Outgro Industry News

Mark & Rae Kilgour. Lagoon Hill Station, Martinborough

Eight kilometers off the Coromandel Peninsula lies a picturesque farm encompassing the 2000ha Great Mercury Island. The island is what remains of an ancient volcano and is now mostly covered by pine forest, with only 550ha grazed by sheep and cattle.

Until a year ago Mark Kilgour was the manager on the Mercury Island farm. The island farm has been under the same ownership for nearly 35 years, with a long history of superphosphate use. One of the owners, Sir Michael Fay, and Mark had always assumed that the farm’s low lambing percentages, high facial eczema, shallow root depths, lack of clover and poor sward were challenges that accompany farming in such an exposed environment.

In 2005 Mark had a conversation with Jim McMillan who recommended a programme that included the application of lime flour (5-10 micron).

“Lime applied to the soil surface may require several years to move down the soil profile after it has dissolved. The rate at which lime dissolves is dependent on the
surface area to volume ratio of the lime. Fastest reaction is achieved with very fine particle size lime which will dissolve completely in the season of application.

In comparison, AgLime includes large particle sizes that take several years to dissolve with trial results indicating the maximum change in soil pH down to 100mm not happening until 4 to 6 years after application.

When the top 7.5 cm of the soil profile (normal sampling depth for pasture) has become acidified, subsoil is also likely to be acidified. Subsoil acidification will affect root growth of pasture for several years and lead to pasture quality deterioration and other issues typical of low pH soil.

The best way to manage subsoil acidity is to maintain optimum topsoil pH and calcium with regular applications of lime.” John Turner, Hill Laboratories.

Within a few months the change in the farm was evident, with the first visual signs being the establishment of clover and the rapid breakdown of manure. “In the past you could kick a cow paddy clear across the paddock and the grass was dead under it. It was just dormant. Then she just came alive. It was unbelievable”.

The carrying capacity on islands is often lower than the mainland. Shifting stock on the three annual barge trips can be hugely expensive and getting caught out with higher numbers can be risky. The island carries 2200 straight Romney ewes and 200 cows, which Mark felt was “a huge number” at the time. The improvement in animal health was apparent following the shift to the Outgro® programme. Historically the farm would only achieve 100% lambing in a good year and the owner had set Mark the goal of 130%. After four years, Mark achieved this goal and more, passing the 140% mark.

Facial eczema has always been a significant problem on the island. As far as Mark was concerned it was “as bad as you can get”.

The livestock on the farm had been naturally culled over generations, but 40-50% of ewes were still affected, so FE resistant rams were introduced to help address the problem. In the past three years FE ceased to be a problem on the farm, which Mark thinks was due to a combination of factors, including the new rams and the Outgro® programme.

FE spores reside in thatch layers (un-decomposed grass mats on top of the soil), and research has shown the use of fine lime and biological inoculants can break down these thatch layers and greatly reduce the number of FE spores. Before adopting the programme the stock had concentrated their grazing to certain areas, but with a biological focus Mark observed dramatic changes in grazing behaviour, as stock began to graze much more evenly right across the entire farm.

“We did no over sowing and yet the grass shifted to more palatable species.” The visual difference was apparent to one of the owners and he rang Mark out of the blue and asked, “Why am I now seeing some decent sort of grass? What are we doing differently than we haven’t been doing in the past?” Although they were not necessarily seeing huge changes in the amount of grass that was grown, the grass was of better quality, and was utilized better, which was illustrated through the improvement in the lamb weights. Mark is clear that “these were the best lambs the island had ever produced.” In Mark’s final year on the island, there was a bad drought, however he was impressed with how the stock “just hung on unbelievably well.”

A year ago the Kilgours took over the management of Lagoon Hill Station in the Wairarapa for Sir Michael Fay. The station covers 2050 ha effective with another 700 ha in pine trees with a variety of contours, from rolling to steeper country; much of it exposed to the fierce drying westerly winds which come off the Tararua ranges. The property has a 300 ha back-block which was experiencing similar issues to the Mercury Island farm, with shallow rooting depths, compacted and hydrophobic soils, and poor performing livestock. Mark has been working with Outgro® to address this challenging block with the use of fine limes. He is keen to concentrate on lifting the whole farm up to the standard of the main block where the “stock there are exceptional.” With more than five years’ experience with Outgro® on the Island and now into their second season with Outgro® at Lagoon, Mark plans to continue with their approach.

“The only reason I’m staying with the Outgro® programme is because of the results. You don’t have to sell me on it; I’ve seen it for myself”. And as other biological farmers report, the approach just seems like “commonsense”, “You’ve got to get the quality of the soil up to get the quality of the grass up.” Mark is the first to admit that he’s “no scientist”, but he is impressed with the results. “You couldn’t talk me out of it.”