George and Sharon Moss, Waikato
George and Sharon Moss have been dairy farming in Tokoroa for nearly 40 years. Their impact on the climate wasn't a consideration back then, but it's at the forefront of how they farm now. They have moved from purely profit-focused, to seeking the sweet spot of people, planet and profit.
George and Sharon Moss are Waikato dairy farmers, working hard to get their farming operation as environmentally efficient as possible. They're focused on reducing their nitrogen leaching and greenhouse gas emissions, while maintaining farm profitability. So how do they measure results? And what are their top tips for keeping emissions low? Let's take a look.
When we started off farming 40 years ago, there was a perfect correlation between profit and production. The environment wasn't even in the discussion. And the thinking at the time then, and I can remember this, was all about feeding the world.
The world has changed substantially since then. We're increasingly aware that the planet is under pressure. We do know, and science supports, that climate has changed in the past and the planet has warmed up and cooled down in the past, but it's never done it in such a short timeframe as what we're seeing now. So what used to happen over millennia is literally happening over decades. This is the challenge of our generation, both in terms of trying to slow it down, as well as adapt our farming systems and our lives to live with the impacts that are coming.
Look, I do trust science and part of that is following the numbers. For us, what that means is the decision-making becomes less stressful. Once you follow the numbers and you believe in that process, there's a logic to it. There's two numbers that you absolutely need to know to give you a direction of travel. One is, know what your greenhouse gas number is, particularly what your methane number is, because that will be the biggest component for you. But the other component that you need to know is what your current level of profitability is because that will also help you set a direction of travel.
We know for an absolute fact for many farmers in New Zealand, there is an opportunity to both reduce their greenhouse gases and lift their profitability. And so once you understand where you sit within that matrix, then you can actually understand which decisions you need to make. So it's a benchmarking exercise, it's understanding what your starting point is, and then probably with support from a rural professional or somebody who knows about this stuff, putting a plan in around that.
There's a number of ways that we can actually get hold of the greenhouse gas number. Probably the most perfect way is to use Overseer, which is the industry tool. It's absolutely accepted that no model is absolutely perfect, but that gives one a real good handle on both the sources of the gases and their various make-ups.
We're fortunate now in the dairy industry that most of the milk supply companies will actually provide an environmental report, which will have a large greenhouse gas profile component to it. The Fonterra one will actually color code your risk areas and your opportunity for improvement and gives you a bell-shaped curve of where you sit with some of your peers.
DairyNZ also has a tool now which you can go online and use, which will give you your methane, not your total greenhouse gas profile, but will give you your methane from livestock profile. And the DairyNZ one also gives you a spot as to where you are relative to other farmers in the region. It is definitely a space that is moving and it's a space that will actually improve, and the reports will improve as time goes on.
For us, we are very much in the early stages of managing our greenhouse gases down. The things that we're absolutely concentrating on is, one is the stocking rate, resisting the temptation to push up the stocking rate. We're continuing to look to further reduce the amount of purchased feeds. We use urease inhibitors now as a matter of course, and we've actually reduced the annual amount of nitrogen we've used down from about 130 units to 80 units last year. We are very aware now and actually monitor soil temperature and soil moisture to make sure when we apply that nitrogen, it goes on at the right time and in the right place. We use proof of placement, so we can actually monitor how much N has gone on each paddock each year and that gives us a real focus to understand which paddocks are underperforming and why.
Pushing really hard on the genetics. So, we are using sexed semen to try to get the best possible genetic heifer calves on the ground, and get a very high index herd in as short a possible time. Absolute no tolerance for cows that aren't efficient. So if they're not producing well or got good indexes, it's ‘bye bye girly’, down the track. And we also do cull the heifer replacements quite heavily, to try to get those genetics there really quickly.
We actually have kept our lactation length fairly short and tight, but still chase very high performance per cow. One farm dried off on the 27th of March, whereas normally it would dry off end of April, early May, and the other one dried off early April.
People would criticise us for saying, "Well, look, it was a big milk price season. You could have actually milked on. You could have purchased more feed and pushed on." So greenhouse gases were part of that thought process. You know, what was it going to do to our profile? So that's the absolute truth. We will take some stick for that though. No question about it.
One of the fundamental things that the human condition doesn't handle is change. For the new people starting off, this is part of their world, so they will live in that world quite well and understand that world and do what it takes. For the older ones of us, it is change and potentially very scary change, but we've been through it before and we'll come through this. And those who come through it will be in a very good place. There's no question about that.
So, let's sum that up. George started by working out his farm's annual greenhouse gas emissions and his profitability. Once he worked those two numbers out, he started looking for ways to hit the sweet spot of lower than average emissions and higher than average profit. He's focusing on making genetic improvements and increasing individual animal performance. He keeps lactations relatively short and is considering further lowering stock numbers. He's cutting down the amount of purchased feeds and applies nitrogen fertiliser only where it's needed and when the conditions are right. And he always uses urease inhibitors.
So, let's see how these actions have impacted on George's numbers.
Methane and nitrous oxide emissions have dropped, as has nitrogen leaching. Good outcomes for the climate and freshwater. At the same time, the farm has continued to operate profitably. It's still early days, and it's still a challenge, especially in seasons when the grass just keeps on growing or completely stops. With methane emissions directly tied to how much an animal eats, feed management becomes even more important.
George and Sharon are tracking their numbers closely and are developing a plan for how they can keep on top of things. You can find out more about measuring, managing, and reducing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions online.
