GrassFed in the city

Modern Farm Girls talking Food, Family, and Farming in New Zealand

Late last year we moved our vegetable garden to create some more space for the kids, and allowed the old one to grass over and become part of our lawn.  Have a look at these photos:

unfertilised-lawn-2017

Our  lawn

Old vege garden lawn 2017.JPG

The old vegetable garden, left to become part of our lawn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have never applied fertiliser to our lawn (who’d want to make it grow faster?!).  So it is quite weedy, and bare looking at certain times of the year.

Every year I put a mixture of sheep manure, compost, and handfuls of nitrogen, phosphate, pottassium, and lime on our vege garden.  And look at the difference those nutrients make!  Beautiful, thick, yummy clover, naturally increasing the nitrogen in the soil.

In the future, it would be great to get our new garden tested to see where our selenium levels etc are at.  We do soil tests regularly on our farm to work out how much sulphur, selenium and other nutrients we need to add to the base mix of phosphate and potassium to ensure our pasture and our animals are getting the optimum amount of minerals they need.

Some NZ soils (not all) are naturally low in selenium, which is essential for human and animal health.  We add selenium to our fertiliser to ensure the health of our cattle and sheep.  I would be interested to find out if vegetable growers add minerals that are essential for human health to their soils, or just those essential for plant health?

Where can I shift them to next?!

Man it’s dry out there.  One of the interesting, challenging, and scary things about farming is that there is just so much stuff we have no control over.  One of the biggest variables we deal with here in the North is the amount of rain in any given month.  We can take care of the health and fertility of our soil, we can manage how we graze our ‘plants’ with holistic rotation planning, but as anyone with a vege garden (or even a pot plant) will know, if that plant don’t get water, that plant don’t grow!

Farming at its most simplest is growing pasture and then converting it into protein.  We are really grass farmers – one of our main jobs is to grow as much high quality grass as we can.  Plenty of good pasture is always going to be a top priority for the well-being of a healthy cattle beast or sheep – Vitamin ‘G’ for grass.

I’m not going to get into the pro’s and con’s of irrigation in other parts of the country.  However if you take a walk in our crop paddock, the only part that’s green is where we had a broken water pipe a few weeks ago.  And it can’t help but make me think about how nice it would be to put sprinklers around our farm and have all our paddocks looking like that right now…. (picture)

Because, despite looking fairly green from the road, when you get up amongst it on the farm, underneath the stalk is bare and brown.

Drought Jan 2017.JPG

A little rain would make a big difference!

Now, if we knew that every January the 18th it would look like this, we could plan for it, and match our stocking rate to pasture availability.  But every January the 18th looks different.  Unfortunately, understocking our property isn’t the answer either.  Pasture loses palatability and nutritional benefits if it gets too long, and its not economical to have too much pasture not being eaten (Well it might be economical if you have no mortgage and a handy off-farm income!).  So one of a farmer’s jobs is balancing the delicate line of having enough pasture vs enough animals all throughout the year.

Measuring the amount of dry matter in a paddock (calories) with a sward stick, and matching it against the daily energy requirements of individual animals is invaluable in calculating feed demand versus availability, however, I don’t even know how to begin to calculate it looking at our paddocks at the moment.

(picture).

So, prioritising which stock are going to get the best bits of grass left is certainly a bit of a challenge this summer.  We had a ram buyer come down from Taipa on the weekend – they are so dry up there that he had to make the decision to buy in feed for his cattle.  Interestingly he chose palm kernel to keep his weaners going until it rains.  I reserve the right to change my mind, however palm kernal is the waste product left after palm kernal is extracted.  Palm oil goes into pretty much everything NZders buy – shampoo, conditioner, chocolate, breakfast cereals and mascara.  Awesome you if you actively make sure that none of the cosmetics, detergents or food you use contains palm oil (note that it is quite legal to just call it vegetable oil too on ingredients lists).

If palm kernal wasn’t fed to animals, it would be burnt, and that would cause an environmental impact of its own, so whilst I don’t like the idea of importing feed  from another part of the world, I think there are other environmental impacts that are of a higher priority.  However, I think that a 100% grass fed animal is healthier and better for the planet, so wouldn’t like to see grain/kernal fed to animals for anything but in a drought situation..

