Research aims to combat soil water shortage on farms

University of Waikato doctoral student Jack Pronger hopes his current research project will contribute to an improvement in pastoral drought resilience.

Pronger is the recipient of the Flower Doctoral Fellowship in Agribusiness, a scholarship worth $30,000 a year for three years. He intends looking into how to tackle 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’s agribusiness programme is headed by Professor Jacqueline Rowarth.

Pronger’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.

It 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.”

Pronger 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, he said.

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.”

A 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”.

In addition to the Flower Fellowship they have previously made available undergraduate prizes in global and environmental economics.

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