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Hinds farmers well ahead of target

Hinds farmers well ahead of target
Hinds dairy farmer Phill Everest is already meeting a 2030 target to reduce nitrogen losses. PHOTO SHARON DAVIS

A Mid Canterbury dairy farm is already meeting its 2030 target to reduce nitrogen losses by 25%, well ahead of national and regional regulatory requirements.

Phill and Jos Everest from Flemington Farm take their roles as custodians seriously. They are part of Synlait's Lead with Pride programme, and have been part of Dairy NZ's sustainable future initiative.

The Everests, who farm with their son Paul and his partner Sarah, have made a range of changes to their farm practices to meet nitrogen loss regulations.

This includes reducing nitrogen fertiliser use by 36% – ahead of national and regional regulatory requirements – and developing an annual nitrogen application plan to identify monthly application rates needed to meet the new targets.

Thanks to these on-farm changes, they met their 2030 target to reduce nitrogen losses in 2021 and they're continuing to experiment with options to improve their environmental footprint.

Phill Everest said the first year they reduced the amount of nitrogen fertiliser there was less grass and a net cost to the operation with less milk produced.

It reduced profitability by $40,000 in the first year, but the Hinds-based farm had been able to pick up most of that loss in the following years.

The Everests don't apply fertiliser in May, which is a wet month and a high-risk period for leeching nitrogen.

However, Everest said the biggest contribution to improving their environmental footprint was the inclusion of plantain in the pasture mix.

He included plantain seed at 1.5kg per hectare when resewing paddocks and topped that up with additional plantain seed when the maintenance fertiliser was applied, to keep plantain at 15% of their pasture mix.

"That gives us an 11% reduction in our nitrogen."

While plantain seed is more expensive and limits weed control options, it does lower nitrogen and has a beneficial outcome for the environment which is important, he said.

Everest also reduced the protein content of autumn feed by adding fodderbeet to his cows' feed.

Feeding less protein results in less nitrogen in the cow's urine. This provided a 12% reduction in nitrogen in autumn urine, or a 1.3% reduction overall, for the whole year, Everest said.

The farm also harvests and stores effluent to use instead of a nitrogen-rich fertiliser.

“You can store the effluent and apply it at the best time for the plants.”

The Everests also carefully monitor water irrigation with sensors under each pivot. The moisture metres help to manage soil moisture and reduce leaching.

It was challenging and rewarding to try new ways to farm better "but they don’t always go where you want", said Everest.

"For us, Overseer is a good tool to monitor the results of changes in farm management.

“We can’t put our head underground and figure out the impact and it’s a tool with science behind it.”

The Everests are driven to farm as well as they can and to develop tools to reduce their environmental footprint for the benefit of the next generations.

The heavier soils on Flemington Farm had made it "a little easier" to reduce nitrogen loss. However, soil type was not an excuse for others not to try, Everest said.

He said there was a lag time of anywhere between 10 and 60 years for the effects of changes to be seen on groundwater – especially deep groundwater.

“Tools like Overseer give farmers confidence that what they’ve done on-farm is right and will result in better outcomes for the country."

Everest has also tried planting swamp tussock along council drains through the farm. He planted a trial about four or five years ago and water samples showed a reduction in nitrogen levels.

Another planting along 650m of regional council drains was in progress.

”It’s looking really exciting in terms of nitrogen reduction with initial tests showing a reduction of up to 20%.

“Who thought we’d be planting swamp grass to make a better habitat? Things change and you don’t know what will come up," he said.

By Sharon Davis