Don't Nuke The Farm: Use Exactly What's Needed!
“Being a Kiwi, you’ve got to look after your country and if there is a smarter way to do something then you want to do it.”
That’s straight talking from Murray Cockburn, owner of Mainland Minerals Southern, a Gore based fertiliser company earning a reputation in Otago and Southland for promoting environmentally responsible practices in fertiliser use. In 2014 the company won the Commercial Category of the Southland Environment Awards in recognition of the work it does in reducing Nitrogen and Phosphorous inputs on farms.
Murray is no stranger to the topical debate that’s being playing out in the media around different approaches to fertiliser use in New Zealand and he comes down heavily on the side that favours fine particle fertiliser as opposed to granular. But using the best option for different areas of the farm, fine particle or granular, is just one factor in his company’s successful equation.
“We are all about working together with the farmer, understanding what they want to achieve, identifying where their gaps are and looking for the gains that we can help them make. It’s a holistic approach and at the core of it is soil science. The biggest limitation to plant production is not always just nutrient, often soil health is the major factor. We jigsaw up the farm, so to speak, and through soil tests & getting out to have a dig in the paddock we find out what each area requires.”
Taieri Dairy Farmer, Peter Cashmere, says when he brought in Mainland Minerals their approach was totally new to him.
“We’ve now identified potentially four different soil types when we had actually been treating them all as the same - it’s a real science. More of the same is not the answer. Some of us farmers have our heads in the sand when it comes to our soil, we are more interested in what happens above it rather than below it. Within three months I could see the difference in the soil structure and that sold me on the fine particle application. It enhances grass growth quicker. Now we have ongoing monitoring of the soil and can tweak things when we need to.”
Mainland Minerals do not have standard fertiliser with a set level of say phosphate or sulphur, as is the case for conventional fertilisers such as Superphosphate. Murray Cockburn says that every fertiliser mix is unique and is blended according to the nutrient & biological requirements of each farm.
“In the good old days you nuked the whole farm with superphosphate and hoped for the best, of course times have changed and with a greater desire for better environmental management and good economics, guess work isn’t good enough anymore. Your farm might not need phosphate, so why pay for it?”
The company ethically sources its phosphate from various countries worldwide to ensure the highest quality materials with the best possible value & lowest possible heavy metals such as cadmium & fluoride. As an example, one of their key highly concentrated phosphate products, MainphosXP, has double the amount of phosphate, when compared to super, with only 30% being water soluble yet still has 80% of the nutrient quickly available to the plants. Superphosphate has close to 90% water soluble phosphate so has far greater risk of leaching into water ways, particularly in low phosphate retention soils, and significantly higher cadmium & fluoride levels.
Murray is not entirely averse to granular use and will recommend it if phosphate and potassium levels are so deficient that they require a major boost to lift them to an optimum level. However, he would always suggest using it in combination with fine particle once deficiency levels have been addressed. As for nitrogen he’s emphatic that it is definitely more efficient in fine particle application compared to granular as a lot of the applied nitrogen is up taken through the plant leaves and there’s virtually no leaching into waterways.
According to Murray, the benefits of fine particle application become blatantly obvious to farmers who invest in it. There’s the efficiency that comes from the even spread of fertiliser and the greater surface area that’s covered, resulting in rapid uptake of nutrients into the soil, faster plant uptake, quicker growth response, greater dry matter production and limited opportunity for nutrients to enter into a waterway. In addition, nutrients can be taken up even quicker by plants through its leaves. Long term, independent trials have also shown high sustainability of all nutrient levels.
“One of the beauties of fine particle fertiliser is that you come up with a nutrient cocktail that blends all the elements needed for a particular area, both macro nutrients (calcium, nitrogen, phosphorous, sulphur and potassium) as well as trace minerals, and apply them all at the same time. You can even over sow seed through the system.”
Such a glowing report card begs the question -why aren’t farmers turning to fine particle fertiliser in their droves? Murray believes part of the resistance has been a hangover from the early days of its introduction.
“Back in the late 1980’s fine particle application got off to a poor start as initially it generated a great response but it didn’t last long and grass production levels fell. The problem was the low rate of application, just 25-50kg per hectare. Things have moved a very long way since then. Typically, Superphosphate had been applied annually at a rate of 250kg per hectare. Now we typically apply fine particle fertiliser at a rate of between 150-350 kg per hectare depending on the soil needs.”
Murray also finds that farmers can be resistant to change for “fear of the wheels falling off”, of suddenly realising “my farm is not producing”. But in reality, he says this doesn’t happen and he has plenty of farming clients who are happy to confirm this.
Eight years ago Bruce Taylor from Mossburn was won over by Murray’s knowledge and philosophy of soil science and decided to give the fine particle approach a go. He was running sheep then and says that within 12 months he’d noticed a difference on the farm.
“Today I’m into dairy support and the farm is thriving. Animal health has improved, especially the lambs as they came up to weight much quicker and were healthier. We are getting good tonnage in fodder beet crops and all baleage made on the farm is high quality. Just through balancing the nutrients in the soil has really turned it around. The fine particle application provides for a quick plant uptake because it’s finely ground and all the plants can take up the nutrients directly.… solid fertiliser can sit around for a few months.”
One of the company’s long-standing clients, Rob Hall from Waikaka, is a self-confessed convert to what he calls Mainland Mineral’s ‘philosophy’.
“Someone asked me the other day – why do you always have so much grass? The answer is simply what Mainland Minerals are doing for us - pasture and stock wise they are leaps and bounds above other companies we have worked with. I may be breeding stud sheep and beef but what I am actually doing is breeding microorganisms in the soil. It’s not about the medium term it’s about long- term gains. We are stewards of the land and we have to look after it for the next generation.”