Tuesday, 21 January 2014

A visit to FAR

The first of my Nuffield visits in New Zealand was at FAR - Foundation for Arable Research, in Templeton. I was kindly hosted by Nick Pyke, CEO and Richard Chynoweth, Project Manager.
FAR is a levy funded research organisation, like the HGCA in the UK, but I was told that is where the similarities end! New Zealand is globally a small cereal producer, 1.2 Million tonnes,  is not self sufficient and considered a domestic market of Australia. New Zealand agricultural statistics can be found on NZ Ag Stats.

FAR represents around 2700 farmers, has regular contact with over 200 and will engage with approximately 500 farmers through its open days. The research is farmer lead and the results are delivered back to the farmer, FAR will involve and engage with other research organisations, industry partners and other knowledge resources to achieve the best skill set for a particular project. The involvement of FAR in the projects is to validate the research and make sure it is kept relevant to New Zealand agriculture, and is of value to New Zealand farmers as ultimately it is being funded by them.

Considering the very varied cropping rotations adopted, and the high number of crops under research the FAR team is small, but through collaboration with others they are able to cover their workload. The use of contractors at the trial sites also means that the researchers are able to concentrate on what they are good at and not have to sit on machines.
FAR have been utilising PA techniques in their research for several years and started with yield mapping, this lead to a huge amount of data and variability, from crop to crop and season to season, and was not considered a reliable source of data to make future management decisions. As the Canterbury region will have a rainfall deficit of 250mm during the growing season moisture management is key to crop production. This is clear to see by the amount of irrigation equipment now in use. This has lead to EM (Electromagnetic) scanning being a better starting point for gathering soil type and most importantly water holding capacity data, and 1cm of top soil will hold 1mm of available water as a rule of thumb. Water availability and management is key to maximising crop production in New Zealand. NDVI (normalised difference vegetative index) measurements are used to monitor and record the development of trials, and can be used as a check and balance on plots even if they don't get harvested for some reason, as has been seen that NDVI and Yield correlate closely.
They are also experimenting with the use of infra red temperature sensors to measure canopy temperature, and thermal imagery for weed mapping and pest damage.
We also discussed the topical issue of stubble burning, which is an active part of New Zealand arable farming, but was banned in the UK many years ago. There is a call for some form of stubble burning to be reintroduced in the UK to help combat the escalating blackgrass weed problem. Stubble burning is an important tool for many New Zealand farmers for several reasons, which are unique to their cropping rotation. The main difference between the UK and NZ| is the production of vegetable seed, such as carrots, Chicory, Plantain and Radish. These crops can't cope with lots of residue and competition, and as these are often the most profitable crops in a rotation they need to be established efficiently. Stubble burning also helps to destroy weed and volunteer seeds, which in turn reduces the reliance on subsequent herbicides, which I am certain UK farmers with a blackgrass problem would welcome. Another big benefit from stubble burning is the control of pest, like slugs, which are very prevalent due the high proportion of herbage crops in a rotation and the use of irrigation to maintain a moist soil profile. When you consider the problems associated with levels of  Metaldehyde in UK water courses, stubble burning help to reduce this environmental impact. To reintroduce stubble burning to the UK would have distinct benefits as previously outlined, but the main difference between NZ and UK, and was the main reason why the practice was banned originally, is the population density, and the fact that the UK is an urban country. It would be a very useful tool for UK arable farmers but would have to be used responsibly.

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