Allan Barber reports on B+LNZ's research into regenerative agriculture's opportunity for New Zealand, given that we have had a natural headstart, and big corporate support

Allan Barber reports on B+LNZ's research into regenerative agriculture's opportunity for New Zealand, given that we have had a natural headstart, and big corporate support

Earlier this year before lockdown B+LNZ announced its intention to conduct research into consumer attitudes to red meat produced using regenerative agriculture practices.

This project has now been bolstered by an injection of financial support from MPI’s Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund and the involvement of the wine industry’s Bragato Research Institute which is keen to discover any potential for improving vineyard management, as well as evolving brand messaging across the wine industry.

B+LNZ’s purpose in conducting the research is to discover what RA, and as a result, the food produced from it mean to consumers in three major markets for our beef, lamb and venison. The research will explore the attitudes of consumers, retailers and experts in the USA, UK and Germany to identify how or if it can be defined in the New Zealand context, whether it can produce a premium and, just as relevant, what it implies for producers. An essential objective will be to determine how far current farming practice in this country conforms to the perception of RA in each of these markets.

Project leader Hugh Good wants to allay any fears the project will lead B+LNZ to push its levy paying farmers into unprofitable activities;  in contrast he is concerned to ensure we capture any early mover advantage, given how closely aligned New Zealand farming practices are with the RA philosophy.

A coalition of big corporates has emerged including Google, Danone, Nestle, Walmart and Unilever to scale up RA, while General Mills has pledged to apply regenerative methods to one million acres, equivalent to a quarter of their production, by 2030. The concept is clearly gaining serious traction in the Northern hemisphere, especially the USA, another driver for conducting the research which will enable New Zealand agriculture, food and wine production to keep up with developments. 

Meat companies Silver Fern Farms, ANZCO Foods and First Light are supportive of the project, with First Light’s Sustainability Manager, Nicola Morgan, on the steering group. First Light supplies branded products to 500 retail stores, as well as directly to 400 high net worth individuals who, Morgan says, are seeking certainty what they buy has not been mass-produced by mainstream US food producers. New Zealand producers are in the process of building a reputation for grass-fed, antibiotic and GMO free red meat (think Taste Pure Nature) and these consumers want reassurance it is produced in a way that protects and enhances natural resources.

ANZCO’s Lynsey McQuinn summarises her company’s position as wanting to understand firstly the extent of consumer demand for regeneratively produced products, secondly if they can command a sufficient premium, and thirdly how to position products to appeal to the consumer. However she also asks whether it is economical to farm regeneratively and what the economies of scale would be. To be viable, outputs must satisfy a consumer need, be environmentally sustainable and lastly return a profit to the producer.

RA means different things to different people in different countries, although it appears to have the highest profile in the United States where soil health in the prairie states is poor; improved soil health and carbon sequestration have been achieved by regenerative practices such as non-tilling, crop rotation, cover crops, reduced impact grazing and avoidance of synthetic fertiliser application. Claims regenerative is the same as organic farming are not correct however, with regenerative being more a philosophical approach and organic more about processes and certified inputs, although consultant and Soil Integrity director Nicole Masters says there are farmers practising both. She calls this ‘deep organics’ while ‘shallow organics’ farmers tick the boxes without deep ecological thinking or redesign of their ecosystems. 

According to Masters, the definition of RA is deliberately fuzzy because it encourages innovation and discourages dogma; regenerative farmers work constantly to improve their systems, but never believe they have achieved perfection. She also discounts suggestions New Zealand’s agricultural practice already conforms to regenerative principles, saying there is still plenty of room for improvement.

That said, there are a number of similarities between the way we farm in New Zealand and what appears to fit within the definition of RA. In last spring’s Fertiliser Review, soil scientist Dr Doug Edmeades compared New Zealand’s pastoral system with six elements of the RA concept – rotational, planned in situ grazing, closed systems, perennial crops and pastures, building soil organic matter, encouraging biodiversity and the health of soils, plants and animals – and concluded that it looked very much like RA in practice.

