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    A colleague in Australia, Roger Martyn, brought this article to my attention: in a familiar way Doug Edmeades professes interest in something approaching biological farming, only to rubbish the idea later. He takes these approaches partly for advertising purposes, and it works for him.

    Here's the thing, you won't find scientists beating a track to such farms to see if there is any research that could be done to help other farmers. Some good old practical research. Did Doug look hard at the stock to see how they looked? He didn't even dig up the soil and have a look. He also didn't take any Brix readings, because he's never taken me up on my offer to have one of our instruments for free (Outgro use them). As far as I know, he's never even learnt how to use one.

    Does it really take 13 years for some farms to respond 'correctly' to chemical fertilisers? If that is the case then I hope farmers are able to hang in there until it all works out. By the sound of it, it's OK to use silage for extra nutrients, but not seaweed, that couldn't work. One premise of biological farming is that the increased soil activity frees up otherwise bound nutrients and elements. They don't have to be introduced with the biological agents used, they are already in the soil waiting to be activated, or to be put within reach of longer plant roots. Doug hasn't figured this out yet. Many years ago Doug gained fame by tearing down Maxicrop in the courts. Lately he has endorsed Progibb by Nufarm, as something that works. It works because of the plant hormone gibberallic acid, which stiffens the leaves of grasses so they make better solar collectors. Maxicrop is a concentrated solution of gibberallic acid. Their mistake was to call their brew a fertiliser.

    Search for reasons for bucolic beauty
    JON MORGAN Last updated 11:23 05/05/2011

    HEALTHY DEBATE: Nicole Masters, Neil Armitage and Doug Edmeades discuss Mr Armitage's "No 11" pastures on his Patoka dairy farm.

    On this sunny autumn day, Neil Armitage's farm looks a picture of perfect health. A herd of glossy-coated cows are peacefully grazing luxuriant pastures of clover, ryegrass, plantain and chicory.

    Soil scientist Doug Edmeades explains his system of rating pastures out of 10 and tells Mr Armitage he has a "damn good" 10.

    "No, this is an 11," his colleague, Maurice Gray, interjects.

    Mr Armitage nods and accepts the praise as his due. He knows his farm is in good shape.

    But where he and Dr Edmeades differ is over the cause of such bucolic beauty.

    The farm, an 820-cow dairy unit at Patoka, west of Napier, uses the principles of biologics. It is a method championed by American GP and roving agriculture consultant Arden Andersen and focuses on stimulating soil activity, reasoning that healthy soil grows healthy pastures and crops that produce healthy animals.

    Its followers believe modern chemical fertilisers such as superphosphate and nitrogen are overused and are harming soil biology and producing nutrient- deficient pastures and food.

    But soil scientists like Dr Edmeades and others at research centres and universities believe biologics to be flawed science that, in worst cases, will lead to rundown farms.

    I have brought Dr Edmeades, a particularly outspoken critic, to Patoka to see the farm and talk to Mr Armitage.

    Dr Edmeades has brought Mr Gray, the East Coast field technician for his consulting business AgKnowledge, and Mr Armitage has asked along Nicole Masters, an agronomist and biological farming adviser through her business, Integrity Soils.

    We are all there for different reasons. Mr Armitage relishes the chance to show Dr Edmeades what biologics has done for his farm and Ms Masters is there to support Mr Armitage on the science of biologics and to meet Dr Edmeades, with whom she has debated only by email so far.

    Dr Edmeades and Mr Gray are curious about the farm and confident they will be able to provide a scientific explanation.

    I hope they will resolve a dilemma I have in writing the stories of such farmers. Biologics is growing and its leading farmers are among the country's best producers. How can this be so if the scientists are to be believed?

    Everyone has promised to be on their best behaviour.

    For the past four years, Mr Armitage has used a "soup" of humates (natural sources of trace elements), fulvic acids, sugar, kelp and seawater supplied by Outgro, a Dannevirke company, along with small amounts of reactive phosphate rock, nitrogen and sulphur.

    Ten years before that, he was a heavy user of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium before gradually easing his nitrogen use.

    Animal health problems and a lack of clover persisted and it was not till he attended a course run by Dr Andersen that he experienced a breakthrough. "It was a revelation," he says. "Everything wrong that I had witnessed over 30 years, he had an answer for and he explained it in a way I could understand."

    Dr Edmeades diplomatically keeps his views on Dr Andersen to himself. He says the question in his mind is, "Before, you were putting on very large inputs of P [phosphorous], K [potassium] and S [sulphur]. Is this high-quality pasture the consequence of that capital fertiliser?"

    Ad Feedback Mr Armitage is incredulous at this suggestion. "That fertiliser was put on 13 years ago."

    But Dr Edmeades explains, "After the fertiliser is applied, it takes time for the biological process, of the legumes fixing nitrogen back into the soil, to build up and to get the pasture like this."

    He says the best way to understand this is to analyse the soil.

    In the discussion that follows he explains that once the pasture's "nutrient tanks" are full, phosphorous will decline at the rate of one unit a year, but soluble nutrients like potassium and sulphur are still needed.

    Mr Armitage says no potassium has been applied for 10 years, but grass silage is being brought on to the farm. Dr Edmeades is interested to learn this and thinks the silage could be an extra source of nutrients transferred to the soil through animal dung and urine.

    He says a soil can be unbalanced if as little as one or more of the 16 nutrients clover needs is missing.

    "A plant can only grow as fast as the most limiting element. If it is missing potassium, for example, it doesn't matter how much P is put on. The first plant to disappear is the clover because it has a higher requirement for nutrients. It is the most precious thing we've got."

    Mr Armitage tells of seeing cows suddenly more interested in eating pasture after lime was put on. Dr Edmeades explains that lime makes previously unavailable molybdenum available.

    Mr Armitage takes all this in without comment, and then asks about nitrogen. "How can I grow all this grass with just six units of N and yet soil tests show I have 150 units available?"

    Dr Edmeades has an answer for that. "A good legume-based pasture is fixing that much naturally," he says. Continued..

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    Rest of the article:

    He also gives his view that Outgro's method of applying fertiliser in liquid form for foliar uptake is unnecessary. Plant roots spread out and are able to capture nutrients put on as granules, he says. And animals transfer those nutrients in their dung and urine.

    As we move around the farm examining the pastures, Dr Edmeades is full of praise for Mr Armitage's abilities as a stock and pasture manager. The two begin to warm to each other, wry humour is exchanged and Dr Edmeades, notorious for giving what he calls "pseudo science" short shrift, prefaces his comments with a polite, "I don't know that what you say is necessarily correct."

    He reiterates his desire to see soil tests. Mr Armitage has some, but taken at 150 millimetres depth, not the standard 75mm. "As a scientist I can't accept at face value that using the Outgro mixture has produced this. I have to understand the deeper part of it," Dr Edmeades says.

    Ms Masters wants to give credit to Outgro's Jim McMillan. "When you spend 30 years with the fert companies and they can't deliver this, then maybe it's Jim. He's interpreting the data, has got the ability to correlate it in his head and to put it out here."

    Dr Edmeades agrees with her about the fertiliser companies. "The question has been asked of me: 'Why is it so many intelligent, well-intentioned farmers are looking for alternatives?' They are not getting the answers they want from conventional sources and in their frustration go and do something else, which may or may not be good for them.

    "I totally understand that. Day after day I'm on farms where the farmer is frustrated because he knows clover is important but he can't get it to grow.

    "The problem, invariably in my experience, is in one of those underlying 16 nutrients being missing."

    He and Ms Masters debate mycorrhizal fungi on plant roots, said by Australian biological soil scientist Christine Jones to be crucial to improving soil carbon.

    Dr Edmeades: "Sixteen nutrients have all got to be put on in the right balance - once that's done, problem solved. You get an increase in the biology of the soil. There's no mystery about that to me."

    Ms Masters: "A lot of that is unstable carbon, but there's another pathway of stable carbon coming through the mycorrhizi."

    Dr Edmeades: "I don't understand what you mean by the wrong carbon."

    Ms Masters: "It's a stable, deeper carbon that's building in resilience and water-holding capacity."

    Dr Edmeades: "Mycorrhizal fungi are ubiquitous in the soil, they extend the root area and make the plant a better scavenger, particularly for phosphorous."

    Ms Masters: "If you're putting on superphosphate it tells that plant it doesn't need the mycorrhizal relationship."

    Dr Edmeades: "I don't go along with that, I'm sorry. A trial going since 1950 shows that on soils deficient in P and S, if you put on super, get the clover growing, get the nitrogen cycle going, you build up organic matter and biomass. That's proven by science."

    Ms Masters: "We believe those soluble nutrients have an impact on mycorrhizi and their ability to build soils and resilience and not have losses of carbon and get the nutrient cycle humming."

    Dr Edmeades: "But in a well- managed conventional system you've got all that happening anyway."

    Ms Masters: "Isn't it a good thing that we're not using a lot of soluble synthetic fertiliser?"

    Dr Edmeades: "But what you're putting on is soluble."

    Ms Masters: "It is having a measurable effect on mycorrhizi, with better uptake of trace elements."

    Dr Edmeades: "The tests I'm aware of are done in a laboratory where when you kill all the mycorrhizi you can introduce more efficient strains. When that was tried in the field it couldn't be done. The presence of natural mycorrhizi swamps out any newcomer. Our chances of manipulating mycorrhizal fungi in soils is a long shot."

    Ms Masters: "But people are inoculating it."

    Dr Edmeades: "But the science shows it can't be done."

    It's clear the two will never agree.

    Dr Edmeades takes the view that the claims of biological farmers have to tested by the rigours of science. He tells Ms Masters, who has a bachelor of science degree, "You are expressing an opinion without presenting the data. I'm not knocking you for that, it's just a different approach from what I take."

    Ms Masters ignores this dig and asks, "But isn't the farmer's experience valid?"

    Dr Edmeades: "Yes, it's valid as experience, as an interesting observation, but it doesn't necessarily solve the complex issue of cause and effect. I want to know why. You are saying it is because Neil is now a biological farmer, but I'm saying there's probably something else."

    He asks Mr Armitage if Mr Gray can come back and do soil tests. "I'd like to unravel the knot to find out if there is something science is missing."

    Mr Armitage agrees and the farm visit ends.

    Two weeks later Dr Edmeades has the results of the tests. The fertility of the soil is very good at 150mm and 75mm, indicating the farm has had capital fertiliser in the past.

    "The current quality and vigour of the pastures can be explained largely by the soil fertility. The soil fertility levels cannot be explained by the biological practices, such as the application of fine lime, humates, complex carbohydrates, trace elements and microbes which do not contain significant amounts of nutrients," he says.

    "It is illogical to attribute the current success of this farm to the biological practices applied in the last few years."

    I have an answer to my questions. I accept Dr Edmeades' scientific explanation. However, I decide also to continue to report the strongly held beliefs of biological, organic and biodynamic farmers, at the same time challenging them with the science view.

    I ask Dr Edmeades if he knows when Mr Armitage's nutrient tanks will be emptied, but he is unable to say. He is sure the Outgro nutrients are not enough to maintain current levels but an unknown factor is the extra nutrients being brought on to the property in silage.

    Later, Ms Masters sends me several papers of American and Australian research into organic farming systems, nutrient loss and mycorrhizal fungi, saying that although little research has been done in New Zealand, the scientific case for biological farming exists elsewhere.

    This information will soon be more readily available, she says, revealing that the Association of Biological Farmers will soon have Agriculture and Forestry Ministry funding to collate and review the science on biological farming from around the world.

    She is surprised that Dr Edmeades and Mr Gray did not look under Mr Armitage's pastures. "How weird is that?" she says. "These two had never been on a biologically managed property yet showed no curiosity to see what was happening under the grass.

    "Doug took a soil test, which was a snapshot in time and did not show where Neil has come from, and yet Doug declares that Neil is relying on his capital inputs from 13 years ago. That is not scientific in my mind," she says.

