tightening up regulations around crop cultivation in the huge intensive export and process growing area  to reduce risks to waterways by nutrient losses, horticultural growers would need to develop a management plan, including identifying and addressing risks to waterways from nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) loss. 

This led to Ravensdown consultant Jamie Thompson setting up a monitoring system in a grower’s paddock near Clive, using a nitrate sensor to measure real-time nitrogen losses through drainage, after rainfall and irrigation. The project was then extended to measure how much nitrogen left in the soil after the crop was lifted could be mopped by a catch crop. 

The project has been very successful, Thompson said. 

“The results of the initial project saw a lot of interest in the technology and installing sump sensors is now likely to become more standard practice.” 

Zespri has also shown interest in installing sensors in kiwifruit orchards, with interest also from national agriculture and horticulture consultancy business AgFirst. Concerns over nitrate leaching are also behind new regulations proposed in the Canterbury region by Environment Canterbury, which are seeing some farms being classified as being in High Nitrogen Concentration Zones and having to reduce nitrogen runoff into groundwater. This is over concerns that nitrate runoff may be entering aquifers used for drinking water.

This prompted farm adviser Charlotte Senior to apply for funding to install nitrate sensors onto a Fairlie Dairy farm in an attempt to gauge when nitrates were being lost into groundwater and where these nitrates were coming from. The farm was at the bottom of the catchment with water from higher up in the catchment flowing under it.

The project showed big rain events were washing nitrates out of the soil and into groundwater, and mostly from higher in the catchment.

“Data from this project will help understand the farm’s impact on the catchment and whether efforts to improve freshwater are on the right track,” Senior said.

Another positive from the project was that it reignited the local farmers’ interest after they had become a bit jaded over the new restrictions, Senior said, with the farmer co-op that operates the irrigation scheme in the area now also doing free water testing for nitrates for farmers in the area.

“Because farm advisers are on the ground and out with their clients every day they see opportunities for improvements, or have ideas for change that they can now explore,” the chief executive of the New Zealand Institute of Primary Industry Management, Jo Finer, said.

“The Rural Professional Fund provides good seed funding opportunities, within the scope of the science challenge, without the restrictions of a big comprehensive and detailed research programme that might come out of the Crown Research Institutes.” 

“I was nearly 30 years at Fonterra, and the best ideas always came from the ground up – from the people on the ground who saw the opportunities. This fund is like that – a suggestion box on steroids. People can actually do something with it.” 

Farm advisers with innovative, fresh ideas that could create real change for NZ farmers are invited to apply for up to $75,000 in funding, in the fourth and final funding round of the Rural Professionals Fund. 

Applications close on March 9, 2023.

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