Precision Farming

March 2009

Advanced Farming Systems to reduce carbon and greenhouse emissions

A Sustainable Farming Fund project is currently underway, looking at opportunities to mitigate the effects of farming on climate and develop responses to potential scenarios resulting from climate change.

It's a nationwide project, with work ongoing in Pukekohe, Gisborne, Hawkes Bay, Bulls, Levin, and three or four sites in Canterbury.

The project began in October 2008, with 50% funding from the Sustainable Farming Fund, through the MAF climate change programme, and from FAR (the Foundation for Arable Research). Other funders are NZ Fresh Cuts, Hawke's Bay Regional Council, Gisborne District Council, Environment Canterbury, Ballance Agri-Nutrients, Farmlands and Horticulture NZ.

Two of the key goals are to use smart farming techniques to cut fuel use (and therefore carbon emissions) and to set up more efficient use of nitrogen fertiliser (to cut carbon and greenhouse gas emissions).

Dan Bloomer of LandWISE says they are also looking at improving soil quality and retaining or rebuilding soil organic matter, to increase its ability to store carbon in the soil.

Dan says, "If we can put 2% more carbon into the soil it makes a big difference. We are going to get more frequent weather events of major scale, for example big rainfalls or more drought conditions. We need to have our soils in their best health possible, so increasing soil resilience to the impacts of climate change."

David Clark's Gisborne property is one of the focus farms involved in the project. David moved into controlled traffic farming a long time ago and he is doing it well, Dan Bloomer says.

"We want to help him get it more clearly sorted out. He still has little niggle problems; if you can get it sorted out there it will be a no-brainer for everyone else. His farm has been a test-bed for five or six years."

Part of the project involves running workshops at a number of levels, ie for those newly moving into GPS, identifying practices they need to avoid issues further down the track.

David's soil are noticeably different now to other people's soils.  Dan says the idea is to use Davids experiences to teach others.

Other parts of the programme are, for example, at Pukekohe, where the Wilcox's are using controlled traffic for onion growing. 

Another grower has permanent beds for baby leaf lettuce production, growing six crops a year in the same bit of ground and he is planting almost every day, with a huge turnover of beds, with the fastest turnaround being 14 days.

There is a lot of cultivating to do, which means a lot of diesel. Dan says, "We want to work with him to see if he can have permanent beds where you don't burn so much diesel."  Other regions of the country cover different types of soils types and production systems.

At Bulls, Hugh Dalrymple is re-contouring sand country but has to work around both dry and wet areas of ground. At Levin, John Clark has permanent beds.

In Hawke's Bay, Hugh Ritchie uses controlled traffic on a diverse cropping farm.  He manages the data, feeding it from the tractor into farm software.  That information is then shared with contractors and their tractors so they can use exactly the same lines as Hugh's machinery, to reduce soil compaction and maximise cultivatable area.

In Canterbury, precision farming is being used for carrot seed production. It helps to keeps female and male rows separate and carry out different operations on different plants at different times, such as high precision weeding.

Randall Hanrahan is using GPS and controlled traffic on his cropping farm, and has just put a centre pivot on it. His challenge is how to fit  straight lines and round circle paddocks together in a GPS operation.

Another project is about data management and mapping, and using yield maps. For example cropping farmers now have big paddocks with different soil types, and can we manage the different soil types within one paddock differently if one crop is grown.

James Powrie is the project co-ordinator. He started in November on what will be a full time job for the next three years.

Dan's messages are that farmers are using really exciting technology, and are spending a lot of money to employ better environmental practices.

Dan reminds us that farmers grow our food and sell our exports, which means the public "can have TVs and drive new cars".

David Clark says he has been using controlled traffic and GPS systems for seven years now, we grow mostly maize with two paddocks of squash.

The benefits we've found are reduced labour, reduced tractor use, reduced number of tractors and number of hours, and better timing. You don't have so much to do so you are able to get things done on time.

We haven't objectively quantified the benefits to the soil over time but when we go back into conventional cultivation the soil is easier to work.

We see reduced yields in the tramlines (where the wheels run) and increased yields between the tramlines.

We dont have any hard data on organic matter gains. We feel by not cultivating and flaring off organic matter there must be a build up, but we havent objectively defined it.

We do have problems with grass weeds which is concerning. Everyone is struggling with a lack of effectiveness of traditional residual herbicides.

The project is really what farmers want to make it: help is there and it is a networking thing, like a farm discussion group. There's a diverse range of people doing different things, but everyone has a common theme with GPS and self-steering and precision farming. A lot of people have made the first step to GPS and self-steering but don't know where to go from there. Thats the real guts of the programme, taking them the next step. For example, in Gisborne there are five new users.

New Zealand farmers haven't had access to extension programmes for a while now, so having James Powrie there to help is good. The old MAF days were the last time we really did have extension. The Americans are very good at using it.

We are not trying to make everyone do the same things, but rather understanding different options. We want to help them.

LandWISE is also proposing a set of protocols for everyone to work from: to set up and maintain AB lines, for calibration, for synchronising machinery and for moving from stage to stage.

The project is an open book for growers, and an invitation for them to learn. It is not a 1:1 consultancy, it is more like a discussion group process.