Biological Farming Growth in Canterbury

November 2015

Rob Flynn of Soil Matters has introduced a biological system to Te Mania Angus Stud

Biological farming focuses on improving soil health by fostering the growth of soil micro-organisms. Healthier soils are said to produce more nutrient dense fodder that results in healthier livestock and higher quality human food.

Rob Flynn is a consultant who advises farmers on soil testing and the biological approach to improving their businesses. He also owns a lime works and with others, has built up a business importing alternative fertilisers and producing mixes to suit the needs of biological farmers.

Rob is a Lincoln graduate who spent his early working years on farms and then went commercial fishing for 20 years. His original aim was to build up some capital to buy a farm but instead he bought a lime quarry. That’s not as strange as it sounds – Rob’s interest in agriculture continued during his time as a fisherman and when he was back on the land he became very wary of acidic soluble fertilisers.

“In talking to farmers I realised that many of their problems pointed to a lack of lime, which seemed to have been forgotten. I couldn’t understand why we were putting high analysis acidic fertilisers on country that we were trying to make more alkaline,” says Rob.

“Their low pH has a shock effect on soil biology. Soil has a buffering capacity and over time it will trend back to where it was, but damage has been done and it can never quite get there. If you keep putting on acid fertilisers, the life in the soil gradually erodes away. So I thought we needed a really good source of lime and that’s why I bought the Conway River Lime Company in 2003.”

Rob says that the Conway lime is around 88% calcium carbonate and is reasonably soft and soluble, meaning that it gives a steady release of calcium into the soil.

In 2005 Rob ventured into full-time consultancy. He felt that farmers were over-reliant on high analysis fertilisers and so sought alternative products.

“Guano was one of them but it became very expensive. I went to the source in Indonesia and found that we could buy it direct much cheaper, so with a couple of like-minded people we started Viafos. That was in 2009, and now we are importing magnesium sulphur and potassium and formulating a range of blends”, he says. “Most of our products are organic and many are BioGro certified. We do local blending at Conway Lime, but I also work around the country and involve other lime works to make the mixtures for farmers.”

Viafos started out as a service to Rob’s clients but has taken on a life of its own supplying ingredients to trade clients and consultants around the country and becoming a separate company with its administrative base in Christchurch.

Conway Lime and Viafos provide the ingredients, but the recipe comes from Soil Matters, the consultancy Rob established to provide farmers with more sustainable and soil-friendly advice through what is commonly known as biological farming. The prime focus is on the soil, treating it as a biological system and managing fertilisers, livestock and grazing in ways that enhance the activity of the myriads of organisms in soil. High use of fertilisers like superphosphate and urea has been shown to inhibit soil organisms, so the biological farming approach is to provide nutrients in more benign forms. Many soils lack micronutrients in the optimal balance, and soil and herbage tests are used to determine what is needed and in what quantity. Rob uses the Albrecht system of testing carried out by Brookside Laboratories in the USA.

“We do comprehensive tests for macronutrients and trace elements. For phosphate we test for locked-up P, total P and available Olson P then look at things like nitrate and ammonium – if you don’t have the right levels of those you are not going to have high biological activity and not going to be releasing much mineral P. Also if zinc and copper levels aren’t in balance then you are not going to be releasing enough P, the same with sulphur,” he says.

“There is more to soil tests than just P levels and I think fertiliser reps around the country tend to get too focused on it and that rubs off on farmers. Occasionally a new client simply can’t believe that his soil wont need any more P for a couple of years. He is absolutely driven by the fear that he must put on P every year.”

“But he’ll change his mind when I show him that a typical soil has 200 – 300 kg of locked-up P yet his soil might have well over a tonne. It has cost him a lot of money to put it there and if he doesn’t make it available again by encouraging soil organisms that money will be totally wasted.”

At the Conway site, Rob’s team assembles the nutrients required for clients and blends them in the right proportions. The lime rock is crushed and put through a hammer mill and screens.   Mixes may contain serpentine (magnesium), lime, the Viafos guano products, sulphur, copper, zinc, manganese, selenium and other trace elements. Silica may also be used, and Rob gets that from a mine at Waipara.

“Silica has generally been neglected in New Zealand agriculture, but we use it for slug and grass grub control and in vineyards to combat brown beetle,” he says.

“Calcium and magnesium are the two elements that are generally most needed, and getting them in the right balance is critical to developing a productive, porous soil. In a dry region like North Canterbury it’s really important because it determines how resilient the soil is in drought conditions and how well it absorbs moisture and responds when the drought ends. Even if drought is not a problem because you are irrigating you need a well-balanced soil to maximise the potential from all the water that you are putting on.”

