Doug Avery Dryland Farming

June 2010

Doug Avery has developed a resilient farming system in the face of ongoing droughts

Farming well by withstanding extreme variability in climate (with case studies on mating on lucerne & growing barley).

Doug Avery : My grandfather told me when he first took over the farm here in 1919 he went through really grim years, nearly 20 of them. NIWAs climate modeling for here has shown the 1920s and 1930s were nearly as dry as the 1990s here.

And then the 1970s and 1980s were the wettest decade since 1890. There were no measurements before then.

I think farming practices taught in the 1970s and 1980s, which were wet times, put too much pressure on our soils.

We took up the hoof and tooth approach, and people used to give us a hard time that Marlborough was standing hay. In that period of time we removed and reduced organic matter levels in our soils.

I lit fires, burnt a heap of flax, wished now I hadnt: its very expensive to re-establish. The whole district allowed itself to be denuded.

I understand the fragility of this area now. We still have a very fragile environment.

A lot of people in Marlborough were calling for farming to cease. This whole district was a disgrace. Some people thought the whole area should be planted in pine trees. There is clearly opportunity to manage this land in a way where we can be much more responsible.

There are huge areas of NZ experiencing the challenge of farming in drier conditions, places we didnt even think would get so dry: Hawkes Bay, Wairarapa, North Canterbury and Canterbury, Central Otago.

There is some despair out there. People are glum because their individual results have been so poor because of droughts.

But here on this farm results have been getting better and better. I am sure we will get a drought that will knock us down one day.

I had a far from ideal education to go farming. My grandfather started here in 1919, about 30 years of farming, and had one son, and Dad came home after the war and took over the farm. I took over in 1979, and now Fraser has come home. Three generations with about 30 years each.

I was really running this place at 18. Dad put me in charge of a new place and we pushed a lot of biodiversity into piles with Muldoons help.

I have been planting kahikatea and matai and totara, but 30 years ago I was cutting the stuff out in the same place. I can remember having smoko there.

We came from a pioneering background and had the same patterns of thinking: that there was no end to what we could do.

Now Fraser, who is 30 has taken over farming. Each generational change has added new skills to the farm.

When the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Morgan Williams put a report out in 2004, at that time I recognized our system had failed in meeting the sustainability challenge. Using the old systems of farming through prolonged droughts where rainfall was well below the district average - just werent working.

I used to grow certified ryegrass seed, but havent sown ryegrass on this farm for 14 years. Farmers here trying to fit systems around ryegrass have all failed thats because the ryegrass can only take access a small amount of water from the soil, while lucerne with its much deeper roots which go down a metre or two, can take more water out of the soil profile, and use that water much more effectively.

When things got bad for me I was pleased to receive some help: The Sustainable Farming Fund put $250,000 into helping the Starborough Flaxbourne Soil Conservation Group. Bonavaree Farm was the key property for the group.

Until the Starborough Flaxbourne process came along and I got the mental horsepower to change our systems, with help from people like Derek Moot, Paul Millen, Nicky Eade, Don Ross, Barbara Stuart, Morgan Williams and Gavin Kenny.

I used to lose sleep about the volume of money coming in here, but the flow-on effects are occurring now. I am dealing with dozens of farmers around the country who want to change their farming systems.

A lot of people think what we have done here is about lucerne, but it is about systems redesign, and lucerne is a major part of it.

We have also changed in our attitude to soils: our summer fallowing is improving the moisture holding capacity of the soil all the time.

In a drought most people hang grimly onto their systems, it requires courage to have a systems change.

Its all about water management Doug says. This part of Marlborough has a low rainfall: an average of 573mm, and it has very high evapotranspiration levels because of the northwest winds.

We have to squeeze money out of every drop of water, and think about what plants are using it and what stock are eating the plants.

Lucerne is the mainstay of their system now, and they have 300ha of their 1100ha farm planted in lucerne. Some of their oldest paddocks are 15 years.

And when you change to a high octane system with Lucerne, you need high octane sheep as well. We require sheep that lamb well to match feed supply and feed demand.

They farm 2300 Highlander ewes, and 600 two-tooths. These are high fertility animals and on lucerne their lambs are really motoring. The lambs from the mixed age ewes are putting on an average 390g/day from birth to weaning, and the lambs from the hoggets are putting on an average 287g/day.

They also run cattle: 135 cows and calves, 25 replacement heifers, and about 100 steers and bulls.

Instead of working up paddocks in the middle of summer and losing moisture at the hottest and driest time of the year, the Averys get organized much earlier.

