New Zealand is slipping further behind in conservation agriculture predicts a world authority on no-tillage.
Dr John Baker, who’s been nominated for the World Food Prize in 2013, says New Zealand’s benign climate, soils and animal-based rotations hide many of the destructive effects of conventional cultivation. Because of that this country has slipped off the pace in arable soil conservation practices he says.
"The problem is that many of our arable farmers have been able to ignore alternatives and continue to cultivate their soils instead of being innovative," he says. "If this happened on a world basis and conventional cultivation was not replaced by no-tillage within 50 years, there’ll be famine and drought in areas of the world."
"When the soil is cultivated it releases much of the carbon back into the atmosphere. The long term result is a reduction in soil organic matter, deteriorating yields, soil erosion, dust storms and ultimately famine especially when there is serious pressure to produce more food for an expanding population."
Dr Baker is frustrated that, while New Zealand has the best no-tillage equipment on the globe, it’s one of the slowest nations to adopt it except in pockets such as the Wairarapa.
Resulting from 30 years of research at Massey University, Dr Baker decided there had to be a better way to sow seeds. He researched and developed Cross Slot no-tillage drills which penetrate through crop residues or vegetation on top of the ground and sow seed and fertiliser under the residues in different bands at the same time.
The Cross Slot process causes minimal or low disturbance to the soil, traps the humidity, preserves the micro-organisms and soil life and reduces the amount of carbon that otherwise escapes into the atmosphere.
The Cross Slot method has once again been vindicated by the 2006-2011 results from the Foundation for Arable Research (FAR) arable trial at Chertsey in Mid Canterbury. The evidence provided by New Zealand’s foremost arable research group shows that no-tillage, done properly, produces superior yields to any other option.
But done badly it doesn’t. "Perhaps this is the problem?" John Baker says. "We have too much choice in New Zealand and no-tillage gets tainted by farmers who choose to do it in the cheapest way possible rather than the best."
"In the Chertsey trial Cross Slot’s unirrigated yields were 14 percent better than the second best treatment, 22 percent better than the other no-tillage method and 30 percent better than the worst of all treatments, ‘plough and press.’" John Baker says.
"There’s absolutely no negative data in the world about Cross Slot compared to other methods. We’re getting the same results in Australia, Europe and North America."
Dr Baker explains that because climates in many other areas of the world are not as kind as in New Zealand, farmers have had to be innovative to survive. Cross Slot technology has stood out as a result. The message he’s receiving from Australia and the United States is that their yields are the best they’ve ever been.
"But Wairarapa is an interesting exception in New Zealand. The seed industry estimates that 60 to 70 percent of cereal crops sown in the district use Cross Slot technology. Wairarapa is a mini Canterbury in the North Island. It has a similar climate and farmers there have come into cropping reasonably recently without a history of traditional attitudes learned from previous generations," John says.
"While Cross Slot may be more expensive as a one-off purchase than its competition, the cost benefits are everlasting and, in most cases, will repay the farmer in one to two years."
In a recent series of paddock comparisons in the Taihape area, the cost of producing a kilogram of brassica dry matter to feed animals was five cents with Cross Slot no-tillage compared with nine cents for one-pass cultivation, 10 cents for conventional cultivation, 15 cents for triple disc no-tillage and 16 cents for helicopter broadcasting.
"Broadcasting may be cheap but, because much of the seed doesn’t germinate, the cost benefits are seldom very good."
No-Tillage is the equivalent of keyhole surgery as opposed to ploughing which is invasive surgery and contributes to global warming. The long term outcome of no-tillage is sustainable food production which can meet millions of families.
"It’s time for New Zealand to lead the world in practising conservation agriculture, not lag behind it," Dr John Baker comments.
"It’s weird to have the best no-tillage technologies in the world at the same time as one of the slowest rates of adoption amongst our arable farmers."