Join Al & Juddy as they sit down with the boss, John McKenzie. They discuss his early career, taking New Zealand products to the world and delve into forward thinking strategies that utilise failures and successes of R&D to support investment strategies for future technology.
Will there be an Episode 21? Listen to find out!
‘What you can do is transplant the way a Kiwi thinks. When you trace it back, it's about making the most of the resources at hand. It’s the number eight wire and binder twine mentality of people who came out here and settled in this country 150 years ago. It’s the way we think’ – John McKenzie
Allister Here we are with Lara for marketing. Hi, Lara.
Lara Hey. How are you going, guys?
Glenn Good, Lara.
Lara That's good. We’ve got some more questions that have been sent through. First up, we've got one from Jason. There is plenty of cheap seed around that is not certified. How can this backfire on farmers who are trying to save a dollar?
Allister That's a really good question, Jason.
Glenn Quite topical at the moment.
Allister Yeah, it is topical at the moment. I think it is actually a question that's big enough and worthy enough for a podcast itself, and I think we will do that. So what I would pretty much say is stand by because we'll give a quite a broad and wide ranging discussion on the topic. But at heart, the thing about being uncertified seed or cheap seed is at heart you are buying something you do not have any true understanding of what it is. So I suppose everything from germination, endophyte, weed content, all these things are why it is cheap seed, why it is uncertified. So at heart you have no knowledge of what it is in real terms. You have a lot of trust, a whole lot of faith, and a whole lot of words that people use to give you confidence. But you have no knowledge of what you're actually about to sow. So I think that would be the primary answer. But stay tuned, because I think it could be a really cool podcast.
Lara It would be a very good podcast. Look forward to it. And just one from Kaylee. For both Juddy and Al, what is your favourite breed of sheep and why is it a Romney?
Glenn Well, I'd have to disagree to start with. My favourite sheep is not a Romney, not say the Romneys aren't great sheep, but if you have a personal favourite, mine's actually a Poll Dorset.
Allister Oh no.
Glenn And the reason that's the case is for two reasons. One is, which is Poll stud. So I'm very familiar with the breed and I think they make terrific mothers. So there are my two reasons why Poll Dorset for me is one of the better breeds of sheep.
Allister That's a classic. Well, I'll go through my legacy with sheep breeds too. And it's not a Romney because I come from the east coast of Canterbury in the dry years, the Corriedale was a pretty impressive animal and we came off a Corriedale stud. So that was my background. But I'm now a life styler so I really I don't want too bigger animal and I am more into cuteness now because they're just glorified lawnmowers in a lifestyle environment. So I'm really interested in the breed. Kerry Hills and if you go and look that up, I think that could be a really interesting lifestyle breed for me in the future.
Glenn I think there was a test done somewhere that was looking at the IQ of sheep, and I'm not sure that actually the Corriedale came out particularly well on that. So I'm just putting it out there.
Allister Well, that's just getting insulting now. So let's move on.
Lara: If you have any questions whether they are technical series or anything in between. Feel free to hit us up on our Facebook and Instagram pages. AgricomNZ or email@example.com, we would love to hear them.
Allister Thanks, Lara.
Glenn Thanks, Lara.
Glenn Well, Allister, looks like you've got a really good glow on there. Maybe it's your new moisturiser. But what are we talking about today?
Allister Thanks, Juddy. It's my great pleasure to introduce the CEO of PGG Wrightson Seeds, previously a consultant, a farmer, a horticulturalist, an arable seed grower, an agronomist, an agribusiness leader, and our boss, John McKenzie. And we welcome today to the table.
Glenn Hopefully we will hopefully have a job at the end of this. So I'm looking forward to the discussions.
Allister Yeah, go for it. What are we going to start off with today?
Glenn Well, I thought we'd just move through a couple of questions in terms of, you know, understanding John's background and how he came to be in the seed business for as long as he's been here. Look a little bit about some international markets and how they have kind of formed. What we now know as New Zealand seed industry. But look back at that a little bit more and then probably looking at how technology has changed through the period of time that technology and the seed industry from its early beginnings through to what we see now, and maybe a little bit of a glimpse into the future about where that technology might take us and some of the types of technology that we might take advantage of.
Allister That's excellent. So welcome, John. Do you want to ask a few questions?
Glenn Listen. So quite a long list of titles, John, in terms of, you know, being a farmer and a horticulturist and an agribusiness leader. But from a personal point of view, I guess some really high power questions here. Your first car, what was it? What was your first car John?
John It was a Morri Thou.
Glenn Right. Great car.
John Yep. It was quite cheap. It cost me $700.
