Angus Kebbell investigates the arable farming sector and finds it makes a large contribution to the New Zealand rural economy. But the pandemic has introduced new challenges, but maybe also highlighted some key advantages

Angus Kebbell investigates the arable farming sector and finds it makes a large contribution to the New Zealand rural economy. But the pandemic has introduced new challenges, but maybe also highlighted some key advantages
Hemp crop, Canterbury

By Angus Kebbell

An additional billion tonnes of cereals per year is estimated to be required to feed the predicted population of 9 billion people in 2050. In addition to cereals for human consumption, increasing volumes of feed and forage crops will be required to feed animals that can provide the estimated additional 200 million tonnes of meat needed.

To achieve this, arable land is expected to expand by around 70 million hectares, and farming will become more intensive with high demand for irrigation.

New crops and production systems that use water efficiently and improve crop yields are vital in meeting these demands. As well as high yields, new cultivars must deliver high nutritional quality and meet the requirements of the food industry in terms of health benefits, convenience and good processing qualities.

Arable production adds around $1 billion of value to the New Zealand economy each year. This production delivers essential raw materials worth around $5 billion to the wider food industry. The grain and seed sector is expected to grow at nearly +3% per annum and forage and feed supply for the dairy and livestock industry by +8% per annum.

 

This season a big concern for contractors is finding sufficient skilled labour to drive the sophisticated machinery used for planting and harvesting on our arable farms. Harvesting requires the largest volume of labour and typically some roles are filled by Northern Hemisphere workers who work the seasons alternately, with issues at the boarder due to COVID-19 there is pressure on this workforce.

Some airline staff have been redeployed into the agricultural industry and training initiatives will help, but the skills required to operate some of these machines take time due to their technical nature. The industry will need to attract drivers who have moved into other roles, or moved into semiretirement, back into the industry. However, there is a real risk that contractors will be faced with some extremely long days harvesting. Long days are normal for the industry, particularly if the weather shortens the harvest window, but working excessive hours for a long period of time is not sustainable.

A crop I find interesting is Hemp. Planting is expected to take place from late October onwards. Interest in growing this plant is increasing and new varieties are being developed. It remains a challenging crop to harvest, but techniques are continually being refined.

Hemp is one of six crops that have been identified as having potential in a report commissioned by Our Land & Water. Other crops identified in the report include soy, chickpeas, oats, buckwheat and quinoa. All of these crops can certainly be grown in New Zealand, but it may be difficult for local production to compete with imported product on price. The locally grown product would therefore need to have other marketable attributes to make production both environmentally and financially sustainable.

The arable industry is focused on innovation that delivers new products for both domestic use and export, and improving productivity and sustainability of farms.

It is important that this is kept front of mind. Federated Farmers North Canterbury arable chairman Roscoe Taggart who farms at Cust in North Canterbury mentioned that some arable farmers do bury their heads in the sand on big issues like the environment. What we have learned in recent times is that a front foot approach will have better outcomes for all farmers in terms of policy.

Farmers need a much better relationship with the Beehive in Wellington and farmers should be leading discussions on policy, Wellington needs to hear the cry from farmers – which is, involve us and talk to us, making big decisions needs in-depth consultation with the very group it directly affects this will deliver better outcomes for all.

Listen to the podcast above for the full story.


Angus Kebbell is the Producer at Tailwind Media. You can contact him here.

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26 Comments

I am planting 10 different species early next week to see if they will grow in these conditions, many C4 plants like millet, buckwheat etc, it's an expensive hobby. I am thinking I will be autumn planting and trying to harvest by November to play this game in this climate but that won't be frost sensitive plants like millet. The world can grow a lot more food if the consumer is okay paying a bit more and then a lot more, food as a percentage of weekly earnings has been falling since the end of WW2.

I don't believe the world will run out of food as countries like Brazil have so much potential, tonnes of rainforest that can be milled to make crappy furniture in Asia and then go into cattle and then soy/maize. Infrastructure funded by China which is already impacting.

Russia has so much untapped potential, I talked to some Kiwi's heading to Russia as consultants, the ability to import knowledge will make changes happen a lot faster. Russia was talking of 15 fold increase in a decade I don't know how that is going.

You can see here how Russia ranks in production
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agriculture_in_Russia

Hemp can be grown anywhere why grow it here? We have some of highest costs in the developed world, the question is how can we add enough value to pay the bills and still make a profit while up against low cost producers with significant advantages in soils, fertility and even climate.

