John King: How farming will change under water taxes

We don’t know who discovered water but it wasn’t the fish. A fear of water taxes is gripping farming and here is how I expect pastoral farmers to respond if it becomes a reality.

Firstly, there will be a new interest in soil surfaces. Farmers want soils that absorb water rapidly and release it slowly. That isn’t going to happen with compacted soils and capped surfaces with traditional grazing and cropping practices. Farmers know water is essential to their business but not enough to know what their hourly infiltration rate is. This will change.

This insight will lead to a significant shift in our understanding of planning grazing and cropping; it’s no longer just about nutrient/feed budgeting and livestock performance but enhancing soil function. Practices leading to deeper root systems will help plants reach nutrients beyond that measured by soil tests. Science already shows deeper roots lift livestock productivity.

New perspectives about roots will emerge; they are not just extractive. Roots pump sugars to feed soil life, starting with bacteria and fungi. Furthermore, these carbon-based substances increase soil organic matter, thereby lifting moisture holding capacity and nutrient levels. Every kilogram of soil carbon holds 4 litres of water, possibly more. Enhancing soil structure will allow rapid drainage of surface water.

There will be greater interest in growing diverse pastures to optimise leaf area and leaf volume, and to lengthen growing seasons. Leaves of different shapes increase solar collection, extend photosynthesis, and create resilient pastures. Combined with deeper roots such plants will have more energy and vitality, especially in drier months.

Many weeds will become less of an issue. If livestock eat weeds and get nutrition from them, they are no longer weeds but forage. Many traditional weeds will be recognised for increased nutrients they have, especially when grasses bake dry or freeze.

There is an opportunity for native plants to become valuable grazing substitutes, something Australians have explored for decades. Could this be an opening for Forest and Bird and Fish and Game to bring insights and research as to how wildlife and natives can enhance farm productivity and land values?

There will be greater interest in how earthworms improve farm production. Earthworms increase rainfall absorption and their casts significantly improve the nutrient status of soil, and all for free. The role of self-organising soil organisms like this will benefit farmers financially by reducing costs.

Agresearch scientist Nicole Schon says earthworms can lift pasture production by 10 per cent, but other studies show this could be significantly higher, as much as 50 per cent. Burrowing earthworms pull organic matter deeper into soil profiles building soil depth. South Island irrigation areas do not have strong populations and yet return on investment in these organisms would last longer than any fertiliser application.

Grazing management would also change with taller pastures. Overgrazing and short post-grazing residuals dry out soil surfaces, reduce earthworm activity and increase rainfall runoff exacerbating effects of drought and increasing severity and frequency of floods. Farmers will learn that overgrazing has little to do with animal numbers and everything to do with time. This is not discussed in farm management research but has been part of plant physiology research for decades.

Furthermore, DairyNZ and Beef + Lamb might finally publish what an overgrazed plant looks like and explain what that means for current and future farm profits. There is not a single textbook other than that by wildlife biologist (pro-livestock) Allan Savory that describes the importance of overgrazed plants. Overgrazing is the single biggest cause of farm debt. Bankers and accountants will learn this too.

Scientists agree pastures are too high in nitrogen and we have bred livestock to cope with this, especially dairy. A change in grazing management will require genotypes that handle longer pasture. Ex-Feds president Bruce Wills highlights this. His shift to longer pasture required different livestock genetics. It saved his farm while neighbours sold.

Working with such insights offers farmers another opportunity, a chance to rediscover how to be profitable. Farmers never ask for staff wages back, so why allow themselves to take the hit when things are tough? A new look at financial literacy in planning and executing financial budgets will offer new confidence.

The current accounting equation of income minus expenses equals profit must change to income minus profit equals expenses. One way to successfully achieve this is farmers learning how to substitute inputs with environmental services as detailed above.

This starts with farmers questioning whether products and services actually address root causes of farming problems or merely treat symptoms on an everlasting basis. Australian research shows farmers increasing soil function are more confident dealing with unforeseen circumstances and are optimistic of their future.

Farmers that do not value curiosity and lifelong learning will continue to shoulder the blame and risk so successfully transferred by agribusiness provides.

Source: Stuff News

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