Carbon Positive Farming

May 2021

Carbon positive farming in Northland.

A focus on profit rather than production, combined with an interest in improving the health of soils, pastures, animals and people, has led Matt Long to change management practices to a more “biological” or “regenerative” approach. The results are healthier stock, a better lifestyle, sustainable profits, and more carbon sequestered into soil.


The Long family farm is a few kilometres inland from Whale Bay and Matapouri on Northland’s east coast. Half of the farm was purchased by Matt’s parents in the 1960’s with the other half purchased in 2003. Matt and his wife Rachel live on the farm with their two children and Matt’s parents live nearby.  


Most of the farm’s 240ha are gently to moderately steep rolling hill country – 210ha effective grazing with the remainder in bush. Its soil is heavy Marua clay, prone to drying out in summer. Being in the “winterless north”, average soil temperatures are around 10ºC in winter and 19ºC in summer, so pasture growth can be substantial if rainfall permits. Annual rainfall varies considerably from 1300mm to 2600mm, with 2019/20 being one of the driest Matt has experienced. Most of the farms in the vicinity are sheep and beef, so the Long’s dairy property is something of an anomaly.


Matt milks 200 cows, a mixture of Friesian, Jersey and crossbred, calving half in spring and half in autumn to supply winter milk. He milks once-a-day all year round. 


Until about 12 years ago he farmed in a conventional manner, using average quantities of super and urea plus a “fairly regular blanket spraying with herbicides for annual and perennial weeds”. 


Kikuyu grass, common in Northland, was treated as a problem, and the Longs spent many years and a lot of time and money spraying it out and resowing in pasture after an intermediate crop of turnips. However, autumn floods on cropped soils often resulted in unacceptable topsoil losses and sediment loss to waterways under this system, it was not sustainable. Kikuyu is now treated as an asset. 


“When we bought the neighbour’s farm we got a loan from the ANZ bank and they offered us an eCogent scholarship. It was very good, and one of the key things was that we interacted with a lot of other farmers with innovative ideas. It was like a fun discussion group on steroids,” says Matt. At a seminar hosted by eCogent, Matt heard American specialist in sustainable agriculture, Dr Arden Anderson, say that if you have a weed growing in the wrong place it doesn’t mean you have a herbicide deficiency. He went on to talk about the importance of having the right soil microorganisms to achieve a beneficial animal microbiome and hence better health. 


“As a result of hearing Arden Anderson, we changed our fertiliser strategy, using more natural fertilisers and avoiding the use of pesticides wherever possible. We are now using RPR, quite a lot of dolomite, and lately we've been using more potash but as potassium sulphate rather than potassium chloride,” says Matt. “We have also experimented with liquid seaweeds and microbial brews, and liquids are a good way to get nutrients into the grass for the cows, but for the last year we haven't actually used any liquids and I haven't seen a remarkable change in the cows, so I think we have built up the minerals in the cows sufficiently.” 


Since moving towards a regenerative approach, Matt’s strategy has been to let the pasture evolve supported by pasture management to encourage diversity. Kikuyu and clover are dominant in the warmer months, and pastures are grazed hard or mowed to allow other species to come through in late autumn through to spring. “We are working with Kikuyu now rather than battling against it and making it a useful part of our summer strategy. The clover is working symbiotically with the Kikuyu rather than being crowded out by it, and I think it is because the Kikuyu is more palatable with better soil nutrition, and also the clover is stronger, possibly deeper rooted,” he says.


“We are using nutrients based on the Albrecht system, which seems to make plants more palatable including plants like Kikuyu, buttercup and dock, and the cows actually seek these out, so we have fewer problems with them. The difference between the way things used to be and the way things are now is quite significant, and that has happened after using the biological fertilisers. We are spending a lot of money on micronutrients – copper, zinc, cobalt, and several others – and I think that is helping pastures as well as animal health and temperament. The cows are a lot quieter to deal with.”  


“But we are not overdoing the fertiliser – we are trying to increase our fertility level without breaking the bank and our costs are similar to a conventional super and urea programme.”  