Glenn Right and what colour was it?
John It was green. I didn't get a choice, Juddy.
Glenn And I guess this car could probably tell a few stories. But we probably won't tell those today
John We won't go into that. I never got the pleasure of selling it.
Allister Oh, lovely.
Glenn Right. Next question is how much sleep do you operate on? It's really interesting to talk about this because some people do not operate unless they've had 8 hours of solid sleep. Others tend to work on a whole lot less. What's your sleeping habits?
John Well, I can never sleep for more than 3 hours, so I get two-three hour stints. That's good. But I can go to sleep anywhere at any time, too. So that's how you catch up a few more hours.
Allister You're a bit scary in that space. I've watched you sleep in meetings only to wake up and ask the most astute questions I've ever seen. And so it always raises the question.
John That's just shutting your eyes, there's a difference between shutting your eyes and sleeping.
Glenn And of course over your long career, you would have seen a lot of different products that have come through basically our business. And I guess it'd be interesting to see if you've got a favourite one, one that maybe isn't the best product but means a lot to you. Can you think of something like that?
John Well, I've got two actually. One was Greenstone ryegrass, which was a hybrid ryegrass. And in the days when I started Agricom, the seed company, you actually had to bid with the DSIR to get the varieties. And I put in a marketing plan that would sell 50 tonnes and we sold over 500. So I like it because of the achievement, but also made quite a bit of money out of it. And then the other one I like is Samson ryegrass and it's still in the market today and perennial ryegrass and had a guy called Brian Samson working for me and I told him I was going to name a bloody grass after him and I did.
Glenn And that particular product has kind of been a cornerstone.
John Well it got a new life when AR37 came along, you know. So probably it's at the end of its journey from its genetics perspective but it hit AR1 then it has AR37 it's just been a very good robust variety. You know.
Glenn And I think from a marketing point of view, I think that's what people see that it's something you can rely on. It's not flashy, but it's something that's been you know, it's stood the test of time and has been very reliable over time.
John Well, I think, you know, in plant breeding, you can do two things. You can try breed bell merinos, you know, and fluke it or you can actually have the good solid germplasm that you can rely on and bring something through more reliable. You're better to buy the worst ram from the best stud than the best ram from the worst stud. You know it's that type of thing. You've got to be careful that you are not being showy with your breeding programs that they're going to things are going to breed true to time and last.
Glenn Yeah. And I think that's the other point is that that particular product has been quite successful over a number of different environments. You know, it goes south, it goes north.
John And that was how it was bred, it was bred in number of different locations.
Glenn Very good.
Allister Well that's great because the point with the introduction John was that you weren't always and haven't always been in the seed industry and you've actually cut your teeth in a whole lot of different environments and probably want to reach right back. You did your university days in the late seventies. Is that right? And actually, a lot of our very respected senior colleagues in our R&D business and other parts of the industry actually came out of that generation. One of our previous podcast interviewers, Steve Goldsin, was of that time as well.
John He's probably got grey hair like me.
Allister Yeah, that's right. And so a lot of influential people came out of that time at university in the late seventies. What did you get into when you left university?
John Well, I guess the first thing was I never was going to go to university.
John I was going to be a shearer because I wanted to be a farmer and I wanted to save money. And I didn't think going to university was going to help. It didn't actually. I did spend quite a bit of money at the university on the wrong things. But anyway, I think it was the best thing I ever did to go to university. But I still had that burning desire to be a farmer and no farming background behind me. So I became a farm consultant and after three years I had a go at farming and picked the wrong time to do it. And I bought a farm that about a year later was worth half of what I paid for it. So that got me back.
Allister The eighties was a pretty tough time for farming full stop.
John Back into what I can do off the farm to make some money. And so that's probably where I got into some of the things I got into the export live export trade and you know.
Glenn And, just to pick up on that, I think that's a really interesting point because actually when you say university probably wasn't for you, but you learnt a lot there. It might not have been in the lectures, but some of the other things that you learned in terms of relationships and how important they are and that from a farming perspective that you've learnt some really important lessons and that wasn't in the face of success. But more in some of the tough times, which I think when you look at successful leaders in other industries sometimes a lot of them have actually come from that. They've had those very basic backgrounds and that success hasn't always been there. And I think we should learn a lot through the tough times and the failures.
John University is not the be all and end all. You do learn how to think, but the University of life is more important. And I can remember when I was consulting going to this farm and I said, well, I thought I should get a consultant here because I wanted to do what all the Lincoln College theories are. And I said to him, well, I'm very sorry, but what I'm going to tell you is what my granddad taught me and what the head shepherd of Mount Peel station told me. Not what I learnt at Lincoln, but what I learnt at Lincoln was how to think.
