Science close to unlocking velvet’s secret

New Zealand and South Korean scientists believe they will soon be able to identify the compounds that give deer antler velvet its immune-boosting properties.

If they are successful, it will allow velvet extracts to be sold with a precise measure of the active ingredients they contain. Deer Industry New Zealand (DINZ) says this will be an important step in getting such products registered for sale as healthy functional foods.

“Velvet’s reputation as a health tonic goes back more than 1000 years and it is still widely used in Korea and China in mixtures with ginseng and herbs in tonics and traditional medicines,” says DINZ chief executive Dan Coup.

“But these days, government regulators and consumers everywhere want the claims made for medicines and tonics to be supported by scientific evidence. It appears that we are on the threshold of doing this with at least one of the health-promoting properties attributed to velvet.”

AgResearch scientist Dr Stephen Haines says bioactive compounds in velvet have been of great interest to NZ scientists since research began in the 1990s.

“We had shown that velvet extracts boosted immune function both in cell-lines and in animals, but we didn’t know what was doing it. Velvet is a very complex mixture of thousands of components, making it very difficult to isolate and identify the ones that are biologically active,” he says.

Until now.

Recent improvements in mass spectrometry and high-speed data processing have made it possible for researchers to sort through the thousands of peptides, proteins and related compounds in velvet, to find the ones with bioactive properties.

The research is being carried out by AgResearch on behalf of VARNZ, a joint venture between DINZ and AgResearch, with critical support from the Korean Ginseng Corporation (KGC).

“We have built a close, trusting relationship with the KGC, working together on market development and access, and now we are working together in research,” says DNZ chief executive Dan Coup.

KGC is the world’s largest ginseng company, with annual sales of $US800 million, based on 200 ginseng-based products. In recent years, the company has developed 19 products that also contain deer velvet and in so doing, has become the largest buyer of the New Zealand product.

In last two years KGC has provided the AgResearch velvet research team with samples of four different velvet extracts for further analysis. Each of them had been shown in in-vitro studies to boost immune function to varying degrees. The most active and one of the least active was then further tested by KGC in an animal study.

The most active extract consistently stimulated high levels of activity in the natural killer cells that fight infection in an animal before the immune system starts producing antibodies. It also had good anti-inflammatory properties.

By comparing this extract with the one with the weaker response, the researchers have identified several protein fragments and a peptide that are associated with immune activity. These may be the active ingredients or they may be markers for other bioactive compounds.

“We are now testing them on two different types of human cell to assess their immune boosting function. If we identify the active ingredients, that would support the development of a standardised product for immune function,” Dr Haines says.

This would be an important step in getting velvet products registered as healthy functional foods in China or Korea, adding considerable value to NZ velvet.

Survey to comb NZ beehives

A national survey of beekeepers will provide a “starting point” to explore the potential causes behind colony losses in New Zealand.

Around the world, there are reports of high colony losses. In New Zealand, while hive numbers have significantly increased over recent years, there has also been a surge in unexplained colony losses. Diseases, pests, pesticides, starvation and overstocking have been blamed, but the evidence is largely anecdotal.

Now, industry groups and researchers are turning to beekeepers for their help to protect the $5.1 billion industry. Apiarists – from commercial to hobbyist – are being asked to take part in the country’s first colony loss and survival survey, which starts today.

The online survey, conducted by Landcare Research, will gather baseline information from beekeepers about colony loss and survival to track changes in the future.

New Zealand Bee Colony Loss and Survival survey director Pike Brown said the survey would provide an accurate picture of the country’s bee industry.

“The data from the survey will allow policy makers, industry groups and beekeepers to make better decisions on how to preserve New Zealand’s bee populations,” Dr Brown said.

The survey adheres to international standards to allow for worldwide comparison. However, there are a number of questions that are specific to the New Zealand industry and conditions, he said.

Federated Farmers Bee Industry Group chairman John Hartnell said bees are critical to the country’s agricultural and horticultural industry and must be protected. Many crops rely on bee pollination, he said.

