New on-farm research across New Zealand will provide farmers with tools to enhance soil health, including identifying where regenerative agriculture practices can make a difference.
Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor today announced a partnership between Synlait Milk, Danone, AgResearch and the Ministry for Primary Industries' (MPI) Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund.
The project will study soil health on 10 farms in Waikato, Canterbury and Otago over five years, to determine the impacts of changes in soil health on production, farm resilience and the environment.
Two paddocks on each of the 10 farms will be dedicated to a comparison between conventional practices and regenerative practices, focusing on greater pasture diversity and reduced nitrogen fertiliser use.
The findings will help respond to a need for evidence that regenerative practices can make a positive difference in sustainable food production.
Through the course of the research, the farmers involved - supported by AgResearch scientists - will do sampling, testing, and modelling to assess the changes in soil health and its implications.
A focus on soil health would be a vital part of the dairy industry's journey to keep making milk in the most sustainable way, Synlait Director - sustainability, brand, beverages and cream, Hamish Reid said.
"We are proud to have six Synlait farmers working alongside their industry peers to innovate, experiment, and lead our sector to explore the benefits of regenerative practices."
Danone New Zealand director Steve Donnelly said the project was a pioneering step to build new farming models that helped mitigate climate change, preserve or restore soil quality and secure farmer welfare - all while maintaining the quality of New Zealand milk.
"Ultimately, we want to support farmers and provide solid guidance based on scientific evidence," Donnelly said.
Research already done by AgResearch, and commissioned by DairyNZ, has demonstrated that New Zealand has the lowest carbon footprint for milk production compared with 17 other countries, including major milk suppliers.
However, the dairy industry is still striving to identify areas where it can make further environmental advances.
AgResearch soil scientist Dr Nicole Schon said the research would provide important scientific knowledge around soil health in the New Zealand context.
"This is a five-year study with the aim to provide information for farmers throughout New Zealand on how to measure soil health and how we can better manage our soils. By optimising the soils' ability to function, it may help meet increasing constraints faced by the industry."
There was a lot of anecdotal evidence around the impacts of regenerative practices, Schon said.
"Part of the research will look at how regenerative practices impact soil health, and I think it will be particularly interesting to understand the impact on the soil biology and its functioning."
The Government has committed $2.8 million to the research through the MPI's Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund, with Danone and Synlait contributing a further $1m. AgResearch will independently gather data and report findings of the research.
Some initial assessments of soil health have been conducted, and the trials on the 10 dairy farms involved are expected to begin early in 2022.
Results will be made available from the research.