Allister And I think that's so important and I agree with that too. That would be my message from a university perspective and I hope universities keep remembering this. Their main purpose in life is to teach people how to think independently and not just rope learn, because actually life gets pretty tough when you think everything is as simple as a rope learned recipe.
John But this is a general comment and it doesn't necessarily apply more outside of agriculture than in agriculture. But we've got into a bit of a psyche now that you're not worth anything unless you've been to university. And that's absolutely not right. You know, the University of Life is far more important. And you don't necessarily have to have that education to actually be successful.
Allister Well, when I look at the consultancy, I mean, that's a part of that, isn't it? Is that you when you have so many clients, you're interacting with them over years, you're absorbing all their experiences as you actually work with them on their farms. It's quite a powerful way of generating experience.
John I guess, I looked at it with 50 clients. You were getting 50 farmer years in a year. So, you know, you do that for three or four years and you've been through.
Allister You've seen a lot.
John Seen a couple of hundred farm years.
Allister So that sort of leads on into your next part of that time. And you mentioned live exports at that stage. You know, New Zealand's probably had quite a strong history of live export in the last 15 years of exports into the Middle East and into China and Asia with dairy exports, basically. But we're not really talking about that in the eighties where we were talking about a different style of live export at that stage.
John It was for breeding. When I was heavily involved and it was basically Carlisle to it, it's to Eastern Europe or to South America. And of course, what you very quickly learn, if you were the exporter is that if you actually just send something off to another part of the world and you don't follow up with actually how do you manage this and what do you do? And how do you feed them and all that sort of stuff. It's not successful. And so I guess that's when I learnt that you just can't transplant something and think it's going to work because you've actually got to support it. And I'm sad to say in a lot of these cases they weren't successful with their importations in South America. They were, you know, because they had a history of sheep farming. But in Eastern Europe and this is Romania and, and Yugoslavia primarily they weren't and it wasn't all that successful. But they were communist countries. And it was it was very, very interesting some of the things that happened.
Allister So just with that. You know, being a New Zealander, trading in in Eastern Europe, for example, you know, like what would be some of the big sort of experiences you took home from of that whole interaction, basically trying to implement genetics from New Zealand, which, you know, we are quite an efficient country we've created pretty strong systems over time and our environment and now we're taking our genetics to another part of the world, like you just say, and trying to transplant things, you know what was the interactions, take home messages from being a New Zealander in that trade?
John Well, I think what you realise is that you've got to keep your messages really simple. You've got a language thing for starters. And you know, often you're working through an interpreter, so you've actually got to be simple enough in your message for the interpreter to understand, because that person's probably not an agricultural person and then you're relying on getting it through. So you really realise that you've really got to be crunchy with your messages. And I often sit even now and, and things when you're in English here in New Zealand or elsewhere and think people just make it too complicated. Yeah, you know, you just got to work out what are the punchy points that people will take away on and remember, because otherwise you just make it too complicated for them and they're not going to do it.
Glenn And I guess the other thing is there must be an appreciation of the cultural aspects of the country selling into that you need to understand, you know, who you're selling to in terms of getting that success.
John Yes. Well, I didn't need to do the sales deals. I used to do all the consolidation, buy the sheep, feedlot them, export them, be over there for the receival. So I didn't actually do the deals because they were government to government time ties. But what I can tell you, there's a glass of water here, but a lot of the meetings in Eastern Europe it would be slipper bitch which is a spirits and you didn't drink it you put it in the pot plants. You weren't any good to anybody. Very different way to approaching things.
Allister Things that actually brings me into the South American one because I've had that bit of advice regarding too many Pisco sours. When you arrive in Chile, for example, you got to keep it pretty aboveboard. But I followed you actually to South America when I first started travelling over there. And so you've had a lot of experience travelling into that world as well. And I suppose that comes back to Glenn's statement before, you know, we have a lot of colleagues in South America. We've had a lot of amazing experiences and great times, but there was a lot to be learned about being New Zealanders working in South America over time, and I think you've probably had vastly more experience than me. So yeah. What were your some of your experiences?