About the farm
The Mosses operate adjacent dairy farms just north of the Kinleith pulp and paper mill in south Waikato. Pukerua Farm is 70 hectares effective, milking 170 pedigree Friesians and Tokoroa Pastoral Farm is 67ha effective, milking 173 crossbred cows. They also own an adjoining 40ha drystock block.
The farm soils are Tāupo pumice and the average annual rainfall is 1,500mm. There aren’t any major waterways crossing the farms and being on flat land, there are no issues with erosion.
Both herds are managed as System 2, grazed on their respective farms with a small amount of feed brought in when required. During winter, cows are stood off on yards and adjacent quarry areas when needed.
Over time, stocking rates have been gradually reduced to match demand more closely with supply of homegrown feed. This has helped reduce nitrogen leaching. The reduction in stocking rates mean both farms are now stocked at around 2.5 cows per hectare.
“When we started dairy farming forty years ago there was a perfect correlation between profit and production,” says George. “The environment wasn’t even in the discussion; the conversation was all about ‘feeding the world’."
"But we're increasingly aware that the planet is under pressure. Agricultural greenhouse gases are a contributor that we have to understand and manage."
As one of DairyNZ's climate change ambassadors, George is passionate about helping farmers meet the challenge of farming profitably in this era of climate change and increasing nutrient restrictions.
Getting to grips with greenhouse gas emissions
George first became aware of the link between farming and the climate in the early-mid 2000s. Initially sceptical, he soon realised that the scale of scientific evidence was indisputable and that the issue wasn’t going to go away. At the same time, awareness of nitrogen’s impact on freshwater was growing and George and Sharon realised they needed to have a plan in place to help them lighten their farm’s environmental footprint.
The Mosses already had a good handle on the numbers around their farms' operating profits (back then, the key driver of the business). They sought help to work out what their agricultural greenhouse gas emissions (methane and nitrous oxide) were and what influenced them, and to understand their farms' nitrate leaching levels.
"Following the numbers makes the decision-making process less stressful," says George.
They used OverseerFM to find out their greenhouse gas numbers. "It is an industry tool that gives you a really good handle on the sources of the gases and their makeups," says George.
As a Fonterra supplier, they also get an environmental report that gives similar greenhouse gas information (along with other environmental indicators). This report also shows where you sit compared with other farms in the region.
DairyNZ also has a handy calculator that will plot four key numbers to help a farmer work out whether their business and farm system are 'future ready':
- Operating profit per hectare
- Debt to asset ratio
- Tonnes of methane emissions per hectare (does not provide nitrous oxide data)
- Purchased N surplus per hectare
To find out more about these tools and others, see our Know your numbers page.
George says, "Finding out these numbers has helped enormously in setting a direction of travel for our farm that is better for the planet but still good for our bottom line."
George and Sharon's greenhouse gas numbers
George and Sharon's farm numbers for 2017-2020 show how they have managed this direction of travel.
It's early days in George and Sharon's journey towards the 'sweet spot', balancing productivity and profitability while reducing the farm's impact on the land, water and climate.
They are trialling a number of different actions to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, including:
- Reducing stocking rates
- Reducing purchased feed
- Using urease inhibitors
- Reducing nitrogen fertiliser
- Managing the timing and placement of nitrogen fertiliser, including using proof of placement
- Genetic improvements to get quickly to a high index herd
- Maintaining shorter lactation lengths, while chasing high performance per cow
Find out more about these kinds of practices on our on-farm actions page.
George remains optimistic and tries to keep sight of the big picture.
"Planet Earth has warmed up before, and cooled down," he notes. "The difference now is that humanity is involved and it's all happening much faster. What used to happen over millenia is now happening over decades. This is the challenge of our generation."
For more on one of George and Sharon's farms (Tokoroa Pastoral Ltd), have a look at this 2019 DairyNZ case study on greenhouse gas and nitrogen loss mitigation in South Waikato.
Working together: He Waka Eke Noa
By 2025, New Zealand's agricultural greenhouse gas emissions will be priced and all farmers and growers will need to know their annual on-farm greenhouse gas emissions and have a plan in place to manage them.
Work is underway in a partnership between the primary sector, Government and Māori known as 'He Waka Eke Noa' (translating to 'We're all in this together') to support farmers and growers to meet these climate change requirements.
New Zealand primary industry bodies spearheaded the partnership approach, seeking to be part of designing practical solutions to meeting climate change targets in a way that rewards efforts to reduce emissions and supports the industry's future success.
The He Waka Eke Noa milestones are:
- By the end of 2021, a quarter of New Zealand farms* know their annual total on-farm greenhouse gas emissions** and have a written plan in place to measure and manage them.
- By the end of 2022, 100% of farms know their annual total on-farm emissions.
- By the end of 2023, a system for farm-level accounting and reporting of emissions has been piloted.
- By the end of 2024, 100% of farms have a written plan to measure and manage emissions.
- From January 2025, all farms in New Zealand are using the system for farm-level accounting and reporting of 2024 agricultural emissions at the farm level. This will include an appropriate pricing system.
* Being all farms over 80 hectares, or a dairy farm with a milk supply number, or a cattle feedlot as described in the freshwater policy.
** In practice this means a person responsible for farm management holds a documented annual total of on-farm greenhouse gas emissions, by methods and definitions accepted by the He Waka Eke Noa Steering Group.
For more on how to find out your farm's agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, using the tools accepted by He Waka Eke Noa, see our Know your numbers page.