As well as improving soil water holding capacity, Rob believes the advantages of biological farming include reduced disease problems in plants and animals. He says it sounds clichéd but his clients report better stock health and better nutrient density in pasture.

These are some of the drivers behind the increasing farmer interest in biological farming. Over the past decade his client list has grown tenfold to nearly 300 farms and he believes that the proportion of NZ farmers using biological alternatives has gone from 3% to about 10% over the same period.

“When I started out, my neighbours thought I was weird and completely off the wall. Some still think we are organic but we aren’t, although we use BioGro products and many of our own products are BioGro certified,” says Rob.

“The great thing about adopting a biological approach is that it minimises the use of conventional farm chemicals and soluble fertilisers and so reduces their impact on the soil and the environment. Biological farmers record what they use, and in time the meat companies will require this because they will have to know what sprays have been put on which pastures, what the stock have been drenched with and so on.”

“A substantial client commented to me that we actually think about what we are doing rather than just doing it, and that is now improving his bottom line hugely – his costs have come down and animal health has improved.”

“Ultimately it’s about being truly sustainable in the way we farm and about promoting healthy soils that provide nutrient dense pasture for stock that in turn produce or become nutrient dense foods for humans.”

Rob Flynn was named Soil Consultant of the Year by the Biological Farmers Association in their 2014 Gaia Awards, and his consultancy Soil Matters won the Agri-Business Category of the 2014 North Canterbury Business Awards.

Te Mania is one of New Zealand’s oldest and best known Angus studs. Its origins were in Southland early last century, and in 1934 the Wilding family moved to the stud’s present location at Conway Flat in North Canterbury. Over the decades a succession of family members has seen the herd size grow and quality improve through innovative use of breeding and recording technologies. Tim Wilding is the principal of Te Mania Angus. In 2007 he made the decision to use biological farm management techniques on the 1500ha property. The result has been much lower use of agricultural chemicals and better animal health without detracting from profitability.

Today the 1800ha property (1500ha effective) winters around 825 fully recorded Angus females plus sale bulls and replacement females. The farm has a mix of irrigated flats, terrace/cultivatable hills through to steeper hills ranging from sea level to 400m. The coastal soils are light and sandy while further inland is heavier clay. Rainfall averages around 800mm.

Tim Wilding took over management of the herd in 1982. Like his father he was keen to protect the environment and had come to the conclusion that it was unsustainable to keep using acid based fertilisers.

In 2005 he began a two-year trial of biological farming in two paddocks applying soil conditioners, lime and natural phosphate in the form of Viafos. The aim was to manage the soils and pasture “from the ground up” and enhance the worm life. In 2007 he adopted the policy over the whole property.

Tim says that biological farming has enabled them to use significantly less agrochemicals, improve soil quality and worm numbers without reducing output and profit.

“Compared with the conventional methods we used previously it has resulted in a more ecologically, economically and socially robust farming system,” he says.

“We also take a sustainable approach to animal health and ensure we keep chemical inputs to a minimum but not at the expense of animal health and performance. We haven’t drenched any adult female cattle for the past 10 years and we monitor young stock for parasite burdens, drenching only when necessary. And we haven’t put on any nitrogen for 8 or 9 years.”

“Since moving to a biological farming system, we have noticed an improvement in trace element levels in stock, and we check them regularly to ensure levels are at the optimum for high performance.”

In an attempt to make the biological farming industry more market driven, Tim and Rob have been working with ESR to analyse meat samples from both biological and conventional systems to see if there is a better nutrient profile.

“We have some encouraging indicative results and, for example, there appears to be a lot more Omega-3 in our beef. The results were interesting enough to persuade ESR to fund $50,000 worth of additional testing,” says Tim.

“We applied through the PGP scheme to take this further and develop some consumer products.   We brought on board Landcare Research and the Federation of Maori Authorities along with a major supermarket to create a consumer link, but surprisingly the government in its wisdom turned us down.”

“We were trying to create a sort of ‘beyond organics’ approach. I don’t believe organic farming is totally sustainable in New Zealand because you do have to spray for weeds and manage problems with chemicals sometimes. By contrast, biological farming is a more balanced approach, it’s about putting in the required inputs, and that’s what attracted me to it.”

Tim is convinced that the change from acid fertilisers to biological ones has resulted in the bulls being a lot quieter and he says there is no doubt that stock health has been much better even in drought conditions.

“It’s a bit hard this year because we are in the middle of a drought, and sometimes it’s very tempting to put on nitrogen to try to get as much feed in front of us as possible but maybe a quick fix is not actually a fix.”