John Well, I think the first thing and I probably should have said that when you asked me about Eastern Europe, but the first thing is you can't transplant something. You've actually got to understand where you are with the latitude and what might work and what might not work. So you just can't plant using transplant in New Zealand. If you actually look at lots of parts of South America, you're actually more transplanting Australia. You know, you transplanting Northern New South Wales. But what you can transplant is the way a Kiwi thinks. And you know, if you roll it back how a Kiwi thing is these are resources I've got and how do I make the best of it? It's the number eight wire behind the twin mentality of people that came out here and settle this country 150 years ago. It's the way we think. But that doesn't mean that what you do here, the outcome of it thinking is what you should do somewhere else. And you go to those places and if you can go once and you can go in the spring and you think, well, why don't I do this? And you think, silly buggers, you know, they should do this. But then you go back at another time and you realise why they don't do it because actually you've missed something. So you've got to be really, really careful that you understand what you're talking about and understand the challenges and before you actually start to dish out. And there's been some big mistakes made where people have, you know, farm systems Uruguay, for example, tried to transplant New Zealand farming systems. And they got it wrong because as I said, we were talking about a climate more like northern New South Wales and the summer heat was the bit we don't have in New Zealand. So you've really, really got to understand what you're dealing with. You know, you get down in the south of Chile. It's very interesting. I know you've been there, been there too, and that 9th and 10th region of Chile, it's very similar to New Zealand. But these are things that that it's not to and, but I think they're it's the people. And I can remember at Lincoln we used to get lectured about the personal fact there is everything, you know, we got told about. Well when you're advising or whatever, you've got to take into account the personal factor. I used to sit there and think this is just a lot of cobswobble. And because I always used to think, well, what I would do if it was me when you saw a situation and then when I got advising, I realised it's everything. Because if you can't get somebody to do it, it won't happen. And that's the same applies to South America. It applies to all technology extinction. You know, if you can't get someone else to see what to do and implement it, well, it won't work. And that's the personal factor. And that's why you have that triangle of adopters and followers and all the rest of it. I know when I was advising the people that were the most fun to deal with were the really good guys that you didn't have to give a recipe because they were smart enough to work out what are the things that you said, you could be more challenging to them because one of the things that you said that they said, Oh yeah, I can pick that up and run with it. And one of the things that you said that said, well, that doesn't apply to me and they could work it out. Whereas if you're working with someone who wasn't as capable, you just dished up a recipe and they did it and they didn't fine tune it for the circumstances and it could be a disaster, you know.
Allister So I mean, I've watched those exact observations unfold in my experience in South America since the mid teens and yeah I've watched amazing progress and grazing management and a whole lot of systems over time occur through all the good people we work with over there. But, you know, it's so obvious that it is actually small steps and they have to get to the same place themselves because they've got staff and different people interacting at different levels. Very, very intelligent environment. They are all trained. You know, my colleagues and our colleagues and the people we work with are all trained to very, very high levels. But the implementation has always been the crunch of bringing different cultures together as people implement things, but based on their resources. And the structure.
John Part of that also in South America is this huge gap between the people who've been educated and are promoting the technologies and the guys on the farm. It's a huge gap.
Allister That's where you bridge that.
John And you've got all this challenge over there where everybody wants to live in the city. So they're not actually on that. They turn up on the farm for a day or two telling the employees what to do, but actually you're not there long enough to know. So there's a gap in their understanding.
Allister And that's really important for us to understand because that's a cultural thing.
John We're very hands on in New Zealand the good thing is our educated people are on the farms. That's why we're such good adopters of technology. That's right. Because the people are they're fine tuning it, not going back to the city and coming out to their farm once a week, you know, to collect the check.
Glenn And it strikes me that a key component of making change on farm or implementing new systems is the ability to look at that, to see what that tweak needs to be. So it's not a recipe. You're just going to go it's actually being able to do something and then interpret what actually the outcome was and how they can optimise that. And it's really important if you just give me the recipe and you just run over and over again, you can't do that.
John And you also have to make sure that they understand the value that it's going to add, because if you can get the farmer to understand the value that it's going to add, he'll work out for himself far better than you will. How he is going to extract that value.
Glenn And that's again, that the idea that you can give some of the answer and they'll work out the rest because you can't actually give the full answer because you don't understand the constraints.
Allister The whole interaction with staff resources. Now I look back on that travel and I actually learned this pretty early on because I spent a lot of time in Australia as well. And I worked out very, very early in the piece that what you always own your self is your personal experiences. IP, a group of expectations. If you're a good at observing all the paths you've walked in life, you've developed expectations, you develop awarenesses of what things should be and how they should look. But you really got to give up all your examples and your personal baggage when you enter other people's worlds. Because all you can bring with you is your expectations about how things should behave. And as I say, they need to be moulded based on your volcanic soils, your acidity, your staff.