I think with consent to farm regulations from councils , nutrient limits ,already high debt levels it's hard to see much change in production in the short term, it's more going to be about reducing costs.

Also Trump did a good deal for the USA on ag exports
https://www.michiganagtoday.com/ustr-usda-release-report-on-agricultural...

Most of us are unaware of the huge vegetable seed industry that has grown in Canterbury, I was at a meeting, the speaker said, %80 of world vegetable seeds come from Canterbury.
Unfortunately many seeds are patented and owned by four huge corporates. If that is true there is only room for %20 more production.

Vegetables are really bad for nutrient losses also soil gets damaged over time from continuous cropping.

Andrewj,
That 80% figure has to be greatly in error.
The value of Canterbury for vegetable seed production is that it is Southern Hemsiphere and hence of use in quickly bulking up varieties for the Northern Hemisphere. Crop isolation requirements are a major constraint to increasing the area, as is the limited area of suitable soils.
KeithW

One the other hand how do all these bright sparks expect us to grow their hemp?

https://youtu.be/-37TJ-gS6Ss
- gearing up to grow Euro style.

Thanks Keith, I was thinking it must be wrong, far too much risk having all your seeds in one country/basket. I was at a regenerative field day and they were talking about the intensive seed industry. I asked around and one farmer did tell me the seed industry is huge down there these days. I know India has large vegetable seed industry.

I was amazed how USA Ag exports to China have grown this year.

https://www.michiganagtoday.com/ustr-usda-release-report-on-agricultural...

Andrewj,
Yes, that report is an offical report from the USDA. Although it includes the mandatory doffing of the hat to Mr Trump, the number themseles are correct and official. Very different from a lot of the media misinformation. American farmers wouldbe in big trouble without these Chinese purchases, particularly given that this years's crop yields of corn and soy are above the long term trend, which itself continues to move upwards each year.
KeithW

Keith, this season is not looking that good, confidence is falling. I just read this and it's being reflected in store markets, I'm hoping this fantastic spring will help things along as farmers start to kill stock.

https://farmersweekly.co.nz/section/agribusiness/view/meat-forecast-rais...

Andrewj
With European and American markets in disarray from a worsening COVId situation, the next six months for NZ are going to depend to a very large extent on Chinese demand for NZ products. This is not what most Kiwis want to hear but it is the reality. People keep telling me that we should be focusing on 'anywhere but China' but I am still searching for guidance as to the specifics of where that might be.
KeithW

Its really tuff, bad characters and uniformed debate.
What could possibly go wrong.

https://i.stuff.co.nz/the-press/canterbury-top-stories/122839840/did-the...

Mind you, the scale of compensation for loss or rights, loss of asset and business value, lives stuffed.
That will be a settlement.

The notion that "The grain and seed sector is expected to grow at nearly +3% per annum and forage and feed supply for the dairy and livestock industry by +8% per annum" is not grounded in reality. Where are these fanciful numbers coming from?
KeithW

I think what happens around PKE (price , perception , legislation) will drive the potential growth. To replace even half of the palm imports would require several hundred thousand ha of new grain production.
As far as the seed business goes that must be close to capacity unless a large international company moves in and stirs things up in a competitive sense with the established operators ( pgg etc).
I think hemp is a fad that appeals to the mainstream media and will not come to much. That leaves oat milk that has huge potential but in a country where the largest corporation produces cow milk it will never be allowed off the ground.
The other growth area could be protein crops (ties into reducing pke dependance). The problem here is the tech start ups are charletans who have no interest in where the raw material is procured. Their only objective is to sell the company for hundreds of millions.

Stanhay,
If PKE should ever be banned then my own calculations suggest that dairy production would decline by about 10 percent. Substitution with grain would be minor, but there would need to be much greater emphasis on silage. Dairy farms would also move back towards the 'controlled starvation' policies of the past in relation to drought management. The irony is that elemination of PKE would have close to zero impact on the palm oil industry because palm oil production decisions are not influenced in any significant way by PKE sales.
The key reason why oat milk potential is constrained is the challenge of marketing large quantities at a profit. If that can be acheived, then no-one will stop it.

Thats interesting Keith. Silage seems inefficient too me ( as far as wholecrop or maize goes they have to commit to it early whereas grain is on tap). I do not understand the resistance by NZ dairy to grain (though obviously it is used by many) , yet they are very keen to use quite a few types of imported supplementary feeds.
Just to clarify my comment around protein crops was in relation to plant based meat startups.

