A multi-farm Canterbury dairy operation is running a comparative study of regenerative agriculture against traditional Kiwi methods. Anne Lee reports.

Canterbury’s Align Farms is taking the plunge and arguably taking one for the team, putting 50% of two of its high-performing dairy farms into regenerative agriculture so it can run a comparative study and gather scientifically robust data.

Rhys Roberts is chief executive of the large scale, seven-farm business and says the farms’ stakeholders have become increasingly focused on farming with a lighter environmental footprint to produce nutritious, healthy food. Regenerative farming principles had sparked their interest but like many others the Align team was frustrated at the lack of New Zealand-based evidence to back up claims being made.

“We were all a bit sick of the fact there was just anecdotal data. We wanted some empirical evidence so yes, I guess we’re taking a bit of a risk but we want it to give us robust scientific outcomes.

“Then we want to share the data openly and transparently with other dairy farmers so they can get some sound information that’s relevant to New Zealand and the way we farm here,” Rhys says.

Two of Align’s dairy farms – the 1080-cow Clareview and the 1050-cow Longfield will have 50% of their area run under a regenerative system with a study also to be set up on a wintering block. Last season about 20% of Clareview was sown in the multispecies pasture mixes that are a hallmark of the regenerative approach with the other 30% being sown this season.

Longview’s transition has begun this season and will be a 50:50 split in time for the 2021/22 season.

Align’s head of environment and innovation Clare Buchannan says to ensure the study can generate sound, credible data a science advisory board has been set up.

It includes Dr Gwen Grelet from Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, Otago University Emeritus Professor Frank Griffin and Our Land Our Water National Science Challenge director Dr Jenny Webster-Brown.

“We wanted to make sure the study stands up to scrutiny and that we’re measuring and collecting data on all of the metrics we should be.

“We don’t want to get five years down the track and find we wished we’d measured something and haven’t.

“A lot’s been said about regenerative agriculture in the media both for it and about the lack of data with some even calling it a mythology.

“We didn’t want to adopt this and then three years later just be added to the anecdotal pile,” Clare says.

The farms have always been diligent in collecting data and benchmarking with peers such as Lincoln University Dairy Farm (LUDF) so many of the production, financial and environmental metrics from the previous four years will form baseline information.

Baseline data on other factors including soil carbon levels are being collected this season.

The herds on each farm will be split to ensure they’re as similar as possible with one half run only on the regenerative pastures and the other on conventional ryegrass/white clover.

Each farm has two vats and each herd will be milked separately and milk kept separate.

Other management differences will include a shift away from synthetic fertilisers on the regenerative area.

The farms will run on a 50/50 split for two seasons and then transition to fully regenerative.

Align’s Jacawanada and Emilius farms totalling 416ha and 1800 cows will continue to run as conventionally managed farms through the study.

Clare says they’ve settled on five key areas to record data on.

  • Financial
  • Environmental
  • Human health
  • Animal health
  • Social impacts

Environmental data will include the normal soil test information and “above and beyond” soil chemistry analysis as well as soil biology measurements.

Clare says monitor paddocks have been selected on each farm to make comparisons within farms as robust as possible and those monitor paddocks will be sampled regularly throughout the study period.

Soil carbon sampling is being carried out on both the dairy farms and the operation’s wintering unit Hinterlands, near Methven.

“One of our main motivators for switching to regenerative practices was to try to sequester carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the soil, so it was imperative to us to measure our current carbon stores so we can compare our progress in five year’s time.”

Soil water-holding capacity will be measured and metrics that could affect water quality. Human health information will be analysed from milk samples taken from each vat and will look at factors such as Omega 3-6 levels, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) levels, a range of macro and micro nutrients and residues of synthetic chemicals. Align’s mission statement is to advance human health and environmental outcomes by producing nutrient dense foods in a resilient, diverse and productive environment all can enjoy.

“The human health aspect of the study is important to us, we want to be producing nutrient dense food so we want to see if regenerative principles do make a difference to the product,” Clare says.

