Sunday, March 3, 2024

Huge regen project puts science at its centre

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Ag practices come under the microscope in a project that is publicly funded, widely collaborative and has a seven-year window.
Professor Danny Donaghy, pictured here with Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor, says regen ag practices will go under the microscope during the Whenua Haumanu project.
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The head of a new regenerative farming research project is hoping the study will also nurture a new generation of agricultural scientists and students over its seven-year lifespan.

Massey University is to be the base for the $26 million Whenua Haumanu joint research project combining most of New Zealand’s agri-research talent and bodies to study the effects of regenerative agricultural practices on pastoral farming systems.

“The study will give us the opportunity to research regenerative farming within a New Zealand context. In the United States regenerative farming involves turning land back into grasses which were cleared years’ ago and the soil blew away.  

“We have a different context here  – to return back would involve abandoning farms and cities and replanting native trees, that’s not what the movement is here in NZ,” Professor Danny Donaghy of Massey’s School of Agriculture and Environment said.

The project aims to establish research farms with diverse pasture mixes, utilising Massey’s number one dairy unit, the pasture and crop research unit’s sheep block and Lincoln’s field research unit for sheep. 

For dairying, collaboration with Dairy Trust Taranaki’s Waimate West farm, the Poukawa research farm and Northland’s Dairy Development Trust project will provide project input.

Donaghy said globally there is emphasis by large processors like Nestlé for regenerative farming to be included in farmers’ practices, while NZ farmers are often already engaged in practices along regenerative lines.

“This is an opportunity to study the impact of what we are currently doing and if we made changes including things like adding multispecies pastures, what is the effect of those changes?”
A better understanding of “functional diversity” could be one big win from the project, in learning how multiple species interact when planted together, for mutual benefit or otherwise.

“And there is the opportunity to really understand, what is it that farmers are trying to overcome – is it better climate resilience, continuity of feed quality, improving the soil?”

Donaghy said he welcomes the opportunity to have so many research partners all engaged on the same project, something he feared had become less common in recent decades in NZ’s funded scientific environment.

“There has also been that issue over IP, and whose idea relates to that IP. With this project there is no IP, this is publicly funded, and industry funded and we aim to spread the ideas as far and wide as possible.”

He said the seven-year funding window not only provides a good length of time to study how different practices played through farm systems, “it also gives you this amazing training ground for a whole new generation of scientists, developing them from undergraduates through to post-graduate and doctoral students across many fields”.
He also sees the study as an opportunity to lay to rest some of the claims and counterclaims that inevitably swirl around practices like regenerative farming.

“There is also a big debate among farmers practicing regen about what works and what does not work, often not that well laid out or well based. This is a chance to work through scientifically what is actually working and what is not.”
He said scientists’ ability to bring a scalpel to a study where farmers may only have had a shovel would allow for some very granular, exacting understandings of areas like soil microbial activity and carbon breakdown.

“We will be even able to identify different pools of carbon types and understand things like whether soil microbes are a good thing or bad in terms of their impact on carbon dioxide release, for example.”

 Donaghy acknowledged the increasing range of research work being done on regen agriculture, including the Align Farms project in Canterbury, and the $11m Ngai Tahu dairy project that has also recently kicked off. Overall, there are close to 10 projects running nationally.

“Our hope is that ultimately all the projects will link up over time. While we won’t all have the same methodology, we hope to have the same approach to measuring things, and defining things like ‘diverse mixes’, for example.”

He is confident there will be some early results to present to farmers within a year on some aspects of carbon capture, but it will take longer to understand the full effects of some aspects upon the entire farm system.

Farmers can expect to have access to a website dedicated to the project, and regular field days are to be scheduled.

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