Farming in wet conditions
With the new, wetter conditions that farmers were facing post-quake, it was essential to support changes to farming practice that would hopefully lead to more efficient water use, better catchment water quality, adoption of good management practice, and ultimately a lowering of unnecessary soil-moisture.
It seemed that improving practices around soil moisture was the most efficient way of adapting to farming in wetter conditions. Renewal of farm infrastructure, advanced effluent management systems, irrigation efficiency, and other infrastructure to adapt to farming in wet conditions were areas to consider going forward.
While irrigation or effluent spreading practice was not a post-quake activity or occurring because of the quakes, it was taking place in a post-quake context - a wetter, more destabilised environment with less certainty around the impact of over-irrigating.
The ‘farming in wet conditions’ project kicked off in mid-2018 with a series of workshops, group discussion days and programmes that aimed to provide Kaikōura farmers with the knowledge, tools and understanding, to:
- use water effectively to help pasture grow better and provide more for stock
- increase environmental understanding, including mahinga kai and Good Management Practice
- feel empowered to meet their Farm Environment Plan outcomes and audit process
- understand soil deficits/saturated soils
- reduce soil damage, pugging, surface water and runoff/leaching to waterways
- reduce revenue lost in time, effort, and resource, by promoting efficient use of these things
- ensure their equipment is well maintained and effective.
This project focused on improving practices through behaviour change, using real life methods of data collection, understanding the data that was collected, and ultimately sustainable management.
With a similar project being run in Culverden earlier, Kaikōura Plains Recovery Project (KPRP) was able to identify what levels of support were needed for the project to succeed.
For this reason, KPRP focused on ensuring the project was farmer-led. The project shaped the support they provided around the gaps that local farmers were identifying as barriers to improving practice.
The project started with workshops to provide farmers with industry information, advice and support, and the final workshop evolved to be one-on-one sessions with an auditor, to help farmers prepare for the auditing process.
KPRP and our staff received great feedback from the workshops, so created a "Farmer info pack" to provide a streamlined and simple means for understanding how to best prepare for audit.
- the benefits of using soil-moisture probes
- how the probes operate
- how they can help farmers irrigate and spread effluent more efficiently.
The probes featured were a two-pin probe, where one probe goes into the root zone, the other below the root zone. They identify when over irrigation has occurred, plus measure soil temperature that allows farmers to make clearer decisions around best timing for spreading fertiliser.KPRP funded a probe for each local dairy farm, plus a year of telecommunication charges. Over two days, these were installed on each of the local dairy farms. Where possible, installation happened with the farmer or manager, allowing for ‘in the paddock training’. For the two farms on Inland Road without reception, Halo probes were chosen. The other dairy farms all received a Wildeye probe.
With probes on all farms, farmers can access their data as frequently as they like from their mobile phone or home computer, and are able to use this information in their day-to-day management decisions, plus for their audit.
Workshop number two took place in January 2019 with Steve Breneger, Technical Project Manager at Irrigation NZ presenting to around 25 people on:
- understanding what the soil moisture meter is saying
- the importance of deficit irrigation
- how to get the most out of soil moisture meters
- what best practice for irrigation looks like.
A similar project had previously been rolled out by Fonterra in Culverden, with farmers there reporting a strong appreciation for seeing and feeling their own data. This led to changes in behaviour because it was their own data, not an illustrative case study removed from their own enterprise.
Fonterra also learnt that adoption of technology remains a key barrier to change. Getting probes installed on a farm is a great way of getting farmers using it, understanding it and making changes that may not happen otherwise.
Held at ‘Rockwood Farm’, in March 2019, this workshop was supported by DairyNZ, who hosted a discussion group focusing on autumn and winter management with around 15 other people.
The importance of Good Management Practice to reduce nitrogen loss and contaminants to water were highlighted, alongside methods to manage a wet winter.
At this stage in the project, three workshops had been carried out, and probe installation completed. A fourth workshop was planned, around ‘how efficient am I?’.
As an alternative, one-on-ones were suggested between farmers and industry professionals who can carry out on farm audits – to take the expertise to each farmer, in their own space, at a time that suited them.
Using the irrigation component of the Farm Audit, Dave Lucock from AgriBusiness took farmers through the process from an auditors perspective, arming them with the tools and training to understand what to expect and how to have the information needed for audit day.
The sessions were welcomed by farmers and they found them very useful.
- “From an on-farm management perspective, to have the data from the sensors readily available makes a big difference. We want to use water wisely and only irrigate when the soil and pasture needs it. The same goes for irrigating effluent because we want to keep it out of the waterways by only spreading it when and where it can be absorbed.”
- "Has really opened our eyes and got us in a good head space going forward, for our future planning. Not as scary as we expected it would be; certainly not the big brother exercise one may expect. Really helpful to know where we need to improve and obviously record keeping is one area. Have since ordered a new effluent cut off switch, and a second soil moisture probe from WildEye to compliment the first one the KPRP provided - our farm is in two quite separate halves with two different soil types so this will enable us to make more accurate decisions around irrigating."
- "It's nice to know we're on the right track. Having a fresh set of eyes to see wee things that we thought about but hadn't got around to yet."
Overall, the one-on-one covered:
- Farm Environment Plan sections on irrigation and effluent
- identifying actions needed to get irrigation and effluent to move up an audit grade
- a visual assessment of the irrigation and/or effluent system to increase farmer awareness and knowledge of Good Management Practice
- other audit management areas where requested.
As quoted by Fonterra – “the impact of having an audit process is like night and day. Without the audit you don’t have the ‘why’ or the real drive for making changes. With audit looming, it really gets people considering seriously what they need to do”.
Following the pre-audit dummy runs, KPRP worked with our staff to create a one-stop-shop when it comes to preparing for auditing on farm.
A 'Farmer info pack' resulted, with useful information and templates in one place, to provide farmers with a streamlined and simple pack to help them understand how to best prepare for their audit.
Bucket testing was predominantly led by our staff as part of their in-kind contribution to the KPRP and started prior to the irrigation and effluent spreading season in 2019/20.
Buckets were placed over an area of pasture that was being irrigated, with data on the volume of water in each bucket gathered.
Farmers received a short report, and were able to see gaps in the irrigators efficiency and improve their irrigation management accordingly.
A similar process was rolled out to check the efficiency of effluent spreaders. Bucket testing provides good information to make decisions, and to use as justification/demonstration for the audit process.
In July 2020, KPRP covered the cost for local dairy farmers to attend Kaikōura’s first regenerative farming event, hosted by local regenerative farming awareness platform Agregenz.
The event drew interest from farmers, vintners, and industry professionals across the South Island, with speakers from Otago, Hawarden and Kaikōura delivering presentations focusing on personal journeys into restorative farming, regenerative farming practices on-farm, and farming to build soil biology and carbon.