The Abbiss family, Manawatū

A passion for innovation has been a common thread through four generations of farmers on the Abbiss' property near Halcombe. Now they're turning their attention to how they might reduce their impact on the climate.

Find out how the Abbiss’ are getting to grips with climate change.

Transcript

Duration: 6:15

JAMES ABBISS:

The dog’s name is Pico. He’s probably taking up the whole frame.

Hang on I'll start again.

Righto, well here we are at Silverton Pastoral Ltd. It’s a family farm, situated in Halcombe, which is 15 minutes northwest of Feilding.

We are farming 60-70% livestock, predominantly lamb trading and lamb finishing, and 30-40% cropping. Cereal crops and brassica crops integrate together well with our livestock system.

Myself, James, with my younger brother Tim and older brother Hugh, are the fourth generation on our property.

Growing up on the farm, we have been lucky enough to learn from what Mum and Dad have done in the past and furthermore what Nanna and Poppa have done with the land.

BILL ABBISS (James’ Poppa):

After the war, things were quite different. My father bought a crawler tractor - a Caterpillar 15, which was 15 horsepower. The boys nowadays have got tractors and a 350 horsepower or something. So you can imagine the Caterpillar 15 - it used to take a bit longer in those days!

MIKE ABBISS (James’ Dad):

I think what got me into farming was obviously perhaps there was a bit of a genetic affinity, I don't know. But, you know, I look back and my father and his brother who was in a partnership at the time, they were very innovative.

They worked hard and I guess that rubs off on you. I think that starts to shape you - that shapes who you are. And, you know, you just take the natural lead, I guess.

BILL ABBISS (James’ Poppa):

We were doing things differently, really, because my father, he was very highly regarded in farming circles and lots of farmers used to come and see him and ask him - now we've got this problem, what should we do, what crops to grow and how to grow them and whether this tractor's any good or no good or the other one’s better or whatever.

MIKE ABBISS (James’ Dad):

I think if we reflect back, you know, generationally, we learned to understand it’s all around soil health and biology. That if we keep our focus absolutely fair and square on that, the other outcomes just fall out – the productive outcomes, the financial outcomes, the environmental outcomes.

It all comes back to how we look after our soils, how we understand our soils, and then what we actually do about it – the tools that are available to manage our soils and to build our soils. I think that's our direct challenge, and then all the other outcomes just fall out.

JAMES ABBISS:

For the last 15 to 20 years, the cropping system’s all predominantly minimum tillage. It has certainly increased from an efficiency point of view. Whether that’s staff workload, fuel usage, but most importantly from a biology point of view. Soil structure and soil health is at the forefront of our minds now.

Yes, the aim in the game here is, you know, we are running it like a business. However, biology and the financial farm system sort of goes hand in hand. You know, you can't have one without the other working.

BILL ABBISS (James’ Poppa):

Modern practices - I think they're absolutely brilliant, yes. We used to dig drains, tile drains by hand - they don't do it that way nowadays.

MIKE ABBISS (James’ Dad):

You know, it's a little bit difficult for myself to keep up with some of the technological changes. And I probably fall back on the boys now to run with a bit of that.

But you still need to have an understanding of it, absolutely. Well, and probably more importantly, have an understanding that we've got to keep developing and got to keep on the uptake. The business needs it.

JAMES ABBISS:

You know, I think this environmental game... greenhouse gas. We've been lucky enough in the system, that whether we've been thinking about it or not, we've sort of developed a system now that has enabled us to be on the front foot of all these matters.

You know, we are having to rely on science more and more. And it's changing every day. We're learning every day.

We’re using the likes of potential yield mapping, GPS systems, Precision Ag and traceability in regards to fert spreading and chemical applications.

We are getting better and better at this. But it does take time.

You know, it's small chunks of the pie. You know, a one time.

[dog barks]

Alice! Sorry. Alice, naughty!

Technology is evolving every day, whether it's in the form of crop yielding tools, GPS, satellite and drones, etcetera, etcetera. You know, they're all coming on stream, slowly but, you know, any gain that we make in that area, that is certainly going to help us. And that's certainly what we are looking at to effectively help run the business.

About the farm

Silverton Pastoral is a fourth-generation family farm located 15 minutes out of Feilding in the Manawatu. The mixed pastoral and arable operation is run by James Abbiss, along with his brothers Hugh and Tim and his father Mike. James’ grandfather Bill and his father before him also farmed the land. 

Silverton Pastoral spans two blocks. The original, ‘home’ block is in Halcombe and is just over 800ha of rolling country. More recently, the family has also purchased a 180ha mixed cropping block in Cheltenham.

Silverton Pastoral - the Abbiss' farm near Halcombe (Photo: Dave Allen Photography)

Currently, the system is mostly lamb trading and finishing (around 60-70%) through autumn and winter, with a crop rotation built into the system running in conjunction with the livestock. 

The cropping component (30-40%) includes a rotation of wheat, barley, and summer forage crops such as chicory and brassicas (rape and turnips), before heading back into short-term pasture. Legume crops such as peas are also grown. 

