6 Oct 2017

Down to earth: the benefits of biological farming

From Country Life, 9:46 pm on 6 October 2017

Farmers who have been switched on to biological farming think sceptics need to keep an open mind.

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Photo: supplied

Biological farming focuses on the need for a balanced relationship between the physical, chemical and biological aspects of soil to sustain life.

Doubters should watch people farming biologically and look at the results, says Rex Mitchell, who manages Mairaki Downs farm at Fernside in Canterbury.

"They talk about biological farming and think we're hippies running around with no socks and shoes on, but really it's all about the soil!" Rex says.

Mairaki Downs owner Russell Rudd is also a convert. He has been using biological nutrients to enhance crop yields and animal performance on his 600-hectare beef sheep and deer farm for the past nine years.

The results have been great, he says.

"If we look back at where we started we had trouble getting cows in calf and hinds in fawn and now further down the track we are  just about getting everything in calf and fawn and we've got excess animals to sell into the market, which has really changed the game around quite nicely for us."

Mairaki Downs works closely with Soil Matters consultant Rob Flynn, whose philosophy is that agriculture is a biological system, not a chemical one.

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Photo: RNZ Cosmo Kentish-Barnes

Convincing farmers to think about using a biological approach to soil health is a challenge because the system is often viewed as unconventional,  Rob says, but there are not strict controls about what goes on the land such as with organic farming.

"It's probably a more pragmatic system and easier for the conventional farmer to handle because they can still draw on whatever they have to fix a problem, but the problems gets less as your soil health improves.

"We work down the Albrecht theory of soil-balancing, so you're looking at your biggest deficiency in your base saturation and from there correcting those to give you a good soil structure."

Soil Matters consultant Fraser Matthews spends most of his time on farms around the South Island.

He believes soil holds more water when it's structurally improved and when the biology is working properly.

Fraser is keen to work with dairy farmers to improve soil biology and plant growth on their farms.

"Even with irrigation, dairy farmers struggle to keep up with enough water to make the grass grow, so just being able to hold onto more water would benefit them greatly."