Tuesday, 12 May 2020 09:51

Times, they are a-changin’

Written by  Ian Williams, Pioneer forage specialist
Many things will remain the same for agriculture through the COVID-19 pandemic. Many things will remain the same for agriculture through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pioneer forage specialist, Ian Williams on the many things that won’t change for agriculture through the COVID-19 pandemic.

I wrote this article at the beginning of Week 3 of lockdown. Unlike most of you farmers who have been out there working to provide food to keep the world fed, I have been at home, in front of my computer, reading, thinking, listening to experts and talking with farmers and colleagues.

One thing that seems to be coming through loud and clear is that the world has fundamentally changed since before the COVID-19 pandemic began. To use the words of one of my favorite musicians, Bob Dylan, “The times, they are a changin…” There are however, many things that won’t change for agriculture. 

Four key things which remain the same are:

• The world still needs and will pay for, safe food.

• I have always considered it an honour to be involved in an industry that feeds others. New Zealand, has long been regarded as one of the cleanest, safest, most sustainable producers of food in the world. That is why we have strong demand for our products and why people are prepared to pay a premium for them. 

• The market demands full traceability of food. 

• Fonterra has a rigorous traceability programme as do other companies like Zespri and Silver Fern Farms. At Pioneer we can trace every seed you plant to the paddock in Poverty Bay where it was grown and even to the breeding station where it was first crossed.

The demands for clean waterways will not go away

There has been a call from some parts of the farming community for the Government to relax its legislative initiatives aimed at improving the quality of our waterways. This makes sense, given the potential economic recession the world is headed toward. However, as the economy begins to improve, the pressure on farming to reduce its environmental footprint will return. 

The need to produce more from the same or the same from less will become the catch cry. Reducing the amount of nitrogen (N) lost through leaching or the amount of phosphorus, sediment and E. coli entering our waterways via overland flow will continue to part of this.

There will be more focus on standing animals off paddocks when the risk of loss of the key contaminants is high. Feeding low protein forages like maize silage which reduce urinary N will also become more prevalent. Maize has the added advantage of being able to uptake excess levels of N and potassium (K) from the soil. 

Climate won’t stop changing 

Another one of my favorite bands, Crowded House, sings “Everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you”. When it comes to the weather farmers are probably one of the most aware groups in the country. Most of us, me included, were negatively impacted by this summer’s dry. However even after almost 20 years of growing maize, I continue to be surprised with just how much it grew with how little rain it received. Our maize yields were down but in our area pasture growth after Christmas was virtually non-existent.

If heat and dry are to be our future, then farming systems will need to adapt to meet these challenges. Perennial ryegrass has served the industry well but its relatively poor water use efficiency and shallow rooting system means its growth is limited when the rain doesn’t come. 

Warm climate plants that have high drought tolerance and/or deep rooting systems (e.g. maize, sorghum, lucerne and maybe even kikuyu) will become an important part of the future farm systems. 

• Ian Williams is a Pioneer forage specialist. Email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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