A project at Lincoln University is taking a novel approach to sustainability. By Anne Lee.

Diagram of Integral Health Dairy Farm showing the paddocks and designed foodscapes.

One hundred cows at Lincoln University’s Ashley Dene will get to experience a re-imagined dairy farm focused on health as its main product.

The Integral Health Dairy Farm will aim to build healthy ecosystems from the ground up right through to the dairy products it produces and in the people that consume them.

This long-term project is based on system thinking and design theory, using a full range of ecological practices such as agroecology, agroforestry and nutritional ecology where foraging is merged with pharmecology – the use of plants as medicine – along with psychology and social ecology.

Lincoln Professor Pablo Gregorini heads up the university’s Centre of Excellence for Designing Future Productive Landscapes and is leading this Integral Health Dairy Farm project.

It aims to remediate and transform the farmlet ecosystem and enhance its prophylactic, nutraceutical and therapeutic properties as designed foodscapes, improving the wellbeing of the soil, grazing land, the cows that graze it and by extension the health of the people, he says.

“Continuous findings and outcomes from this project research will help shift the emphasis from endless searches for ‘silver bullet’ solutions to systemic approaches, embracing modern views of mahinga kai, kaitiakitanga and manaakitanga in our future landscapes, counteracting negative connotations of dairy products on our tables,” Pablo says.

It’s a novel approach to sustainability, which the team working on creating the 43-hectare farmlet, is aiming to put together in a practical way.

The project’s research manager Dr Anita Fleming says they know, from other studies at the Lincoln University Pastoral Livestock Production Lab and elsewhere, that merging these scientific approaches in grazing and farm management can enhance health and wellbeing of animals.

That may in turn be associated with properties of the milk animals produce with some of these properties associated with the reduction of inflammation and anxiety for example.

But complex systems are not easy to manage and maintain, and that is one of the reasons they want to trial this approach at Lincoln, Anita says.

“Based on our previous research, we’ve come to the conclusion animals do benefit from diversity but what’s more important is how that diversity is functionally arranged in space and time – so now we’re designing spatially explicit combinations of forage and browsing plants that grow well together.

This makes it easier from a grazing management perspective but also affords cows a choice of what to graze and when, providing a hedonic benefit – or sense of pleasure, Anita says.

Running through the colourful stripy paddocks will be ribbons of multifunctional woody vegetation that will include a range of trees, shrubs, and even woody herbs.

PhD student and qualified architect Richard Morris is researching spatial agroecology and how this new take can be used to create better environmental and ecological outcomes in both farm and urban settings.

He’s been an architect for 25 years and has worked around the world.

By looking at research on the ecosystem services provided by specific plants and planting designs he’s worked with others involved in the Ashley Dene Integral Health Dairy Farm to come up with the ribbon planting concept.

The plants will give a mix of shade, shelter, and food, as well as a range of medicines and prophylactics and will be selected and managed so they don’t impede a pivot irrigator.

The plantings will provide a wide range of ecosystem services.

For example – planting areas provide shade but also provide a vegetative cooling effect with a breeze created as cooler air from shaded areas replaces the rising warm air over paddocks.

Richard says the tree and shrub areas will likely contain a mix of native and non-native species and, as well as serving as a feed source and protection for the animals, will also include plants that help “soak up” nitrogen.

“If you were just aiming to manage nitrogen loss through these plantings you’d plant at a straight perpendicular to the hydrological flow and use plants with good extensive root systems.

“But we’re aiming for a range of ecosystem services from these plantings so we’ll have a variety of trees and shrubs and while they’ll be across the flow they’ll be set out with this ribbon like pattern,” he says.

Trimming of trees such as poplar or willow would provide wood chip material that can also be spread under the shaded areas creating lying areas for cows and also acting as a nutrient capture in what are likely to be animal camping areas.

“In that way we’re creating natural areas for the animals that are browsing sites, sleeping sites, urination sites, places where the cows can come to self-medicate and seek out specific nutrients from the browsing plants.

“Everything we plan and plant and the systems we set up is and will be done based on known principles and novel peer-reviewed science… not just because it seems like a good idea,” says Pablo.

About a quarter of the Ashley Dene Research Dairy Farm will be run as the Integral Health Dairy Farm using a stocking rate of 2.9cows/ha.

The crossbred cows, which are all new to the farm following the discovery of Mycoplasma bovis in 2020 and subsequent destocking, will have an average liveweight of about 500kg with breeding worth (BW) of 180. Anita says the herd has been selected for low milk urea N breeding values.

The pasture renewal programmes and ribbon plantings will take place over time with the whole 43ha farmlet fully transitioned to the system within five years. The study will also make use of existing standoff pad areas as part of its wintering system with details of wintering practices yet to be finalised.

Pablo says the team working on this concept is not only local, but also international, with experts including Professor Iain Gordon based in Australia, and emeritus professor Fred Provenza based in the United States.

Agricom’s Allister Moorhead and Glen Judson, AgResearch scientists Alvaro Romera, Munir Sha and Mostafa Sharifi and Lincoln staff Jeff Curtis, Shannon Davis and Charles Merfield are also part of the project.

A wide range of environmental, animal and human, as well as community health indicators will be measured over the long-term project which is being funded by Lincoln with sponsorship and in-kind support from several commercial enterprises.