Phill and Jos Everest, Canterbury
A balanced approach to dairy farming on the heavy soils of coastal mid-Canterbury is essential in Phill and Jos Everest's efforts to reduce Flemington Farm's agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.
Mid Canterbury dairy farmer, Phil Everest, started on his dairy conversion 10 years ago. It hasn't always been easy, but he began by working out some critical numbers and now has some good tactics in play to reduce his agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. Let's take a look at his story.
Scientists can actually show us what we need to do, but then we as farmers have got to see how we can implement that. We're definitely not leaders in the industry, but we like to give a few things a nudge. So we're trying to do the best we can for the environment, the cows, and for our people on the farm.
On the farm here, we generate about 15.2 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per hectare. That works out at about 4.4 tonnes per cow, and 10.9 kilograms per kilogram milk solids produced. So we're just trying to see what's doing. We've got to learn some benchmarking tools, and I think the biggest part at this stage is actually knowing what your numbers are and then seeing how you can improve on it.
We've been working with Synlait and the Lead With Pride Programme. And I guess one of the things that it's shown up, particularly with the greenhouse gases, they’ve provided some templates for us to look at, to say, "Right, what can we do to mitigate our losses and how can we reduce our losses?" And the checklist is actually really valuable in terms of how you start to think and approach your actions, I guess, on the farm.
In terms of reducing emissions, we've looked at a few things. They're all small things that have a relatively small impact, but cumulatively, I suppose, we're starting to make progress. And that's the bit that we've got to look forward to.
So for us, the things that we've looked at is our autumn nitrogen. We don't apply bag fertiliser in May at all. And in fact, we even restrict it in late April. So we're trying to reduce that amount of nitrogen that potentially will leach into the groundwater. In our case, if it's actually held wet with nitrogen in it over the winter, then there’s nitrous oxide opportunity for that. So we've got to mitigate that.
In the heat of the summer, even though we're fully irrigated, we do use urease inhibited urea. So, we're trying to reduce the amount of loss there and, yes, it costs us a little bit more for that. Basically, the saving in greenhouse gases is almost equivalent to the extra price we've got to pay, but we've got to do our bit to try and make some steps. We put a low rate of effluent over half of the farm through the centre pivots, so that's spreading that much wider. Essentially, that effluent is put on at a mil to one-and-a-half mils per application through the center pivot. And that's usually diluted 90% water and 10% effluent. So, it's a significant amount of fertiliser going on, but it’s diluted down as we do it.
We've chosen to feed fodder beet in the autumn and one of the reasons for that was actually pre-conditioning our cows for the winter. But the other part is that it's a low-protein feed in the autumn. So we're actually trying to reduce the overall protein intake of the cows and therefore the nitrogen loss that's coming from that.
Where possible, we're direct drilling. We're on heavy soil, so there's times when you've still just got to plow it up and tip it over. But where we can with renovation, we'll direct drill. And I guess the last part within that pasture renovation part is that we have for the last six years, I think, included plantain and chicory in our pasture mix. And we've found that particularly successful in terms of palatability for the cows. And it's still hanging around for three to five years for us as a reasonable quantity in the sward, but we do need to beef it up. And so we've found that to be reasonably successful, spreading some seed on in the back of our fertiliser truck when we're putting on our capital dressings.
We have selected more intensively our cows, so that bottom 25% of cows on BW go to a Hereford bull in our case but could be a Wagyu or a non-replacement bull. So what we're trying to do is improve the quality of the stock that we've got there and in so doing, produce the same amount of milk from less animals.
Look, I think you have to do things in small steps, in my opinion, and we can see forward for the next two to five years and we can perhaps plan for that. We've got no idea what's going to happen in the next 10 years. I just look at my time in farming and how things have changed, and you didn't have any idea that, say, centre pivots would have been such a big deal for us or sexed semen would have been such a big deal, or we would have had urease inhibitors. Or, in fact, in our case, that we'd be planting the sides of our drains with Carex. No one would have known that Carex secta would have actually done the job for actually creating a better environment alongside our drains.
So, there's lots of small things that you've got to look at, my advice is to have a bit of a plan for the next two to five years and let the long-term stuff sort itself out. Let's deal with the things that we can deal with. And I think as I've said before to many, when I was playing rugby, used to score a lot of tries at the 25, but it was bloody hard to score them over the try line, especially when you're a prop.
The one thing for sure is that, as food producers, we have to produce better food than we've ever produced before. And I say better in terms of both the quality of the food and ethically and environmentally. So that's the challenge. As New Zealanders, we already produce good food from grass, and so we actually have a much better footprint than many others that are producing food in the world, but that doesn't mean that we need to rest on our laurels. We need to stay ahead of the pack.
So, by working out his agricultural greenhouse gas numbers and developing a plan to reduce them, Phill is well on the way to preparing his farm system for the demands of the future. Some of the steps Phill is using to reduce his emissions might also work for you. He's restricting the application of nitrogen fertiliser and using urease inhibitors, carefully managing how effluent is spread, feeding fodder beet and incorporating plantain and chicory, and using genetics to achieve a top performing herd.
Since converting to dairy over 10 years ago, Phill's agricultural greenhouse gas emissions initially increased as he developed the farm and made it profitable. Since then, he's put a plan in place to reduce emissions, which has stabilized in recent years, even though production has increased. It's not always been an easy journey, but it's a promising sign that Phill's mitigation plan is starting to make a difference.
