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Research looks to combat soil water shortage on farms

10 April 2014

Flower Fellowship recipient’s research looks to combat soil water shortage on farms

As New Zealand farms continue to face problems associated with ongoing drought, University of Waikato doctoral student Jack Pronger, originally from Cambridge, hopes his current research project will contribute to an improvement in pastoral drought resilience.

As the recipient of the Flower Doctoral Fellowship in Agribusiness, a scholarship worth $30,000 a year for three years, Jack will look to address the ongoing impacts of drought on dry land farming, or farms that aren’t irrigated.

The Flower Fellowship is awarded to a student whose research has relevance in the agribusiness sector, focusing particularly on issues of food production, farmer ownership and labour issues, New Zealand’s role in global agriculture and the preservation of fertile soils. The University of Waikato has a comprehensive agribusiness programme, headed by leading agriculture commentator Professor Jacqueline Rowarth.

Jack’s research will focus on identifying approaches to increase drought resilience by using more diverse mixes of pasture species - research that could have a significant impact on farm production. The research is being supervised by Professor Louis Schipper and Dr Dave Campbell from the School of Science.

His PhD will look at differences in seasonal water use between mixed sward pasture systems (a combination of different grass, legume and herb species) and ryegrass/clover pasture systems under dairy grazing.

“The current knowledge of paddock-scale water use and water uptake efficiency is pretty limited,” he says. “To cope with the increasing incidence of drought, farmers need pasture species that can access water deeper in the soil, and/or reduce paddock-scale water use while maintaining agronomic production.”

He says there’s been little research into paddock-scale water uptake of managed pasture systems in New Zealand, a gap he feels is worth addressing. With the economics of farming practices changing and the ongoing issue of climate change, identifying ways to combat the effects of drought is more important than ever.

Compared to traditional pasture systems of perennial ryegrass and white clover, mixed sward pasture systems have been shown to increase dry matter production during dry periods, while maintaining similar cumulative dry matter production year-round.

“Mixed sward pasture systems might also potentially reduce some of the negative environmental effects of farming through reduced nitrate leaching and nitrous oxide emissions and increased soil carbon sequestration,” says Jack.

Increased dry season pasture production may support more milk and meat production, bringing with it wider economic benefits for New Zealand.

“The knowledge gained through my research will hopefully contribute to more efficient water usage of pastoral systems, and increased pastoral production that will likely benefit the economy down the track.”

Jack couldn’t be more grateful for the Flower Fellowship. “It is a very generous scholarship and also well thought out in that you are encouraged to get your research out into the community.”

Hamilton couple Bill Flower and his late wife Joan established the Flower Fellowship for the simple reason that they, as Mr Flower says, “wanted to do something good”.

The Flowers have made a habit of giving back. In addition to the Flower Fellowship they have previously made available undergraduate prizes in global and environmental economics, and they often used to take in less fortunate young people onto their farm to work and live.

Mr Flower says that success comes down to having an inquiring mind and the willingness to work hard. “You only get out of this world what you put in,” he says.


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