(Top Left) Summerhill’s Agri Manager, Haydn Bam, in a mixture of clover and fescue
(Bottom Right) Former Agri chief, Barry Watson, in a mixture of grazing vetch and stooling rye
“South Africa’s unofficial guru on bio-farming”
Those who follow our columns will know that Summerhill’s business was built on five principal pillars, aspects of our business over which we could exercise a measure of control. There are many things in the breeding of racehorses that you can’t manage, one of these being the precision with which you apply genetics, simply because we are dealing with a hybrid animal where there are variations in every bottle.
However, some fifteen years ago we came to the realisation that farming the conventional way was unsustainable in the long term, and we began to search for new solutions. Progress was slow to begin with, but if you persevere in life, you eventually find your way. Part of the revelation, and it was a big part, was the discovery of John Fair, South Africa’s unofficial guru on bio-farming. He has been a consultant to the farm for many years now, and he has turned our agricultural lives upside down. His programmes have been fundamental part of Summerhill’s success at the races, as well as seven consecutive breeder’s championships. John will be contributing the occasional article to our blog, and this is the first. It’s about harnessing the vital ingredient, nitrogen, through natural means. Read it; this could be the beginning of a change of life.
by John Fair
A coach who is serious about improving the win/loss ratio of his team will put his pride in his pocket and expose his team to coaches that have a high win track-record. That is why I took a “team” of biological farmers for a weeks training session with Neil Ballard in Western Australia. Neil is farmer, legume seed grower as well as being a national and global pasture consultant. At the end of the training week Neil was “officially” appointed as the Honorary Senior Coach to the Aspirant Springbok Biological Farming team.
Neil believes in getting back to basics and his main game plan is to grow nitrogen rather than to buy it. This he does very successfully. In reality, this is a big step forward to profitable and sustainable farming. It is not just about saving’s in N fertilizer costs; another major benefit of growing N with legumes, is that the productive capacity of the soil is radically improved. Soil structure, water uptake and holding capacity and the ability of the soil to breath, are all improved. This in turn promotes soil life, health and the production of other important plant nutrients - including natural plant growth hormones and stimulants.
The rule of thumb in Australia for N production derived from pasture legumes is 3% N for every ton of total dry material (DM) produced. Total DM is calculated from above ground yield plus 20% for roots. Thus from a 4 ton above ground yield the total N production can be calculated at 144 kg N (4000 + 80 kg x 3%). It must be noted that only 40% of this N will be available for the following crop.
In closing I want to point out that it is of paramount importance that soil N levels should be regularly monitored when legumes are grown in a pasture or in rotation with cash crops. I am confident that the stage that will be reached when it will not be necessary to apply any N at all.
Editor: Imagine a world where you do not have to spend a penny on Nitrogen fertilizer, not only from a cost perspective, but from the point of view of environmental health. Our programme, already several years old, has almost reached this stage.