Smart farming

There is a better way

Page - August 4, 2010
There are solutions to current agricultural emission rates in New Zealand; solutions that are not only better for the climate and the environment, but also good for farmers' bottom lines. Some New Zealand farmers have already cottoned on to this and a growing number are changing practices accordingly.

This biological farm in Te Awamutu was not affected as severely as neighbouring farms during the Waikato drought.

We are not saying "stop farming"; rather we're advocating a win-win way forward. It's what we're calling smart farming, or what's known globally as 'bio-logical' farming.

Smart farming is about reverting back to more traditional farming practices. It's about less input, and better output. It's about cutting down on chemicals, cutting back on herd numbers and looking after soil so that pasture thrives and lasts. Generations of farmers have successfully used this method in New Zealand - they knew how to work with the land and doing so is how they survived. In a way it's time to go back to basics.

This view was reinforced in a five year scientific assessment of global agriculture undertaken by multiple stakeholders including the UN and released in April 2008. (

The report's findings slam intensive, high input based approaches to food production and find that traditional, holistic farming practices increase productivity and benefit communities.

Smart farming essentially uses natural systems to improve soil structure and pasture quality and help control weeds, pests and diseases. This in turn leads to healthy livestock. These natural processes include:

  • best tillage methods
  • proper livestock manure use
  • promoting soil life
  • reducing compaction from overstocking of livestock
  • using rotational grazing to maintain pasture root health through leaving residual pasture cover, and
  • balancing the soil's minerals through the use of soil conditioners..

To a degree, bio-logical farming involves growing the soil, rather than the pasture or herd. The beneficial organisms it encourages make the soil alive and fertile, which also feeds pasture forages.

A New Zealand bio-logical dairy farmer summed it up to the media this way: "If you look after the stock below the ground, they'll look after the stock above the ground."

Common sense 

It may sound too good to be true - or too much like common sense - but it actually works. 

A study by AgResearch [1], examining different demonstration farms in New Zealand showed that intensification of dairy farming is detrimental to farms' eco-efficiency, and can greatly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions advantage compared to European systems. The study found that milk produced and delivered per cow per year was highest under the 'low input' farming system.

The low-input system didn't use any chemical nitrogen fertilizer and kept lower numbers of cows per hectare. This system also recorded the lowest impacts per kilogram of milk and per hectare for global warming potential, acidification, nitrogen contamination of water and energy use. The study also shows the low input system is the least financially risky and is more profitable when milk-price payouts are low - as they were between 1987 and 2006.


[1] Eco-efficiency of intensification scenarios for milk production in New Zealand, Claudine Basset-Mens, Stewart Ledgard, Mark Boyes, AgResearch Limited, Ecological Economics, In Press 2007.