 “Looking ahead, this survey will help the industry to form a framework for building a long-term picture of annual trends and explore the potential causes of losses and ways to prevent them.”

National Beekeepers’ Association (NBA) of New Zealand chief executive Daniel Paul said the survey was a “starting point” to protect bees.

“The survey will provide a wealth of benchmark data that will facilitate apiary management,” Paul said.

To help raise awareness about the importance of bees, the NBA has declared September Bee Aware month.

The colony loss and survival survey is funded by the Ministry for Primary Industries, National Beekeepers Association of New Zealand, Federated Farmers Bee Industry Group and Agcarm.

Good soils are at the heart of agricultural enterprise in the Waikato

Waikato Regional Council’s soil quality monitoring programme measures soil properties such as soil compaction, nutrient status, biological activity, soil carbon and organic matter at 152 sites, with about 30 sites sampled annually. The sites cover a range of soils supporting various land uses.

The main soil quality issues identified are compaction, excessive phosphorous and nitrogen (N) on dairy and cropping land, and declining carbon, mainly on cropping land, says Bala Tikkisetty, a sustainable agriculture advisor at the council.

The good news is that some of the emerging data trends suggest there is an improvement in some soil quality indicators, most likely the result of good land management practices undertaken by our farming community, he says.

But some measures in various areas are still causing concern, with improvements needed.

That’s because minimising human-induced soil erosion and maintaining good soil quality are essential for maintaining so-called soil “ecosystem services”, such as nutrient and water buffering, productive capacity, assimilating waste, and minimising impacts of sediment and other contaminants on water bodies.

The transformation of so-called “natural capital” – namely soil, plants and animals, air and water into resources that people value and use – is at the heart of what’s meant when we refer to ecosystem services.

The concept is gaining more attention nationally as we see environmental pressure increasingly applied to resources, such as soil health, that we once took for granted.

Tikkisetty says the several practices which help support and improve soils and provide clear benefits include:

• avoiding over grazing and heavy grazing in wet weather (leading to compaction)

• avoiding under or over-fertilisation

• appropriate use of pesticides and other agrochemicals

• managing pasture to maintain complete soil cover

• careful application of farm dairy effluent to optimise organic matter and avoid saturation .

There is also benefit in protecting on-farm wetlands, which deliver a wide range of ecosystem services, such as improving water quality, flood regulation, coastal protection, and providing recreational opportunities and fish habitat.

A suite of tools called functional land management seeks to optimise the agronomic and environmental returns from land and relies on the multi-functionality of soils. It focuses on soil functions that are specifically related to agricultural land use, Tikkisetty says  They are:

• primary production

• water purification and regulation

• carbon cycling and storage

• functional and intrinsic biodiversity

• nutrient cycling

New research is focussed on nutrient cycling in soil, such as the ability of soils to recycle N, carbon and phosphorus and how this can best be managed.

To reduce N leaching from soils, Tikkisetty says, the research is seeking to understand mechanisms for N retention in soil and how to manipulate soil processes to enhance de-nitrification. As soil microbes are the key agents for nutrient cycling, scientists are focussing on determining the impacts of soil management on soil microbial activity.

He says the Waikato Regional Council is strongly committed to working with the wider farming community to increase the understanding of soil ecosystems services and ways in which farmers can manage them both to benefit their business, and to protect or enhance the natural capital on which it is based.

This work has already resulted in production of the menus of practices to improve water quality. They identify farming solutions and provide assessments of their effectiveness in managing various contaminants from farm land. The online version of the menus can be found

The council will be keeping a close eye on the new research and providing advice to the farming community when we know more.

Bala Tikkisetty can be contacted on 0800 800 401 or

Joint research programme focuses on rumen development

AgResearch and Fiber Fresh have released their first trial results on rumen development in calves, as part of an ongoing research collaboration.

Fiber Fresh is a calf and equine nutrition company based in Reporoa with an active scientific R&D division.

