Programme hailed as a success

The Hill Country Futures research programme has acted as a refresher for farmers and rural industries, Sandra Taylor writes.

In Livestock12 Minutes

The Hill Country Futures research programme has acted as a refresher for farmers and rural industries, Sandra Taylor writes.

As the Hill Country Futures programme enters its final months, the number of outputs from the $8.1 million programme has been claimed to have exceeded all expectations in both number and scope.

Beef + Lamb New Zealand’s sector science strategy manager Dr Suzanne Keeling says the contract technically wraps up in December 2022 with residual reporting running into next year. The priority over the next few months is to continue raising awareness of the outputs, including the most recent ones.

The soil and fertiliser series produced by Lincoln University in April this year is a package of 11 fact sheets. It covers topics such as fertiliser and lime strategies, nitrogen use, soil and pasture testing strategies. Keeling says they were released as a package to encourage rural professionals and farmers to consider a number of factors in their fertiliser decisions, and to create efficiencies in soil testing and nutrient applications.

A lot of the information in the package is linked to fundamental science, so while it’s not new, it acts as a refresher for farmers and rural professionals, she says. It also draws on the results of forage trials that have been carried out on 15 sites across the country.

Keeling believes presenting the series as a package makes it a more accessible and useful resource.

Following the release of the AgYields database, which was the result of a number of collaborations, the programme has produced a series of “how to” videos. These soon-to-be released videos show farmers how they can contribute to the database by setting up measurement areas and exclusion cages, carrying out measurements, cutting and drying samples, doing the calculations and uploading their data into AgYields.

The videos will also help farmers and rural professionals find the information they need in the data repository.

One of the purposes of AgYields was to create a legacy for the sector as a national and central repository of forage information to avoid duplication of work already carried out.

Keeling has been encouraged by the response to the release of the farmer wellbeing tool FarmSalus. Although still hot off the press, FarmSalus has already been incorporated into Agri-Women Development Trust programmes and there has been interest from other organisations.

It has been designed as a tool for rural professionals and catchment groups to help frame conversations with farmers about future proofing their businesses and overall resilience. It is based on three interconnected strands: healthy farmer, healthy farm business and healthy farm, underpinned by community and support networks.

It was developed from 300 interviews carried out by the social research organisation Nature Positive and B+LNZ, including 170 face-to-face interviews with farmers. It was continually tested and refined before its launch to ensure it was fit for purpose. Keeling says it’s anticipated that it will continue to evolve over time.

Waiting in the wings as part of this work are more farmer stories, due for release before the end of the year.

Keeling says this type of social research was new to B+LNZ and until now there had been no other dataset of this type in NZ.

“It has allowed us to carry out in-depth analysis and give us a solid foundation and understanding of how farmers operate, their sources of pain, angst, hope and opportunities for the future.”

She says it was important to both B+LNZ and the researchers that the elements of FarmSalus resonated with farmers.

Native forages

At Massey University, work is underway to look at the potential of native shrubs to benefit hill country environments and enhance biodiversity, as well as be used as supplementary fodder for sheep and cattle.

Keeling says they are also holding a series of wananga as part of research into the Matauranga Maori of a selection of native shrubs being assessed in the wider study.

One of the challenges with native plants is the length of time they take to establish in order to provide enough material to analyse. This means this study will be a more proof of concept, although laboratory trials will look at the anthelmintic properties of native plants as well as their impact on methane production, potentially providing some useful insights for future work.

With so many parts of the programme now complete, Keeling says the team is working to ensure the parts are wrapped up neatly and made accessible to farmers, rural professionals and other stakeholders.

“We want to clearly demonstrate everything the programme has achieved,” she says.

This could include panel discussions, reports, webinars and various other communication channels.

There will also be decisions made about what parts of the programme will become incorporated into B+LNZ and continue to be supported as part of the business.

For Keeling, one of the more gratifying aspects of the programme has been the diversity of the project team and steering committee both in their skill sets and background.

“It’s not the usual mix, but it has been really positive and has allowed for interesting and diverse discussions that encouraged the team to keep striving for excellence.

“It has also created additional networks and collaborations,” she says.

The programme is co-funded by B+LNZ, the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment, PGGWrightson Seeds and Seed Force.

Get with the programme

The recently released AgYield is the realisation of Lincoln University’s Professor Derrick Moot’s vision to build a national database to house crop yield and production data for pasture and crop species.

The online tool will enable farmers and rural professionals to see how different pasture species and forages have performed in trials and on farms in their regions. This will support their decision making about what to grow, where to meet feed demand and drive efficiencies in their farm systems.

An addition to the Forage Value Index, which focuses on perennial ryegrass, AgYield includes all pasture and crop species grown commercially in New Zealand. These include subterranean clovers, red clover, chicory and plantain and fescues, as well as maize, wheat and oats to name just a few.

Moot has led the project and the software development was funded by the T R Ellett Trust. The populating of data was funded by the Hill Country Futures Partnership programme with postdoctoral Carmen Teixeira and Lincoln University PhD student Laura Keenan doing much of the leg work to gather and collate the data.

Keenan points out that collectively, the industry, including universities, research institutions, seed companies and individual farmers have amassed a lot of data over years of both trial work or on-farm pasture measurements (cage cuts), and it’s been a matter of collating it all so that the information has a home.

“Too often we reinvent the wheel. Now we can find the data in one central repository,” she says.

The productivity of individual pasture species can be overlaid with climate and soil data from trial sites, which gives farmers an indication of how a species might perform in their particular farm environments.

Data collection includes ongoing trials and farms that are part of the Hill Country Futures programme, including near Taihape, Methven and Banks Peninsula, as well as at Massey and Lincoln universities.

Keenan says they are also welcoming data from farmers who have been carrying out cage cuts over long periods (longer than one season).

Even if the quality of the data isn’t perfect, something is better than nothing for many locations throughout NZ. The database allows people to indicate if their data is part of a science paper or an unpublished study,” she says.

“We can use that data in meta-analysis to fill in the blanks in areas where we don’t have replicated trials.”

Keenan says the more data they can collect, the more information becomes available to farmers.

By targeting farmers in hill or high country environments who use a large number of plants in their farming systems, AgYields will ultimately help farmers run more resilient, sustainable, efficient and profitable businesses.

“The more information the better and the more useful it is for NZ Inc,” Keenan says.

AgYields is an open access database, hosted by Lincoln University that will hopefully become invaluable to the wider agribusiness community. Users can login at to register and see what datasets are available in their area.