Biopesticide may help keep pasture green

Research that could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars to farmers is looking promising in early results.

AgResearch scientists are working with Ballance Agri-Nutrients and government funding to develop a new chemical-free biopesticide.

The Hamilton-headquartered Crown research institute said chemical-free innovations would help New Zealand producers meet increasing international demand for pesticide-residue-free meat, dairy, fruit and other products.

Biologically based solutions are also expected to improve productivity and sustainability.

The main targets of the biopesticide are the pasture-eating caterpillars of the porina moth, which emerge in huge numbers each spring and summer.

The porina is one of New Zealand's most serious pasture pests, costing farmers many millions of dollars.

The biopesticide also kills the "notoriously damaging" grass grub, a major apple orchard pest - the bronze beetle - and other globally problematic crop pests including the diamondback moth, white butterfly, Japanese beetle and locusts, AgResearch said.

The biopesticide was a naturally occurring bacterium, Yersinia entomophaga (or Ye).

It was discovered in a grass grub corpse during a search for alternatives to chemical pesticides such as organophosphates, which were being phased out, said research leader, Dr Mark Hurst, of AgResearch.

"The bacterium is very good at killing a large variety of insects, especially beetles and moths.

"It doesn't, however, harm earthworms, honeybees or other beneficial organisms that we've checked.

"Plus it does not persist in soil, which is important for any control agent if it is to be clean and green."

The process to register the pesticide with food safety and environmental protection regulators is underway, and generally took several years, Hurst said.

A common concern with pesticides was that target pests would become resistant to them, such as happened with the biopesticide Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis).

However, because Ye uses several different methods to kill insects, Hurst said he believed it was extremely unlikely insects could develop resistance.

A novel biopesticide product based on Ye is being explored with industry partner Ballance Agri-Nutrients, with Ballance providing investment and commercial expertise.

"While it's early stage research, there's no doubt the development of new biologically based solutions for pasture pest control has considerable economic and production potential," Ballance spokesman Warwick Catto said.

Funding for the Ye research was from the Business, Innovation and Employment Ministry, as well as the Primary Growth Partnership Fund and Sustainable Farming Fund.

In another collaborative project, AgResearch senior scientist Dr Julie Everett-Hincks is leading a research programme on lamb survival, funded by Ovita, Beef + Lamb NZ farmer levies and AgResearch.

The programme is looking at the genetic, maternal and environmental factors which influence lamb survival.

The work involves farmers contributing pedigree, lambing records and post-mortem information to a huge database with performance records of more than 200,000 lambs, Everett-Hincks said.

"Lamb survival is crucial to profitability, for individual farmers and for the New Zealand sheep industry.

"Understanding what influences lamb survival and monitoring lamb losses on each property is essential to making sure every lamb counts."

There are many positive steps farmers can take to improve survival, whether it is monitoring and maintaining ewe body condition, allocating more feed, paddock selection or introducing proven and more accurate genetics through sire selection, Everett-Hincks said.

"Most solutions require a bit of planning, and now is a good time to reflect on management for the coming season, to put changes in place before mating 2013. It's about identifying the limitations and opportunities that affect each farm."

Waikato Times