Stanhay,
Yes, silage is inefficient compared to PKE and increased silage means less pasture for grazing and hence lower stocking rate.
Grain is too expensive except as an 'add-on', typically through feeding in the milking shed. Anything more than an add-on creates serious metabolic issues. In a drought, cattle can be kept alive on either PKE or silage but not on grain.
KeithW

I think what happens around PKE (price , perception , legislation) will drive the potential growth. To replace even half of the palm imports would require several hundred thousand ha of new grain production.
As far as the seed business goes that must be close to capacity unless a large international company moves in and stirs things up in a competitive sense with the established operators ( pgg etc).
I think hemp is a fad that appeals to the mainstream media and will not come to much. That leaves oat milk that has huge potential but in a country where the largest corporation produces cow milk it will never be allowed off the ground.
The other growth area could be protein crops (ties into reducing pke dependance). The problem here is the tech start ups are charletans who have no interest in where the raw material is procured. Their only objective is to sell the company for hundreds of millions.

What I have learnt in recent times, and not so recent times, is that govt will do what it thinks gets the votes and the submission process is just a smoke screen. Good luck getting more production when all govt regulations are aimed at sending farming backwards to a time before fertilisers when yields were much smaller.
Glad to hear arable land will expand 70 million ha, we are going to need it.

The new N cap, is going to cost me about $100k per year and there wouldn't be a person in NZ that could notice a quantifiably better outcome. I have to drop my N use by 140kg/ha, which will save 0.4gm of N per 1,000l. The detectable difference would be well within the margin of error. I struggle to comprehend the pig headed attitude that has forced this through. All it does is hurt farmers who are trying to farm scientifically.

Be interested in more info around your four figures above.

We used 333kg/N/ha last season over 210ha including the run-off
Next season we need to cut back to 190
143kg/N/ha = 65t urea which costs $44,000
143kg/N represents 1.2t/DM/ha or 270t over the entire farm, some of this is in the maize silage and some in the winter crops but mostly in grass
270t of feed represents 27,000kgms but there will be some inefficiencies so I can round it down to 25,000kgms
25,000kgms is roughly 50 cows production
At a 6.50 payout it is $162,000 lost revenue
If we cut back on cow numbers there are a few savings we can make but it's still going to cost us around 100k
I am hoping to do 280,000kgms this season
With the N cap we will be back down to around 255,000kgms

Nitrogen leaching from application is around 4% according to the best data I can find, 4% of 140kg/N ha which we have to cut back by = 5.6kgN/ha
5600gm/N ha = 0.56gm/N m2
1100mm rainfall per year = 1100l/m2 into which we add 0.56gm of leached N
Or put another way 0.5ppm which is so insignificant it is impossible to model.

Ironically my best outcome, is a straight swap of lost DM from urea for PKE, if we can avoid the FEI's we only lose about 45k.

Thank you for your the figures. It does help it make sense.
My only query would be you've only included leeching directly from the urea when most will come from the extra urine from the extra stocking. Also you aren't allowing for evapotranspiration or direct runoff of part of the 1100mm of rainfall.
Certainly 333kgs N is more than twice what we will use but for 1050kgsms/ha.

I will look at the urine leaching as well, but I don't see it being that significant or directly related to urea, I could swap the urea for PKE and still have the same number of urine patches, it costs more but I can still make money from it. Good points about evapotranspiration etc. most of the leaching happens during autumn and winter, along with most of the rainfall.
I try to farm well, and farm successfully and I feel most of the criticism is overblown hype. There isn't anything but farmland between us and the sea, the new rules seem more aimed at hurting farmers than helping the environment.

Your N application seems to be more than double the average . I wonder if you will really see that much of a reduction ? Have you trialled a plot with less N application ?
https://www.dairynz.co.nz/news/tactical-use-of-nitrogen-fertiliser/

You must be putting on a lot on Nitrogen. I think this is going to be our future and there is very little farmers can do about it. We may get short term relief but they will be back in the medium term even tougher.

I'd be interested to see any kind of relief, short or otherwise.

A real concern to the seed production industry in Canterbury is some Regen Ag pastures that are being planted. These could cause contamination issues from the pollen they produce potentially crossing with seed crops. We grow hybrid radish seed which is exported to Europe and is a core profitable crop.
I am not against regen ag but this is one of the unintended consequences that has not been thought about.