Dr Long Nguyen, partner of Dr Bert Quin in international consultancy company Group ONE Consultancy, returned from a visit to China on 25th October. During his visit, Dr Nguyen had the opportunity to advance discussions regarding research collaboration with Chief Professor Yong Li of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) in Beijing. Professor Li had visited Group ONE Consultancy for initial discussions earlier this year (see earlier post and photo). Plans are now well underway for collaborative research projects to commence in 2016. More details from Dr Nguyen’s visit will be posted soon.
News and Opinion
‘News and Opinion’ is just that. It contains posts of important and interesting news relating to agriculture and climate change, water use and quality, soil fertility and fertiliser, and our opinion on these posts. We welcome your opinion on our opinions!
Dr Bert Quin presents data on Spikey® urine detection and treatment and ONEsystem® nbpt-treated prilled urea to the international conference on Land Use and Water Quality (LuWQ) in Vienna, September 2015
Researchers from 40 countries attended this 2-yearly conference, including a significant contingent from several regional councils and Lincoln Agritech from New Zealand. The 2015 conference focused very much on nitrate leaching from agricultural systems. Dr Quin said he was struck by how much ‘big-system’ measuring and modelling was being done on nitrate levels in waterbodies in Europe, but how little innovative developments that farmers could easily adopt to reduce nitrate leaching were coming forward, despite huge taxpayer-funded research. “There seems an even bigger disconnect between research and farmers in most European countries than there is in NZ”, he said. The biggest exception is Ireland, where scientists still get ‘down-and-dirty’ on farms.
I spent 3 weeks visiting research institutions in several EU countries in September/October. I observed massive differences in dairy farming both within and between EU countries, and in how limits on nitrate leaching were being monitored and enforced.
In interviews of NZ politicians, industry leaders and even scientists who have visited the EU, often without anywhere going near an actual farm, you see frequent references to ‘EU Directives’ limiting N fertiliser use and leaching and so on. If you dig a bit deeper, as I did, you see how toothless these ‘Directives’ actually are. Individual EU countries are free to map out their own ‘goals’ and ‘time-frames’ that can be endlessly extended, as long as some real or contrived ‘progress’ towards meeting the Directives can be shown to the bureaucrats in Brussels.
Admittedly, some EU countries, notably Ireland and Denmark, took the Directives very seriously, and set rigid controls on how much N (and P) could be used by farmers. In both countries, water quality was greatly improved as a result, to the point where fertiliser inputs are now being relaxed a bit. So it can be done if there is a will. Other countries like Germany have essentially no effective limits or monitoring. The most ridiculous situation is The Netherlands, where cow, beef cattle, pig and chicken numbers have grown so high with housing and bought in feed that the only way Holland can show any ‘progress’ to Brussels regarding reducing nitrate is by exporting about half their animal excreta! The eastern region of Germany (the old East Germany) takes most of it. I asked the Dutch why they don’t just accept reality and do a farming JV with Germany to farm half their animals there, rather than just send the excreta to them. The answer I got, verbatim, was that ‘this would mean sharing more of their profit with the Germans, and they don’t want to do that’. European Union indeed.
Most of Europe houses cows for most of the year, even where this is not climatically necessary. Ireland wants to greatly increase their use of grazing. The Irish see massive premium-market opportunities for their grazed dairy produce in the USA. They are astounded how the Dutch executives of Fonterra have hijacked the New Zealand grazed pasture system, pushing the growth of cow homes, bought-in PKE etc, and ever-larger farms and herd numbers.
I am very sure that NZ will look back on the commodity crash of 2014 in a couple of years with great thanks that it happened; it brought us to our senses and refocused attention on what NZ dairy farming is all about; high quality, well-managed grazed pastures with minimal (<15%) bought-in feed.
During his recent travel to Europe, Dr Bert Quin visited research institutes, in Spain and northern Ireland and the Irish Rebublic where research is being conducted into various aspects of use of the urease inhibitor nbpt. This inhibitor has a very simple role; it slows down or ‘inhibits’ the conversion of fertiliser N (or urine N when used with Spikey®) for just a few days before decomposing itself into plant-available forms of N and P. The enormous benefit this provides is much, much lower ammonia volatilisation, as the peak concentrations of ammonium in the soil are reduced. Also, the more extended conversion of urea to ammonium automatically means slower conversion to nitrate-N, meaning better uptake of N and therefore better pasture response. The science is as obvious as the results; more than 50% of Ballance clients now use SustaiN (nbpt-coated granular urea), a product Dr Quin developed and introduced through Summit-Quinphos in 2002. Dr Quin said that despite some disappointment over the industry’s initial criticism of the product, it is very satisfying to see that the benefits of the product are now recognised. On average, it improves urea efficiency by 25-30%.
“One of the great things about nbpt is the absence of residue problems, because of the rapid decomposition of the product of 10-20 days” said Dr Quin. “ Research in Spain has shown that it is completely safe even when sprayed on to vegetables such as lettuce. It has been shown to prevent excess nitrate levels occurring in vegetables. No residues could be detected after 20 days”. It is highly likely that it has the same benefit in preventing excessive nitrate levels in ryegrass, according to Dr Quin.
