A grass that resembles sugar cane, with potential uses for shelter and as a biofuel crop, has been planted on Matt and Sally Gallant’s farm. The couple say it was easy to establish, low maintenance, and has many advantages. Anne Hardie reports.

Trial plots of miscanthus have encouraged Matt and Sally Gallant to plant the edges of their winter crops to stop sediment and nitrogen runoff.

The couple farm at Atarau in the West Coast’s Grey Valley, where they planted 2500 of the tall, bushy plants two years ago in two plots totalling 0.5ha. They had seen the plant and recognised its potential for shelter and possibly as a biofuel crop. With tougher winter grazing rules on the table, they are now planning to plant it along the edge of the crop where its mass of rhizomes in the soil can collect potential runoff.

The miscanthus is a C4 grass growing as high as 4m that closely resembles sugar cane. The hybrid grown on New Zealand farms is sterile, which means it can’t reproduce itself by seed and spreads slowly by creeping rhizomes. That spread can be contained by spraying though and Sally says those factors mean it will not become the pest that plants such as broom or gorse have become.

“We saw it growing in Canterbury and thought ‘what is that?’” Sally explains. “So we googled it and went back and visited the crop, which was a Lincoln University trial.”

It was at the time shelter belts were being removed on the Canterbury Plains to make way for pivot irrigators, and miscanthus was an alternative shelter belt for pivots to negotiate. Those trials also found pasture on the sheltered side of the miscanthus had more growth because it was protected from the wind, and it created a habitat for insects beneficial to pasture.

The miscanthus can be harvested and used for bedding such as in the calf shed, as it has been overseas, but Sally says they are unlikely to use it for that because there’s the cost of getting it harvested. And though stock can munch away on the plant, it’s a low-grade feed. But as a hedge for shelter and reducing runoff, they think it has potential.

On their farm, they viewed the plant as potential shelter belts, riparian planting, and a possible crop for carbon credits, though that is looking unlikely at this stage. They planted one plot on their 138ha dairy farm and another plot up the road on their 50ha support block.

“It helps to stabilise your banks on streams and we found with our other riparian plants, you lose so many because they are choked out.

“It has the potential to take off and with New Zealand wanting to be clean and green, you think someone would be picking up on it.”

It has been an easy crop to establish, with no maintenance after the initial weed control in its first year. Being a rhizome, the plant is dormant through winter and Matt thought he had killed it with weed spray that first year, until it sprouted away again at the beginning of spring. They didn’t choose the best time for planting, but as it turned out, it didn’t matter.

“We planted it in a dry summer and it took off,” Matt says. “You grow them a metre apart and it becomes a solid hedge.”

‘It has the potential to take off and with New Zealand wanting to be clean and green, you think someone would be picking up on it.’

For that reason, they are also considering planting miscanthus along the dairy farm’s boundary where it borders another dairy farm, to act as a biosecurity measure against potential disease passing between herds.

“There’s no way stock could pass anything over the fence if we planted it – it’s a solid barrier,” Matt says.

The expanding rhizome nature of the plant means they can now split up those initial plants to plant more around the farm, including the riparian strips along streams where those winter crops will be planted.

About half the 340-cow herd joins the young stock on the support block for winter, with a mix of swede and fodder beet grown on that block and the milking platform. They like the fodder beet because it grows such a good yield in a small area and as long as the crop is managed well, it works well.

“We break the herd up into four smaller mobs of cattle so it’s easier on the cows and the environment,” Sally says.

It’s more work, but less competition for the cows and less impact on the paddock. The miscanthus sits well with their philosophy of keeping it simple and taking pressure off the cows and land. The climate dictates how they run the business as well, and though their 2.3m rainfall is a fraction of what they experienced when they farmed further south on the Coast, it still requires a ‘sensible’ approach for applying fertiliser. Their nitrogen applications total about 190kg N/ha which already falls within the new environmental regulations, so on that point they are already compliant.

Other environmental work has got underway since Yili bought Westland Milk Products and delivered a higher payout that made some of that work possible. A new, lined effluent pond can collect 1.5 million litres before picking the right time to irrigate it through K-line on the paddocks. Riparian planting has ramped up also.

“We’ve tried over the years to do riparian planting, but it’s at the bottom of the list when times are tight,” Sally says. “But now we’re cranking into it.”

The Gallants have farmed at Atarau for the past 13 years after a journey that began with three years working on a cattle station in the Kimberleys at the northwestern reaches of Australia. The station, Kalyeeda, which is the name they have also given to their West Coast dairy farm, totalled 120,000ha and the owners ran two stations that added up to 400,000ha.

Back on New Zealand turf, they turned to dairy farming because Matt had grown up with stints on his uncles’ dairy farms. That led them to sharemilking at Harihari at the southern end of the West Coast, and then an equity partnership with Matt’s extended family on the Atarau farm.

“We bought the farm after a high payout year and our first season was when they clawed back some of the payout – a couple of days before Christmas,” Sally remembers. “There have been some hard years with Westland, but it’s getting back on track now. And our partners have been pretty awesome.”