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Rhys Roberts of Align Farms

New Zealand

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Rhys Roberts of Align Farms

“We settled on the Tow and Fert system solely because of the ability of the machine to take granular product in it’s cheap, core form, mix it with water or effluent from our own sources and apply it paddock-by-paddock.”

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Align Farms drops under 190 units N/Ha limitation one year before they need to.

Nestled beneath the Southern Alps in Mid-Canterbury, Align Farms Clareview dairy farm borders on the Ashburton River. Here, shortly after the early morning milking, we talk to Rhys Roberts, CEO of Align Farms.

With regulation waiting in the wings and then becoming a reality, change was either a choice or would be forced upon the Align team.

This is the story of how one corporate farming group, Align Farms, reduced their nitrogen inputs by up to 33% in one year, growing more grass and producing more milk.

Rhys Roberts, CEO of Align Farms, knew they needed to change their nutrient programme. He and his team changed to foliar application, using a Tow and Fert, across the company’s five dairy farms. They reduced their nitrogen inputs, grew more grass, and produced more milk one year before the government regulations kick in.

Rhys Roberts has always been early to adopt new techniques of dairy farming, often trialling different things well ahead of the industry curve. In mid-2019, he was contemplating the future of dairy farming in the Canterbury basin region. His company Align Farms owns five farms and two support farms in the region. It was becoming clear that the discussion in the media, at government level and amongst the public, was increasingly focusing on the impacts of dairy farming on water quality. Rhys could see that there was a clear need to change and adapt the farm’s practices to ensure they were prepared for any future regulatory development.

Running a system four farm with a conventional granular-based fertiliser programme, led by the major fertiliser companies, Rhys and his team were putting on between 250 and 280 units of nitrogen per hectare every year. Additionally, the Align group of farms would use maintenance fertilisers including P and K as well as an annual requirement of lime.

Rhys started considering how the Align Group could start reducing their use of synthetic based nitrogen products. Rhys says, “We started looking at liquid N alternatives, Tow and Fert alternatives or just making a reduction in granular fert inputs”.

A chance conversation between Rhys and Ricky Taylor, a friend and local farmer, revealed a mutual interest in moving to a foliar fertiliser approach. Ricky and his wife Rebecca were wanting to move into the liquid fertiliser space by founding a contracting company. They had been looking at the different application methods available and had settled on the Tow and Fert for its versatility in dissolving N and suspending fine particle products.

Rhys made the decision to work with Ricky and Fert Solutions. This partnership would enable Align to test the Tow and Fert system without the full commitment of purchasing their own Tow and Fert.

A partnership agreement was made between Rhys (Align Farms) and Ricky (Fert Solutions) and they started on the liquid foliar fertiliser application path, both excited about how this could enable significant improvement in their environmental footprint.

Rhys and the Align Farms team had set themselves a goal of reducing their synthetic nitrogen inputs in year one by 200 tonne. By Christmas 2019, they were on target having reduced N inputs by 100 tonnes. By the end of May, after a long and hot summer, their total reduction in nitrogen inputs was 160 tonnes.

“The only reason we missed our target was due to the warmer weather in May. We ended up doing 3 weeks extra of N application, so we made an overall reduction of 160 tonne. Generally, our business puts on about 500 tonnes of Urea, so we have made around a 30 to 33% reduction in synthetic N inputs.”

“We have managed to reduce our N inputs from an average of 246 units to 173 units, so there is a range on the farms of anywhere from 150 to 190kgs N/Ha.”

With the savings made in the business from the reduction of N, Align has been able to reinvest this money into optimising their phosphate, potassium and lime levels. They have also been able to introduce trace elements such as selenium for animal health.

Next, Rhys continues, comes the question of production “was there a drop in productivity on the farm? The answer is no. We didn’t see any fundamental shifts in our production. In fact, our calculations show we grew more grass with the Tow and Fert system.”

“Three of our farms were up on their production year-on-year, recording record production years. The test for us is to see if we can do it again. I am confident we can, whereas 12 months ago I would have laughed at you.”

Like any farmer, Rhys was concerned about the possibility of input regulations for his farms and the industry, but he takes a pragmatic approach when talking about the new restrictions.

“My take on the legislation and the 190 cap is that we do have to pay for our sins eventually. We need to make step changes and continue to make step changes to be more efficient.”

Rhys says, “In my view we have to get more efficient around how we use nitrogen in our systems. One area where the Tow and Fert does work well is you are taking a granular, commodified product off the shelf and mixing it with water or effluent, and using less of it during application.”

“To me it’s a no-brainer. There are savings to be made there. So not only are we already in line with the restrictions but we are also making a cash saving to our business and being efficient along financial lines as well.”

And of moving to the Tow and Fert system and meeting the restrictions soon to be in place Rhys says,

As part of Align Farms nitrogen input reduction strategy, Rhys says that one additional way dairy farmers can reduce their input of nitrogen is to increase their round lengths. As most farms do about 10 rounds of fertiliser input throughout the year, increasing their round length can reduce the number of inputs a farmer puts on each year.

Rhys explains “If your round length is 21 days and you increase it to 24 days, or if you are on 25 days and move to 28 days, you can reduce your rounds to nine per year without even noticing any difference. That is a whole round of nitrogen that is now out of your system.”

The benefit of using the Tow and Fert in a system like Rhys explains above, is that you can apply your fertiliser more rapidly after the cows have grazed the paddock and the uptake by the plant is immediate. “The challenge with a granular system is the time it can take to breakdown and become plant available. This is because we may have to wait four days to have enough area for the bulky to do the job, and then another four days to be plant available after the irrigator has been over it” says Rhys.

“One of the beauties with a fertiliser product that is in suspension or dissolved in liquid through the Tow and Fert, is that you are getting uptake in the plants on day one and growth from there going forward. You are maximising your pasture production which is critical on a dairy farm” shares Rhys

The reduction in nitrogen use has lead to an increase in milk solids at Align Farms, Emilius.

Milk urea is another area that Rhys and the Align team have noticed some big changes over the course of the last 12 months. Milk urea is directly related to the pasture nitrogen levels so when more nitrogen is applied to a paddock, milk urea levels increase.

For Rhys and the team there has been a marked difference this year in milk urea.

“One area we noticed a huge change, which potentially has a link to animal health and nitrogen loss, is that our milk urea levels were substantially lower,” says Rhys.

Across the Align group of farms, the average milk urea level prior to the change to the Tow and Fert system was around 20 to 25mg/dl, the levels Dairy NZ suggest farmers can expect. Yet for the last 12 months, the Align group of farms have averaged between 3 and 5mg/dl without the expected protein drop.

Rhys explains, “we are quite confident lowering milk urea will collate to lower N loss through soils and leeching. Provided we can hold the protein level, which we believe we can, we are confident this will improve animal health and then improve the water quality leaving our farm.”

The change at Align farms has been a dramatic one. With the Board determined to lead the way in all aspects of dairy farming, the early move to improve their fertiliser use and efficiency made good business sense.

“18 months ago, I thought that moving from 250 units of N down to 180 or 160 was probably going to be a big push for Align. Now, 12 months in, we have achieved those figures; we have got under 190 units across the business,” says Rhys.

With no material changes in pasture production, animal health or milk production Rhys and the Align team are confident in the future of the Tow and Fert system and business in general. “The Tow and Fert system is versatile, pragmatic and does everything that we need it to do,” says Rhys.

Rhys says Align will continue down the path they are on to ensure their results are consistent and continue to be realised year-on-year. And Rhys’ advice for other farmers considering the