Words by Richard Rennie, images by Annie Studholme
Canterbury is becoming a hub for growing commitment to regenerative farming. The region’s tapestry of farming regimes and a new generation of farmers keen to try alternative approaches mean regenerative practices are becoming more commonly accepted, and widely discussed.
Ashburton farmer Ryan Cockburn is part of the movement, taking the family’s long-time cropping and livestock farm down the regenerative pathway.
Ryan farms in partnership on the 240ha farm with his uncle, Alan Tindall. The partnership between nephew and uncle is uncommon, but also one that is uncommonly successful – even more so when a third generation is added to family farming mix, in the form of Ryan’s grandparents Annette and Les.
The success has been recognised in the past – the partnership has claimed Supplier of the Year status in 2019 for their efforts with their First Light Wagyu cattle, and they have picked up the Premium Milling Award in the same year in the United Wheat Growers competition.
Alan and Ryan’s crop of Reliance wheat yielded 10t a hectare on average, with an exceptionally high protein level.
In recent years Ryan has become interested in farming to produce higher value crops, and food that delivers a denser nutrient profile, earning them a value-add premium for their efforts.
With livestock operations including growing Wagyu for First Light and lamb trading, he has started to recognise the foundation of good soil and plant health can deliver high quality, healthy red meat as a result.
“Livestock are a big part of our operation, and if you can look after them, they will always look after you, and healthy feed inputs are part of that.”
The interest got Ryan looking harder at regenerative farming practices, a phrase he admits he did not even know existed only two years ago.
At its simplest level, regenerative farming involves maintaining a good level of ground cover with minimal tillage, growing multispecies pasture swards and building plant biodiversity on farm with crop and plant combinations that can naturally counter pests and diseases.
Its non-prescriptive, flexible options hold appeal in regions like Canterbury where cropping is often an intrinsic part of farm business, and no two farms in any district run the same rotations and crop types in any given year.
Ultimately regenerative systems aim to help ease farmers’ use of synthetic inputs of fertiliser and sprays, and with that their input costs.
Ryan also acknowledges he had a level of weariness around modern farming techniques where the focus can tend to be on utilising the quickest approach to manage fertility or pests. It often requires a necessary dollar return within the window of a single season, rather than over an entire farming lifetime.
His first tentative steps into regenerative farming came last winter when he planted a paddock of kale and added in some chrysanthemums and phacelia to the crop mix.
As a plant, chrysanthemums contain natural pyrethrins, a mix of chemicals toxic to insects, and often used to control a range of pest species. The phacelia provide good ground cover to suppress weed growth.
“The idea was the beneficial bugs would be encouraged to increase in numbers and deal to the harmful bugs. It got close to the point where I thought I would have to spray, but ultimately the good bugs won out.”
The first steps were a success and prompted Ryan to look harder at work done by fellow Canterbury farmers working on regenerative options.
Farmers have picked up on assorted regenerative techniques re-incorporating stubble into soil, growing cover crops and inter-planting, all helping boost soil organic matter and farm resilience.
“Thanks to their work, there is now enough information out there that is specific to Canterbury and to New Zealand farms, and I can see how it benefits both short and long term farming outcomes.”
Often in regenerative systems, a mix of crop and livestock provide a good balance for introducing nutrients through dung and stubble and helping integrate pasture into breaks in crop rotation.
Ryan and Alan’s commitment to First Light Wagyu over the past nine years has fitted well with his later regenerative aspirations.
“What we particularly liked is the certainty of having a contract price set almost a year earlier, knowing what you will be paid well before you receive it.”
Alan was also keen for them to somehow shorten the gap between the paddock and the plate, with closer contact to the processor and ultimately the final customer.
They buy in 100-120 weaner calves consisting of both heifers and steers, running them for two winters to their final weights for processing.
The valued marbling score that is central to Wagyu’s taste premium required some tinkering in the early years to get right, but now Alan and Ryan have it nailed down, regularly achieving a 5.5-6.0 average score on the 0-9 scale.
“And we will still manage to get a couple of 9s each year across the entire mob.”
