NZ Farmer - Environmental mitigation through innovation at Ellesmere

Englishman John Tanner and his wife Jackie and four kids are on a farm off a dusty shingle road just west of Leeston.

The surrounding countryside is flat as a pancake, but 10 kilometres away is the outline of the Port Hills. Between the farm and the hills is the polluted expanse of Lake Ellesmere.

The location puts the Tanners' farm in the Selwyn Waihora water zone. Today this spells trouble for many farmers, as it means they are required to apply for consent to farm and to reduce on-farm nitrogen losses by 30 per cent over the next half-decade.

Tanner has reared calves until December and sent them away to Mayfield for grazing.

The Tanners fall into this group, but rather than being bullish or complacent about their situation, they are rising to the challenge, and over the past five years have taken steps to reduce the nitrate output on their farm.

"So far we have tried some things, and they seem to have worked," John says. "In our area, you can't sit back; you have to do something."

Canterbury dairy farmer John Tanner has taken significant steps to reduce his on-farm nitrate output.

John and Jackie bought the 165 hectare dairy farm in 2013 after spending years sharemilking in Ashburton. They have since acquired two support blocks. They are in an equity partnership with two others families, one of which runs a farming consultancy, and this has proven useful.

John worked on a farm in Dunsandel after coming out from England. He says it is good returning to the district and renewing ties with familiar locals  who he had either played rugby with them or against them for years.

The Tanners are consented to milk a 720 crossbred herd. The cows are not great hulking friesians and are small, he says. This is by choice as it takes more grass to feed a big cow.

John Tanner says ECan has made things too complicated for a lot of farmers.

The farm averages 480 kilograms of milk solids a cow on a milking platform that milks 2100kg/ ha.

The farm grows all its feed on the two support blocks that flank the dairy platform.

"We grow 15-16 tonnes a year of dry matter. We grow all our grain and feed it in the shed. The odd time we will buy-in to fill the gap between our harvest and running out. We grow spring barley because its simplest and we want the straw for winter. We do our maize silage and grass silage."

John says he buys in palm kernel but would rather not.

"If we could get away with not buying it, we would, but over mating, it's quite good at getting cows in calf. To do this, we change their diets."

John says during spring when the grass is high in insulin; he balances this by reducing the amount of grain fed to 1kg per cow and upping palm kernel to 3kg per head to replace it. This feeding regime has improved empty and conception rates (six-week in-calf rates), he says.

"We have gone down to a 5-8 per cent empty rate in five years with this. It's allowed us to always have surplus cows to sell in autumn and spring. A lot of farms have high empty rates, but we haven't had that problem yet.

"Palm kernel is cheap. I've tried soya bean hulls in the past, but when there is trouble at the source, the price ramps up. If I could find something to replace the palm kernel I would. I don't want to use it because people don't want it."

In the past, John has reared calves until December and sent them away to Mayfield for grazing. But with the two support blocks, he can keep 100 calves at home on grass, to lower the cost. He also rears beef calves. All the cows are wintered on the support blocks.

John says the consenting process is "too complicated" for him and he leaves that side of things to one of the other equity partners who is a farm consultant. Overseer software providing nutrient budgeting is also farmed out to a consultant.

"ECan has made things too complicated for a lot of farmers," he says. "And its costly getting consultants in to do it."

"In this area, we have to get our nitrogen levels down by 30 per cent by 2022. We are right on the edge of it, but we aren't in the phosphorus area."

He sees reducing the farm's environmental footprint as a challenge and for the past five years has been trying a probiotic fertiliser on his lighter soils. CM3 pasture-spread fertiliser is made by BioHelp.

BioHelp says its products are based on technology which promotes the use of non-modified natural organisms and plants. CM3 claims "exceptional performance" over urea and to produces long-term growth with the results accumulating over time.

"When nitrogen is applied to grass, it grows at nitrate level 4, but with CM3 our grass is 2.7 and growing well," says John.

"Between 2.7 and 3.4 grass is leaching nothing. A scientist at BioHelp is hoping we can grow grass in this range. We just have to take the time to get there."

CM3 isn't expensive at 5.5 cents a kilogram of dry matter to grow, he says.

Lately John has used CRV Ambreed's LowN Sires to produce offspring that excrete less nitrogen in the urine patch.

"I'd read about it and thought I'm in. We bought 220 [semen straws], and [artificially inseminated] all the heifers," says John.

"I know there won't be any results for another two years, but if they produce what other cows produce with less nitrogen waste, we will carry it through the rest of the herd.

"CRV Ambreed, which we used for the first time, was very good. They say ECan will take into account that we are using LowN Sires."

Three years ago during the drought, John ran out of water source from a bore. So he bought someone else's allocation - 250,000 cumecs. The water was transferred from their account to his at the cost of $25,000, he says.

At the end of the season, a company called Regen asked John if he would be interested in a system to reduce water loss. Regen took figures on his water use and soil type and came back saying it could probably save John 20 per cent in water usage and power.

"They installed a weather station on the drest area of the farm, and moisture meters and telemetry, "John says.

"All that data goes off to Regen, and they send a recommendation around eight in the morning for our irrigation based on what they see in the weather forecast and what our moisture readings are.

"The system has been a godsend - the poor farmer's version of the variable irrigation rate system. It cost us $10,000 including the weather station and a special flow meter on the pivots. It may not be as technical as variable rate irrigation, but it certainly saves us water, and it is easy to use.

"If I had variable rate, I would be phoning up someone to come and fix something every five minutes."

John is in the third year of using Regen. After the first year, he saved "a heap of water I didn't even use." His irrigation records, kept by Regen, are available to ECan.

"I think it has saved us a fortune in power and water and when we bought the run-off block we have been able to use the extra water down there. We can use our water more efficiently without having to buy another consent."

John uses chicken-litter from a local poultry farm as his main fertiliser. It's not organic, he says, but it's not chemical, nor processed. Overseer regards chicken-litter as compost, not a prepared fertiliser.

Chicken litter is put on the paddock with CM3 with excellent results; so much so that BioHelp wonders if there is a beneficial reaction between the two, John says.

"It just goes to show that if you don't try, you don't know if new things are going to work, and so far we have tried some things, and they seem to have worked for us," he says.

"Some people might think its witchcraft, but I think its quite exciting."