Pastoral 21 takes the science to the farm

Designed to boost farm productivity and reduce environmental impacts, the Pastoral 21 programme (P21), which began in 2007, is now well into its second phase, and has seen teams from many research organisations working together in a variety of coordinated research and farmer adoption programmes.

The initial phase encompassed the full spectrum of scale and complexity. One study showed the production impact of grazing management and diet composition, while another involved systems thinking (how individual elements influence one another within a complete entity) among multiple stakeholders to set targets and agree on a preferred approach to improve the quality of waterways.

Pastoral 21 Phase II (P21-II, 2011-2016) was even bolder and drew on the work of its predecessor, as well from other public- and industry-good R&D programmes, to create proven solutions that can be practically applied on farms.

Its twin goals are:

  • a $110/ha/year increase in average profitability from dairy production, with a 30% reduction in nitrogen and phosphorous losses to water.
  • a 3% annual meat productivity increase, while containing or reducing
    environmental footprint.

“Delivering on these goals will mean changing the current relationship between production and environmental footprint,” says AgResearch’s P21 Science Leader Mark Shepherd.

“Thanks to science, better farm management practices and other tools, we have found amazing ways to increase production over the years. We’ve also found ways to reduce environmental footprint – but not at the same pace. Our goal is to reverse that trend – to ensure efficiency gains to reduce our environmental footprint while maintaining production gains.”

So who wins in this scenario – farmers or the environment? “Both,” says Dr Shepherd.

“Production gains are as critical as ever. What’s changed is that the commitment to creating gains that are sustainable, within a given environmental footprint, has gone up to a whole new level.”

P 21-II objectives sit within three broad themes: next generation dairy systems, lifting profitability for mixed livestock systems, and breakthrough technologies.

Research collaborators in the AgResearch-led research programme include DairyNZ, NIWA, Landcare Research, Plant & Food Research, Massey University, Lincoln University and Telford Rural Polytechnic.

In the Next Generation Dairy Systems theme, dairy production systems have been tested in four key dairy regions. Each of these ‘farmlet’ comparisons aimed to test readily adoptable approaches that were expected to increase profitability from production while reducing nutrient losses to water.

“We modelled systems in four different regions to design farms that would meet our project targets, then set up farmlets in those same regions (Otago, Canterbury, Manuwatu and Waikato) to test our hypotheses,” says Dr Shepherd.

“In each region we compared a control system (‘Current’), which is typical of the current local farming practices, and a modified system (‘Future’). We have been following and comparing production, profit and nutrient losses from these systems for three to four seasons.

Dr Shepherd says that there were a number of findings from the project.

“But the main headline is yes, we can at the very least maintain profitability while reducing nutrient losses by significant amounts. We have demonstrated that the management practices work and because we deliberately didn’t radically redesign them, farmers can adopt these systems now.

The mixed livestock programme also has redesigned systems at its core – but this time with the aim of optimising and utilising forage grown on farms where lambs and young beef animals are finished on hill country.

Breakthrough technologies are not about any particular farming sector, but about proving new concepts that offer the potential to change the relationship, described earlier, between production gains and environmental footprint.

“Over the last five years, the people working on this project from throughout the research companies, universities and industry good participants have built up a very good working relationship, which bodes well for other collaborative projects,” says Dr Shepherd.

“It has been a very pleasing aspect of this programme.”

Benefit to New Zealand

Key impact areas within the Pastoral P21 Phase II programme for benefit gains to New Zealand have been identified as:

  • Dairy system improvements and competitiveness
  • Sheep and beef (mixed livestock) productivity systems, particularly emphasis on young stock (lambs and prime beef) finishing on hill country using re-designed and optimised forage systems
  • Breakthrough technologies with emphasis on both ensuring efficiency gains to reduce environmental footprint, but also retaining farm system productivity.

Based on ex ante discounted cash flow analysis, the following net present value (NPV) parameters of additional profit (dairy and mixed livestock systems) and productivity (breakthrough technologies for feed and environment) were respectively:

  • Dairy system benefits nationally (at 60% uptake adoption over 15 years) projected to result in NPV increased profitability of $682 million
  • Mixed livestock benefit profitability gains (at 60% uptake adoption over 15 years) with a projected NPV of $583 million
  • Anticipated 30-year NPV of additional production values (equivalence for environmental footprint initiatives) for novel feed input innovations and environmental management goal achievements ranging from $113 to $1,051 million across numerous initiatives. Includes for instance smart farming and feed crop sequencing through to reduced urine N loadings through animal supplementation and physiological manipulation.

Project Investment

Pastoral 21 is a collaborative venture funded by DairyNZ, Fonterra, the Dairy Companies Association of New Zealand, Beef + Lamb New Zealand and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and AgResearch.  Investment funding commitment from 2011 to 2016 of $44.8 million; 50% from Government via Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment, and 50% from core partners DairyNZ, Beef + Lamb New Zealand, Fonterra and the Dairy Companies Association of New Zealand.