Major farm trial demonstrates financial benefits of green farming

Results of an 18-month project to understand how changes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions might impact a farm's profitability and productivity have been released by DairyNZ.

Twelve farms across New Zealand took part in the Partnership Farm Project, modelling 44 different farm systems. 

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The Owl demonstration farm in Cambridge was among them, with the farm's results the first of a series that will be launched over the coming weeks. 

"Our aim was to model and apply practical measures to see how we can adapt New Zealand's highly efficient pastoral farm systems to meet New Zealand's climate change goals," said DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle.

"The outcome of this project is important to helping us understand the impact of making improvements or changes to how a farm operates in order to reduce emissions and nitrogen leaching," said Mackle.

He said it's hoped farmers will be able to learn from the project, but said there was no quick-fix.

"One clear message from the work is that every farm is different and there isn't a 'one-size-fits-all' package of changes that every farmer can use.

"The other clear message is to measure, or estimate, biological greenhouse gas emissions  to know your numbers  as that is the first step to knowing how to manage them."

On Owl farm, one of the modelled farm management changes involved reducing feed use and lowering the stocking rate. 

This is expected to result in a 21 percent increase in profitability alongside a 14 percent reduction in nitrogen leaching and 13 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Mitigations modelled on the partnership farms fell into three categories - farm management changes, infrastructure investment, and retiring or planting land. 

"The results of this project, and the huge amount of data we are still compiling, reinforce the complexity of the challenge we face as a sector," said Mackle.

He said to see nationwide reductions in greenhouse gas emissions a specifically designed package of changes is needed for each farm.

"This is why DairyNZ is supportive of customised Farm Environment Plans which recognise the differences between each farm and factor in a holistic systems approach to recognise efforts across greenhouse gases, water quality, biodiversity, and financial sustainability.

"It will be critical the Government supports adequate training and capability of rural professionals as part of a low emissions transition plan."

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Owl farm, a demonstration farm in Cambridge, was recommended two mitigation packages. One primarily focused on farm management changes that de-intensify the farm system, and the second on infrastructure investment.

Modelling showed the greatest gains were possible through de-intensification, which would involve reducing all supplementary feed and then reducing the stocking rate in line with feed reduction, while focusing on efficient resource use. This is expected to achieve a 14 percent reduction in N leaching, 13 percent reduction in greenhouse gases, and a 21 percent increase in profitability.

Opportunities are currently available on many farms to improve both profit and reduce emissions through good management practices. Already, over the past two years, Owl farm has reduced total Greenhouse gas emissions by 8 percent and lifted operating profit per hectare by 14 percent by improving management practices.

Watch the video to see Dairy NZ's Tim Mackle explain about the Owl Farm project and the issues facing the dairy industry around climate change.