Craige Mackenzie, Canterbury
Mid-Canterbury arable and dairy farmer Craige Mackenzie's philosophy is right input, right quantity, right place, right time—which makes sense for his business and for the land, waterways and climate. Conditions often aren't in his favour, but precision technology is helping to even the odds.
Farming in Canterbury has its challenges. The weather can be extreme and soil conditions vary greatly across the region.
So minimising inputs and focusing on sustainability while keeping production up can be a huge task.
Let's take a look at how one farmer is taking up the challenge.
Mum and Dad bought this property, 50 years next June. So, I've been here most of my life.
When we came it was a very run down place that needed a lot of attention.
The guy that lived here before used to do a lot of hunting with hares and under the trees there used to be a lot of gin bottles and other things.
It was a huge change from where we are today.
Mostly we're only limited by our imagination.
Our drivers as a family have been to do the best with what we've had.
We've got lots of variability on this farm. If you drive up the Methven highway and you'll see some nice soils.
We've got a little bit of that, but we've also got a lot of light soils.
So we had to manage things a lot more carefully than some of the guys with really good soils. It's not very forgiving here at all.
We did a yield map out of a combine harvester, and ran it through a computer to make a profit map.
And we were losing money in certain areas, I'm of Scottish heritage and that didn't sit well, so we needed to fix that.
When you've got lots of variability in the soil you've got different potential in different areas.
We know that some areas will grow 8 tonne to the hectare, some 12, some 14 and some 16 of a wheat crop.
And that's great, but actually you only need to put on the appropriate amount of fertiliser to grow the 8 tonne or the 12 or whatever.
So, by mapping the soil, knowing where the variability is and looking at what the potential is.
We've said, over there we put on 150kg and there we put on 200kg and there 250kg, so we absolutely get the right amount of input as a base fertiliser.
Then we're also looking at the variability in the field through the growing season.
With satellite imagery and we've got our own sensors and drones, to look at what we can do in different areas.
Weather forecasting is hugely important for us, we've got 35 zones that measure soil moisture and we've got irrigators that put different amounts of water in different places
By getting really accurate weather forecasts would mean that we can choose to apply irrigation or not.
It's hugely important, hugely valuable for us as a decision making tool.
For most of that technology we will get a return on investment within 12 months, if not 24.
So that's a pretty good investment. If you buy a new tractor it's no different to the last one.
It might look good, it might be comfortable, it might be efficient but where's the real benefit?
Precision agriculture is about doing the right thing in the right place at the right time and in the right way.
And only putting on the right amount of inputs. There's a whole raft of different ways to look at that.
But for me it doesn't matter whether it's economic or environmental sustainability, reducing our carbon footprint is another way to look at it.
But all of them have the same outcome, so whichever way you look at it you'll end up using the same technology.
We've got a dairy operation next door on 330 hectares, we're milking around 1000 cows.
It gives us some flexibility, we did it for diversity. That soil type was lighter - more in keeping with pastoral farming than straight cropping.
The techniques that we use here equally fit on the dairy farm.
This isn't about arable, it's not about dairy, it's not about sheep and beef, horticulture, viticulture. It fits across all sectors.
We still need to make the decisions about what we put on, so it's not about artificial intelligence.
It's actually about farmer intelligence.
We're trying to make the most appropriate decision to grow the crop in the most appropriate way.
To give us the best financial outcome and the best environmental sustainability.
So doing the right thing in the right place at the right time is how Craige is reducing his environmental impact, while maintaining productivity.
He maps the variability and potential of his soils, so he can plant the right crops in the right places.
Then he uses sensors and forecasts to work out exactly when, where and how much nitrogen fertiliser and water are needed to achieve the best yields.
Craige says investment in all that carefully chosen technology has paid off within 12 to 24 months.
He recognises that his hi-tech approach might not work everywhere, but he says being open to the possibilities is key.
Remember to visit www.agmatters.nz for more videos and ideas to help you reduce emissions and farm more sustainably.
Getting to grips with highly variable weather and soil quality is a constant challenge on Craige Mackenzie's cropping and dairy farm near Methven in mid-Canterbury.
Precision technology is proving a powerful ally. After mapping his soils and crunching the numbers, Craige discovered that potential yields varied significantly across his farm. He realised he was overdoing the inputs in places, which wasn't good for the bottom line or the environment. The numbers revealed he was losing money in some areas.
It became clear to Craige that optimising outputs across the farm would mean growing different crops in different places and applying different amounts of fertiliser and water at different times—on both the cropping and dairying sides of the operation.
Getting that base right was important, Craige says. Then he started looking at variability through the growing season as well. And that's where precision technology has really come into its own.
Craige uses data from soil maps, spatial soil sampling, yield analyses and nitrogen scanners to calculate exactly how much fertiliser is needed in different areas of the farm. He uses rainfall data, soil moisture probes and evapotranspiration sensors to work out where water is needed, and where it isn't. And he consults high-resolution weather forecasts to see if nature is likely to deliver that water in the right dose at the right time, or if irrigation is needed. GPS-driven variable-rate irrigators, sprayers and fertiliser applicators are then put to work, delivering precise doses exactly where they're needed.
The results speak for themselves. In 2015 Craige's cropping programme used 95 tonnes of urea, but in 2019 it used 77 tonnes. Some of the reduction resulted from a different mix of crops, but a lot was due to his use of technology and spatially targeted application with variable-rate fertiliser spreaders. In addition, in 2020, Craige has exclusively used N Protect, which is coated with a urease inhibitor to reduce any possible volatilisation to the atmosphere. All nitrogen is applied in front of either a rainfall event or an irrigator to increase efficiency.
His water use is also down by half during some seasons, when compared with similar seasons in the past.
Craige admits that the high-tech approach might not work everywhere. But the careful investments he's made in precision technology have all paid off within 12-24 months. He says sustainability needs to be built into our businesses, not bolted on.