8 August 1997

RESEARCH PROMISES

MUCH FOR NZ CROPS

A nationwide network of arable research centries is taken for granted by UK growers. But in subsidy-free New Zealand, the small arable sector is particularly reliant on research to allow it to maintain its position within a strongly livestock-orientated agricultural economy. Geoff Beaumont reports

MENTION New Zealand agriculture and its wall-to-wall sheep that generally spring to mind. But the country also has 186,000ha (460,000 acres) devoted to barley, wheat, oats, maize and field peas. These crops are grown mainly for home consumption but there are also export markets for brewing.

Cereal output, especially wheat and barley, has steadily increased. Wheat production was 255,000t in 1996, 6% up on 1994. Barley production, meanwhile, was 265,000t, an increase of 31% on 1995. The rise in output was mostly stimulated by better prices and has brought with it an increased awareness of the need to improve yields and profitability.

However, the rise in production also coincided with the NZ governments decision a few years ago to cut back on aid to arable agriculture. The significance of subsidy cutbacks caught many arable farmers by surprise. Not so Federated Farmers (New Zealands equivalent of the NFU), which spotted the potential problems early on.

One of the things it did was to establish FAR (Foundation for Arable Research). The idea came after a visit to the UK by two farmers, who saw the ARC operation here and decided that something similar was needed in New Zealand.

Majority voted

NZ arable farmers were balloted on whether they wanted FAR to come to pass. A majority voted for it and a mandatory levy on all combinable crops was introduced in 1995.

The levy is collected by merchants. They forward the proceeds to accountants who hold the funds for two months before passing them to the FAR account.

This levy payment is legally enforceable. FAR can investigate non-payment and government appointed auditors can also ask to see farmers records. The current levy rate is 0.4% of the first point-of-sale price for most major crops, 0.6% for the value of herbage seed crops and 0.1% for most minor crops.

The revenue for the year ended 30 Dec, 1995 was £308,000 against an expenditure of £270,000. The actual amount devoted to research was £184,000 and just over half of this was allocated to cereal crops.

Current research director at FAR is Nick Pyke, who was born in the UK but resident for most of his life in New Zealand. His research background is in horticulture, with previous experience in seed testing. He has been involved with FAR from the beginning, working to promote the concept and get it accepted by farmers. He is keen to point out the differences between FAR and ARC.

"All levy contributors are eligible to receive the trials results, albeit in summary format, although full details can be made available upon request. This is in contrast to ARC where information on results is only released to members."

Also, industry has the opportunity to be represented on the ARC board whereas the FAR board is made up of farmer-members plus appointed administrators.

"If you like, FAR can be looked upon as a cross between ARC and HGCA, and since we have close contact with HGCA it is natural that we co-operate. At the moment we have a joint research programme with them and New Farm Crops on BYDV, and we also share trials results information from both ARC and HGCA which is available to our members," Mr Pyke pointed out.

Variety testing

"One other area where we differ from ARC is in the business of variety testing," he adds. "We are now responsible for the carrying out and production of the official variety performance data, known as ACE here in New Zealand, and this is the equivalent of your NIAB list in the UK. It is FARs responsibility to make this information available to our growers," Mr Pyke emphasised.

When ARC started in the UK, it was greeted with a fair degree of suspicion by the supply industry, especially the agrochemical sector. Mr Pyke says that something similar occurred in New Zealand, though many of the chemical companies are slowly coming round to having discussions and some are even co-operating in the FAR trials.

Plant breeders are happy for FAR to have their current and future variety prospects included in the trials programme. Millers and brewers are also asked to comment on and suggest inputs in their trials programmes, and hopefully assist in funding.

Farmers now want much more technical information, he says, and have higher expectations of it; one of his tasks is to keep these realistic. He says FAR must also try to gain more government funds and (if acceptable) try to encourage company sponsored work.

There are currently two chemical evaluation maize trials going on in conjunction with Monsanto and a local company. There is also a need to increase the amount of work being done on improving crop quality and FAR would like to conduct some of its own basic trials work as opposed to contracting it out.

"Farmers need to have information which gives them the opportunity to achieve greater efficiency and profitability, and those who fail to take advantage of improved technical opportunities will in time cease to trade," stresses Mr Pyke.

Talking to farmers who are committed to the FAR concept only served to emphasise the conviction that something had to be done if their arable agriculture was to progress and indeed survive.

Ian Gavin farms 120ha (300 acres) in North Island and his main combinable crop is maize. Some 30% of the crop is for human consumption, the rest going for animal use.

As a farmer, he was alarmed at the withdrawal of government funding for research and development. As a member of the five-man research committee in his area, he has been instrumental in promoting the need for co-ordinated work on improving maize quality and marketing.

"So far the indications are good although it is early days. Some farmers are sceptical about the need for FAR, but once they see the benefits from the work being done on their behalf, then hopefully they will be more convinced about the organisation," commented Mr Gavin.

Every confidence

Cereals are one of the main enterprises of Alan Taylor who also farms in North Island. He has 190ha (450 acres), of which 160ha (400 acres) is down to spring feed barley and 20ha (50 acres) is in spring oats for seed. He has his own grain storage and drying facilities for 6000t and is chairman of the local arable section of the Federated Farmers. He also has a seat on the FAR Board. As a member of Federated Farmers Board he has some influence in the political lobbying arena and government funding decisions.

ACE variety trials, as well as agrochemical trials, are carried out on his farm with co-operation from international companies. "I have every confidence that the benefits will continue to multiply. As examples there have been significant improvements in the quality and handling of maize and there is now a move to examine the quality of feed grain protein content and metabolisable energy for poultry feed. Above all, any information generated must be seen to be beyond bias," insisted Mr Taylor.

In the Southlands region of South Island, Robert Saunders is the representative on the FAR wheat committee. He farms and owns 247ha (610 acres) plus a further 28ha (70 acres) which are leased. Of this 152ha (380 acres) are under the plough and 36ha (90 acres) are winter wheat.

His latest crop averaged 10t/ha (4t/acre) and realised £96/t. He also grows 16ha (40 acres) of spring wheat, with an average yield of 8t/ha (3.2t/acre) and selling at £83-£128/t depending on quality.

Considerable interest

"There is considerable interest in FAR in the region, as demonstrated by the recent field day which we held with over 120 farmers attending," says Mr Saunders.

There are 10 farmers on the FAR local committee in his area. One of these is Bruce Fallow who farms nearly 200ha (500 acres), of which 100ha (250 acres) are devoted to combinable crops.

Winter wheat occupies a third of the area. Half is for feed and half for seed; average yields are around the 9t/ha (3.6t/acre) mark. A further third is down to spring malting barley which goes for export and usually yields between 7 and 7.5 t/ha (2.8-3t/acre). The final third is split between spring oats and spring oilseed rape.

Both these farmers are go-ahead and information hungry. They are confident that FAR is the only way of gaining the information that will allow them to make the technical improvements needed to stay ahead of the arable game.

Above: Barley is the most widely-grown cereal in New Zealand, occupying nearly 50% of small grain area. Right: Robert Saunders (right) and Bruce Fallow inspect a FAR wheat trial. Mr Saunders grows 36ha (90 acres) of winter wheat.

Left: Some wheat varieties

are very susceptible to sparrow damage.

This FAR trial shows what can happen.