The farm is predominantly clay-based soil and receives around 950-1,000mm rainfall annually. This can be challenging on their heavy soils and requires a proactive approach – working with the conditions to bring out the best in the farm. The window for establishing crops or for grazing pastures effectively can often be very limited, which requires a great deal of attention in order to manage effectively.

The Abbiss’ have integrated livestock with their cropping programme since the early 1980s. Since then, system changes have been made such phasing out bull-beef farming in 2016 due to the impact it was having on soil compaction and structure, and pasture damage.   

The Abbiss' run a six-year pasture-based rotation that is focused on driving a high legume content in the sward – 3.5 years of that is in a hybrid ryegrass mix with clovers and herbs. Brassicas and herbs such as chicory are then used as a break crop in the rotation. They are also used as a livestock forage component, which feeds the cash cropping system at strategic times. Cereals are integrated afterwards to utilise any excess nutrients and tidy up and avoid weed pressure.

The development of this rotational approach was underpinned by the Abbiss’ deep understanding of their soils' limitations, the contour of the land and how previous farm systems have responded to the environment.

Environmental focus

The Abbiss’ place the environment at the heart of how they farm. “The health of the environment goes hand in hand with the business side of things”, says James. “You can’t have one without the other.” 

Four sheep in a paddock of chicory

Lambs grazing on chicory at the Abbiss' (Photo: Dave Allen Photography)

They have been working with the regional council to develop a large wetland on the farm and to plant up their waterways.

OverseerFM and Farm Environment Plans have been completed for both properties to analyse nutrient risks and losses for the properties in line with regional and national legislation.

Direct drilling has been implemented since the early 2000s, aiming to keep the soil profile intact and minimise disturbance – critical on their class of country where the soils are heavier and easily affected.

The Abbiss' also employ precision agricultural technologies to help ensure inputs are minimised, including potential yield mapping, GPS systems and regular soil testing. All of this, coupled with direct drilling, has enabled efficiency gains to be made and to ensure consistency.

“Farming is all about understanding how to bring the best out of a biological system, while respecting its capacity and natural limits,” says James’ dad Mike.

Their operation has some complex challenges, but by maintaining a flexible and proactive approach they’ve been able to stay ahead of the game.

More recently, the Abbiss’ have become aware of the impact of farming on the climate and are starting to get their heads around what their greenhouse gas emissions are and how they might be reduced. They are currently running several scenario analyses through OverseerFM to understand the drivers of their emissions and where there may be options for reductions.

The Abbiss' greenhouse gas numbers

By the end of 2022, all New Zealand farmers will have to know their annual agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and by the end of 2024, they’ll have to have a plan in place for managing them. 

A number of tools are available for farmers to find out their greenhouse gas numbers. The Abbiss’ have used OverseerFM to work out what theirs are. You can read about this and other tools on our Know Your Numbers page.

The table below shows how this looked for the Abbiss' in 2020 (noting that the figures are for their 'home block', the 800ha area near Halcombe):

  2020
Effective area (ha) 779
Total methane per hectare (tonnes CO2-e) 2.0
Total nitrous oxide per hectare (tonnes CO2-e) 0.9
Total biological GHGs from effective area per hectare (tonnes CO2-e/ha) 2.9
Total methane (kg)* 62,406
N leaching (kg/N/ha/yr) 25

*The weight of methane is shown here without conversion to carbon dioxide equivalence (CO2-e) because this is how it will be reported in any farm-level pricing mechanism.

The main drivers of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions (methane and nitrous oxide) are: 

  • Amount of dry matter eaten
  • Protein level of the diet
  • Amount of nitrogen fertiliser applied

For the Abbiss', their emissions are driven by the sheep they run and the nitrogen fertiliser they apply at strategic times of the year.

On-farm actions

The Abbiss’ are already doing a lot for the environment, in particular to support healthy soil structures and microbes and to improve the productivity of their crops and livestock.

Many of these actions also have a positive impact in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, including: 

  • Reducing nitrogen fertiliser use, via:
    • Matching inputs to crop requirements
    • Precision agriculture technology including GPS mapping and regular soil testing so that fertiliser is only applied where and when it is needed
    • Integrating livestock with the crops to encourage nutrient cycling and help get crop residue back into the ground
  • Finishing livestock faster and to higher weights
  • Improved feed efficiency

You can read about these actions and others on our On-farm actions page

James and Mike agree that the pace of change is increasing for farmers at the moment and that climate change is adding to this. They are philosophical though, “agriculture in New Zealand has always been reinventing itself and evolving, and greenhouse gas emissions are the latest extension of this,” says Mike.

The Abbiss’ are optimistic about the future. The diversified system they’ve developed and their core focus on the environment has set up them up well to respond to the new challenge of reducing their emissions.

Know your numbers and have a plan

By the end of 2022, all farmers and growers will need to know their annual on-farm greenhouse gas emissions and by the end of 2024, they'll need to have a plan in place to manage them. These requirements are part of the He Waka Eke Noa partnership and are intended to help get farmers ready for agricultural greenhouse gas emissions to be priced from 2025. To find out more on how to do this, see our Know Your Numbers page