The recent AgResearch trial, which began in 2013, indicates that high nutritional fibres help promote rumen development in calves. The development of the rumen is important for the young calf to enable transition from milk to pasture.

The rumen development study showed fibre-reared calves had 18% heavier rumens, better papillae development in some parts of the rumen and greater vascularity compared to calves fed on conventional meal-based systems.

Calves reared on the fibre diet also exhibited better rumen absorption capacity at weaning and were slightly more efficient in feed usage (2.4% apparent feed efficiency).

Those calves are also involved in a lifetime study to evaluate the effects of nutrition during rearing on meat quality and production. A number of other trials are also planned as part of the ongoing research programme, including a lifetime trial of heifers to establish the impact of early intervention on future milk production.

Fiber Fresh national business manager Shona Goss says the relationship with AgResearch came about through wanting to provide robust, independent information to farmers about Fiber Fresh products.

“We had farmers claiming results they’d seen by using Fiber Fresh products and we had conducted a number of in-house trials. But ultimately we need robust, independent scientific evidence.

“We believe there is a better way to rear healthy, productive animals and we anticipate this research will contribute to a better understanding of calf nutrition and the development of better products to help farmers achieve the results they’re after.

“And it is based on a natural concept of developing the rumen for life. Long-term goals for long-term gains.”

AgResearch science team leader Dr Sue McCoard says the relationship with Fiber Fresh fits well alongside existing animal nutrition science research.

“AgResearch has a focus on early life nutrition for ruminants. Our programme is based on developing robust scientific knowledge that can contribute to the development of best practice guidelines to improve calf rearing on-farm through nutrition.”

The ongoing Fiber Fresh research investment also looks at growth performance, rumen development, feed conversion efficiency, immune function and overall health, meat, and milk production and quality. This approach will provide the opportunity to put the results from the early rearing work in the context of the performance of the animal throughout its life.

Careful management reduces nutrient losses from winter-grazed crops

Recent results from Ag Research trials in South Otago, undertaken as part of the Pastoral 21 project, have shown that grazed winter forage crops contribute significantly to the risk of nutrient losses to water but that with careful management, sediment and phosphorus losses can be reduced during grazing.

DairyNZ developer Maitland Manning says strategic grazing and careful management of wet areas such as gullies and swales in winter forage crops can reduce losses of sediment and phosphorus (P) to surface runoff by 80-90 percent.

Manning says:

“Gullies and swales are where overland flow and seepage converge to form small channels of running water, which may then flow to streams and rivers. By minimising stock movements and soil treading damage in these areas, any rainfall and runoff that occurs is more likely to infiltrate the soil, reducing the amount of runoff and loss of sediment and P.

“Simple changes in grazing management of winter crops can result in huge benefits for farmers as well as the environment.”

Strategic grazing means letting cows graze the drier parts of the paddock first and the wetter parts last. This usually means that the cows start at the top of the catchment and graze their way downhill towards the gully or swale. The uneaten crop acts as a buffer to minimise the runoff risk.

Manning says:

“If it needs to be grazed at all, the break nearest the gully or swale should be grazed at a time when the soil moisture content is not too high.

“Back fencing as much as possible will minimise soil pugging and compaction damage, and will also help to reduce volumes of surface runoff,” says Maitland.

Southland farmer Geoff Baldwin says he has noticed an improvement in sediment runoff since he has made changes to the way he winters his stock on swedes and kale at his Riverton property.

“Wintering can be a mission here with wet soil, so anything we can do to mitigate sediment losses is beneficial,” says Baldwin.

“We have identified and fenced off swales and we leave a three to four metre boundary along the fence line which is kept in grass and not ploughed. Sediment is washed into the swales and settles in the grass, so sediment from the crop is reduced. We always graze the crop in front of the cows so the swale is the last place the cows get to.”

More information can be found at

Pastoral 21 Next Generation Dairy Systems is a five year farm programme that aims to provide proven, profitable, simple adoption-ready systems that lift production and reduce nutrient loss. It is a collaborative venture among DairyNZ, Fonterra, Dairy Companies Association of New Zealand, Beef + Lamb New Zealand and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, and managed by AgResearch. The Pastoral 21 programme has been set up in four regions to address issues relevant to each area.

