Case studies

Page - October 6, 2008
Against the rush towards 1,000-cow dairy herds and mega-milk conglomerates, a handful of farmers are heading back to basics, and finding it’s working wonders.

(This article is written by New Zealand environmental journalist Dave Hansford and first appeared in Issue 2 of Good Magazine ( Photos: © Dave Hansford)

David and Ailsa Miller's dairy herd takes the gate at a run. If cows can exhibit joie de vivre, these Friesian crosses are a picture of it, swishing through a swathe of verdant pasture with the sort of relish a hot sunbather reserves for a cool sea.

Big, black bovine heads plunge into a thicket of cocksfoot, clover and chicory. Cows are strictly hierarchical, Ailsa tells me, but here there's no pecking, only munching. A few years ago, she says, they'd have fought for the best fodder. Now, there's plenty to go around.

With 80 years of milking cows between them, David and Ailsa Miller say biological farming has made farming exciting again. "If I can add to the quality of life of town people by producing a nutritious product," says David, "that makes my job worthwhile"

David and Ailsa have milked cows for some 40 years on these graceful, green hectares outside Otorohanga. They've always loved it "despite some tight spots" but of late, like their cows, they've got a whole new spring in their step.

"We enjoy getting up and working on the farm. We wake up in the morning, and we think 'today is a new day'," says Ailsa, 57. David is 60, and most dairy farmers their age would have taken on sharemilkers years ago. Not the Millers; "we enjoy milking-we work together as a team."

Heifers and humans are both getting their new-found vigour from a step-change called 'biological farming'-managing a farm on ecological principles as opposed to production ones. It stops short of organic, though you might call it permaculture. The Millers have joined a small (fewer than 100) but growing group of farmers who have turned their backs on the production-obsessed, fertiliser-intensive, input-heavy ways of mainstream agriculture.

Instead, they're growing soils, not grass. They've renounced conventional wisdom and some of its most potent symbols: chemical fertilisers and, almost heretically, rye grass. Not for them the one-solution-fits-all marketing of agri-business; biological farmers are getting back in touch with their farms, their animals, their soil.

Look back, step forward

It's new, but it's old; it's farming the way their great-grandparents did it.

"Farmers have lost the art of thinking," says David. "The experts came along; the vet would make his sales pitch, the fertiliser company, the drench company, would make theirs ... do what you're told, and you'll get good results. And the majority of farmers went down that path, not understanding why.

"We were doing more to make less," he says. "We became jacks of all trades and masters of none."

So David and Ailsa stopped applying nitrogen and superphosphate three years ago, substituting it with organic fertiliser. Now, says David, the cows are happily gorging on species they wouldn't have touched had they been grown with nitrogen. "Grass this high would have been toxic to them if it were full of chemicals," he tells me.

"We've learned how to look after our soils, how we can farm our worms. If you look after the stock below the ground, they'll look after the stock above the ground"

"We're not fighting our grasses. Rather than calling them weeds, which is good for the chemical spray companies, we now see them for what they really are.

"And we've learned how to look after our soils, how we can farm our worms. If you look after the stock below the ground, they'll look after the stock above the ground."

Jeff and Fiona Graham. Biological farming will take off "within the next eight to ten years," says Jeff, "because the emissions trading scheme will enforce it. What would we sooner be doing? Getting $1000 a hectare back for carbon sequestration, or paying $1000 a hectare?

David Miller checks his cows for mastitis. He's noticed an improvement in the herd's health since abandoning chemical fertilisers. "They've put more condition on, so they're under less stress. We had no lameness at all last year"

They certainly did last summer, when the Waikato wilted under the worst drought in living memory. "We've never farmed in conditions like it," says David.

The plantain and chicory in the couple's paddocks had by then put its roots down deep. "They hung on much longer than the other pasture plants, and the huge savings we made on chemical fertiliser greatly assisted in feeding the cows. If we had been tied into the traditional patterns of farming, it would have been very much harder to negotiate our way through."

