How long can New Zealand rural leadership continue to ignore regenerative farming insights and techniques?
Again, Australian farmers are proving how regenerative farming insights and techniques outperform traditional farming. Regenerative Australian grazers develop a different skill set allowing them to be profitable whilst enhancing biodiversity. These same skills also enhance farmer well-being and ability to achieve farm goals compared to similar farming elites.
The Canberra based National Environmental Science Program report makes a strong case for primary industry to invest in such skills and insights as outlined by experiences of commercial farmers in NSW. While these insights are counter to industry practice the report demonstrates their advantages on economic, social, and environmental fronts.
Unlike Australia, what is constantly missing from New Zealand strategies to reduce farmer risk and improve well being are activities that link everyday management choices like grazing to produce desired outcomes in farm landscape/environment plans. New Zealand’s lack of drought, soil fertility, and roaming wildlife prevents local farmers from discovering root causes to many of their problems.
When comparing an innovative group of regenerative farmers to Holmes and Sackett Aginsights benchmark studies over a ten year period, no substantial difference in income per Dry Sheep Equivalent (DSE) was evident compared to industry elites. Instead researchers found a consistently steadier income and lower debt. This was primarily due to substantially lower supplementary feeding and pasture maintenance costs.
Supplementary feeding is not a common practice among top flight regenerative farmers choosing instead to reduce stock numbers because of their ability to foresee feed shortages. Purchasing feed for extended periods is not common although some will purchase cheap feed during good seasons as a counter cycle strategy.
Furthermore, they operate with lower levels of traditional pasture inputs and instead rely on planned grazing (rather than rotational grazing) or cropping techniques such as pasture cropping to capture, store and cycle nutrients and moisture. Regenerative grazers provide free access to livestock minerals and use soil conditioners based on biological formulations rather than high-analysis soluble fertilisers.
They also experience lower breeding and animal health expenses than industry benchmarks. Farmers indicated their stock were healthy and used few inputs to maintain health. Reduction in fly treatment is common as well as more frequent shearing and investing in genetics that eliminate mulesing. Improved grazing management reduces ewe nutritional deficiencies thereby enhancing ewe reproductive performance.
Also, regenerative farmers aren’t interested in extracting every last dollar from their resources. For example the three most popular goal statements regenerative farmers chose are leaving the farm in good or better condition, improving biodiversity, and achieving a satisfactory level of income. The last goal contrasts with another survey choice, maximising income. This is at complete odds with much primary industry advice in New Zealand emphasising maximum income and profit.
When compared with Holmes and Sackett benchmarking, their profits were similar but Holmes and Sackett describe their elites as highly profit motivated. Yet this group of regenerative grazers achieve similar profits as a by-product of focusing on improving land management. This possibility is not promoted as a genuine opportunity by New Zealand agencies.
So while regenerative farmers are competitive financially with industry elites, it’s the social outcomes of different management strategies and techniques that excited researchers.
Regenerative farmers scored very highly with wellbeing. A strong driver of wellbeing is self-efficacy; confidence in ability to achieve desired life outcomes. The study found regenerative farmers have more confidence in achieving farming goals, especially those associated with land and water management and production decisions. Farmers in this study were more confident in achieving what they wanted on their farms, dealing with changing market conditions, and meeting farm business objectives than elites.
What this insight reveals is regenerative farmers have more control over their circumstances as emphasised by their feelings they could make right choices with farm decisions, cope well with difficult on-farm conditions, and maintain and improve health of vegetation, land and water. They also felt much more optimistic about their farming futures than other farmers.
Farmers revealed how regenerative farming had strengthened their self-efficacy, financial resilience, and created more time off-farm to spend with friends and family. Psycho-socio benefits included more optimism, reduced stress, and pride and enjoyment from seeing improvements to their landscapes. Others spoke of becoming more aware of their health, in particular what food they and their family ate and importance of physical activity.
Regenerative farming methods do not replace interventions lead by organisations such as Farmstrong that deal with mental health issues as and when they occur. Instead, as the report states, “wider adoption of regenerative farming could over the longer term reduce demands for these services by reducing the numbers of farmers who reach a point at which they have mental health or other wellbeing associated problems that require intervention”. New Zealand agencies fail to grasp how new farming techniques can prevent mental health issues.
The NESP-EP Farm Profitability and Biodiversity report offers a wake-up call for primary industry agencies and banks in New Zealand. Many desirable profit and production outcomes come from enhancing environmental processes rather than simply treating symptoms. This change in perspective and skillset produces happier farmers.