Agriculture will change but pastoral agriculture will survive and prosper

Agriculture will change but pastoral agriculture will survive and prosper.  It is all about international competitive advantage, new technologies and managing the environment. It can be done but it won’t be easy.

One of the regular questions I am asked about is the future of pastoral agriculture. It reflects a perspective that, given the issues of water pollution, greenhouse gases and changing consumer attitudes, perhaps New Zealand’s pastoral agriculture belongs to the past rather than the future.

A good starting point for a response is to reflect as to why New Zealand developed as a pastoral-based economy. Nature blessed New Zealand with a temperate maritime climate combined with a hilly and mountainous topography that is well suited to pastoral agriculture, but much less suited to crop activities.

Compared to much of the world, New Zealand’s natural competitive edge still lies in pastoral sheep, beef and dairy.   In contrast, the economics of broad-acre cropping and vegetable production are challenging in an environment where flat land is limited and where rain can occur, or not occur, at any time.  New Zealand can grow wheat, barley, potatoes and lettuce for the local market, but selling them profitably on world markets has never worked particularly well.

More than 75 percent of New Zealand’s physical exports come from primary industries. Despite the great successes of kiwifruit, wine, apples, subtropical fruit, timber and fish, some two thirds of these primary exports still come from pastoral agriculture.

Bringing the above numbers together, that makes pastoral agriculture the rock on which half of the export economy is built.

It is helpful to remind ourselves of the biophysical processes that underpin pastoral agriculture. It starts with conversion of carbon dioxide and water into plant carbohydrates, using nature’s own wonderful energy source called ‘the sun’. The process is called photosynthesis.

However, plants need protein as well as carbohydrates. Nature has organised that as well, by creating a plant family called legumes, with clovers the most important, but others such as lucerne playing an important role.  These legumes extract nitrogen from the atmosphere with the help of rhizobia bacteria and convert the nitrogen into protein.

When animals eat clover and other legumes, there is typically more protein than the animals need. The excess gets excreted, mainly in urine but also in animal faeces This provides the nitrogen to the soil that is needed by non-legume species including grasses.

Nature truly is wonderful the way it has organised itself. However, a big problem arises when humans start removing large quantities of animal products from the pastoral environment, leading to a deficit of key nutrients. If these are not replaced, then nature’s natural processes cannot work.

Also, nature does not always get things quite right from a human perspective. Nature’s geological processes have bequeathed much of the South Island with a deficiency of selenium. This does not trouble the plants but it does trouble farm animals. Similarly, the volcanic Central North Island lacks cobalt, the absence of which causes ‘bush sickness’.  There are many more deficiencies in specific regions.

I also get asked a lot about organic agriculture and regenerative agriculture.

Organic agriculture is relatively easy to talk about.  The rules are clear cut. The systems can be made to work on good quality soils, but in general, significant price premiums need to be achieved if the systems are to produce economic returns.

It’s hard work when farmers cannot use modern cost-cutting technologies. I applaud farmers who are able to make these organic systems work. However, I also know farmers who have had to forego their organic systems because of a lack of resilience to pests and climate when nature turned against them.

Within any farming system, marketable products and the nutrients therein are removed from the land. Within organic systems, it can be challenging to bring enough nutrients back to the farm. For that reason, and unless the human waste is brought back to the farms, including from overseas, then it is very hard to scale up organic systems to a national level.

As for regenerative farming, that does get confusing. This is because regenerative farming is a concept that has no clear rules and hence there is no certification.

Regenerative agriculture philosophy comes from the USA where many of the traditional farming methods of the last 100 years were depletive. Many American soils are naturally highly fertile, and American farmers were able for prolonged periods to apply depletive practices that New Zealand farmers could never apply.

Regenerative agriculture has a focus on soil improvement, and surely no-one should argue about that. The problem occurs when regenerative farming becomes a mantra devoid of science.   And that is why scientists sometimes get their backs up.  The starting point has to be a focus on nutrient cycling, and fixing up some of the holes in the system through which nutrients escape.

New Zealand pastoral agriculture was built on regenerative principles, with clover-based pastures on almost all classes of land, combined with cropping rotations that included an animal phase on the better soils.   Dairy farming has subsequently moved to placing much emphasis on bag nitrogen, with consequent improvement in production, but sheep and beef farming still rely to a great extent on legumes.

I started my career a long time ago as a Ministry of Agriculture farm adviser. I used to collect soil samples, send then to the laboratory for analysis, and then convert the results to fertiliser recommendations. Most of the Canterbury soils were very low in organic matter. Now, when I revisit those farms fifty years later, the changes that have occurred – for the better – are remarkable.  Our farming systems of those days, including cultivation and wind-blown soils, were totally unsustainable.

