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Farming into the future with FARMAX

Phil Journeaux is an agricultural specialist who has dedicated his life to working in the industry, including 35 years with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.

Now, as a rural consultant and agricultural economist for AgFirst Waikato, he specialises in supporting farmers with farm business planning and decisions – particularly pertaining to environmental management and sustainability.

There is an increasing focus from the New Zealand government – as well as businesses and consumers – on global warming and environmental wellbeing, with the rural sector focusing on greenhouse gas emissions and nitrate leaching.

New Zealand's agriculture environment goals

While agricultural greenhouse gases are not part of the Emissions Trading Scheme, the intent is that they will be. The agricultural industry is currently in a transition period, all tied up with New Zealand’s target under the Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030.

This is in line with the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act 2019 which “intends to reduce net emissions of all greenhouse gases (except biogenic methane) to zero by 2050” and there will be stepping stones that farmers must meet in order to achieve this.

Phil has spent the last few years figuring out what this all means for farmers and how he and other rural consultants can best help farmers prepare for the inevitable changes that are going to need to happen on farm.

Over the last year he has held almost 20 seminars around the country through the Greenhouse Gas Centre to help educate and support farmers, consultants and other rural professionals about these environmental issues.

Phil explains: “In terms of greenhouse gases, the main thing that's driving us at the moment is the Zero Carbon Act; in essence that says the sector as a whole has to reduce methane by 10% by 2030, between 24% and 47% by 2050 and it has to get nitrous oxide to net zero by 2050.

“In terms of your nitrates, there's a lot of regulations around water quality of which nitrogen is a big part and there's a combination of central government regulations and regional council plans. The short story is farmers need to reduce the amount of nitrates they leach.”

Changing farm systems

Phil has been carrying out research and analysis to determine A) whether or not these goals are possible for farmers to achieve and B) what farmers would need to do to achieve them.

“We’re working with real farms, but it’s more around researching, looking at how we can change farm systems and the implication of that for both greenhouse gases and profitability,” says Phil.

“A lot of the modelling has been to say, ‘how can we mitigate greenhouse gas emissions by fiddling with our farm systems and then how do we actually achieve those targets?’”

The government has set expectations extremely high and Phil believes that with the technology we currently have available, not all the goals will be achievable: “I can get close to the 10% [reduction] by fine tuning farm systems and changing them around, but there isn't a snowball's chance of achieving the 2050 targets, not by fiddling with your farm system. In terms of achieving that in the short term, we'll have to plant a lot of trees.”

The three main things that drive greenhouse gas emissions on farm, says Phil, are the amount of dry matter eaten, the amount of protein in the diet and the amount of nitrogen fertiliser applied: “The biggest by far is the amount of dry matter eaten, so the proxy becomes the stocking rate…the short story is in terms of reducing greenhouse gases and staying in business financially, you need to reduce your stocking rate but increase your per animal performance.”

FARMAX has been instrumental in helping calculate the greenhouse gas emissions that a farm produces and how changes to feed, stocking policies and fertiliser applications can affect that number.

Good things take time

Phil sets up a base farm in FARMAX and OVERSEER and then imposes different scenarios – decrease stocking rate, increase performance – and then runs it through both systems to determine if there is a feasible farm solution at the end.

“You can see in FARMAX whether it is feasible biologically; you get a direct indication of the impact on profitability and again it depends on the scenarios – some cost money and with others you can actually improve the profitability,” states Phil.

“The advantage of using FARMAX is you can play around with the farm system so you can do some radical redesign of an entire farm system in half a day, which is the whole advantage of modelling so you approximate the real thing.”

"It really comes back to assessing your options and that's where FARMAX can come in – you model your farm, play around with it, see what you could do and that will give you the implications both for greenhouse gases and for farm profitability."

- Phil Journeaux, AgFirst Waikato

As Phil asserts, some farm policy changes will actually increase the profitability of a farm business while decreasing greenhouse gases, but he stresses that it is not something that can happen overnight – it is more of a “medium-term” programme.

“Let's say you've got 400 cows producing 160,000 kilos, that's 400 per cow. Drop them down to 350 cows producing 450-500 kilos – you'll reduce your greenhouse gas emissions by about 5-6% and you’ll make more money.

“On the sheep and beef side of things let's says you've got 3,000 ewes doing 130% lambing. What you need to do is run 2,500 ewes, but do it at 160% lambing – which all sounds very good, then you need to translate that back into the real world and most farmers could do that.”

Phil stresses again that it is not an “overnight wonder” and there are lots of things that need to happen to achieve this, including enhancing grazing management, advancing the genetic merit of animals and improving farmer skills and expertise.

Trade offs

Many of the farmer groups Phil has talked to have minimal knowledge of greenhouse gas issues and aren’t sure what exactly is required of them. They know it is an issue and are keen to do something about it, but just don’t know what to do – especially with the expectations as unrealistic as they are.

“I'd say quite confidently there's no way we can achieve our 2050 targets with what we've got in the toolbox – we need some silver bullets,” says Phil.

“It really comes back to assessing your options and that's where FARMAX can come in – you model your farm, play around with it, see what you could do and that will give you the implications both for greenhouse gases and for farm profitability. Then you can start thinking about what do I trade off?”, says Phil.

“There's a lot of research happening in terms of methane inhibitors, nitrous oxide inhibitors, vaccines – which we lead the world in – and using genetics, because there are animals that naturally produce less methane.”

What can I do today?

In the meantime, what can farmers do to start the adjustment and get ahead of the regulations?

“Firstly, what I'd say to farmers is you really need to work out what your greenhouse gas emissions are and then you need to benchmark with industry. That in itself is a problem...once you have your number, what the hell does that mean? Is that good, is that bad? In terms of benchmarking there's very little data we've got at this stage – hopefully in about two or three years through He Waka Eke Noa [Primary Sector Climate Action Partnership] we'll be able to benchmark,” says Phil.

A precursor to that is farmers knowing their own greenhouse gas emission numbers; Phil estimates that less than 5% currently do, but he anticipates this will increase to 25% of farmers by 1 January 2022 and 100% of farmers by 1 January 2023. And by 2025, every farmer will have a greenhouse gas emission plan, as per the He Waka Eke Noa programme.

Farmers can start benchmarking their farms, adjusting their farm systems and – potentially – offsetting carbon through planting trees. However, it is realistically mostly possible for sheep and beef farmers as dairy farmers have very little spare land for planting.

Offsetting through trees

There are two options for trees – pines and natives. Pines are cheaper to plant, grow faster and require fewer per hectare than natives, yet they are very short-term – you only get around 17 years of carbon offsets. In comparison, natives are much more expensive, but grow for up to 300 years and you can claim the carbon offsets for a much longer period.

“If you're looking at forestry as an offset, it is actually a very complex area in itself – get good advice, talk to your forestry consultant or your ETS consultant because there's some complexities there which you need to think through,” advises Phil.

“The biggest thing I think when I've been talking to farmers and groups about forestry, it's a short-term solution. Follow that to its logical conclusion, in 200 years the whole country's in pine trees.”

For more information about greenhouse gases and the Zero Carbon Act head to

To get in touch with Phil, email