The new nbpt-spray treated prilled urea known as ONEsystem®, recently developed by Dr Quin with private funding from Global Sustainable Farming Ltd (GSF), takes urea efficiency a lot further ahead again – by 170 to 290% depending on conditions. “At these efficiencies, we are seeing the great majority of the urea being recovered by the plant, which is the way it should be” he says. Another advantage of ONEsystem® is that, by being designed to be used on a ‘follow-the-cows’ basis on dairy farms, a whole new level of residue protection is built in, as the cows do not return for to a given paddock for 20-30 days. “I truly believe that ONEsystem® will revolutionise fertiliser N use in New Zealand” says Dr Quin. SustaiN was a good first step in the right direction, but ONEsystem® is the end-game, he said. Results of independently conducted trials under grazing are being presented to the NZ Grassland Society conference in Masterton in the first week of November.
However, Dr Quin recommended real caution regarding the introduction of products containing untested alternative urease or nitrification inhibitors in combination with the tried and tested nbpt. Companies that release such products may be doing so deliberately to sow doubts in the dairy industry, and are playing fast and loose with NZ’s reputation. “Their arrogance is beyond belief” said Dr Quin.
After exhaustive on-farm development and trialling over the spring and summer of 2017/18, the pre-production tractor-mounted 8-metre wide ‘Spikey-8’ cow urine patch detection and treatment device is now finally ready for full commercialisation in New Zealand. Discussions with potential commercial partners are underway. Pastoral Robotics co-founder Dr Bert Quin, who recently stood down from management duties to concentrate on another project, said that with this 8m total width, running Spikey® over whatever paddocks have been grazed that day (typically 3-10 ha depending on farm size) will take only 30-60 minutes including loading time. ‘Every second day is fine, but you start to lose a bit of effectiveness if you go more than 3 days because some of the urine-urea has converted to ammonium-N’, he said. ‘The treatment with the ORUN® solution works best – that is, increases the size of the urine patch the most – if the nbpt and gibb acid in the ORUN® are applied in the first one-two days’.
Dr Quin said farmers could adopt a policy of just using Spikey® in the months when urine deposition was most likely to lead to nitrate leaching later in the year when soils became saturated. Alternatively, they can use it all year round, taking advantage of the fact that the increase in size of all urine patches will provide an estimated additional pasture growth of 5-15% annually, easily recovering all costs. ‘That’s what I would do’, says Quin.
Dr Bert Quin, who has brought both SustaiN® and now its far superior son ONEsystem® to the NZ market to reduce farmers’ N costs and reduce impacts on the environment, says Ballance and Ravensdown need to be thinking very hard about the future of granular urea in NZ. Ballance have mentioned recently that they are looking at decommissioning the old Kapuni granular urea plant (which produces just 265,000 tonnes urea per year), and replacing it with a million tpa plant. This step would probably require Ravensdown to commit to purchasing its urea from Ballance; meaning an indirect takeover of Ravensdown, unless the plant was to be owned by an independent entity. The two companies currently use about 800,000 tpa. The excess could be sold at much reduced margin to Australia.
Regardless of the ownership, it will be a massive decision to make. This decision just got a whole lot bigger with the introduction of ONEsystem(R). ONEsystem® uses prilled urea, which is made by a different (and slightly cheaper process). “At the very, very least, Ballance should be hedging their bets on this one” says Dr Quin. “They also need to contemplate the fact that ONEsystem® reduces N requirements by over 50% on average, so we won’t be needing a plant anything like one million-tonne pa capacity if they get brave and build a prilled urea plant instead”. Dr Quin says Ballance have his phone number if they want to talk. “Given they have never even acknowledged that I and Summit-Quinphos developed SustaiN®, I am not holding my breath!” says Quin.
The duopoly fertiliser industry structure in New Zealand is probably well past its use-by date, according to independent scientist, inventor and entrepenuer Dr Bert Quin. “It has, perhaps inevitably, got to the point where the sole purpose seems to be maintain market dominance and getting a return on their massive, completely unnecessarily dual infrastructure. “It is not true competition; both companies offer an almost identical range of products and attitudes” says Dr Quin. “ Huge taxpayer-funded research grants to these companies get spent on anything but what it should be spent on, viz finding ways to improve fertiliser efficiency and reduce losses to the environment.” He says instead we see tens of millions of dollars being spent on irrelevant promotion-based developments like AgHub, and looking at different plants to see if one can recover 5% more N than the other. “Talk about fiddling while Rome burns!” he says.