They spray out the ground to be planted in late spring, and then leave it fallow over summer. This year they direct drilled 60ha into barley in mid February.

Even in the hottest summer sufficient moisture is retained in the soil for the grain to germinate. While initial growth can be quite poor, once autumn rains fall and the nights become cooler, the barley comes away.

Fallowing enables them to borrow some spring and any summer rainfall, and take it through to autumn. Autumn rains then stimulate growth, in time for flushing or pre-winter grazing.

They use Omaka barley to fill this autumn winter and early spring feed gap, and the crop runs out in September. They then plant Lucerne in these paddocks in spring.

And they mate ewe hoggets on the barley as well.

A good example of how we changed our systems is mating ewes on lucerne.

You need good quality pasture at lambing in dryland systems where a lot of people dont have a system to get their sheep in lamb.

Flushing ewes on lucerne has worked really well, but like everyone, they used to avoid doing this because of stories theyd heard.

Derek Moot from Lincoln University has given us some advice about this. Scientific literature says high levels of plant oestrogens, sometimes found in lucerne at flowering or when under pest attack, can decrease ovulation rates.

But even this may not caused reduced lambing rates because the quality of feed from lucerne will be putting the ewes on a rising plane of nutrition. This benefit will be likely to outweigh any negatives caused by the plant oestrogens.

And in Marlborough at this time of the year its so dry that aphids and leaf diseases are unlikely to be a problem.

They started 10 years ago flushing two-tooths on lucerne, and scanning improved more than 40% from former levels of 125-135% up to 169-179%.

They mate all the two-tooths and the best of the mixed age ewes on lucerne. This summer rainfall has been low 15mm in January, 13mm in February and x mm in March.

Without this lucerne, there wouldnt have been much feed to flush the ewes on.

Peter Anderson says theres not too much green feed in Marlborough at the moment.

Some farmers supplement their ewes over mating, but he says they really need to have a plan in place to make sure the ewes keep moving if they dont have much feed. Give them a fresh paddock every day even if it isnt much.

He says the quality of the feed remaining isnt too good at the moment, and a lot of it is dried off and rank. Its certainly not flushing material.

I can see us losing weights over mating if farmers dont have good supplementary feed.

He estimates 1500kgDM/ha is the minimum needed, but if the pasture levels are lower than that, as long as it is good quality, it should be okay.

Lucerne really is the only green feed around so it is ideal not only for mating ewes but also for finishing lambs or for storing as supplements. Its very versatile.

However most farmers dont have enough to use it as a significant part of their feeding regime, even if they are only putting in a few more acres every year.

Peter says its pretty critical that the for the first five to six weeks when the ram is out, that the ewes are going ahead.

If you have enough lucerne to feed them for that time you should. If you dont work out how many ewes the lucerne can support for at least 35 days and mate them on that. A fresh break every day can make a difference, even an hour or two on a fresh break every day.

Hes enthusiastic about lucerne: I am sure the excitement of eating a little bit of green feed will be enough to get the ewes to ovulate well and to hang onto those precious embryos.

Peter says its good to see the evidence of increased conception rates on lucerne.

Tupping on lucerne was discouraged because of one trial reported back in the 1960s suggesting lucerne was not good for tupping on.

I suspect they ran out of lucerne half way through mating, and then the ewes lost weight theres nothing worse.

I have been preaching about mating on lucerne for some time, having experienced very good results years ago.

In this case he recommended that a farmer with light ewes move them onto lucerne halfway through mating, and this resulted in a 20% increase on previous lambing levels.

In the mid 1970s his brother managed Ashley Dene near Lincoln (a Lincoln University farm) and was lambing at 140% before the days of scanning because the ewes were mated on lucerne. Peter says he was topping the lambing percentage in the area.

Doug says as part of their journey since 2004, they have changed their whole approach to farming.

I dont believe drought is just about the lack of water. It is about scale, and having options: systems that can make up for the damage if something goes wrong.

Doug and Wendy have written down a challenge statement for their property:

Resilient in the face of extreme weather and extreme variability

Miserly with water and conserving of energy

Maintains groundcover and kind to soil

Sits lightly on the landscape and doesnt displace native wildlife or habitat

Highly profitable in good years and doesnt lose money in bad seasons

Preserves and builds natural, human and financial capital

Recovers quickly from shocks and stress

Attracts and retains talented people and quality companies around our business

Produces things in high demand for good prices

Our mission is far grander than just saltbush, troubled hills or valley floors. Its about moving thinking, changing old attitudes, preserving our natural capital, and moving our farming systems to long-term sustainability not just sitting around waiting for rain, but learning to live in harmony with the conditions we have.