Armitage Biological Dairy Farming

June 2010

Maintaining high production with fewer inputs in a biological farming system

In 2009 's drought in Hawkes Bay, a dairy farm with green grass was a beacon of inspiration for its parched sheep and beef farming neighbours.

The farm, in Patoka, west of Napier, is not irrigated and uses a fraction of the fertiliser of other farms. Yet its cows produce much more milk than most cows in other dairy regions.

Farmer, Neil Armitage, says the drought resilience of his farm and stock is due to his use of a farming method championed by agriculture consultant Arden Andersen.

Known as biological farming, it focuses on stimulating soil activity. The reasoning is that healthy soil grows healthy pasture and crops that produce healthy animals.

Its a method that uses both conventional and organic farming systems and is looked on with scepticism by soil scientists. Some dismiss it as "pseudo science" and advise farmers to avoid it.

But others argue that science can still learn a lot from the experiences of farmers.

The defenders of this system say that a smart way of responding to climate change is to better understand the ecology of farms - the interconnection between soil and pasture quality and grazing systems, the fertilisers being used, and the many benefits of trees.

Many farmers in the region as we have seen in the Tim Dineen story Rural Delivery did in 2009 - are looking for drought-tolerant pasture species, adopting flexible stocking policies with more trading cattle and fewer sheep, finding ways to keep more water on their farms and planting trees to break wind, provide shelter and slow the loss of soil moisture.

Theres also an increasing interest in alternative fertiliser regimes, including more lime-based systems and biological farming.

A lot of this interest has been driven by price, but increasingly farmers are questioning what they are doing.

Neil began ten years ago experimenting with using low rates of nitrogen, trying to reduce it to the bare minimum needed to grow grass, but was disappointed at the lack of clover.

Then he heard Dr Andersen speak at a field day and followed that up by taking a three-day seminar.

He says that everything wrong that he had witnessed over 30 years, Arden Andersen had an answer for.

Neil works with Outgro, a Dannevirke biological fertiliser company founded by Outback Helicopters to come up with a fertiliser regime aimed at stimulating the soil biology.

If he were farming conventionally, he estimates he would use 50 units of phosphate in a soluble form, 150-200 of nitrogen, 80 of potash and 20 of sulphur.

Instead, he uses greatly reduced amounts of reactive phosphate rock, nitrogen and sulphur and no potash as part of a fertiliser programme that also includes humates (natural sources of trace elements), fulvic acids, sugar, kelp and seawater.

The idea is to apply the fertiliser after doing soil and herbage tests to see exactly what is needed so to a certain extent they are using conventional science.

But the interpretation of those results is different to that of the conventional fertiliser companies.

Neil has changed from an intensive high-input, high production system to one that has lower costs and minimal inputs, but still has high production.

Pasture quality has improved. Theyre deeper rooting and better able to sustain dry periods and have not needed fertiliser for six months.

Neil says hes enjoying his farming a lot more.

Currently theres over 800 cows in split herds on 230ha.

The milking platform is around 170ha with the rest in a range of crops - cale, turnips and what Neil calls his mesculin mix.

Milk production is 470-500 kilograms of milk solids per cow and 1400kg per hectare, well above the national averages, and problems with cow health, infertility and mastitis have markedly reduced.

Neil says the cows are benefiting from nutrient-rich pastures determined by sugar levels averaging 12-14 brix (not the first time weve heard this) - and producing healthy, nutrient-rich milk that farmers should be paid a premium for, he says.

Other claimed benefits are a severe reduction in pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, no phosphate or nitrogen leaching into waterways and the sequestering of carbon in the soil.

Neil reckons that it is not uncommon to see a cowpat completely recycled back into the soil within 30 days. And there is very minimal trash on the surface.

Most impressive to his neighbours has been the ease with which he has handled the droughts. The pastures seem to last longer and Neil says the recover faster too.

The following is an excerpt from the Outgro website:

The key difference between a biological or conventional programme is that the conventional system does not recognise the benefits of the biological work force.

Neil says, "Since adopting an Outgro Biological approach to our farming, we have experienced a number of benefits including the ability of our plants and soil to fix considerable amounts of Nitrogen from the atmosphere, allowing us to reduce our chemical N inputs from 300 units to no more that 40 units this coming season."

He goes on to say, "even with these large reductions in chemical N applications, we cannot usually see any N deficiency in our pasture, or have not experienced any reduction in growth rates. Clover now makes up 30-40% of our pasture with no bloat issues; weed , disease and insect pressure is reducing."

The ability of Neil's farm to hold on during the Hawkes Bay summer dry is improving, and Neil says he is always getting comments on how green his property is when surrounding properties are browning off.

"The rate at which the cow manure is getting recycled back into the soil is increasing; it is not uncommon to see a cow pat completely recycled back into the soil within 30 days, and there is very minimal trash on the surface of the soil," Neil says.

Brix levels in the pasture have risen from 4-6 to 12-18, and Neil says his 55ha crop of Lucerne now has solid stems and is reaching Brix levels of 22 regularly. The average height of Neil's Lucerne at the time of its last cut averaged 800mm in height.