Pasture that looks like a bowling green with three or four plant species is not a sign of a healthy farm, says Peter Barrett of Linnburn Station.
The beef farmer, from near Dunedin, has been in Northland spreading the word about a different way of farming that he believes could transform New Zealand's agriculture into a more sustainable and holistic industry.
Calling his method regenerative farming, his message is attracting wide interest, with more than 600 people attending seminars in Northland at meetings organised by Avoca Lime, NorthTec, Kaipara Kai and Unitec.
He insists this method "is not hippy stuff".
"It's simply about making our dollar spend go further and making our systems more resilient so we farmers don't send all our money to town.
"It's about nature and how we can make our pastures more resilient,'' Barrett said.
To him a healthy pasture has at least 20 to 60 different grasses, legumes and cereals and herbs growing.
"When you have a large variety of plants, there are different things reseeding at different times. The soil is well sheltered by an umbrella of waist to shoulder high plants. It's like a glass house,'' he said.
He likens grazing grass right to the base to "creating deserts".
"If you graze for too long or too hard this accentuates the problems as it will not allow the pasture to recover.''
Such practices in Australia and the Sudan create soil instability resulting in huge dust storms.
Barrett said the correct balance of cover crops and companion planting reduces the need for synthetic fertilisers, fungicides, pesticides and set stocking.
"We believe that healthy soil equals healthy animals equals healthy people.''
He said Northland's predominance of kikuyu showed an imbalance and planting other ground covers would shade it out and reduce its dominance.
"Don't give it a chance to thrive and the soil will improve. Kikuyu tends to create wet and compacted soils,'' he said.
Barrett wants to promote an awareness of biology, with an understanding that much of the world is functioning beneath the soil.
"It's about encouraging the diversity of plants and bio-connections to the fungi and organisms that create a healthy biomass that is well aerated and nitrogen fixing."
He said fungi have massive underground networks travelling throughout the soil and create large aggregates while bacteria from decaying matter tends to create fine particles.
"The idea is to try to get a 1:1 ratio of bacteria and fungi.''
Barrett said when soils are unbalanced farmers will tend to have more problems with erosion and compaction.
He said it was important to note that regenerative agriculture was not about rank grass and no fertiliser.
"It's actually not that different to conventional agriculture but the key thing is being more aware of the impact on the soil of microbiology,'' he said.
"There is an impact when soil is cultivated or sprayed too much, interrupting the underground transport network that keeps the soil healthy. Putting on fertilisers like superphosphate is like blasting the soil with a blowtorch.''
Barrett said healthy pastures created a huge payback in terms of cost, soil water retention, soil nutrient availability and animal health.
"When soil is well aerated, it can hold more moisture and having a protective umbrella of plants means it is more resilient to a drought."
In soil with a good granular structure, particles of sand and silt are held together in aggregates by clay, humus and calcium.
Water and air can circulate and allows plant roots to grow down into the soil. Small spaces hold the water the plants need.
Cover crops could include brassicas such as turnips and mustard, broadleaf plants such as sunflowers and phacelia, grains such as buckwheat and maize, herbs such as chicory and plantain, legumes such as clovers and lucernes and grasses such as sorghum, ryegrass and millet.
"Animals will pick and choose what they want to eat,'' he said.
"If you allow diversity, you can trust that nature will get the balance back.''
He said lime was critical for flocculation to create a good soil structure, and soil analysis is needed to calculate what elements are needed.
Barrett recommends setting up a trial on part of the farm to test out regenerative agriculture.
"Once you can see it and touch it, you'll get confidence to expand,'' he said.