Gathering hard data on hill country potential, risks

April 26, 2018

By Mark Adams, President South Canterbury Federated Farmers

Federated Farmers is backing a research project now underway to better understand hill country development practices.  

The end goal is to create a decision tool to aid farmers as they weigh up the benefits, costs and environmental risks of development of their hill country blocks.

Farmers from Canterbury and Manawatu have already shared their experiences on this topic during anonymous interviews conducted by research company UMR.  The next stage of the project, commissioned by Environment Canterbury and supported by Beef & Lamb New Zealand and Federated Farmers (South Canterbury), involves detailed telephone surveys of 150 farmers in the two provinces.

Some sheep and beef farmers are improving productivity by planting older hill country pastures with higher producing pasture species.  This commonly involves one or more years in winter feed, and creates an increased risk of sediment losses during this period.

The interviews found that some farmers have already changed their land development practices after previous experience with soil loss, and many are now using direct drilling to establish the pasture or crop and reduce the risk of soil loss.  They are also being careful about paddock selection, and exclude erosion-prone land from the development.

The just-released Our Land 2018 report on soil quality said we are losing around 192 million tonnes of soil each year to erosion, 44 per cent of it from pasture land.

There can be greater soil loss and damage from winter grazing dairy cows, particular from kale crops on steep hillsides.   Heli-spraying to sow hill pastures seems to be on the rise, more so in Manawatu than Canterbury, and the interviews showed farmers are acutely aware of the importance of getting the timing right, especially where higher risk winter feed crops are involved.

Everyone laughed when the ‘spray and pray’ term was coined because it was catchy.  But that humour has come back to bite us because it seems that the frivolous title has drawn some people to the practice where it’s not suitable.

There’s no doubt that best practice management on hill country developments can result in higher lamb growth rates, and healthier and heavier stock.  It’s a question of getting the balance right, and knowing when land is too hard.

Sheep and beef have now enjoyed a second good year in a row.  There will be farmers who start looking at how they can boost output, and there may be gains from further developing hill country – if it’s done well.  This project is about getting verifiable data on the potential of hill country, and what lessons can be learned and shared.

Equally, there can be a very good case for leaving some hill country blocks undeveloped, especially if they’re a marginal proposition anyway.  Biodiversity is boosted, and there is value in that being a component of a Farm Environment Plan.

I think there’s a social licence component to this whole topic.  We need to be telling good stories that stand scrutiny.  All the work being done by farmers in the environment and biodiversity space tends to pass under the radar, not fully recognised or leveraged.

We need a mature conversation on the potential of hill country, and the finding from this study will give us a great starting point.

- Mark Adams is the Federated Farmers representative on the hill country development study project group.