B+LNZ chairman Andrew Morrison says lots of soils have deficits which must be replaced by a range of inputs such as fertiliser which is essential to restore soil health; in his opinion farming must always be informed by science. Louis Schipper, Professor of Soil Health at Waikato University, maintains RA has no set recipe and can be difficult to justify from a scientific perspective, with its proponents claiming the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Good believes New Zealand has a better starting point for regenerative claims than most other countries where farming systems and conditions are much further behind. The research will provide an opportunity to find out what the target markets want and the value consumers ascribe to it, enabling the appropriate marketing messages to be defined and tested. Good agrees any market positioning must be consistent with Taste Pure Nature which is already gaining exposure in California.

The major questions with the concept are is whether it is possible to market New Zealand red meat and wine, produced using similar farming practices, under an RA umbrella which has no clearly defined set of principles, the added value that can be achieved, and what further changes to farming methods are necessary.


Current schedule and saleyard prices are available in the right-hand menu of the Rural section of this website.

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23 Comments

I am looking at regenerative farming to reduce my costs, my cattle on mixed pasture this winter have done better than any other farming I have tried, but it's different. It makes comparisons hard, I am stocking less and it's is not cheaper, seed is expensive. I don't believe I could run the system on the whole farm, time will tell.

AndrewJ,

I have no connection to farming, but I have done as much reading as I can on RF and I really hope that you and others can make it work for you.

From the outside, it looks as though it can offer many farmers a way forward that is both profitable and truly sustainable.

As a farmer I have a lot of respect for Dr Doug Edmeads, he follows the scientific method and uses meta analysis of the research space to make sound judgements. His analysis of RA compared to pastoral farming in NZ is spot on, the way we do it now is based on the best science accumulated over the generations.
Using fertiliser increases soil health.
Link to the article referenced above https://agknowledge.co.nz/uploads/fert-review/FertReview42.pdf

His summary

Of the many goals that RA espouses, some are unscientific (BCSR), some are not based on sound science (mitigating climate change). Some are implausible and likely to be very costly (replacing chemical fertilisers with compost and manures), some are based on a false premise (chemical fertilisers are bad for soil health), or can be achieved more cheaply by other means (i.e. improving soil health using chemical fertilisers).

But of deeper concern is that at is core RA is anti-science. To quote Murfield “Fundamentally RA (and organic agriculture) is a values system and the only way to decide which value system is preferred is through debate / political processes. At its highest level RA is beyond the reach of scientific method.” He goes on to say: “While the scientific method is incapable of questioning RA’s philosophy and values, this is not to say that the information produced by science cannot be used to help decide which values RA (and individual and society) wish to pursue.”

This is what is now called Post-Normal-Science: the goal of science is no longer the pursuit the truth. Rather its role is to support the narrative.

I have been traditional farming regards fert for all my farm career. There is so much gray stuff with fert and interaction with microbes etc, I have put on tonnes of fertiliser over the years, done test plots, the test plots were so interesting, I got stuff all for my buck unless it had N.
I spent a 100k with Quinphos for nothing. I have gone back to the future and now use serpentine more. Lime, I now know you need to be carefull with, I don't like getting all my fert advice from a company rep, when I get the lime right it looks promising and I'm not talking much, I also use Kieserite, I have very high P levels.

I have had good results with mixed pasture and will continue down that path. In the meantime how does Dickie direct undercut Balance and Ravensdown, who I have shares in by the way, by $100 a tonne? I wrote to Balance to point out the discrepancy and got a crappy letter back saying they know best and I should just keep using them, how co-ops die.

I think the science has proven that the more fertile the soil, the more fauna it has. I was going to buy a tow and fert until I looked at all the actual peer reviewed research showing how bogus the claims are. It's always a lot of money to gamble, and you pay twice, once for the product and then again for the lost production. I think that's why most farmers are conservative, they like to stick with what works.
I haven't dealt with dickie direct, in theory a co-operative should be cheaper. It's costing me about 8k per year before rebates to still be with Ravensdown. They should shut down all their factories and just import the stuff like Dickie direct does.

WhiskeyJack are you dairy, sheep/beef/ arable etc?