But what's really turned him onto biological farming is the opportunity for a new contract between New Zealand farmers and consumers.

"Small farms are part of the New Zealand culture, whereas I believe the mega-farming that is starting to appear in New Zealand now is not. [Biological farming] is an opportunity to bring the pendulum back; to give people choices."

He believes many of New Zealand's health problems stem from sub-par, mass-produced food. "At our age, we're going to more and more funerals, and we're seeing people who could have had choices as to what they ate.

"But there's a growing group of farmers who do have consciences; who are committed to adding value, adding health, extending the quality of life for people. And they take pride in the knowledge that the food they are producing is the best they can do. That's what I'm excited about."  

The Millers also believe that the industrialisation of farming, particularly dairying     in this day of record payouts, is responsible for many of the negative impacts of agriculture on the environment: erosion, fertiliser run-off, pollution of waterways, nitrous oxide emissions.  

They are not alone.

ECogent's argument

"Farming's gone very high-tech, but not necessarily in a good way," says Kathi Harris. "You get a consultant in to fix your soil and grass problems, and they're all paid by the big companies to sell their products ... it's very tied up."

Kathi and her husband David run a small dairy farm at Pokuru, not far out of Te Awamutu. Three years ago, the couple abandoned mainstream farming practice. "We were working harder just to stand still," says David. "We weren't gaining profitability, production or anything. We were just spending more and more money on supplements, animal health, fertilisers-all our costs were going up."

Demoralised, he was ready to give up on dairying when the couple won a scholarship to follow a farming management programme run by Cambridge company eCogent.

Under the eCogent system, farmers record all key inputs, financial transactions and stock data for the month, then file it to the company. It all ends up on the desk of Peter Floyd, eCogent's mastermind and director. He and his staff put the numbers under critical scrutiny, check performance against forecasts, live weights against dry matter consumed, and a dozen other arcane agri-concepts, then point out the strengths and weaknesses of the clients' operations.

In other words, eCogent is a profitability exercise, but with a difference-it's based on biological principles. Peter also has his clients digging holes in their pasture every month and measuring topsoil depth, root mass, soil colour, friability, and counting earthworms.

Peter's life has been about farming. By his own admission, he was part of the drive towards more productivity, more stock, more of everything, "but I stuffed up. By the time the 1980s came round, we had been stretching those figures to the limit. Putting on more dollops of superphosphate; urea was coming in by the trainload.

"The wake-up call came for me in the 1990s," he says. "We had [fungal] toxins in a lot of crops, we had a whole bundle of problems and environmental impacts.

Kathi and David's farm still suffers symptoms of potash poisoning from those days of excess. Today, only calcium and organic manure go onto the land. "As soon as we stopped conventional fertiliser, we saw an impact, certainly in the soil health, and even animal health," says David.

There's no more strip-grazing-corralling cows in tight with portable electric fencing to graze paddocks down to the nub; instead, it's all about residuals, the amount of feed left behind after the stock have been moved out. "Grass grows grass," says Kathi. "If you eat it right down to soil, it takes longer to recover."

They can tell when they're getting it right by a greenish glow and a scale of numbers. David hands me a Brix meter; a small device which, held up to the light, reveals the sugar content of a sample of crushed pasture plants. Today it's wet and overcast, not the best for the photosynthesis activity the meter is reading, but the Brix level-12-is still higher than for a 'nitrogen farm', which might score a three on a day like today, Kathi reckons.

No more set menu of rye grass for the couple's cows, either; now they browse from a salad bar of different species-chicory, plantain, Timothy, cocksfoot.

"Watch cows go into a paddock with low-Brix, urea-rich grass," says Kathi, "and they'll walk right to the back of the paddock, then slowly walk back again. They're looking for the best food. When they get to the end of the paddock, there is nowhere else to go, so they just start to eat.

"When our cows walk into a paddock, they just start eating straight away. Cows are very onto it; they know what they need. If they were left to roam, they would be foraging animals; they'd seek out what they needed in the vegetation. Now, we're giving them that opportunity."   

