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Guy Trafford says the arable farming practice of stubble-burning makes no sense farming-wise and is unhelpfully selfish in its wider impacts on the community

Guy Trafford says the arable farming practice of stubble-burning makes no sense farming-wise and is unhelpfully selfish in its wider impacts on the community

By Guy Trafford

If there are any rural folk out there still unconvinced over climate change, they must have been living in an air-conditioned closet since Christmas.

This year is proving to be the other side of last season’s coin. Remember the 46 days of no rain starting in October through to December 2017 before switching to a wet phase for the remainder of the summer and autumn period?

This season (2018-19) had (happily) persistent rain through the same early period and while since the beginning of the new year approximately 50 mls has fallen around Canterbury, the hot weather and drying winds have long since sucked that up and this is starting to look pretty typical throughout the country.

In the meantime, across the Tasman record fires and heat waves have been afflicting the southern parts of Australia with Tasmania losing 200,000 ha to fire while in Western Queensland, Townsville has had widespread floods to the point where up to 300,000 cattle are estimated to have been lost. In the meantime, over large areas the drought continues. Across Australia 2019 January’s temperature was 2.9c warmer than the average while in NSW a whooping 6c warmer.

New Zealand experienced some record high temperatures in Hamilton and Wellington with Hamner Forest peaking at 38.4oC for the month high and highest for there for 113 years.  NIWA’s predictions for the February to end of April period are ‘interesting’ with above average temperatures but particularly from March onwards average rainfall but possibly from heavy intermittent event (tropical storms coming down). These may give some respite to East Coast farmers.

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Every year around this time plumes of smoke can be seen rising up around the Canterbury plains as (some) arable farmers burn off their crop stubble and the smell from the evening BBQ is stifled by the smell as crop smoke. Given the issues of the out of control wild fires around the Nelson region being experienced at the moment with over 2,100 ha burnt it seems timely to have a re-visit of the pros and cons.

Farmers use the practise to help prepare seed beds for the next crops. The argument is, this is particularly important when re-sowing with small seed crops. New Zealand grows some particularly heavy crops and getting new growth through can be seen as problematic. The other major benefits are around weed management and reducing future pest and disease problems although on a nutrient basis more is lost via burning. It is also cheap to achieve. Around 40% of stubble in Canterbury is burnt based upon a reasonably old report.

On the converse side of things there is the loss of a potential asset of the bales of stubble which have some feed value and other uses. If the stubble is worked into the soil it helps to build up the soil organic matter especially carbon. Up to 88% of carbon is lost through burning. What is not captured in earlier assessments is the social impact. Most developed countries overseas have long since put a ban on stubble burning, largely due to the adverse social aspects of the practice.

Currently farmers are required to get permits to burn and are meant to take suitable mitigation practices. I.e. fire breaks and the like although some of these have not been effective judging by the number of burnt hedges seen at the end of the ‘fire season’. My view is, as a Canterbury rural resident, I would be highly upset if my assets were damaged due to a fire getting out of control just because some practice no longer used elsewhere was considered to be OK. The liability would not only rest on the arable farmer setting the fire but would/should also go back to the Council that allowed the practice to be undertaken. Given that most of our rural fire brigades are manned by volunteers the impact upon them having to ‘chase’ out of control fire should not be under estimated. Particularly this year with so many away helping to fight the Tasman fires near Nelson.

Finally, in this time of heightened concerns and awareness the general public do feel anxious when seeing plumes of smoke on hot Canterbury days. Farmers are under pressure for many of the environmental practices which impact upon the wider community. This one, given the alternative options available would seem to be a no brainer to stop.


With the dry hot weather persisting throughout the region store stock are starting to move to the saleyards which is leading to a softening of prices. Those buyers who have been waiting to get a look in in the past are now managing to buy lambs at prices they feel better reflect the export market. Schedules for lamb have fallen again this week. We seem to be going into the usual round of when farmers are starting get under pressure from feed then the processors see it as an opportunity to claw back some profits.

Wool prices held, just, allow the monitoring grades dropped but largely due to the lack of finer grades coming through rather than buyer resistance. No sign of any upturns ahead.

A similar story to last week. Saleyard prices are holding at reasonable levels especially for quality but the schedule has reduced or held at best from the processors. Volumes coming forward have reduced which will help hold prices up but as the dry weather continues this may force more store cattle out onto the market.

Another -10 cent per kg drop from the processors to continue the fall which has gone on unabated for three months now with no end in sight. Although given prices are considerably below where they were this time last year would signal that they must be about to plateau out soon.

The only really good news on the markets front was the lift in the Global Dairy Trade last week which jumped by +6.7% to staircase upwards for the fifth sale in a row. Whole Milk Powder was the major driver with an +8.4% rise.

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Maybe the councils can charge for the fire permits , based on a estimate of the cost of carbon burn't off , vs carbon stored in the soil. Plus a levy to the local fire brigades.