The farm’s heavy clay soils have required a lot of lime in the past, and more recently Matt has topdressed with dolomite, which contains magnesium. “Dolomite is obviously more expensive than lime, but we certainly have noticed the benefit to cow health that we are getting from an increase in soil and pasture magnesium – we’ve had reduced milk fever and grass staggers, we still get a little bit, but it's a long time since I've got up in the middle of the night and walked around the cows to check that they are all right. Our animal health bills are much lower now. I don't remember what a cow with bloat looks like, and metabolic diseases are no longer a big issue. Mastitis is an ongoing concern – I've stopped using dry cow therapy and we do get cows with mastitis but we are a long way ahead of where we were a few years ago.”


The Long’s focus on caring for soils and pastures is essentially a list of “don’ts” – avoid pugging, optimise pasture cover and don't take it down too low, don't disturb the topsoil and avoid bare soil, avoid artificial nitrogen, and avoid anything that hurts the soil biome through applications of herbicides or acidic fertilisers that are going to upset their ability to sequester carbon into the soil.  


“An advantage of having a slightly lower stocking rate is that we spread the herd out and also graze quite a few off-farm in winter so there is less weight of stock on the pastures. We do winter milking, which enables us to maintain pasture cover, and that doesn't happen so much with dry cows,” says Matt. 


“Another benefit of regenerative farming is increasing soil organic matter, which increases the capacity of the soil to hold moisture and nutrients, and in turn means less pollution going into streams, improved drought resistance, better pasture growth rates overall and a healthier ecosystem.”


Since 2009, eCogent has been sampling his soils to 750mm depth and having samples laboratory tested for carbon content. This has been done to a strict protocol designed by a soil scientist to achieve reliable figures. Results have fluctuated from year to year depending on the season. “Overall we have seen a steadily increasing trend year on year, including a recent one done after the worst drought in 50 years. We have seen the organic matter moving down through the soil profile and so carbon has been making its way further and further down into the subsoil.” 


“The amount of carbon that we have been able to sequester over the past 12 years is very significant, and if climate change is a genuine threat to humanity then carbon sequestered into topsoil is a very important form and perhaps the only form that is sustainable. “We have applied to Verra, a verified carbon standard organisation, to have it approved for voluntary carbon markets. It has been a long journey with lots of dead ends, but we are getting more hopeful all the time. We have a lot of records of the processes that we use, the inputs and outputs, as well as the actual measurements of carbon content in the soil.”


The procedures are painstaking and the calculations complex, but it is essential that they be as accurate as possible because the implications are enormous. In the base year 2009/10, the soil carbon content at specific points on the farm was 177 tonnes/ha. Measurements at the same points last November – 11 years later – averaged 213t/ha. An increase of 21%.  Sold on a voluntary carbon market for $20/t, that’s $2670/ha or over $600,000 for the whole farm. 


What is more, that amount of carbon sequestered more than offsets the CO2 emitted by farming operations, and a few more farms besides. But will the Government recognise this significant achievement if it introduces a carbon tax on farming? After all, it gives carbon concessions to forest owners based on figures that are broad estimates in wildly variable situations.


Matt believes this approach to sequestering carbon is applicable around the country and points out that there are quite a number of farmers using similar methods. “It requires a change in mindset to care for the soil a little more, to stop looking for more production, and to focus on profit instead. You can easily grow grass with nitrogen, it's just a matter of whether that grass is going to produce a truly sustainable profit for you.  “We work on a measure of cents of profit per kilogram of dry matter eaten by stock, and we try to keep that above 20 cents. That gives us a pretty good indication of how well we are doing.” 


Matt says that the regenerative farming approach is working very well for them – if it wasn't they wouldn't be doing it. Their stocking rate is lower than the nearest dairy farms (which are some distance away) and their land is drier and a bit harder than most, but the income from dairy is ahead of most other types of farming.  


“I certainly wouldn't go back to the way were we were farming 10 to 15 years ago. The lifestyle is a whole lot better, and the animals are a lot happier. The lower stocking rate makes life less intense, not having to get up in the middle of the night to check calving cows or being afraid of going out in the early morning and finding a dozen cows dead with bloat takes a huge amount of stress out of the system,” he says. 


“The cows have a better nutritional balance and are very seldom sick, and that just makes things a lot more relaxed. You are not on edge all the time, particularly at calving, wondering what sorts of problems may be happening over the horizon.”


Showdown Productions Ltd.   Rural Delivery Series 16 2021