There remains a widespread notion among urban folk that crops, including lots of vegetables, are what New Zealand needs to focus on. There is a poor understanding that some of New Zealand’s worst nitrogen leaching is associated with vegetable production. In any case, most of the world thinks it is quite capable of producing its own vegetables, and they are expensive to transport.

The other suggestion people give me, sometimes with great confidence, is that much of our pastoral land must go to timber. Sometimes I have to bite my tongue. Carbon credits are all very well, but they are primarily for internal use within the NZ economy. They are not an export substitute. I also gently remind people that much New Zealand timber is used in China for formwork and subsequently burned. There won’t be much need for formwork when today’s newly planted trees are ready for harvest. Before then, China’s big infrastructure development phase will be well over.

Of course, this would all count for nothing if market demand for New Zealand’s pastoral products were likely to decline.  I have written about that before and will do so again. There will always be challenges and there will always be volatility, but there is lots to be positive about as long as we get our act together.

As for the biophysical environment, I remain confident that we can solve the big issues facing pastoral farmers. But both our systems and our thinking will have to change. The biggest transformational technology will be the ‘composting mootel+pasture’ system. It will still be pasture-based farming, but uniquely suited to New Zealand. I have written about that before, but industry understanding remains low.  However, the technology exists and mootels are being built.  I expect to be writing more about it.

About Keith Woodford

Keith Woodford is an independent consultant, based in New Zealand, who works internationally on agri-food systems and rural development projects. He holds honorary positions as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University, New Zealand, and as Senior Research Fellow at the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University, Wellington.
This entry was posted in Agribusiness, Dairy, Land and water, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Agriculture will change but pastoral agriculture will survive and prosper

  1. Frances Yeoman says:

    Hi Kieth interesting article as always thank you! And thanks for visiting our farm recently at fords road. We try to avoid the words barn or shed or cowhouse …. I’m not sure about the word mootel. I think of our cow shelter as a cowport.! But Alister isn’t keen on the word mootel or cowport. He talks about a covered loafing area. But in reality they are just cow shelters, quite a simple concept and with great benefits for cows and farmers. I’m trying to train myself into calling it a shelter as barn gives a totally different impression. I just watched a doco on Netflix called the milk system , at the end it basically is singing your tune about pastoral farming. It’s worth a look. We dodged the covid bullet thank goodness! So we have fast forwarded our plans and have added self-contained into the mix for the new farming system. Feel free to pop in for a cuppa anytime you like. Regards Fran Yeoman

    On Sun, 8 Nov 2020 at 3:43 PM Posts from Keith Woodford wrote:

    > Keith Woodford posted: “Agriculture will change but pastoral agriculture > will survive and prosper. It is all about international competitive > advantage, new technologies and managing the environment. It can be done > but it won’t be easy. One of the regular questions I am asked” >

    • Keith Woodford says:

      Thanks Fran
      I am very impressed with what you and Alister are doing. I will definitely be calling in again and I expect to learn a lot from observing what you are doing. I am increasingly using the term ‘composting mootel+ pasture’ to introduce people to the ide that we are still talkng about grazing farms. I think the term ‘cow port’ also helps capture the idea and hels peoplerealise that this truly is something diffrent.
      Keith W

  2. robin gardyne says:

    Hi Keith I am Robin Gardyne and I have retired from farming I am still keeping informed. My point of conflict with the current carbon tax and climate alarm is that it is all manipulated and open to question. My stance is that the climate has always changed and it has nothing to do with co2. The sun drives climate, always has and always will. During cooler periods of history co2 levels have even been higher than they are today. There is no tipping point that is in danger of crossing when civilization produces less than 1% of total co2 in the atmosphere. There is no way that man can control total co2 in the atmosphere as more is released with warm temperatures, less when temperatures are cooler. Water vapour is 10 times the influence of co2 yet is not counted in the carbon tax scenario because it can’t be taxed. Where as by creating a false scientific doctrine of co2 causing climate change then carbon taxes are seen as a solution. It is simply a money grab and and avenue to create control of world trade by the United Nations (UNIPCC) There is no scientific reason that co2 would cause heat thus causing climate change and natural disasters. Apparently during the last century there have been less not more natural disasters ( floods earthquakes tornados volcanic eruptions) than previously but it is only because of modern news reporting that more knowledge of these events is known. I would be interested in hearing what you think and what change could be made current political direction if this point of view was adopted Sent from Mail for Windows 10

    • Keith Woodford says:

      My perspective is that climate alarmism often over-dramatises climate effects. Nevertheless, we do know that CO2, methane and nitrous oxide do absorb infra-red light and hence do influence the dissipation of heat back back into the atmosphere. However, the sensitivity of the climate to these gases and hence the quantification of effects is a question of genuine scientific uncertainty. I note as a starting pont that the UAH (satellite) data sets show a global warming of 0.14 degrees C per decade in the period since 1979, with more in the Nothern Hemisphere than the Southern Hemisphere probably due to the different ratio of land to sea, and although there may be errors in these estimates, there is no obvious source of bias. Most people seem to be firmly esconced within the tribal boundaries of either ‘alarmism’ or ‘denial’ in relation to the efects of humans, whereas I take a position of genuine scepticism that we need to learn a lot more. I agree with you that the public’s perspective on natural disasers is very much influenced by what we can see in a satellite-informed world with manay ‘eyes in the sky’ and also by modern communications media which use the ‘dramatic’ as their self-marketing strategy. Given my genuine scepticism, and an ongoing interest in the topic, I am cautious about being involved in public debates about climate because they tend to become shouting matches of mutal condecension between the tribes in relation to where the wisdom lies. But I do accept that our leaders have taken a stance that climate change is genuine and that they currently have a mandate to be proactive in trying to reduce the emission levels of the various gases. And in that context, I do have an interest in mitigation strategies.

  3. Frances Yeoman says:

    Correction : Not The Covid bullet !Although that is true, What I meant to say was; that we dodged the bovis bullet!

    • Keith Woodford says:

      I am hearing (second hand from down your way) that this latest bovis bullet (or bullets) has (or have) caught about seven farms in Mid Canterbury. I don’t t think all of these have yet come through into the announced MPI tally.

  4. Glennis Moriarty says:

    Hi Keith
    I am an interested biologist, not a farmer, and I am interested in your statement that “Dairy farming has subsequently moved to placing much emphasis on bag nitrogen, with consequent improvement in production.” My understanding from a lot of reading is that synthetic nitrogen fertilisers kill vital soil microbes, and then more and more is needed. Could intensive dairying move to a compost-based system?

    • Keith Woodford says:

      I am confident that the composting mootel+ pasture system can reduce the need for artifical nitrogen given that there will be less nitrogen leaching and hence more recycling of N wihtin the system. it is like putting a plug in to the bottom of the bath tub. Also, I expect that we can reduce volatilisation of N into the atmosphere which will also reduce the need for bagged nitrogen. But I do not see NZ dairying doing away in total with the need for artificial N

  5. Pingback: Rural round-up | Homepaddock

  6. There is a certification for regenerative agriculture. Regenerative Organic Certification

  7. Rory O'Malley says:

    Keith, Thank you for this article – very interesting, but I have a query. I was at Lincoln probably just before your time (1965-71) so have an appreciation of clover-nitrogen-grass-pasture management principles. It is beyond doubt that this is the core of NZ’s comparative advantage, and the enormous productivity that has driven agriculture. I have since spent most of my life in macroeconomics or history so my insights re farming are perhaps 50 years out of date! (BTW I read your article about RBNZ and couldn’t agree more!!). In your article you mention selenium and cobalt, but to me the other elephant in the room is phosphate, which has been used in vast quantities for over 100 years to enable the clover to grow. Forgetting about the deal that was done re Nauru and Ocean Island after WW1 (which I don’t really expect you to comment on) how does the use of phosphate fit into any system of pastoral farming, whether talking sustainability or regeneration (which are not necessarily the same thing)?

    • Keith Woodford says:

      You must have been one year ahead of me at Lincoln, although I had a feeling you might have been two years ahead of me. I started in 1966. I remember you by name but after all of these years I would not be abe to identify you. I have a vague recolection you might have had a beard which would have been unusual in those days.
      I agree that phosphate has the ability to be the elephant in the room. It deserves an article on its own but I would need to do more research to write it. I believe in NZ we should be putting more emphasis on finely ground reactive rock phosphate which would work well in our environment on farms that have already been developed. It is slow release so not so good for a quick fix. We would also then need to find another source of sulphur which is in good supply in superphosphate

      Click to access Paper_Rowarth_2_2019.pdf

      If you google “Bert Quinn” and reactive rock phophate that should bring up some strong views as to how we should proceed.
      What have you been doing all these years? If you stayed through to 1971 I reckon you must have done a masters n economics – I reckon Prof Philpott’s last year was 1970 with May Charlton as his secretary, and with Bruce Ross taking over as Prof in 1971.

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