Banking on grass

Peter Floyd wants to do the same for human consumers. In the early 90s, he flew to the US to address the restaurateurs and foodies of the San Francisco Food Society. They listened politely, then told him that actually, New Zealand produce wasn't that crash-hot.

"That's because we were going for mass production; we were just chucking meat into boxes and hoping somebody would buy it. We weren't taking the best opportunities going in the world at that stage, and we probably still aren't."

TOP: Waikato dairy farmer David Harris makes a check of his pasture through a Brix meter. Biological farmers use Brix levels as a proxy indicator of nutrition value

Waikato dairy farmer David Harris makes a check of his pasture through a Brix meter. Biological farmers use Brix levels as a proxy indicator of nutrition value

Fiona Graham in the milking shed. Fed grass with a sunny-day Brix level of eight, her goats will produce an extra 300 litres of milk over a rainy day low of four. "That can make a difference of $40,000 worth of milk produced annually"

He calls it "production-ology; an obsession with the production of grass, meat, milk and wool. So eCogent was born, out of the mindset that we had to do things better." That belief rings true with another pair of eCogent clients, Jeff and Fiona Graham. They run 330 goats in the shadow of Maungatautari, the Waikato's celebrated ecological restoration project, producing high-quality milk for export as infant formula.

"We're all part of a food chain," says Fiona, "from the grass, to the animal, to the consumer-and in our case, people's babies.

"Ultimately, we're aiming for a balance in the whole system; by producing healthy soil, you then produce healthy [pasture] plants, which then provide your animals with a high-Brix, highly mineralised feed of great nutritional value.

"If you feed your animals well, they produce good milk, and we want to be sure that we're producing a product that is environmentally sustainable, that you would want to feed to your own children."

Their goats live indoors most of the time, keeping intestinal parasite infections to a minimum. But they still follow biological principles to grow their pasture, which they then "cut and carry" to the barn. Three times a year, they muck out the goat manure and add it to untreated wood shavings to turn into 1500 tonnes of certified organic compost. Some of it they sell to other farmers, the rest goes back onto their own paddocks. The soil, says Jeff, is the farm's "engine room"; the grass, "your bank".

"[Farmers] got themselves into a downward spiral of putting 30% potassic super on since Adam was a boy, because that was what you did. But … it became a vicious cycle. The fertiliser companies absolutely love it, because they get to sell more product.

"What we're trying to do is break that cycle."

The goats turn out a high-value product, but there's no premium, as yet, for it having been biologically produced. Peter says he's got the marketers working on ways to realise a financial bonus from all this greenery, and what's more, "it will be carbon-positive branded, both meat and milk".

Healthier soils, he claims, lock up more carbon. So much more, that eCogent will soon apply for carbon credits on the Chicago Stock Exchange. He's even on the record as saying "growing soils as a carbon sink in New Zealand will … greatly benefit farmers by totally eliminating the need for any emissions tax."

The claim seems to make no distinction between and carbon and methane. When I press him for details of his carbon accounting and certification, he will only say, "We've got our laboratories, we've got our measurements, we've got our systems in place. In September, every farmer in the eCogent process will have their farm measured for carbon."

Whatever you make of eCogent's carbon claims (see box, page 61), biological farming passes any measure of sustainability. Economically, farmers report better profits. Environmentally, it addresses run-off into waterways by doing away with chemical fertilisers. Deeper roots mean less erosion. Socially, it could provide good, healthy food with fewer demands on land and livestock. And by helping small farms become economic again, it could not only counter the headlong rush to mega-farming, but also help small rural communities stay together.

"There are now something like 8000 farmers, and 11,000 farms," says David Miller. That's a lot of missing farmers: around 3000 farms run by absentee investors.

"That's a challenge, but it opens up an opportunity. Rather than the corporates cashing in on the food crisis, families can do their bit. Which, I think, sits well with our culture and with our history. I'm 60, and I have a second wind. I'm excited that now we have a chance to do that."