Knowing what your agricultural greenhouse gas numbers are and where they come from on your farm is the critical first step. The next step is developing a plan to reduce them. You can find out more about how to do this online.
About the farm
Flemington Farm is about 10km south of Ashburton and 4km from the Ashburton River in mid-Canterbury, almost 280 hectares of flat irrigated land that was once part of the vast Longbeach estate. Phill and Jos have owned the farm for 33 years, though it was leased as a dry stock and cropping farm for 23 years while Phill built up his farm consultancy practice.
The land was converted to dairy production 10 years ago and carries a herd of 750 on 221 hectares; 38ha is used for winter/feed crops and some young stock and the balance, 18ha, is in laneways, buildings and trees.
The Everests operate a low-intensity system with a very efficient irrigation regime. The farm’s soils are heavy with a high water-holding capacity. Irrigation water is supplied from two bores (50-60m deep), with three centre pivots covering most of the property.
The farm is run as a System 2/3 with very little feed imported to milking cows. Pasture comprises approximately 84% of the cows’ intake, with 5% supplement fed to milking cows and 11% from wintering off. No cows are wintered on the milking platform and young stock are grazed off from weaning.
The Everests supply to Synlait and are part of their Lead with Pride scheme, which recognises and rewards suppliers for achieving dairy farming best practice. Phill is also one of DairyNZ's Climate Change Ambassadors and has been involved in the DairyNZ 'Meeting a Sustainable Future' initiative in the Selwyn and Hinds catchments.
In Phill's words, "we're just trying to do the best we can for the environment and the cows and the people on our farm".
Getting to grips with greenhouse gas emissions
Having a farm plan has been a critical part of Phill and Jos' journey, allowing them to meet the increasingly stringent environmental obligations necessary for the catchment while still running a resilient and profitable business. The farm plan is also a requirement of supplying to Synlait, whose Lead With Pride programme requires excellence across four 'pillars' of the environment, milk quality, animal health and social responsibility (people).
An increasing part of the Everest's environmental focus is climate change. A farm's greenhouse gas emissions comprise methane, largely from livestock burping with a small amount from manure management, and nitrous oxide which occurs when microbes in the soil act on the nitrogen in animal dung and urine and in fertiliser.
The Everests use OverseerFM to get their greenhouse gas numbers. They also receive a summary and benchmark report from Synlait, who also provide templates and tools to help Synlait farmers identify potential actions for reducing their emissions.
"The Synlait checklist we're working to is really valuable in terms of how you think about and approach your actions on-farm and how they affect greenhouse gas emissions," says Phill.
Dairy farmers can also get their greenhouse gas numbers from a range of other sources. DairyNZ also has a handy calculator to help a farmer work out whether their business and farm system are 'future ready'. This calculator provides:
- Operating profit per hectare
- Debt to asset ratio
- Tonnes of methane emissions per hectare (does not provide nitrous oxide)
- Purchased N surplus per hectare
Phill and Jos' greenhouse gas numbers
Flemington Farm currently generates about 15.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per hectare. That's about 4.4 tonnes per cow and about 8.9 kilograms per kilogram of milk solids produced. The figure below show's the farm's emissions from 2012 to 2021.
Since converting to dairy over 10 years ago, the Everest's agricultural greenhouse gas emissions actually increased as they developed the farm and made it profitable. Since then, they've put a plan in place to reduce emissions, which have stabilised in recent years, even though production has increased. It hasn't always been an easy journey, but it's a promising sign that Phill and Jos' mitigation plan is starting to make a difference.
By working out their agricultural greenhouse gas numbers and developing a plan to reduce them, Phill and Jos are well on their way to preparing their farm system for the demands of the future.
"Over the past 10 years, the focus has been to get the farm up and cranking," says Phill. "In terms of reducing emissions, we're doing a lot of small things that might seem to have a small impact, but cumulatively we're starting to make progress."
Phill's plan spans a 2-5 year period, meaning he can adjust as conditions and priorities change along the way. Right now, he and Jos are working on:
- Reducing use of nitrogen fertiliser (aiming to get down to 190kg/ha by June 2021) and carefully managing what is applied, where and when
- Using a coated urea to reduce nitrogen loss
- Carefully managing how effluent is spread through the irrigation system to optimise its fertiliser contribution to the farm
- Making ongoing genetic improvements to produce the same amount of milk from fewer animals
- Feeding low-protein fodder beet in the autumn to lower protein intake and consequent nitrogen loss, and to precondition cows before going away for winter grazing
- Including plantain, chicory and clover seed each year in maintenance fertiliser dressings to maintain a higher percentage in the sward to address nitrogen loss
- Planting the farm's main drains and boundaries to help improve waterways, act as a carbon sink and provide shade for stock (just under 10,000 trees and plants have gone in so far).
"The environment is hugely important to us," says Phill. "We're prepared to give things a go and we're seeing some encouraging signs."
Visit our on-farm actions page for more information on how these things can help reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions. You can also read more about Phill and Jos' work to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and their nitrogen leaching in this DairyNZ case study, put together in early 2021 as part of a Greenhouse Gas Partnership Farms Project.
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.