Future Farm Systems programme plots a course

As farmers lower emissions they will adapt their systems. By Elaine Fisher.

New Zealand farmers will have to adapt to the inevitable and diverse impacts of climate change, alongside taking measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

That was among the messages from the November webinar – Future Farm Systems Programme – shaping a low-emissions future for agriculture – hosted by the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre (NZAGRC) and fronted by Lee Matheson managing director at Perrin Ag.

“If the world went to net zero carbon emissions tomorrow, we would still have embedded climate change impacts, so as we lower emissions, we have to adapt alongside that,” Lee said.

After a year-long scoping phase, the NZAGRC launched the ‘Future Farm Systems’ research programme in mid-2022. It imagines what a low emissions future might look like for agriculture in Aotearoa New Zealand, including exploring more radical system changes that could be implemented to help the sector meet the Government’s 2050 climate targets.

“We are looking for farmer-led solutions that the wicked challenge of reducing emissions requires,” Lee said.

Erica van Reenen, managing director at AgFirst (Manawatu-Whanganui), is responsible for the part of the programme focusing on five case studies of leading farmers already implementing changes to reduce emissions. The studies look at the drivers behind their decision-making, barriers they had to overcome, the outcomes and what advice they would give other farmers.

Lee said the project was more interested in the processes farmers had gone through to take action to lower emissions rather than just the actions themselves. “Every farm business is unique including the resources it has and the aspirations and dreams of its owners.

“We are looking at the management of farm system changes and land use change farmers may have adopted, not trying to present a ‘grab bag’ of ideas such as production forestry or kiwifruit. We are looking at the wider scene to understand what diversification options may be implemented.”

One case study is on a mid-Canterbury irrigated dairy farm where total emissions have decreased as a result of reduced nitrous oxide emissions. The results were achieved through having a more knowledgeable farm team, better pasture utilisation, consistent genetics and attention to detail.

Steps taken included reducing the number of cows wintered from 1485 in 2018 to 1454 in 2022. Dry matter eaten increased from 16 tonnes in 2018 to 17t in 2022. Milksolids increased 5.7% from 596,634 in 2018 to 630,599 in 2022 and MS per cow increased 9% from 411 in 2018 to 448 in 2022. Methane emissions have increased slightly, but at a lower rate than the increase in milk production.

A question posed during the seminar was if pasture production was expected to slowly decline in line with the lower applied nitrogen. “Will there be a nutrient deficit over time and the MS produced revert to pre-farm system change?”

Lee said less nitrogen, cycling more efficiently through the system, would appear to be the driver behind the calculated reduction in nitrous oxide emissions.

“As to whether there will be a nitrogen deficit over time as a result of less synthetic N fertiliser being applied, the case study farmer isn’t expecting it and to our knowledge the nutrient budget for the farm system doesn’t show an N deficit.”

The second part of Erica’s research is focused on collectives operating at catchment and rohe levels.

This farmer/landowner-led research asked those involved to; “identify how the collective can give meaningful effect to the aspirations of the Zero Carbon Act while retaining their financial viability and directly contributing to the reduction of gross methane emissions from the primary sector”.

The first collective, the Mid-Taieri GHG Collective, is an existing group in a challenging and diverse landscape with diverse land use. The group is currently building a profile and understanding of their emissions and looking at options locally and globally that may help them tackle the opportunity. Part of the project is documenting the group’s progress with the intention to share lessons more widely at the conclusion of the project. The second part of the programme, with a particular focus on Northland and Southland, is a regional scenario analysis investigating the impact of reducing methane and nitrous emissions within the context of embedded climate change. The project will use qualitative scenario analysis methodology with scenarios informed by existing research and regional information.

The baseline analysis of Northland and Southland economies has been completed and expected regional climate change impacts identified through a literature review. The efficacy and cost of current and emergent mitigations has also been compiled.

“We are currently developing plausible future scenarios for Northland and Southland to be analysed in 2023. These will be tested with expert and stakeholder workshops in each region.

“In Northland, based on what the literature and modelling is telling us, we can expect to see the continued advance of C4 grasses, kikuyu and paspalum, into pastoral systems. This is a challenge for farmers because these provide lower-quality energy and protein, are harder for animals to digest and consequently generate more methane than C3 plants like ryegrass and clover.

“Much of Northland already farms with C4 grasses but with climate change, these grasses will be coming to the Waikato, maybe as soon as the next decade,” Lee said.

“Farm businesses will need to move to a lower emission future so we are looking at how to lower methane and nitrous oxide emissions and what the potential flow-on impacts of those changes will be, not only on farming, but the wider community.

“We are using the intuition, knowledge and insights of community stakeholders, including farmers, to come up with potential future scenarios.”

This approach, Lee said, had been chosen to deliver insights as opposed to metrics. “This is not devaluing economic modelling but is a way of engaging wider thinking to ensure we get the best out of the future and if possible, avoid unintended consequences.”

‘Business as usual’ in a farming sense was not an option and thought must be given to what will happen if, for example, regions experience more sunshine hours and lower rainfall. “What crops and pasture might grow in that changing climate?

“We need scenarios to be plausible to consider what will happen if methane inhibitors or vaccines are not developed with sufficient efficacy to continue to do what we are currently doing.”

The programme is also looking at low-emission land uses and analysing examples of possible land use change options.

“The focus is not on ‘can we grow it’but rather ‘if we grew it, what would we do with it and what might that mean for us?’ We are not picking winners but examining the unique supply chain considerations of representative land use types.”

A detail ‘gate to crate’ analysis of the supply chain and potential challenges of six land uses is underway.

Those land uses are:

  • a perishable nut crop (chestnuts)
  • a non-radiata pine production timber crop (tōtara)
  • a novel arable crop with diverse streams (hemp)
  • a crop with domestic food security implications (milling wheat)
  • a horticultural crop with emerging supply chain constraints (blueberries)
  • an established arable crop with a novel value proposition (peas for ‘white’ protein).

In response to a question about the impacts of changing land use from pastoral to horticulture, Lee said the challenges of the capital and skilled workforce required were being taken into account as was infrastructure and the supply chain. “The baseline analysis will consider demographics and population growth and what level of skill sets will be required and how to provide for that.”

The outcomes of all of the programme’s research will be made available to all stakeholders including farmers and growers, industry bodies and decision makers, including national, local and regional councils.

“If, in 50 years, we need to have more people in the regions to harvest and handle crops we don’t yet grow, we need to think about that now.”