Our farm should get through without having to make those choices, however we will be keeping a close eye on how much pasture we have vs how much our animals need, and selling some one year old bulls is certainly an option on the table.

The other job we are doing at this time of the year is keeping up with the water supply.  We have troughed water going to almost all of our paddocks on the farm for stock water, with the water coming from our creek and from a bore.  Piped water in the summer heat means plenty of opportunities for pipes to split, pull apart etc.  Bulls are good at knocking the ball-cocks off the troughs, which causes the water to keep on running, even after that trough is full.  So “keeping an eye on the water”, “finding a leak”, and “fixing a leak” are common answers to what we are up to at this time of year.  And finding a leak can take all day – you know you’ve got no water, because the trough near the house is empty and there’s no water coming out of the pipe – but where the heck do you start to look on the farm?!

Still on water, I started to do an interesting calculation the other day.  We receive approximately 1300ml rainfall each year.  So this works out to be 130,000 litres of water per hectare.  Over our 600ha of pasture (so not including the forests or other land we don’t graze), that equals 78 million litres of rain that our farm receives and then transfers into groundwater, ponds, streams and rivers every year!  That’s a truckload of water (Roughly per ha, our sheep and cattle would drink maybe 30,000 of the 130,000 litres, the rest goes into the ground, into streams, or evaporates back up into the sky).  Now, if the rainfall came in nice even amounts, say 100ml a month, that would be great, and we’d have a nice even amount of pasture growing all year round (give or take the effects of temperature and sunshine on growth).  However, that’s not how our weather goes – instead we get about 1000ml over 4 months, and very little the rest of the time.  Can’t help but feel if we were able to store a little bit of that winter rain and then use it as ‘rainfall’ throughout the year, farming could become that little bit more predictable, and our stress levels would come down.  I certainly see that as a convincing argument for water storage, as long as it can ensure that the water requirements of our aquatic ecosystems are not compromised.

Cheers to a kiwi summer, and lets hope for some rain today!

The latest Fonterra TV series featuring Richie McCaw is feel-good stuff for farmers – we understand the sentiments, the hard work and the love that goes into producing food for others to drink and eat.  However, for people who are see declining water volume or water quality when they look around New Zealand, or are confronted with ugly dead-calf-in-a-glass-of-milk SAFE billboards as they sit on the motorway in Auckland’s morning traffic – they don’t buy that feel-good factor.  They see a romantic attempt at persuasion.

These consumers don’t need stories – they need facts and they need science, and they need to have their concerns addressed directly – whether good, bad, or ugly.  They need to know how the NZ dairy, sheep and beef sectors define sustainability, and how close we are to actually being sustainable.

Consumers need to know the environmental, social, and economic impact of the food that they eat, and the products that they buy.  But I don’t think we are giving them easy access to information:  Google “How much water does it take to produce 1 litre of milk in NZ” and there are only two results – one a science blog (which took me on an informative 2 hour diversion through a whole heap of articles, thanks sciblogs.co.nz), the other was vegans.co.nz.  Worse, ask the same question regarding per kg of  beef and there was not a single result.  Not a single result!  The feel-good stories are a waste of time if you can’t back them up with easily accessed information.

We don’t need New Zealanders to buy our product, we can sell it anywhere.  So it could be easy to not have a significant domestic marketing budget.  However the long-term result is a population that doesn’t understand dairy, sheep or beef farming in NZ, the attributes that differentiate it from other producers, how and why different processes happen on and off farm, and the overall importance to our country – providing the perfect opportunity for activist groups who have the ultimate aim that there is no animals farmed for milk, meat or wool in New Zealand.

And that’s the reason why its so important to invest in our domestic market.  Because the more a New Zealander understands about how we produce our products, the better their peer-to-peer influence can sell our product to the world.

Internationally, local influencers are of vital importance to selling our product – Michelle Tam (Nom Nom Paleo) espousing about the qualities of NZ grass-fed meat is worth 100 times the cost of a BLNZ sponsored post on Facebook.  However, a Kiwi that understands and can confidently talk about our primary products with knowledge and passion is worth their weight in grass-fed antibiotic and HGP free beef.

 

But we’re not going to get that endorsement if we don’t confront the realities of production head on.  My rural-based brother and sister-in-law have a real dislike for irrigation pivots in the South Island, and the effect they think that irrigation has had on river flow volumes and quality, however I don’t have the information to have a really meaningful discussion with them about it.  When I reassure a friend that she can buy NZ red meat from her supermarket with confidence, she points out that the label isn’t clearly telling her that the meat she is buying is antibiotic and HGP free and grass-fed.  And she wants to know that if HGP use is supposedly so low, why do we have it in NZ at all?  And I want to know too.

Lets get some good information and science out there and easily access by farmers and non-farmers alike.  The biggest group of influential marketers we have are New Zealanders, lets make it easy for them.

Like many of us, I try not to be too engaged in social media.  However, it turns out I am a sucker for farming posts, and the comments section of farming stories in our national media.  I sometimes waste a good hour or so if a farming article has resulted in a slurry of anti-farming rants – I am fascinated by who comments, and what they have to say.  Farmers and non-farmers all have pretty much the same DNA, so I do see rude and disrespectful comments from both on occasion.  But by far, the most angry, seething, hateful comments seem to come from people who I can only describe as angry vegans.  I hope this doesn’t sound disrespectful, I just can’t come up with another term to describe people who’s hatred of farming means they have no worries putting complete fabrications in their comments, or making comments with no thought as to the impact their statements may have on others.

If you are Vegan, and you choose not to eat, wear or have anything to do with animal products, that’s ok.  I understand veganism when it is lived in accordance with a low consumption, low impact, low stress and intentional life philosophy.  A philosophy where the impact is considered at all levels of consumption:  you buy a cellphone, tv or appliance, choose to drive or fly, eat out, or buy a t-shirt.  And a philosophy where your impact on others is also considered.

I also get from a health perspective that a diet that is predominantly vegetables and some fruit is so much better for you than the standard processed diet of many westernised communities.  However, the inclusion of meat and dairy certainly makes it a whole lot easier to obtain all the essential vitamins, minerals and amino-acids to perform at your best.  And that’s without considering how much better a big green salad tastes with some hot off the grill grass-fed beef and a few slices of haloumi on top.

Eating quality grass-fed meat and dairy will always be a part of my life, even as I consciously reduce my consumption habits (a lifetime of work).  But I’m ok if its not part of your life.   I also get it if you genuinely are healthier and ‘run better’ when you exclude meat and dairy products, although I feel that most people probably do better with at least some red meat in their diet.

But from another health perspective, I don’t get how someone, anyone, who lives in New Zealand, a country where we strive for tolerance and understanding; and celebrate our bi-parsitanism and the benefits of our low population, can be so blimmin angry to fellow New Zealanders, who differ only from you in that they produce and/or eat meat and dairy for a living.  Surely the anger and viterol must be incredibly unhealthy for people who I’m sure rate their inner healthfulness pretty highly.  I worry for their hateful (and mostly inaccurate) posts and feel genuinely sorry for the effect that the adrenalin and cortisol dumping must be having on their bodies.

Go ahead, ask the questions about the state of our environment – how are we going with water quality, what direction are we heading?  How long will it take to get our waterways where we want them?  Are we measuring the carbon we are building in our soils?  How are farmers helping control pests?

Go ahead, question the treatment of animals on farm – when do farmers use antibiotics?  How is a cattle beast slaughtered?  What are we thinking about when we shift animals from one paddock into another, when we make fertiliser decisions?  How do we feel when we need to treat an animal who is sick or dying?

Go ahead, question what we do as farmers, whether we produce meat, wool, milk, fruit or veges.  Ask about why we do that organically, biologically, conventionally.

But why not question in a way that may lead to a conversation that is respectful, increases understanding both ways, and is potentially enlightening for everybody?  And keep those stress hormones nice and low.

The most interesting conversations are the ones where you cast aside your assumptions and attitude, and quietly listen to what someone else is saying.  There are some passionate vegans out there that could really increase their understanding of primary production by doing this.

My hope for 2017?  Question away, leave your assumptions on the floor and enjoy engaging with diverse perspectives!