Guy. As a arable farmer in Canterbury we burn stubble. Straw is baled and fed back on farm. Remaining stubble is burnt, we then direct drill straight after the burn. The main reason we do this is insect and disease control in particular slugs. If in time we are not able to burn then our chemical usage will increase. We have direct drilled into stubble and chemical use is a lot higher. This is the bit I don't like, it's not the cost but the increased use of chemical that is my issue. I would be interested in what the consumer thinks about more or less chemical?

Hi Tim w hat chemicals are you talking about? I have had slug problems but later in the autumn, I didn't realise burning would help.
I burnt stubble in the UK in the 80's, once unintentionally when the bale accumulator met some flint. In Alberta the farm i was on would never take bales off or burn as they were super sensitive to the soils.

slug bait is the main one. You have to remember that the bulk of our straw is baled up then fed back out later on so returned. Not a huge is left after this which is burnt but it creates a great clean pest free seed bed.

slug bait is pretty nasty stuff and doesn't discriminate.

yip exactly. This is why we burn, to me some smoke is much better than more chemical.


Most rural folk have the benefit of context when it comes to weather. Take the Oz "records" for instance "The Federation Drought began in 1895 and reached its peak in 1901 and 1902. ...As a result of the drought sheep and cattle numbers fell from 91 to 54 million, and 11.8 to 7 million respectively." And all that was achieved without air conditioning and SUV's.

looks like we are heading into a mini ice age, not that i'd know.

Don't help the paid troll, AJ. He takes up more space than he (or she or it) should be allowed.

We are that big an influence on the planet now, that denial has to be bypassed. The ozone-hole issue told us that.

If feel sorry for the current version of farmer - caught in an unsustainable regime but committed to debt-repayment and compliance with a chemical-industry-driven system. The old blue-overall farmers - who saw it in terms of handing on something in as-good or better condition - were far better custodians. Or at least, their way of doing things was.

Couldn't agree with that PDK. It may superficially seem that way but the chemical containers dumped in water ways and the chemicals accumulated at sheep dip sites, the cowshed waste direct to waterways etc etc would suggest otherwise. Im not condoning current poor practice just saying the rose tinted glasses are doing a disservice.
As for burning stubble, wouldn't ploughing it back in release as much carbon etc from the soil as burning does, with soil organic matter breaking down along with fossil fuel use and the afore mentioned increase chemical use. It may look dodgy but that doesnt mean it is.

Fair comment. I must admit that there are an unknown number or unmarked 'pits' on farms containing old chemicals and all sorts - a regular time-bomb. But the corporate 'monoculture-to-the=horizon' approach is a clear notch more biologically impactive.

Ultimately, though, agribusiness is the art of turning fossil fuels into computer-held digitial representations of 'wealth'. It was always temporary. Comparing two evils doesn't make the lesser one, less evil.


Not that hoary old chestnut again.I thought the Maunder Minimum had been given a decent funeral some time ago.

Of course,our climate is incredibly complex and over very long timescales,solar activity and the Milankovich Cycles are the most important,but ask yourself this,if we were heading into another ice age,just what is causing glaciers to melt worldwide? The answer can only be-heat.
Take a look at the Keeling Curve which shows the steady rise in global CO2 levels and is corroborated by the figures from here in NZ at Baring Head, then become acquainted with the electro-magnetic spectrum ata basic level. The sun’ energy arrives here at the short end of the spectrum passes through the atmosphere without interreacting with it.However,when a proportion,around 30%,is reradiated back towards space at the longer part of the spectrum,it does react with the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.inshort,you can think of CO2 as a blanket and the thicker that blanket,the more heat is trapped beneath it.

I think the point is that even when scientists are all in agreement, they can still be very wrong. A simple univariant assesment of a hyper complex system is not doing you or anyone else any favours. CO2 is like a very thin sheet, not a blanket, while water vapor is like 5 duvets and a woolen blanket. There is a finite amount of energy hitting the planet and at times there are more than enough ghg (mostly water) to absorb 100% of the energy.
The climate is far more complex than you imagine and to blame one data point (temperature) on one variant (CO2) is childish.

The CO2 is a blanket theory doesn't hold up in in long or short time scales. CO2 has dropped from 6000 ppm to current and the globes temp have remained remarkably consistent within a +/- 3 degree band. Warming rate today isn't any faster today than pre 1945.

The Press was talking about a hot day in Cheviot, then got the surprised impression of some one who had lived there about two years. Scientifically saying the hadn't expected a hot day.

Then quoted a lady taking about the contrast from driving up from Amberley, saying it wasn't this hot in Amberley!

Yahoo for Science, and good investigative reporting.

Global warming is directly driven by the march towards the global communist utopia (yes round 2), incessantly plugged by the UN. The change in CO2 represents a one ten thousandth part change in atmospheric gas. We are literally in the middle of an ice age for gods sake. The glaciers of Fiordland etc pump back and forth from the Alps to the sea at a rapid frequency... last time was 9,000 years ago...

Its certainly political now.
Liked it more when it was about science.