That success puts them among the top 10 First Light suppliers nationally, and rightful winners of the Supplier of the Year 2019.
The First Light contract also ensures a regular cash flow as the stock are processed over eight – nine months as they finish, with the pasture a valuable four to five year feed source that also helps build organic matter between crops.
Just as Alan and Ryan looked to First Light for value added premiums, Ryan believes a similar option may open with the regenerative cropping.
This year they managed to grow a 6ha paddock of high-grade milling wheat using regenerative practices and doing away with the need for any pest or fungicide applications.
“Ultimately we would like to find someone keen to sign us up on a spray free contract – we are pretty optimistic there will be takers out there for the wheat, possibly as an ingredient for high quality artisan bread products, for example.”
The process involved growing a crop of crimson clover with the wheat, drilling the two crops at the same time. He also added phacelia as a cover crop.
Phacelia, known for its ability to suppress weeds due to its rapid establishment, also prevents nitrogen leaching and helps lay a good layer of ground cover. It also tends to attract insects like the hoover fly, known to predate on pests like aphids.
“These are the useful bugs that really become collateral damage when you start a spray programme.”
Recent news about glyphosate residues has made headlines in New Zealand, with Japanese authorities detecting miniscule levels in New Zealand honey samples. As a spray it is ubiquitous and central in many cropping programmes, with its annual value to the New Zealand economy estimated to be about $500 million a year.
As a means of reducing tillage, it is an invaluable tool and like other regenerative farmers Ryan says he would be loath to drop the herbicide at this stage.
“But we do need to respect its use. We avoid feeding the stock anything that’s been sprayed with it and ensure whatever is to be sprayed is well chewed down first.”
Future crop rotations based off the success of the wheat are being considered for this year.
That includes looking at a bean-lupin-legume mix, rolling and then drilling it in, and this could come after their radish crop. Crimson clover also sown would be allowed to come through with the autumn wheat that would follow.
Ryan says historically the farm has never been a big recipient of nitrogen fertiliser, given 50-60% of the pastures sown have a strong legume base to them and are already fixing nitrogen.
However, this year for the first time he has started using a humate-urea blended product, and he has been impressed by its success.
Research on urea-humate blends has shown the humate content can help lift dry matter grown by 10-15% compared to urea-only. Adding the humates has also shown to extend the urea’s longevity. Early research is also indicating the humate addition may help to lower nitrate losses from nitrate fertilisers.
Ryan is excited about the opportunities blending crops offers, including across the variety of seed crops they grow, including pak choy, linseed, and parsnip.
“We see the regenerative practices as being compatible with the export seed crops – as long as we remain mindful of what we are putting in alongside those crops. You would not use wild radish for example if your neighbour were going to be putting in an export crop of radish seed.”
The blended cropping approach is also one he is applying to pasture for lambs and the Wagyu cattle. This year he grew their first multi-species pasture sward, with 18 different seed types in the mix.
“And it was inspiring to see the plants growing together with that level of variety, and then to see the animals going through getting stuck into what was on offer, it is virtually a buffet of options for them.”
He felt the cattle grew even better than he had hoped for, easily hitting the 700g a day growth rate target they set to optimise even marbling over their lifetime.
While not doing faecal egg counts at present, Ryan is not seeing any signs of undue parasites, and is easing back on drench inputs, substituting with the likes of seaweed-based supplements.
In the longer term he is looking forward to folding a greater proportion of the farm under regenerative practices.
“We are really trying to seek out those spray free contracts if possible, while also cutting back on our cost inputs if we can.”
As keen regenerative convert, Ryan has interestingly but not unusually never considered going down the organic pathway on the farm.
“What we like about this practice is you can really tailor it to what works for you. There is no set prescriptive time frame or practices for conversion. You can try things and see what works, drop it if it doesn’t – there is a good level of flexibility.”
His advice to anyone considering their regenerative options is to expect things to take some time, and don’t go looking for the “quick fix” answer.
“There are also three questions worth asking yourself.”
“One is ‘what are my reasons for doing it?’, secondly ‘what are the limitations while I do it?’ and thirdly, ‘what is the outcome I expect from doing it?’”