The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 3 (July 1, 1933)
Science Helps Nature
The Agricultural Department's Veterinary Laboratory at Wallaceville, near Wellington. The laboratory has been very busy lately in the campaign against swine fever.
This article gives glimpses of some of the very important scientific work done by the Department of Agriculture to enable farming industries to improve the quality and increase the quantity of production.
As science, at its best, is knowledge of Nature, the heading of this article may seem a little impertinent, at first sight, but it will be proved reasonable in the course of the narrative. By intensive and extensive study of Nature man can induce her to work for his advantage.
Of course, the Agricultural Department, in its various expert divisions, touches farming at all stages—from soil analysis to inspection and grading of the products. Laboratories and Plant Research Stations are ever busy for the guidance of the man on the land. When he receives advice about matters of pasture, crop or stock, he will readily accept it and act on it, if he is wise, because it is well supported by scientific research. This keen persistent specialisation in various branches of research is very beneficial to farmers, who are relieved from the risks of doubtful experimentation.
A Fillip for Wheat.
A typical gain for farming is seen in the treatment of wheat lands. During a period of eight years the Department carried on experiments in the use of phosphate, on a field scale, throughout the wheat country. It was definitely proved that the application of 1 cwt. of phosphate to the acre ensured an average increase of yield by five bushels, irrespective of the season or the type of soil.
The success of those field demonstrations naturally impressed farmers, so that, at present, about 90 per cent. of the wheat country has its application of yield-increasing phosphate, with the result that the total crop has a tendency to be 5 bushels higher to the acre than it was 10 years ago.
At current prices this development means that an expenditure of 4/- to the acre on phosphate brings an increase of yield to the value of 24/- —a gain of about £1. As New Zealand uses about 280,000 acres for wheat, the dividend from this one run of research can be 280,000.
Frequently the expression “cutting costs” is used about farming, but farmers have to be alert against the wrong kind of cutting. Indeed the way of salvation sometimes lies along the line of increased expenditure on things that return their cost and a good surplus. Striking examples are the investment of phosphate in wheat lands and the top-dressing of pastures with a certain phosphate at a certain time of the year—a process which is applicable, with substantial profit, to millions of acres in the Dominion. Neglect in this matter means loss to the farmer, individually, and to the whole community.
Light on Lucerne.
Lucerne, as a fodder crop, has received a big lift from the Department's research activities. It has been recognised for many years that lucerne is helped by the inoculation of the seed with a nitrogenous-bacterial culture, but it is only during the past three years that the development of this process for practical farming has been achieved. This culture has widened the area over which lucerne can be grown, and in all cases it improves the possibilities of success. Indeed, in many cases, it may mean all the difference between failure and success.
Confidence of farmers in this bacterial culture is shown by the fact that a thousand of them obtained sufficient of it last year to inoculate more than 70,000lb. of seed.
Backing Sure Winners.
Agricultural Department's Scientific Activities.
Particulars of illustrations.—(top) Typical wheat variety trial. Wheat variety trials are carried out all over the chief wheat-growing districts by the Fields Division of the Department of Agriculture in collaboration with the Wheat Research Institute on farmers' properties. (Centre) Measuring production from various fertilizers applied to grassland. The determination of the methods best adapted to getting the maximum effect from lime and fertilizers, especially during periods of low production, is one of the primary objects of this work. Below (left) A striking but not uncommon effect of inoculating lucerne seed with culture supplied by the Plant Research Station of the Department of Agriculture. The foreground was sown with untreated seed and the background with seed treated with inoculating culture. Below (right) Seed-germination test. The Plant Research Station, at Palmerston North, has a seed-testing section. Samples are accurately tested for impurities and germinating quality of the specified seed. In the germination test the seeds are placed on moistened sterilised paper on trays and kept at a regulated temperature. “New Zealand Certified Seed” has a high reputation, which extends to Australia and other countries.
More and, more scientific research in agriculture is reducing the risks of farming. Research shows the winning numbers on the farming totalisator. In a sense research shows the farmer how to “beat the tote,” because his backings can be on certainties.
Conquest of “Bush Sickness.”
A good few years ago experts of the Agricultural Department were mystified by cases of a disease known as “bush sickness” among stock, reported mainly from parts of the “pumice belt” in the North Island. By the way, the term “bush sickness” tends to be misleading, as the trouble was not confined to bush country.
At first it was thought that the animals had absorbed poison from the pastures, but analysis disproved that theory. If animals stayed on the affected ground they gradually became “living skeletons” and died, but if they were shifted in time to another type of land they usually recovered.
Well, here was a tough problem for the Department—an area between two million and three million acres, where death kept court for cattle and sheep. If was a long, persistent, triumphant research for the Chemistry Division, under Mr. B. C. Aston. The trouble was traced to a deficiency of iron in the soil. It has been demonstrated that the health of animals and mankind requires about .004 per cent. of iron in the body—and this need was lacking in the pumice country.
The necessary iron for stock was usually supplied in a mixture of finely ground limonite (an oxide of iron) and salt, compressed into “licks,” left in troughs on the pastures. The mixture, in the powdered form, may also be sprinkled on hay or ensilage. Huge deposits of satisfactory limonite are in the Whangarei district and other localities.
The result of that research, work which is of enormous economic importance to a large tract of the North Island, has also proved beneficial in some regions in other countries, where deficiency in iron had caused a wasting disease in farm animals.
A Modern Miracle.
Before the cure for “bush-sickness” was evolved, the holders of affected land were in despair. They saw their animals wasting away, and ruin seemed to be staring at them. Of course, nobody would lend money on that kind of property which was rather an alarming sort of security. The farmers had many worries, but happily these did not include mortgages, which were not obtainable. Then came that magic touch of iron in the lick which brought health to the stock and happiness to the farmers. Some of the men on that pumice belt are comparatively care-free to-day, because they are not burdened with debt. In a way they were saved by their old misfortune (which frightened money-lenders, and was itself banished by iron).
An Iodine Survey.
In one of the Chemistry Division's laboratories may be seen many jars of digested thyroid glands of sheep, ready for analysis, which will indicate any deficiency of iodine in pastures. Lack of iodine causes goitre (a swelling of the thyroid gland) in sheep as well as in mankind. Some thousands of these glands, collected by the Live Stock Division, have come in for analysis. Whenever a deficiency of iodine is detected, the necessary amount is supplied in the salt “lick” for stock on the pasture.
Important progress has been made in this iodine survey, which is extending through the Wairarapa district, and will go up to Gisborne. It also takes in the southern part of the South Island.