Hill Country Futures Programme

// Research

Innovative tools to support farmers and farm consultants in pasture planning are expected to become available next year as part of the Hill Country Futures Programme.

image of derrick moot

Lincoln University’s Professor Derrick Moot, who is leading several of the research areas that make up the programme, said findings from a number of projects are now being written up.

These include a simple model to help farmers forecast potential yields of lucerne for their properties, a national database of pasture growth data, and legume production data to help farmers assess the difference in productivity they could achieve by replacing resident pasture with improved pasture.

Hill Country Futures is 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.

It’s 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.

“The programme is made up of a number of separate workstreams but they are all interconnected and working towards the same goals,” says Derrick.

“The goals are to help answer the common questions “what plant, where and why?” – because choosing the optimal forage can improve animal productivity, animal welfare, biodiversity and soil health, while also mitigating soil erosion and climate change.”

Modelling Legume Yield

The Modelling Legume Yield project draws on 20 years of lucerne, soil and water data from Lincoln University, along with on-farm experiments.

It aims to answer questions around legume forages’ impact on production, environment, climate change, nutrient leaching and carbon sequestration.

Two models are being developed, one for use by agribusiness professionals, policy-makers and researchers and the second for use by farmers.

“When you develop a model, you can develop a sophisticated one to work out how much a crop grows in a day,” says Derrick.

“To do that, you need to know everything about the plant, such as how much sun it captures, how much water is available and nitrogen used and so on.

“You need that sort of model to do scenario testing. Part of our research, in collaboration with Plant & Food Research Ltd, has been taking the Lincoln data and putting it into a sophisticated model. This model can provide answers to big questions with great precision and accuracy. It will mainly be used by the science community and agricultural consultants to answer questions around agriculture and the environment.

“However, we are also doing a test between this model and a simpler model that could be used by farmers for predicting lucerne yield on their farms.

The simple model based on mean air temperatures has been published and the comparison of results of the sophisticated model will be submitted for publication by the end of the year.”

National AgYields Database

For any model to work you need good data. A spin-off from the model development has been the creation of the National AgYields Database. This project, co-funded by the T.R. Ellett Agricultural Trust, aims to collate all existing pasture data information for New Zealand into a national database, which anyone can access to source information or upload pasture data into.

“New Zealand has collected a lot of pasture production data from all over the country over the past 50 years,” says Derrick.

“However, it is scattered – some is in notebooks, some in records on people’s bookshelves, some people have retired and taken that information with them.

“We thought, as a public good exercise, we should develop a readily available open database of pasture and crop yields from throughout New Zealand, where anyone can put in pasture growth rates data they have measured.”

The database has already gone live at www.agyields.co.nz/home 

“It is likely to be used by consultants and people planning feed budgets,” says Derrick. “Initially, it is expected most of the data uploaded will be already published material. We will be encouraging the Ministry for Primary Industries, the science community and seed companies to add their data. But we expect it to build over time and become steadily more useful as more information is added.

“I have been talking to farmers for many years about growing red clover, lucerne and so on. They often say ‘we’d like to but don’t know how much it would grow or when in my environment’. Ultimately, the AgYields tool will enable them to see how it has grown in a location close to their farm.”

Legume Production Map

The third project is quantifying Legume Production Data, which aims to inform decision-making on farms, including around legumes, by alerting farmers to their options, as well as the risks associated with using different pasture species.

New Zealand’s diverse landscapes, climatic conditions and farm systems can make it difficult to decide which legume to grow where, including when considering nitrogen-fixing properties. The aim of the project is to help farmers match their property’s different land management units with the appropriate legume.

The data will complement the AgYields database, by providing legume production curves for different regions. Farmers will be able to match their property’s different land management units with the appropriate legume.

“We are comparing production from legume dominant pastures such as lucerne, or red clover with chicory or plantain to resident or unimproved pasture on the same farms,” says Derrick.

“The aim is to see the size difference you can get from using an improved pasture in a system. For instance, we have data for a pasture where lucerne produced 14 tonnes of dry matter, compared to five tonnes from the resident pasture. Another, in spring drought conditions in Banks Peninsula, saw lucerne produce 10 tonnes of dry matter, compared to 3.4 tonnes from resident pasture.

“We are gathering the kind of evidence needed to help answer that common question from farmers, ‘how much will that pasture grow here?’ We will write the data up for formal publication but also upload it all to the AgYields database, so anyone can access it.

“This data will be immediately useful for farmers to compare resident and new pastures. This is an exciting area for future development so we are also producing videos of “How to” for farmers who may want to measure their own pasture growth rate data and load it into the National Database.

For more information, please visit: www.hillcountryfutures.co.nz