Fewer stock, more profit

Last updated 11:17 10/03/2014
Mark Manson
HEROIC VENTURE: Mark Manson with daughter Zoe, 6, on their East Takaka farm.

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Sean Weaver suggests ways to farm smarter in a drought.

The water tanks are low, the grass is brown, and the trees are in need of a drink. Some say you can break a drought by whipping a rooster. I'm not so sure.

Last year's summer dry took its toll on rural families and the New Zealand trade balance. Water. Good soil and hard work is not much use without it.

Our climate scientists at NIWA tell us that average temperatures are going to increase under a warming climate. The droughts that come will likely get harsher and longer.

By mid-century, key agricultural areas in eastern NZ will spend between 10 per cent and 50 per cent more time in drought than they do now, and in 85 years or so all key agricultural areas will experience more drought than now.

We cannot force the weather to give us rain, but we can reduce our vulnerability by farming smarter. We can plant pasture with mixed species that can reach moisture deeper underground. We can also reduce stock numbers, which reduces demand on water and feed.

I can already hear farmers folding their arms and saying: "Lowering stock numbers will lower my income, mate."

Not always so. In fact, well-managed stock reductions can increase on-farm profits when implemented as part of a biological farming regime.

Biological farming sits about half way along the spectrum between conventional and organic farming. It is a loose term referring to the management of agricultural soil as a living system, maintaining tailored soil-nutrient balance, enabling a reduction in fertiliser inputs, minimising chemical pesticide application and maximising the unpaid work of countless little helpers: beneficial microbes and insects.

The reason that more farmers are courting the biological farming approach stems from a desire to solve a number of farm business problems relating to the intensity of the modern farming treadmill: high turn-over, high risk, high workloads, high stress, high burnout, and not always high profits.

Biological farming can take pressure off the land and the farming family. Because of this, a reduction in stock numbers does not necessarily result in a loss of income. Indeed, it can cause the opposite effect.

Mark and Laura Manson are Golden Bay dairy farmers who shifted to biological farming on their East Takaka family farm.

They reduced their herd from 490 to 360 cows, and produce the same volume of milk solids with the smaller herd as they did with the larger herd. Huh?

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This is because healthier, happier cows produce more milk per cow. Their profit margin went up rather than down when they reduced their herd size by 26 per cent. They also noticed other benefits.

Their non-irrigated pasture was green through the 2013 summer drought (the nation's worst in 70 years) when normally (under a ryegrass clover pasture mix) it would have browned off and required carting in more feed. Their fertiliser bill went down.

Mark's workload went from crazy to manageable. They were under less financial pressure and Mark was able to spend more time with Laura and their two girls.

I put on my risk management spectacles and take another look at the Manson farm. Very interesting. I see a reduction in exposure to drought risk.

This is coupled by a reduction in financial risk associated with debt servicing. Reducing drought risk also helped them reduce their risk to rural insurers.

Reduced exposure to drought risk reduced their need to cull stock during the drought and helped avoid contributing to flooding the meat processing and retail market with drought-cull stock. I see reduced risk of marriage breakup, and associated financial risk.

Looking around the local area I can see other risk reduction at play.

Mark and Laura put less soluble fertiliser onto their land. This reduced the volume of fertiliser that ends up in local streams and thereby reduced risk to stream water quality. (Planting stream banks is good for streamside habitats, but to seriously improve water quality one also needs to shift fertiliser regimes on farms.)

They reduced their contribution to water supply risk for their catchment because they consolidated their ability to remain a productive and profitable dry (non-irrigated) farm.

This provides benefits to ratepayers in their region who have one less farm to worry about from a water-quality and water-quantity management point of view. They also reduced risk to local and central government agencies that provide financial rescue packages to drought-stricken farmers because they are now less exposed to the effects of drought.

On a wider scale, the Manson family reduced risk to the New Zealand dairy brand by farming in a manner consistent with global good practice in sustainable land management.

This presents Fonterra with the option to market at least some (and hopefully lots more) dairy export produce as coming from internationally recognised sustainable land management practices, commanding either a price premium or at least consolidating (or opening) market access.

By reducing their risk to drought they are providing an example of a resilient form of farming more capable of adapting to a warmer and dryer climate - noteworthy for climate change policy.

By the way, and as an afterthought: by reducing their herd size by 26 per cent they reduced their GHG emissions by perhaps 26 per cent without any expensive climate/clean-tech inputs or a regulatory stick.

All hail Mark and Laura Manson - they are true champions.

Wow. That's a significant gain from a greenhouse gas emissions reduction policy perspective and it is delivered as a passenger on a strategic farm resilience vehicle, designed to help farmers - not punish them.

This might have considerable policy appeal among rural voters.

At the very least a policy supporting such an approach to smart farming is far less likely to inspire a bloke to drive his tractor up the steps of Parliament.

So, is there a role for government in this drama? Sure.

When I move my chooks from one place to another I get some barley and say "chook, chook, chook, chook . . ." The majority come running because they know I will give them an incentive for shifting.

One or two don't move, so I go and wave a stick near them and they go and join the others for a feed. Occasionally I eat belligerent roosters.

  • Sean Weaver, Carbon Partnership Ltd is a consultant specialising in sustainable land management and climate change response measures. He is also a trustee of the Carbon Farming Group. He and his wife, kids and chooks live in Takaka. Ph 03 525 6073; 027 3563601 sean@carbonpartnership.co.nz

- Nelson

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