Taupo-based dairy company Miraka continues to lead the way with their Treading Lightly award. Alex Lond talks with two of this year’s winners.

Winners of the new Miraka Award ‘Treading Lightly’ insist they have never done or changed anything about their farming system with the aim of winning awards.

Kinleith farmers Mark Newton and Sarah Manders farm the way they believe works best for them and for the land, rather than the way others think it should be done.

Miraka is often recognised as a milk company that is always a few steps ahead of others, and Mark says this is more what it has always been about for them.

“Miraka want to be leaders and so do we. Our main aims in farming are to look after our soil and our cows, and they are the reasons we have taken the steps to get to where we are today.”

Making foliar applications of liquid fertilser themselves after each grazing round.

Miraka Milk is a small dairy company based in Mokai, near Taupo, who supply to more than 23 countries around the world from their 104 dairy farms, all within an 85km radius. Their Farming Excellence Programme allows farmers to increase their farmgate milk price with an annual assessment that awards points to farms that excel in each of five categories: People, Environment, Prosperity, Cows and Milk, with these points eventually contributing to the final milk price. Each year, the Te Ara Miraka (the Miraka way) Farming Excellence Awards highlights the companies’ top suppliers in areas such as animal welfare, staff management and sustainable land practices. This year they introduced the ‘Treading Lightly’ award for farms and Warren Landles, Miraka’s Farm Sustainability Manager describes the winners of this new award as achieving a good balance between inputs and outputs.

“It’s about focusing on efficiency – making sure that you are using the right amount of nutrients in your system, so they convert into quality milk solids, reducing losses to groundwater and atmosphere. As efficiency increases, the overall farm environmental footprint decreases. This also often leads to increased profitability.”

Winners were selected from a range of farm and production sizes, showing that it’s possible to increase efficiencies and reduce environmental impact regardless of production intensity. Mark and Sarah won the category for farms that produce between 801 and 1250kg milksolids (MS) per hectare.

“We had no idea that we would even be in the running to win this award. When they announced our name on stage, we were in complete shock,” Mark says.

With heads for business, hearts for nature and eyes for the future, Mark and Sarah are trying different farming techniques. It all started with them changing their method of fertiliser application eight years ago, after a bad year for milk prices prompted them to look at more efficient options. At the time, the method of foliar application was little known amongst dairy farmers, and Mark admits they took a risk after deciding to convert.

“I’d call us early adopters; we try new things out before most people would because we think being mainstream is sometimes too easy. In this case, it was five or six years before we saw a change. It’s a slow process, but the results are worth it.”

Their farm in Kinleith runs at a system 2 with 240 spring calving cows over 85 hectares. They won the award on this farm for their efficient conversion of nutrients to milksolids through their use of liquid fertiliser and a ‘little and often’ approach. They believe this tactic allows them to utilise microbes already in the soil, as well as achieving a more efficient cover and leaf absorption while using less kg/ha fertiliser. As well as better cover, there is less wastage and therefore a lower risk of leaching or any fertiliser finding its way into waterways on the farm.

Sometimes confused with organic farming, Mark describes the foliar application method as more biodiverse, with the most noticeable change for him being the frequency of application.

Rather than applying in bulk a few times a year like traditional fertiliser, Mark and Sarah can apply the liquid fertiliser themselves after each grazing round. This way they are ensuring elements already in the soil are unlocked and lifted, and 90% of the fertiliser is absorbed through the leaf, as well as maximising clover growth. Describing this as a method of fertigation, Mark explains how the idea came from the centre pivots more commonly seen in the South Island, which were used to maximise the efficiency of liquid fertiliser or “soil conditioners” as it is more commonly known.

“The next three-to-five years is going to be interesting, particularly for dairy farmers. I believe that the nitrogen cap is just the beginning; farming is changing and so we must be willing to change with it.”

Mark loves to mix things up and try new things, so naturally using liquid fertiliser isn’t the only unusual thing about his farming practices. While he believes like most farmers that getting your clover to grow is an important aspect of pasture, he also thinks that multi species can make a huge difference to your milk production, and he regularly sows chicory and plantain in with his normal pasture mix. They also own another farm in the area milking 140 autumn calving cows, with both farms supplying Miraka for more than nine years. Both herds support a range of different milking breeds and really stretch the traditional definition of a ‘Kiwicross’.

“I like to think of our cows as like a packet of licorice allsorts, we have a bit of everything going on with multiple breeds. Also, by having one farm spring calving and the other autumn, we are able to give the girls a second chance if they don’t get in calf first time round.”

While Mark appears as the face on the front of all these extraordinary ideas, he is quick to state how none of it would be possible without his wife, Sarah.

“Behind every good man is an even better woman, and I believe in nothing more than I do that.”