Farming sector seeing major benefits from management tool

OVERSEER is a farm-scale nutrient management tool, one of a growing number of on-line tools supporting New Zealand farmers to farm better.

OVERSEER has been in use for over a decade, supported by its owners: the Ministry for Primary Industries, AgResearch and the Fertiliser Association of New Zealand. OVERSEER Limited, an independent company, has overall responsibility for managing and developing OVERSEER.

As well as its role as an owner, AgResearch works closely with OVERSEER Limited to maintain and develop the model and provide technical support.

A recently released independent valuation report prepared by Hamilton-based agricultural economist Phil Journeaux shows that in the areas of fertiliser application, nutrient management on-farm and research an average benefit of $271m per year can be attributed to OVERSEER. This value projected over a 50-year lifetime is calculated as $3.3billion.

“This is a very large figure. It is useful to have specified this figure using recognised valuation criteria, as it confirms that there is real and solid value in OVERSEER,” says OVERSEER Chief Executive Caroline Read.

“The valuation demonstrates the investment of OVERSEER owners has been more than justified and has created substantial value for the sector.”

In his report, Mr Journeaux points out that OVERSEER has become a vital tool for managing nutrient use by providing a picture of nutrient movement on a farm, including estimating nutrient leaching. To derive similar information to that provided by OVERSEER would involve significant costs to users, especially farmers and regional councils, and may not be as accurate or effective in predicting nutrient use for individual farms.

In fact, he notes assessing the cost of alternatives is one of a number of ways of assessing OVERSEER’s value.

“The already sunk cost of the agricultural sector into OVERSEER is estimated at around $12m over its 16 year history. Phil’s estimates of the benefit to the sector far exceed this cost,” says Dr Read.

With or without-OVERSEER scenarios were considered by a range of experts interviewed by Mr Journeaux during the three months of field research he undertook. He focused on three areas: fertiliser application, nutrient management on-farm and research.

The report notes that without OVERSEER, nutrient budget assessments would be more manual, taking more time and requiring more information and calculations. Soil testing requirements would significantly increase and would be a cost to farmers.

One of the major benefits of OVERSEER is that it is a widely used measurement tool providing comparability across the sector. Without it, that may be lost. Approaches and calculation methods would likely vary significantly between advisors and ‘rule of thumb’ approaches would likely be cruder and less individualised to the farm environment.

There are significant benefits to farmers from OVERSEER in the costs saved and production benefits achieved from applying just the right amount of fertiliser.

OVERSEER creates increasingly accurate data that contributes both at the farm level with nutrient loss information and at the catchment level as an input to modelling and environmental risk assessment.

“Without OVERSEER or an equivalent, it is likely regulators would move towards input-based policy approaches to manage nutrient losses from farms, as are prevalent in other parts of the world,” says Dr Read.

“Apart from the significant investment required in regulation, monitoring and compliance, the general belief in the sector is that such a step would have a negative impact on agricultural output and discourage farming practice innovation, without achieving the environmental outcomes sought. Input systems do not have the flexibility of output systems and they encourage farmers to farm to regulations rather than the biological and climatic conditions of their farm,” she says.

“As managers of OVERSEER, we are very aware of its shortcomings as well as its advantages. Like any software, it is subject to regular updates to enhance its effectiveness and this requires users to respond to regular changes. However, with every improvement we are increasing the value of the tool for its users.