Danny Donaghy takes out a pen and draws a curve on his whiteboard.
"That's the Manawatu River," the Massey University professor of dairy production systems says. Then he sketches in Massey's No 1 dairy farm. It hugs the river for 3.4 kilometres in two terraces that slope down to the water's edge.
But what he doesn't draw is just as significant. Behind the farm are research centres and the university campus. Across the river is the city of Palmerston North, home to 80,000 people.
Then there's the river. Decades of agricultural, industrial and human waste have dirtied the waters. The regional council, supported by rural community groups and dairy industry bodies, is acting to clean it up.
Now Massey is doing its bit.
It is putting Noth1 farm at the service of dairy farmers, industry agencies, agribusiness companies and local government. It is asking them to come up with ideas for management systems and technologies to trial on the farm. It also has plenty of its own research to test.
The aim is to improve profitability, but not at the expense of the environment.
Donaghy taps the whiteboard. "We've got a heap of river frontage and it's about reducing our environmental footprint."
No 1 is not in a sensitive catchment and complies with resource consents. "We don't want to be complacent about that. We are near a major river that has issues with pollution and there's quite rightly an emotive issue around that.
"We're not content to play it safe," he says. "We're putting ourselves out there alongside the farmers who are facing this and looking at how we can work together to solve it."
Farmers' ideas and experience will be valued. Innovation doesn't come just from a laboratory or a research study. "We want to work with those guys, test a few of their ideas under controlled conditions - a field laboratory.
"You've come up with a great idea - like a new way of dealing with effluent, or putting x amount of the farm into a particular crop, or using a new type of fertiliser - but if you were to make that sort of system change you could face success or ruin.
"We can do it under more controlled conditions on a smaller scale and say ‘this works because of that and that'."
Crucial will be measuring and monitoring every step of the way. He ticks off a list of data: soil moisture, soil nutrients, pasture growth, quality and species, density of plants, number of grazings, rumen pH temperature, milk production, milk solids and reproductive performance. "We've got equipment that's logging stuff, in some cases every half-minute. When you're throwing a million data points up on a screen you can start drawing trend lines and its ‘Wow, this is what's going on!'."
Measuring the farm's nitrogen leaching will start with using the Overseer program to work out what changes can be made to stocking rate, grazing, pastures and fertiliser and monitored it across the farm with soil probes.
Returning to his sketch, Donaghy ponders a plan for the riverside land. "Do we retire the land, does it become a riparian planting zone, or a combination of riparian planting and a cut-and-carry system. Crops like lucerne could be grown there and harvested and fed to the cows elsewhere so they don't get on there and urinate."
The nearby Linton army camp would like a walking/riding track from the city to the camp. "Do we have a track through the farm? Does it become a riparian planting/walking track/nature trail that helps to bring the city closer to farmland. That's the sort of stuff we've been throwing back and forth with regional and city councils and a few school and community groups."
The idea of bring schoolchildren to see where their food comes from appeals to him.
The list of possible research areas is a long one, including animal welfare, dairy production, energy efficiency, sharing information, farm business management, life-cycle management, pastures, rural sociology, soils and hydrology.
One is already underway. Once-a-day milking began a month ago with the aim of getting the farmers' working week down to 40 hours and a great deal of interest is being taken in which of the farm's 240-cows - a mixture of purebred jerseys and holstein-friesians and crossbreeds - best make the transition.
Massey's agronomy group is looking at pastures - alternative legumes, grasses and herbs - and its precision agriculture centre will also be involved. Fonterra, LIC and DairyNZ are also keen to test new cowshed technology.
With 500 veterinary students and 700 agriculture students on campus the farm will also be used more for teaching.
"I'm having more meetings than hot dinners at the moment and hearing more ideas than people in the room," Donaghy says. "Whatever we do, we're going to do it properly. And use it as a teaching tool, stream it into classroom and bring students to the farm. It's also about extension, getting the results out to the people who need them.".
He also find himself having to steer the discussion back to the underlying aim of the project - to monitor the environmental effects.
"How do we improve production without buggering up the environment? That is the question and it will still be here in 5-10-50 years time. It's not going to disappear."
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