with Peter Burton
Functional Fertiliser Ltd
The old saying that ‘cost is soon forgotten with only performance remembered’ has endured for generations because it contains a large element of truth, and it applies to fertiliser as much as it does to any other consumable.
The mainstream fertiliser industry and associated consultancy groups adhere to the least-cost-per-unit-of-nutrient model in a futile attempt to protect what is being increasingly viewed as an outdated and inefficient industry.
It makes the assumption that it doesn’t matter in what form nutrient is applied, as long as what is removed is replaced. What hasn’t been factored in are accurate measures of the outcomes of nutrient applied in different forms, and farmers are being short-changed as a result.
The least-cost model is logical. However, because it is based on a false assumption, the outcomes are far from the best available. It’s important to bear in mind that local scientists have reported that intensively grazed permanent pasture has been losing carbon over the past 30 years in parts of New Zealand, with a corresponding decline in pasture production.
If the least-cost model is the best available why does it not apply to tractors, grasses and animals? If the logic holds as long as it has four wheels and starts when wanted, the cheapest will do, the same can be applied to both animals and pasture plants.
The weakness in the argument comes when performance and longevity are also considered. The cheapest may provide adequate initial performance, but not for any length of time, and the residual value is low. Pinching pennies has never been a philosophy of those that have accumulated genuine wealth over time.
Heavy metal content
With regard to imported phosphorus, the cheapest on the market is what is not wanted or less favoured by other countries, often due to its heavy metal content. There are areas in this country where the cadmium concentration of the soil now makes them unsuitable for vegetable production.
Historically the least-cost model made perfect sense. New Zealand farming was in a development phase. Pastures responded to both phosphorus and sulphur, and single superphosphate – the product manufactured here, was the obvious answer. However, things change over time.
With the advent of alternative milk and laboratory-produced meat replacements, the future of New Zealand’s pasture-based industry will be in producing top-end, high-value products. Those customers prepared to, and capable of, paying already want to know where their food has come from, and how it’s been produced.
Feeding the world by supplying low-value commodity products will not pay the bills, now or in future. The cost of production is steadily climbing, and for those with debt, budgets remain tight, even with the recent increase in dairy product returns.
Driving down the cost of production at farm level, as one of the largest corporate dairy enterprises is currently doing, will put more funds in the bank account in the short-term, but it remains a stop-gap measure.
By adopting soil fertility programmes that provide steadily increasing pasture production, there will continue to be a way forward. These programmes may not be cheaper; however they often are and provide real financial gains by reducing the necessity for bought-in feed, markedly cutting animal ill-health costs, and the requirement for costly pasture renewal.
The carbon story is one to still fully unfold. The measures to date show that the lift in pasture and total farm production comes with an increase in soil-held carbon, potentially a future income source rather than an unwelcome tax. For more information contact Peter on 0800 843 809.