I have 26ha of a regenerative mix going in over the next few weeks. At $263 per hectare in seed it is not cheap for an annual forage crop, but I will be using less chemical to spray out the existing cover and I won’t be using nitrogen. I’m using a blend of non chemical fertiliser to initially balance a few macro nutrients. I’m expecting some good regrowth from it and with good rates of annual clovers and vetch in the mix the natural nitrogen effect should be great. The grazing management will be interesting but I’m probably more interested in the diversity and stock health benefits it will create

Sheepish, clovers leach N. 50% of our on farm N leaching comes from clover and rainfall. The amount of clover we have varies according to the climate. Some years it can look like we are growing clover for seed, and others you can struggle to see it. Urea is more of an issue for nitrous oxide than it is for leaching. Other forms of N can be more of an issue for water quality e.g. animal urine.
I hope that like Andrewj, you will continue to keep us informed on how the regen area goes.

I’m in North Canterbury where we generally have a moisture deficit 10 months of the year, not much leaching potential most of the time. Plus our soil is nitrogen deficient so clovers and lucerne has always been planted to try and get the free nitrogen from the atmosphere. I’m interested how the multi species interact and how each different species will draw different nutrients up from deeper down in the soil. I don’t think I’ll be into roller crimping the crop back into the soil. But I am hoping to mob stock in large numbers for short periods of time.

Good luck
You coastal or inland ?

If you are a hill country farmer this regen thing will be like going back in time. Without superphosphate we are screwed. It is all very well if you can plant flash mixed swards. Nutrient out nutrient in is the only way to keep NZ hill country, I was going to say profitable, but I will say going.

There is nothing in the “rules” of regen to say you can’t use fertiliser, although it seem non chemical fertiliser is the done thing. In my situation I will be using ground Reactive phosphate rock or guano phosphate and plenty of sulphur probably with lime pellets. I will test these paddocks before drilling and we will see overtime trends of nutrient loss or gain

It’s coastal, about 10-12 km from the coast, sulphur is our main nutrient required. Fortunately my soils are pretty good so I’m experimenting with this more for stock health and biodiversity rather than soil depth

i am trying some super fine lime with some S through the drill, so far it's looking good. No to much though, 50-100kg a hectare.

You seem newly inspired Aj. Did all that travelling a while back get the yen for farming back in the soul?
I seem to have lost all inspiration at present. Perhaps the large deficit in annual rainfall is looming large. I think we have had a bit over 50ml for september. Very unusual.

yes, I think a 4 year break was good for me, I'm no longer tired of the daily grind.
I always remember the footrot flat cartoon where Cecil the ram was complaining that life was getting him down and he needed something to pick him up. Then around the corner came Wal sharpening his knife, "that was it" said Cecil as he ran after the ewes.

Lol. Well today/last night brought some serious rain. Now we just need another month of it.

I will be interested to see how this works, the chemistry says that fine lime will work faster but the effects won't last as long, in addition ag-lime is roughly 20% 'fine lime' by mass anyway and only 1/4 of the price. What is the point of it?

The point. Charge more for less.

it's an experiment i'm running, going to have to use pellets to go through the drill, otherwise I just use normal ag lime with very varied results. Going to add some S and Mg and try some serpentine too, trying lots of different things and then soil testing. Boy have I spent some money on lime in the last ten years. My flats are an old lake bed that got 2 meters of river gravel dropped on it in a flood a couple of hundred years ago, very high P levels.

Underneath my gravels are huge old forests, I tried digging a log up with a 16 tonne digger and couldn't budge it. I also only get 580mm rainfall pa. the logs are buried in blue clays. Lots of fossils.

Not the easiest farming conditions, soil type and rainfall are probably the biggest drivers of production. I know following the Ravensdown recomendation based on soil tests works for me, except for one paddock that has optimum fertility but for some reason just doesn't grow a lot of grass.

try some dicalcic, I don't know why but it sometimes work where others don't. It's why I am so interested in lime, dicalcic works and gives results when really it shouldn't. I tried their hay mix on a paddock i was stumped on and the change was dramatic, although I'm not a regular user of their products.