Align Farms is in the middle of transitioning to regenerative pastures on two of its farms. Anne Lee is following the transition.

Just like any significant pasture renewal programme, transitioning to regenerative pasture has its challenges.

Align Farms is in the midst of establishing half of its 296ha Clareview farm near Ashburton and half of its 283ha Longfield farm near Hinds in regenerative species.

The move is part of a side-by-side comparative study that will run regenerative farming practices alongside conventional at a commercial scale.

The aim is to gather robust data on soils, pasture production, milk production, animal health, the environmental footprint, and importantly the financials.

Align chief executive Rhys Roberts says the transition, which is still in progress, has already created some learning opportunities.

“Our original plan with transitioning the farms was to run every paddock through an annual soil primer crop before the permanent diverse perennial pasture is sown.”

The primer crop is the ‘poster paddock’ of regenerative farming – plenty of sunflowers and Instagramable flowering plants.

It can include about 24 species and its job under the regenerative philosophy is to ‘prime’ the soil to help create a soil environment that enhances soil biology.

“Some of the plants in that mix have long taproots that punch down and help aerate or break up compacted soils, some scavenge for minerals and bring them up to make them available to other plants through the grazing practices that leave a fair bit of the drymatter behind through high residuals and trampling it back in. Others are legumes that fix nitrogen,” he says.

The initial primer crop costs Align about $500/ha – made up of $300/ha in seed cost, $150/ha to drill it and $50/ha to spray out and terminate the previous pasture. Align’s head of environment and innovation Clare Buchanan says that based on research and others’ experiences, the primer crop step could be skipped on some of its paddocks.

“We think it’s still going to be necessary on paddocks where soils that have been heavily cultivated over time or soils that are compacted and badly pugged.

“But on soils where there’s been minimal cultivation and soils that have already been in permanent pasture and are in good condition, we could go straight into the diverse permanent perennial,” she says.

“From a commercial aspect it can be expensive if you’re trying to do big areas like we are to transition and it can put a strain on feed supply to have big areas out for the length of time it takes to get the full benefit of the initial primer crop,” Rhys says.

“We think we can skip that step for paddocks that are in good condition but stick with it on paddocks that have compaction or pugging issues.

“Having some paddocks still going through the primer crop is going to help the transition because once it gets to high covers, and you get a lot of bulk, we can use it as an on-off crop through the later summer to help extend the round,” he says.

Kiri Roberts is the farm manager at Clareview.

She’s been implementing the practical side of transitioning and brings cows onto the primer crop that can be from 6-10t DM/ha, from thigh to almost chest height and filled with flowering herbs, grasses, legumes and sunflowers.

Kiri brings the herd in for two hours at a time each day and estimates cows are getting about 4-5kg drymatter (DM) each.

“That means 4-5kg DM/cow less demand on the perennial pasture,” Rhys says.

Quality tests show an average of about 10 megajoules of metabolisable energy (MJME) per kg DM with higher quality at the tops of the plants of 11-12 MJ ME/kg DM decreasing down through sometimes stalky bases.

The primer crop is sown in October and takes about 100 days to get to a 10t DM/ha crop.

It’s grazed through February and then direct-drilled into the perennial mix in March, but isn’t likely to be grazed until the following spring given pre-grazing covers in regenerative pastures are much higher than conventional ryegrass white clover paddocks.

“That means that apart from the grazing through February that area is out of the grazing rotation for 10 months, and on a commercial dairy farm, if you’re trying to transition to this system over two or three years, then that’s not going to work,” Rhys says.

The team is putting the direct shift to perennials for some paddocks to the test, with some of the paddocks it still has to transition going straight into the diverse perennial mix this season.

That mix has varied slightly over the past year and has come at the suggestion of others already farming using regenerative principles in New Zealand.

Last year the mix that followed the primer included up to 16 grasses, herbs and legumes including plants such as radish, ryecorn, chicory, plantain, ryegrass, strawberry clover and sheep’s burnett.

This season the mix and rates going straight in without a primer crop include 12 species at a total rate of 30kg/ha. The varieties include:

  • Timothy
  • Cocksfoot
  • Ryegrass
  • Prairie grass
  • Meadow fescue
  • Grazing brome
  • Red clover
  • White clover
  • Sheep’s burnett
  • Plantain
  • Chicory
  • Phalaris

The variation in rates is more of a reflection of seed size than final densities, so grazing brome for instance won’t be the main species in the resulting pasture.

Conventional paddocks are sprayed out with glyphosate and drilled the same day. They’re no longer using conventional fertilisers on the regenerative paddocks and include 10 litres/ha of liquid Bio Marinus Hydrolysed Fish Fertiliser and 5l/ha of Effective Microorganisms from (EMNZ) mixed in with the glyphosate spray.

According to the EMNZ website and product labels, the EMNZ mix contains a proprietary blend of soil microorganisms that when applied to the soil act as a probiotic for the soil.

The fish fertiliser is manufactured in New Zealand from fish offal and blended with seaweed and humates.

Following sowing the soil primer crop receives two applications of fish fertiliser and effective microorganisms at the 10l/ha and 5l/ha rate respectively – one application when the crop is halfway up the Red Band gumboot and once again when it’s at knee height.

The permanent, perennial, regenerative pastures receive the same mix, applied after every grazing. On the regenerative pastures round length can vary from 28 to 35 or more days. An annual dressing of mushroom compost is also applied to the whole farm. They still use urea on the conventional areas of the farm with the annual nitrogen input cut back to 190kg N/ha/year. On the regenerative area Rhys estimates total nitrogen inputs will be 34kg N/ha this season. We’ll take a closer look at the regenerative fertiliser practices in a future issue.

Lifting fungi levels

A powdered product containing Trichoderma fungi is added to both the soil primer and permanent diverse perennial seed mixes at a rate of 200g/ ha.

Trichoderma are used in the forestry sector and have been proven to improve growth rates and disease resistance for new trees. The fungi act in a symbiotic way keeping harmful fungi at bay and enhancing root and soil interactions.

Clare says one of the aims of the regenerative practices on their pasture-based systems is to get fungi and bacteria ratios in the soil closer to a 0.7:1-1:1 ratio.

That means increasing fungi levels in their soils. She estimates they’re a about 0.3:1 in favour of bacteria.

“An increase in mycorrhizal fungi in the soil is beneficial as those fungal networks create beneficial symbiotic relationships with the roots of the plant, which extends the area in which a plant can access nutrients from the soil. This can reduce the need for inputs and also increase a plant’s resistance to disease,” she says.

All of that is said to lead to healthier plants and also create better nutrient cycling for soil critter biology.

To study if these kinds of outcomes are really occurring in the regeneratively managed pastures and soils the Align team will have three different kinds of soil biology analysis carried out.

A soil food web approach is being used along with phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) tests that estimate the ratio of fungi to bacteria and AgResearch will look at nematode populations, also as a way to estimate fungi and bacteria.

  • We’re following Align Farms’ regenerative study and will bring you regular updates on what the team is learning and results of the study. Take a look back at our Dairy Exporter December 2020 issue for more detail on why and how the study is being set up. We’d love to hear any questions you have for the Align team. Email: