Research focuses on nitrogen reduction

A MAJOR development program at the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture’s Dairy Research Facility will see researchers tackle some of the industry’s biggest issues.

The establishment of a farmlet research facility at Elliot, the first of its kind in Australia, is set to revolutionise how research and extension is done. While small-scale trials and plot research has been done for decades at Elliot, this latest development will give researchers the opportunity to scale up their projects and make them more industry relevant.

The first major project work that will be done on the farmlet system will centre around synthetic nitrogen use in pasture-based dairy systems and finding alternatives. Heading the farmlet project is TIA researcher Adam Langworthy.

Mr Langworthy said the project will focus on growing high levels of grass with less nitrogen inputs and is aimed at finding practical and economically viable solutions that can work long term for farmers.

“This really stems from the fact that first and foremost almost every other temperate dairying region has some sort of regulation put in place in terms of nitrogen use,” he said.

“Dairy Australia wanted to learn how to farm with less nitrogen in case regulations do come into play. The other thing is we’re seeing really high nitrogen prices … so the farm is set up to go from a high nitrogen system which you would typically see on a lot of farms down to almost nothing.”

Mr Langworthy said they are using alternate pasture species including clover and herbs including as plantain, to buffer the reduction in nitrogen and will monitor the effects of the different management system and pastures on milk production. A new farmlet system covering 32ha has been developed at the station. Each of the four farmlets has eight paddocks measuring .92ha.

All of the farmlets will be assigned their own herd of cows for the duration of the project, which will be rotationally grazed as would happen on a normal farm. Milk from those herds will then be assessed and measured for overall production and things like milk solids. Pasture growth as well as soil carbon levels and microbial activity will also be measured across the farmlets to compare changes over time in the different pastures mixes and under the varying management systems.

Mr Langworthy said all the farmlets are now going through the final development phase to ensure all the pastures are well established before the intense monitoring gets underway. That will start in spring when the next lactation period gets underway. In the meantime, Mr Langworthy said they were carefully managing the different pastures through grazing across the farmets to ensure the clover has time to get well established.

“We know that in the high nitrogen system we’ll probably see a loss of that clover but we have to give everything a good start so we can see the change,” he said. As well as establishing the different pastures, a significant amount of work has been done to develop the farmlets, including the installation of new laneways, water troughs and irrigation systems. The nitrogen project will run for three lactations.

“A big problem with live trials is they’re often short term or plot studies,” Mr Langworthy said. “So, taking those finding and seeing them realised in a commercial situation can be difficult and when you do these plot studies or short-term studies, you often see difference that when you put them in a commercial situation you can’t see. “So, we want to have that long enough period of time so people can see if this is going to be a benefit for their farm.”

As part of the project, Mr Langworthy said an industry report will be generated monthly and put online so farmers can track the results.

“A lot of farmers have been saying they want to look at ways to get away from outside inputs full stop so we’ve got colleagues in Ireland who are doing comparable work so we can link up with them and also some research work happening in New Zealand,” he said.

“It’s about being proactive and getting in front. There’s room for improvement in every industry.”