Greg Lambert Pastoral Scientist

May 2012

Greg Lambert is a pastoral scientist who pus his theories to the test on his own property

Greg Lambert was recently awarded the Ray Brougham Trophy from the NZ Grasslands Association for outstanding national contribution towards the NZ grassland industry. We meet him on his farm, where he illustrates the practicalities of technology transfer and consultancy on farms.

Now the formal research part of his career is over Greg Lambert is doing some consultancy and “playing around” on his farm. He says “It’s 23ha and runs 150 breeding ewes and a few finishing cattle. I moved to the farm 20 years ago, and it’s been interesting for a number of reasons.

I thought I was a practical researcher, but hands-on practical farming was a bit of an eye-opener. For example, some of the things I had been advising farmers to do included lots of monitoring. But there is no point in monitoring if you don’t use the information for something, so I re-evaluated my monitoring programme and adjusted it accordingly.

Maureen and I had a big garden, a small farm and two jobs. I was probably as hard pressed for time as a farmer. I soon found out you can’t do stuff on a farm that wastes time; you cut corners at times.

My objectives on the farm were to do interesting things and try and run an efficient system. I learnt how far you can push the system and backed off from that.

We played with breeding our own composite sheep, and had great fun, but are now buying ewes and using a terminal sire. I have learnt a whole lot of the lessons that every farmer learns. For me it was a revelation, and it has helped a lot in the last 20 years.

Greg was involved in several local and national extension programmes; around ewe flock performance, sustainable land use, pasture quality and the use of nitrogen on hill country.

Greg says that sadly there is very little work being done in hill country currently. “People are asking very basic questions, which were researched and well-published 20 to 30 years ago. I think the real need now is to look at what things might look like in the future. To do this research requires modeling work and social research. It’s unfortunate that influential people in the industry sometimes imply modeling and social research is not real research, yet nothing could be further from the truth: it is critically important.

You can’t do a trial in the future but you can model what-if scenarios looking forward. Modeling allows very complex systems like farms to be considered in their entirety and all the interactions considered. We know that application of a technology to a farm does not always give the overall response we anticipated, and sometimes we get unanticipated consequences – this is because of these interactions and feedbacks.

The reality is farming is a human activity – by people for people; farms are managed by people, and influenced by other people. Human behaviour with regards to values and decision-making is at least as important as the various technologies that are used in determining the future of agriculture. That is where social research comes in.”

Greg has really enjoyed working with farmers throughout his career, and has enormous regard for their abilities. Greg says farmers are grossly under-rated; “hill farmers can be running $5-7 million enterprises, and they are very complex businesses. I think they under-rate themselves often”.

Greg has worked as a hill country pastoral scientist for 40 years, starting with DSIR Grasslands in Palmerston North (and recently retired from AgResearch Grasslands). He cites his father as one of his main influences, who worked at DSIR Lincoln, then set up research stations in Gore and Kaikohe.

Greg was born in Gore, raised in Northland, and then went to Massey for his bachelors and masters degrees in agricultural science. His masters degree was in pastoral ecology in hill country at Ballantrae. He subsequently did a PhD in the USA.

“In those days we had the opportunity to spend a lot of time out on the road talking to farmers. At that stage there were a lot of unanswered questions, which were relatively easily solved. For example how does hill pasture respond to fertiliser and grazing management, how do you establish pastures on hill country.

I did some work on intensive beef systems, but most of the work was in hill country.

Initially the focus was how to improve production on hill country and make hill country farming more profitable.

That changed over time to how to cope with a quite rapidly changing environment, with deregulation, removal of subsidies, and balancing environmental with production issues.

I enjoyed working in teams, and I feel we made particular contributions around grazing management and hill country, and fertiliser use. Farmers have taken up a lot of that material.

Fertiliser application is one of the most potent tools hill farmers have. There is lots of published evidence from well-run grazing trials and lots of farmer experience, to show that relatively high fertiliser applications are very profitable in hill country. Yet decision-making in that area is inadequate and not given the attention it merits.

When I first started, hill country agriculture got a real push with funding, and our group of four to five was increased to over 20 staff then. But when times were hard and hill country farmers were struggling the funders thought we didn’t need research.

Over the last decade or more, well-structured hill country research has really disappeared, and is only just coming back now. This is an important issue as the sheep and beef industry is more and more centred in the hill country because of competition for land on the easier country.

The average farmer could lift their game enormously using a range of tools, including decision support software. They could do a lot better. Farm consultants and other rural professionals such as vets can be of enormous value and are not used enough, but there is a shortage of well-qualified people who are familiar with hill country issues.

Nowadays I think the big research questions are quite complex.

How do you account for the often-conflicting wishes of processors, marketers, bankers, local government and the public and try and stay profitable through all that.

While the last 18 months have seen returns improve, only three years ago, top sheep and beef farmers were saying they were absolutely bushed and couldn’t see a way forward.

That is what worries me: it’s only the changes in market conditions that have been favourable to farmers, but nothing has changed in a structural sense.

How are sheep and beef farmers going to survive in the future when they go through another commodity dip? How do farmers work together to get scale?

At the moment hill country farmers tend to be very individualistic. With 5000 ewes and 200 cattle they don’t have scale, and they are exposed to climate, financial and market risk.

How do they start driving value chains rather than being just a supplier of raw product? There are some different industry initiatives underway but it appears most if not all still have farmers as suppliers rather than have control of their produce within the chain.

Such an approach would require farmers putting the interests of a farmer co-operative structure above their own personal interests, and this would need a very different approach to decision making.

I don’t think the public understands the implications of messing around with agriculture.

For example, what are the implications on dairying of trying to reduce nutrient emissions in the Waikato River Basin? If you reduce dairying intensity you will reduce production, and that will affect Fonterra, and the small towns, and then the cities. Export income will be reduced, as will employment.

Agriculture still drives the economy. The effect of a big drought ripples through NZ for several years.

These are quite complex issues and there is no right or wrong answer. The reality is we will have to make trade-offs, and will not get everything we want, and we have to decide which things are most important.

So another focus now is on collective learning: working together to understand things individuals can’t learn by themselves. We need to involve practical people and local knowledge as well as expert knowledge.

We have a habit of experts being quite powerful and dominating proceedings, but local people often have the answers. So getting them involved requires quite a different approach to research and different skills and people to make it happen.

It is increasingly clear agricultural research is there not because it is something scientists are trained to do, but because it is a tool to help the pastoral industry address questions. So the people deciding what research has the highest priority need to be well connected to industry – that is real industry, not token advocates.

In some cases research is the best tool, in others the answers are there already, and need forming up, discussing and implementing.

One of the confounding issues is that science, just like everything else, has become politicised. For example: water and the ETS. The ETS is a political construct. Sure NZ has committed to Kyoto, but it is our decision as to how we internally manage greenhousegas emissions and the costs of these.

One of the biggest agricultural issues is the divergence between public opinion on water quality and the wishes of the dairy industry to continue expanding. I can’t see how that is going to be resolved.

At the moment the government is having a push into economic development with irrigation; however it’s probable that were the politics of the government to change, this initiative would not move anywhere near as fast or as far.

NZ needs more income – more exports. Irrigation is one way of reaching that goal. We need to farm our way out of the economic situation because I don’t see any other part of the economy that can ramp up production quickly enough.

One constant throughout my career is that agriculture has always been the backbone of the economy. It has always been important and it still is.”