Pasture important for mitigating climate change

Tuesday 09.07.2019 , News

Pasture management, alongside livestock solutions, shouldn’t be overlooked as a tool for mitigating climate change, writes Sarah Gard.

There is no doubt that it’s only going to get harder to farm during the next 10 to 20 years. Climate change will directly impact all New Zealand farmers – be it an increase in temperature, more frequent weather extremes, or increasing regulation.

A new survey commissioned by the Ministry for Primary Industries shows 92 percent of farmers are addressing environmental sustainability, up from 79 percent in 2009. However, just 23 percent are focused on reducing greenhouse gases, down from 30 percent.

It’s also no secret that nearly half of New Zealand’s greenhouse emissions are from agriculture. As such, it is part of every farmer’s social license and responsibility as caretakers of the land to do their bit towards addressing environmental issues.

Many farmers are quick to turn to livestock solutions that have immediate effects on farm emissions, such as reducing stocking rates. However, innovative pasture and plant breeding technology also has an important role to play. When used alongside livestock techniques, pasture management can help farmers take a far-reaching approach to climate change mitigation.

I recently read a New Zealand Geographic article that quoted a Hawkes Bay farmer, who said: “People think we farm animals, but we don’t – we farm soil.”

I wholeheartedly agree. Knowing what pastures to plant and where, investing in new seed varieties, and improving soil fertility can help develop a sustainable farming system for the long-term.

There are many pasture-based mitigation techniques that farmers can adopt now. For example, the use of alternative forages proven to reduce nitrogen and methane is a cost-effective solution that has the dual benefit of improving production.

High sugar grasses are particularly important in this regard. Grass that improves the performance of livestock while reducing their carbon footprint offers New Zealand farmers a real win-win; it’s a modern solution to today’s farming challenges and technology that requires no notable change of system.

There are also simple management decisions farmers make on a daily basis that impact their on-farm emissions, such as managing dry matter intake and feed type, paddock selection and grazing time, and using catch crops following winter crops.

New agricultural technologies are being developed at a rapid pace. Smart crop forecasting driven by artificial intelligence, rural robotics, methane inhibitors and electromagnetic soil mapping are just some of the recent advances.

Science is the key to ensuring New Zealand’s primary sector is viable in a low-carbon world. There is no doubt that as technology continues to develop, there will be more strategies and techniques available to farmers. However, the science must be practical and applicable – there is no use in researching something that farmers can’t easily take up and get behind.

While it is tempting to look towards the quick fix, the bigger picture demands that we need to be more forward-thinking and proactive. It might not be immediate, but focusing on the land, alongside the livestock, will provide a more long-term and sustainable solution.

Farmers today have to recognise they need to meet their social license to farm, and there won’t always be a direct cost benefit in doing so. However, if they still want to be farming in 20, or 100 years’ time then there is little other choice.