Animal health information will be collected on issues such as mastitis and metabolic disorders with vets carrying out additional blood tests, autopsies on cows that die and liver biopsies.

The financial data will include farm working expenses per kilogram of milksolids (MS) along with budgeted and actual spends on budget line items as well as physical data such as milk and pasture production.Social data will also be collected.

“It’s a bit of a tricky one to measure accurately but we’ll carry out surveys to look at things like staff engagement and we may go wider and survey people in the community to get an idea of any shifts in perception,” Clare says.

“There is no question that dairying has contributed to degraded water quality in New Zealand, so we are hoping these improved practices result in a lower environmental footprint, which in turn will shift the public’s perception of the industry. This will hopefully have the knock-on effect of improving the mental health and wellbeing of our farmers, something that is an issue in the farming community.”

Rhys says most dairy farmers will want to know the numbers first of all.

“They’ll want to know it stacks up at a $6/kg milksolids (MS) payout.

“We may be able to move regenerative milk up the value chain to give a greater margin but not everyone is going to be able to do that so I think if farmers generally are going to adopt the principles it has to stack up at the long-term average milk price,” he says.

“Farmers need to know it’s profitable – that’s the way our DNA is wired.”

They’ve looked at all five parameters because each will have a different weighting for different farmers when it comes to deeming it successful.

Some may be facing significant environmental challenges and if it ticks those boxes they may be prepared to forgo some profit. From his perspective, Rhys says a successful farm system has to be repeatable and teachable.

“We know what we can do on a ryegrass white clover conventional system and it’s a pretty high bar,” he says.

Along with the data collection he says managers and staff will be gathering information on how to best manage the system and share that with others too.

“Initially we brought in regenerative consultants, they brought tonnes of energy and challenged the status quo.

“We have now settled on learning within and sharing and utilising our own capabilities and expertise.

“By doing our own study and working together ourselves yes we’re making a few mistakes but we’re learning what works.”

Rhys’ wife Kiri is the farm manager on Clareview and has been since it was purchased in 2013.

“We’ve already learnt a lot about how to graze these pastures – they’re obviously very different to what we’ve been used to, much higher covers, higher residuals and putting cows on to smaller areas for shorter periods and moving them more often,” she says.

In the first season a primer, soil-conditioning, pasture mix is direct drilled, usually in spring.

The mix can include more than 25 plant species including deep-rooted plants such as sunflowers and chicory, phacelia, a range of grasses, grains and legumes.

Not all will survive or even come up in the first year but Kiri says most have appeared at some stage.

A mix of nine to 13 species, mostly grasses and legumes is then sown into that crop using a cross-slot drill.

“You’ll get re-seeding from the first diverse mix but you’ll see different plants coming up through as it grows out,” she says.

“As these regen pastures grow back they’ll look a lot like a conventional paddock to start with and then as the covers get high you’ll see the more diverse things come through,” Rhys says.

They take up to 50 days before they’re ready to be regrazed and will be up around 6000-7000kg drymatter (DM)/ha cover.

The idea is to graze them down to about 2500 with the high stocking density trampling the residual so that it lies close to the soil and will break down or be recycled by soil biology.

“If you graze these paddocks to 1600kg DM/ha the only thing that will grow back is grass and dandelions,” Rhys says.

They’re looking at how they can use the high covers particularly in the soil primer crop to replace bought-in supplement.

“Our view is we shouldn’t need short-term supplement because there’s enough room there to graze an additional 500kg DM – say going from 2500 residual to 2000kg DM. But we’re still looking at whether we can grow enough to manage a longer-term deficit.

“It’s these kinds of learnings that we want to share as we go,” he says.


  • The Dairy Exporter will be following the Align Farms journey and reporting regularly on the findings of its study and what it discovers in terms of farm system management. Let us know your questions for the Align team. Email: anne.lee@nzfarmlife.co.nz