The future of NZ science


The country’s brightest minds ponder the future of science in a special issue of the Journal of Royal Society of New Zealand, published on Friday.

The issue, which is accessible online for free during the month of August, presents a dozen articles examining what the future holds for science research in Aotearoa.

Will research funding be allocated by lottery? Can we expect an 18 month weather forecast? Are private companies like Weta Digital going to drive New Zealand’s innovation? These are just some of the questions grappled with by twenty authors.

Associate Professor Ian Yeoman, a ‘futurologist’ at the School of Management, Victoria University of Wellington, and David Bibby, Emeritus Professor at the university’s School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences, are co-editors.

Yeoman explains:

“The volume asks questions about the future, aiming to understand what might or could happen. We wanted to hear from experts in science, those that understood the bigger picture or those that could understand the dimensions and interconnectivity of science and how events could unfold.

“Fundamentally, we were curious with what the future may be and how others imagined it.”

Robert Hickson’s article ‘Four short science scenarios‘ certainly wasn’t lacking in imagination. The scenarios offer a slightly tongue-in-cheek, sci-fi look at New Zealand’s future, foreseeing a lottery system for Marsden funding, a single amalgamated University of Aoteoroa and a cybernetic South Canterbury farm network.

Other articles offered a more near term look at issues in the science sector. Drs Rhian Salmon and Rebecca Priestley, in their article ‘A future for public engagement with science in New Zealand‘ highlight the need for greater collaboration and suggest the establishment of “a brokerage that connects ‘everyday scientists’ with science communication outlets, products, programmes and opportunities.”

* A full media release from the Royal Society of New Zealand, links to all articles and a collection of expert commentary can be found at

Water quality up for discussion at Winter Lecture Series

Questions about water and its quality will be explored on August 12 at “Do We Need To Worry About Our Water?” a panel discussion to be conducted as part of the University of Waikato Winter Lecture Series at Hamilton City Council’s Civic Reception Lounge, 6-7pm.

Iain White, professor of environmental planning, will host the panel.

Green Party water spokesperson Catherine Delahunty, who will join the discussion, says New Zealanders are right to be concerned about the quality of their water.

“There are figures that show more than 60% of our monitored rivers aren’t clean enough to swim in,” she says, “and a big part of that problem is down to large-scale dairy farming,” she says..

“A recent OECD report highlighted New Zealand’s poor freshwater quality – and this is the country with the clean, green brand.”

Ms Delahunty believes dairy growth is costing the environment more than ever before, citing a report from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment that shows dairy intensification is causing more pollution to our waterways, and the water quality of many waterways is continuing to decline.

Professor Jacqueline Rowarth, another of the panellists, says we need to be mindful of context.

“We tend to focus on reports of change rather than absolutes when it comes to our water quality,” she says.

“The Waikato River, which runs through heartland dairy country in New Zealand has one of the lowest nitrate concentrations, 0.44mg of nitrate per litre of water, reported by the OECD for 2011. In comparison, London’s Thames river, which is reported as healthy, is consistently higher at 6mg of nitrate per litre, and is home to 120 species of fish. These fish have returned to a river that was, due to sewerage discharge, considered to be biologically dead at Tower Bridge in 1985.”

She also says our rivers are much cleaner than they were 50 years ago.

“We routinely monitor E.coli (bacteria) levels, which indicate whether the water quality is suitable for swimming and other contact recreation. We know that much of the Waikato River is safe to swim in – but other factors such as the current and submerged hazards are also a factor in determining the safety for swimming.

“Although more than 60% of monitored sites were declared a problem in 2013, they were being monitored because of high human and animal concentrations – which are found in cities and towns, for instance.”

Maori and indigenous legal issues expert Associate Professor Linda Te Aho, economist Dr Dan Marsh and Waikato Federated Farmers president Chris Lewis will join the discussion too.


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