Farmer Jacqui Cottrell has a background in agricultural science but she says the Hill Country Futures programme is “science like I’ve never seen it before in agriculture – a real focus on the glue that makes up agriculture – our people”.
Jacqui and husband Dan’s 600Ha sheep and beef farm 25 minutes from Taihape is a trial site for Hill Country Futures, a long-term $8.1m partnership programme, co-funded by Beef + Lamb New Zealand, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), Seed Force New Zealand and PGG Wrightson Seeds.
Hill Country Futures is focused on future-proofing the profitability, sustainability and wellbeing of New Zealand’s hill country farmers, their farm systems, the environment and rural communities. The programme differs from most pastoral-based research in that it considers the whole-farm system and, critically, the wider communities these systems exist within.
The programme incorporates traditional science research, farmer knowledge, social research and citizen science and has a strong emphasis on forages and providing decision-making tools to help farmers select the best forage option for different land management units.
As part of the Hill Country Futures project, sensors have been installed on the Cottrell farm – and some neighbouring properties to map micro-indicators soil temperature and moisture in the hill country landscape.
As hill country farms typically have diverse landscapes within individual farms, there is a need to help farmers quantify key soil and terrain features of these landscapes to enable robust decision-making around the most suitable locations and potential benefits of introducing forage legumes into their hill country landscapes.
“This particular research project is very exciting,” says Jacqui, who is a member of the Hill Country Futures steering group.
“Obviously there is a strong focus on the greater good of hill country farming, around further sustainability, productivity and profitability but what is even more exciting for me is the focus on human resource to help us as farmers identify our strengths and weaknesses and areas that we might improve.”
Innovation is integral to the Cottrell’s approach to farming. Jacqui is originally from Australia and she and Dan returned to New Zealand and Dan’s parents’ farm in 2015.
The farm is high altitude, with cold winters and short summers. It’s 80 per cent sheep and 20 per cent cattle, plus a flourishing quinoa growing operation.
“The idea is to capture extensive data over the long term that will give us information to make decisions about the suitability of different cultivars and where to plant.
“Legumes are an efficient way to finish animals and get high quality dry matter, so you want to grow as much as you can. If we can identify the best areas to grow good legumes, why would you not be doing that?”
With three sons, aged six, four and one, Jacqui recognises that a challenge for farmers may be finding the time to grasp the benefits offered through research and innovation.
“I think that can be the biggest limitation, when you are on the ground, finding time to make use of all the information that’s out there. We need good leadership – I think Beef + Lamb New Zealand is doing a good job of providing that – and to make use of the resources being made available.
“New Zealand has a great growing climate. I’m from Australia and summers are so hot but the climate here is incredible to grow things. We need to keep growing and innovating and I’m really enjoying being part of a project that can help to shape the future of hill country farming.
“We are all for looking after the environment. We have put in a wetland, fenced our waterways and extended native planting. We have 26Ha of forestry but only on very steep slopes that were not performing.
“Higher prices are being paid for land for forestry than for sheep and beef and good undulating productive country being converted into trees is very worrying. Hill Country Futures can give farmers a boost in terms of performance and productivity and resilience.”