A classic example of how the industry has lost its way is in their attitude to reactive phosphate rock or RPR. Every piece of research ever done on this topic has shown that P run-off into waterways is greatly reduced when RPR is used instead of superphosphate and DAP. And 99% of dairy farms have sufficiently high Olsen P levels in the soil they could switch to RPR with no change in production at all. So, even though Ballance do have a little info on their website pointing out the lower P run-off with RPR, and Ravensdown do advertise RPR (to try and get some of Ballance’s ex Summit-Quinphos clients), neither of them have put any significant effort into saying to farmers “Look John, you are in a very P-sensitive catchment. We would really like you to switch to RPR, or a DAP/RPR mix”.
P run-off remains every big a threat to our precious water quality than does nitrate leaching, despite dropping off the radar in NZ in the last year or two. It is actually regarded as a bigger problem than nitrate in Europe.
Instead of promotion of RPR by the duopoly to reduce P run-off in NZ however, we get more millions of taxpayers’ money going from Ballance and Ravensdown to CRI’s like AgResearch to develop schemes – ‘dashboards’ or ‘dartboards’ or suchlike – to look at how variable-rate fertiliser spreading and other things can reduce susceptibility of soluble P to run-off. I am not saying that these do not help – they do. My question is “Why ignore the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of simply changing the type of P we use?” The simple answer is that Balance and Ravensdown management are governed far more by their shortsighted wish to keep the remaining 4 superphosphate plants viable, than they are in maintaining New Zealand’s water quality.
In the absence of duopoly control, this would simply not happen. A good part of the blame needs to be laid at the feet of spineless researchers, who are disinclined to do research that the industry may not like, in case it results in reduced funding via Ballance and Ravensdown in the future. Sadly, the futility of this attitude catches up with them eventually. By playing pawns to the duopoly, the quality and value to NZ of agricultural research has plummeted, with the inevitable result that the government has decided to reduce its funding, which in turn has seen 100 more agricultural research positions made redundant in the latest round. Some new independent research centres staffed by take-no-prisoners committed research staff are desperately needed!
Last week’s damning report on the environment might, might, just be the wake-up call the NZ dairy industry in general, and Fonterra in particular, needs. The days of resting on the laurels of the effective ‘fencing off waterways’ campaign are gone. Nitrate leaching and nitrous oxide greenhouse gas emissions are not stopped by fences!
Riparian strips can reach saturation level with P, and can then have little further benefit unless they are regularly harvested or replenished.
The first priority is for Fonterra to admit that the single biggest problem is nitrate leaching and nitrous oxide GHG emissions from cow urine patches. The solution to this – Spikey® – was presented to Fonterra a couple of months ago. The response has been underwhelming, to say the least. Fortunately, the wider industry is extremely enthusiastic (see update in News and Opinion).
A couple of years ago, with the milksolids payout at the giddying heights of $8/kg, Fonterra executives – especially those imported from the Netherlands – were openly saying that NZ should be housing all its cows and importing much more feed. I am quite certain that the NZ dairy industry, once it is back on its feet a bit more, will realise that the slump in dairy product prices was the best thing that could have happened for New Zealand. It has re-focused attention on just what NZ dairy farming should be all about. This is growing and grazing high quality pasture as cheaply as possible, managing this pasture with consummate skill, and keeping bought-in feed to a maximum of 15%.
The Irish saw where the market for premium dairy products is going while we were too busy importing PKE. They are focused on increasing dairy production by 50% through grazing, with a maximum of 20% bought-in feed. This ‘IRISH BRAND’ is going down a treat in the affluent value-added, trace-back markets in the USA. The Paddies told me they watched with a combination of amazement and glee about the path Fonterra was pushing the New Zealand industry down. Tatua has shown just what can be done. Certainly, Fonterra has been hamstrung to some degree by being legally bound to take all milk offered to it, but where were the signals to its shareholders to cut back when they were needed. Some of the biggest-hit dairy farmers were those who made commitments to large quantities of bought-in feed at the same time that Fonterra had ample evidence that a downtown in prices was under way.
Fonterra is obviously belatedly putting real effort into building bridges to its shareholders – sponsoring the new ‘farm-jobs’ phone app is one small but effective example. But far more ‘vision from the top’ needs to be displayed, and I’m not talking about the view from the top of a cow home!
August 2015 – Dr. Bert Quin has been appointed a consultant to Focus Ventures Ltd. (FCV) to provide advice and guidance on the marketing of phosphate rock from Focus’s Bayovar 12 project in Peru. His role will be to assist with the marketing of Bayovar 12 Reactive Phosphate Rock (RPR) and to provide advice on the design, development and production of blended fertilizer products from Bayovar 12. Dr Quins background will be extremely valuable to Focus Ventures in driving how the end user will take advantage of these new products.
Geoff Bates and Bert Quin were very proud that Pastoral Robotics Ltd won the Fieldays Innovation Den ‘Most Innovative ‘ prize with its ‘Spikey’ innovation. This recognition at this prestigious event, in front of nearly 100 potential investor companies and individuals, has already lead to follow-up discussions and meetings with several interested parties, with lots more to come!
Spikey(R) also featured on the TV3 and TV1 news, The New Zealand Herald, AgriTech Showcase, the Dairy Exporter and several other magazines and newspapers.