Biological Farming Study May Lead To Reduced Nitrogen Leaching

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A project to study biological farming systems has the potential to lessen the environmental impact of diary farming by reducing nutrient losses from farms.

The Rotorua Lakes and Land Trust (RLLT) – a joint venture between Te Arawa Federation of Maori Authorities and Rotorua/Taupo Province of Federated Farmers – is currently approaching various potential funders for financial support for the project, which will be undertaken by crown research institute Scion.

Gifford McFadden, a dairy farmer, a Trustee of RLLT and also the project leader, says the Trust is interested in exploring how biological farming can play a role in reducing nitrate leaching from farms.

New Zealand farming needs solutions that are simple to implement and easy to monitor. Farmers are under sustained public pressure to reduce nutrient leaching from their farms to streams, rivers and lakes. It is restricting farming in sensitive areas such as the Taupo and Rotorua Lakes catchment and the hydro catchments of the Upper Waikato”, Mr McFadden said.

In recent years, water quality has become an important issue in many countries including New Zealand. The increased use of synthetic fertilisers, such as urea, has not only been expensive to farming systems, but it is considered as one of the causes of water quality degradation.

Biological farming is a holistic approach to modify and improve soil conditions for beneficial microbes and increased microbial activity in soil helps speed-up nutrient cycling.

Farmers using biological farming systems have observed positive changes to soil, and improvements in plant and animal health. These observations were presented in a paper entitled “Farmers invite scientists to scrutinise biological farming options” by Dr Guna Magesan, a senior scientist at Scion, at the Maori Land Conference in July 2010 in Rotorua.

The project goal is Proof of Concept for advantages of biological dairy farm system. That is, the project aims to prove that biological dairy farming offers advantages over conventional dairy farm systems with respect to its overall environmental and economic sustainability.

The proposed study aims to compare the environmental and economic performance of at least two biological with two conventional dairy farm systems over 3 years. The farms are in Edgecumbe and Reporoa.

“Initially, we will be looking at nitrogen leaching losses between biological and conventional systems. In addition to nitrate, we will also monitor dissolved organic nitrogen in the leachate”, Dr Magesan says.

Total estimated cost for the project is $400,000 over 3 years. RLLT has been approaching various regional councils, industry, research funders and charitable funding agencies for financial support. Already AGMARDT has committed $138,000 and a private company has put up $20,000.

The project has been named as the ‘Vallance Project’ after the late Rick Vallance, who was a Trustee of RLLT and Chief Executive of Ngati Whakaue Tribal Lands Incorporated.

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