Friday, 6 May 2011

Biological Farming in the UK and New Zealand

Biological farming is a new one on me.  I’d never heard of it back in those heady, far off days when I started this blog (all of five days ago) but in the space of one week I’ve seen three articles on it – one from the UK and two from New Zealand.  My general assumption was that references to biological farming actually meant organic, as in many parts of Europe organic agriculture is known as ‘biologique’ (or the local equivalent) or labelled as ‘bio’, but that is not correct, as these articles show.

The articles from New Zealand, which can be found here and here describe biological farming, or ‘biologics’, as a method which focuses on stimulating soil activity, on the basis that healthy soil grows healthy pastures and crops that produce healthy animals.  The system’s followers believe that modern chemical fertilisers are overused, harm soil biology and produce nutrient-deficient pastures and food.

It’s reported that 450,000ha of New Zealand farmland is now under biological management and proponents argue that there are farmers across the country who can testify to the positive changes they are experiencing.  But biological farming is not organic.  "Biological farmers may still use chemicals if required, but they are buffered or reduced through the additions of biological foods such as seaweed, fish, humates, sugars and more."

However, not all are convinced.  New Zealand soil scientist Dr Edmeades claims that biologics is flawed science and could lead to farms becoming run down.  He believes that the positive results that some farmers are experiencing through the system are due to historic applications of mineral fertilisers, leaving a ‘legacy’ load of nutrients in the soil.

Farmers disagree and claim that biologics is growing and that its leading supporters are among the country's best producers.  They ask how this can be so if the scientists are to be believed.  One farmer switched to biologics after experiencing animal health problems and poor clover production.  He has been applying a "soup" of humates (natural sources of trace elements), fulvic acids, sugar, kelp and seawater, along with small amounts of reactive phosphate rock, nitrogen and sulphur.  Ten years before that, he was a heavy user of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium before gradually easing off chemical fertilisers.

Farmers’ Weekly (UK) magazine adds a slightly different take to the debate.  It’s report claims that intelligent application of biological agriculture could bring environmental benefits and carbon footprint efficiency, while exploiting natural farm waste products.  Enhanced nutritional performance could also be gained while toxic waste products are microbially digested on site.  The report states that dairy farmers are exploring ways to maximise the benefits provided by slurry while minimising the drawbacks of application, such as poor grass palatability.

One of the drivers for this is therefore replacing noxious slurry or dirty water with a non-toxic bio-available nutrient liquor, which would provide benefits from higher grade bio-fertiliser and reduce problems with sward rejection.  The report says that providing bio-available nutrients to the growing crop would offer more efficient use of a resource while significantly reducing environmental contamination risk.  The bio-slurry would also be soil friendly and help promote valuable earthworm numbers rather than harm the soil – a benefit that should not be under estimated.

Initial trials of slurry-digesting additives are indicating a 30% improvement in N, P and K values compared to treated slurry.  This will usually offer a fertiliser saving more than sufficient to justify the cost of the product, which is likely to range from about £4-8 a cow a year.

According to Farmers’ Weekly, the resulting forage is likely to be better in terms of nutrient balance and will provide benefits to livestock.  The microbial digestion of the slurry is also likely to present a more balanced trace element profile to the plant, via the soil.

It concludes by suggesting that the potential for bio-nutrient use on dairy farms is hugely significant in the modern light of progression.  Fuel needs to be saved, the environment needs to be protected, and above all, healthy productive livestock keep the whole business profitable and enable a better product to be supplied to the human food chain.