    Dr Edmeades' conclusion is no surprise to Mr Armitage and he says it doesn't convince him to stop biological farming.

    "He is looking at this from 30 to 40 years of conventional science. He won't admit he could be wrong in his interpretation."

    Mr Armitage is proud of his achievements on his farm - 335,000kg of milksolids from 820 cows, which translates to 1456kg a hectare, well above the national average of 912kg, using supplements of one tonne of grass silage per cow. And that was achieved during a cold, wet June-October and hot, dry early summer.

    He also points out he has severely cut back applications of the Outgro fertiliser because of tough economic times over the past two years, yet still his farm looks a picture.

    "How much more proof do you need?" he asks.

    A former Maori farmer of the year winner, he believes he owes his change of heart about conventional farming to his Whakatohea ancestors. "It's like my tupuna are calling, saying they're sick of the poisoning of the land."

    Scientists like Dr Edmeades can try to explain biological farming away but they won't change the mind of the farmers using it, he says. "It's early days yet. We'll get better and better and then what will they say?"

    He asks that if Dr Edmeades is right and the farm is drawing down on nutrient tanks topped up 13 years before, how is it that other conventionally fertilised farms in the area don't look as good as his.

    However, in the next breath he admits he is also a good pasture manager. "Biologics is not a magic cure-all," he says. "You have to know what you're doing. The top 10 per cent of biological farmers have always been in the top 10 per cent of farming. They're the sort always looking for something new - I believe we've found it."

    Dr Edmeades has no doubts that Mr Armitage is a top farmer, and that this is a big reason why his farm looks so good.

    Mr Gray agrees. The image of the "No 11" pastures stays with him as we drive back to Napier. "He's a bloody good operator; a good animal and pasture manager," he says over and over.

    - The Dominion Post

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    The University of Waikato has a helpful article about ruminant digestion.


    It's a complex field, but bacteria populations in symbiosis with cows and other ruminants break down cellulose into materials that cows and the bacteria will thrive on. As part of the need to keep the bacteria populations going while they break down the cellulose, the shorter-chain sugars in the grass sap are surely helpful as quicker energy sources.

    Relatively new research on that idea shows there could be a link, it's just farmers don't often know what sugar is available in their feeds. Those selling molasses for in-shed feeders are adamant there is a good payoff too. The suggestion is that as long as there is plenty of fibre and protein in the feed (easy with grass) then a suitable additional sugar level (provided with supplements) might be 5% of the drymatter.


    Is this why cows seek higher-sugar grasses? And the way to quickly and cheaply measure and grade the paddocks on your farm is?
    (Answer: a Brix meter).

    This 2009 paper from DairyNZ says that a higher sugar content (within the WSC data) in pasture eaten, will have positive benefits for cows in almost all circumstances. Of course dietary fibre and protein percentages drop, but these are often too high in grazed pastures. Their high-sugar grasses had a WSC content (sugar is a subset of this) of up to 20%.


    Higher concentrations of WSC were offset mainly by reductions in protein and to a lesser extent in fibre, relationships which were similar for each cultivar of ryegrass. An increase in WSC and a decrease in protein and fibre are both likely to have a positive effect on nutritive value and animal performance in most situations. There will be exceptions to this, such as where low concentrations of protein or fibre might become limiting to nutrition or rumen function, or where high concentrations of WSC might exceed an optimum. Provided the relationships demonstrated here hold true with further efforts to increase WSC through management or breeding, nutritional and environmental benefits should continue to accrue from greater WSC and from the associated reductions in protein and fibre.

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    John King, a consultant from www.succession.co.nz has started some research work with Brix meters on ryegrass and clovers, funded by SFF, and with equipment supplied by Novel Ways. Part of the trial uses plants in a glasshouse reared on conventional and biological soils, the other is various farmland trial plots. So far the plants have been measured with Brix meters (optical and electronic) and soon the lab tests will provide the other half of the research, chemical makeup of the plants and the sap.

    All the best with your research John, I'll post this as it comes available.

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