John All you're doing, you're just cross-pollinating. So when I was a consultant with 50 farmers, I went round to the different farmers and I transferred ideas one place to another. You know, not always in one direction. You can always learn something from somebody when you actually get offshore and you move around or even when you move around, your transferring ideas your cross-pollinating and then you're letting the marketplace or the individual develop that idea that you've shared with them and to see the work or not. Sometimes it will work and sometimes it won't. And sometimes the things that you think will work don't. Sometimes the things you think that might not be are more successful than you think.
Allister I think it's really important to understand that because, you know, I think it's really the prescriptive and dominating sort of approach to say, you must do this. This is exactly how it's going to work. This is exactly what you need to do to be successful, I think a really strong message, is that cross-pollination is the planting of ideas that really grow based on all the resources that you have individually. And I feel that's a probably a really nice thing.
John You can roll that back to New Zealand. And think about chicory or think about plantain. And you think about when those things were developed probably 30 plus years ago. But more than that and how we thought we would use them and how we're using them now. Yeah, it's quite different. Who would have thought that chicory would be used as a summer feed like brassicas on dairy farms in the North Island. When it was first developed, it was more a story about finishing lambs and then arithmetic properties. In a pasture mix rather than a straight, you know, so the farmers get it and they tell you what works.
Allister Literally it took us over ten years to be brave enough to put plantain as a straight crop literally because it was just one kg in a pasture mix create diversity. So when I look at the evolution of.
John And now we're talking about plantain for a completely different outcome to what we ever thought.
Glenn And I think we'll come on to that later in terms of this technology and one of those ways of thinking is looking at, you know, products that we have now and thinking about different ways to use those. And I think the whole realisation that, you know, these are farm systems and the forages that we put into those are kind of should be seen as solutions to some of the problems and opportunities. When you start thinking about that then we do have some, you know, some really good ideas where we might be able to use some products that we use in one way and use them a completely different way if we're thinking not them as a forage, but as part of a farm system. I just want to go back because I think there's a really lovely story about this cross-pollination of information. And I think it came out of South America where, you know, the farmers looking over the fence to see what his neighbours are doing. And I think that it's a lovely story because there's a couple of aspects of that are really good messages.
John Well I was telling you one day, Al, and in South America and Uruguay, actually the company started a small demonstration area of how you actually should graze pastures with beef animals. And the target was to get to, you know, could you get to a thousand kilograms of meat per hectare? And so all the farmers were watching around about, you know, what these silly fellas were doing. And anyway, it turned out that one of the cattle they said they were doing their trial with was blind or partly blind, and it kept on walking into the electric fences. So they took the lids of the ice cream containers, cut them through to the centre and hung them on the electric fence every wee bit so that the cattle beast could see because it couldn't see the wire. And you know what? The farmers around about started to do the same thing to their fences. They didn't know why. But those crazy guys implementing their technology from New Zealand did that, so it must be part of the solution. So that's what they did.
Glenn So sometimes we don't know what we're doing that, but that's a lovely story. I guess if we move on talking about technology and I guess you probably bring a great perspective to this discussion around the fact that you've been in industry for so long and seen a lot of technology over time that, you know, in terms of different pasture species, what we might put on the outside of seed, some of the different ways we use seed in terms of it would be good to get a perspective on where you see technology has worked and where it hasn't worked and maybe why that's been the case.
John Yes. Well, I guess you go right back to 40 years ago when the government was breeding the public varieties and PBR had just come into play. At the end of the day, in those days, seed companies weren't selling technology, they were just selling seed and all that mattered was what was the purity and what was the germination. That's what they were selling, and I guess I was lucky enough to be around and started Agricom at the time when the world was starting to wake up. But we were starting to wake up and what you're planting and what did it do? And so we're in the world then of 100% lambing and 12 kilo lambs, and it was a barrier. And you know, I can remember Waitaki, which was a meat company, came out and they had what they call these WX lambs and the target was to get to 15 kilos and everybody said well you couldn't get to 15 kilos, it was impossible. Well you know why it was impossible Because our pastures were full of endophyte toxin and the animals wouldn't grow. So we, you know, we actually had to work out. How could you do that? My son told me yesterday we sent lambs to the works and said they average 26.04 kilos. So that was impossible 40 years ago. So we had to understand the problem and then we had to work out what was the technology that we needed to bring through to deal with that problem. And, you know, there was a whole story around animal performance, live weight gain per day on different species and all those sorts of things. So now the world is quite different. Now, seed companies are actually providing solutions, not just yes, the seed has to have the right purity and the germination, but that's not what you're selling, You know, that's a give in. Now you're actually what are the solutions that you can come up with for the problems that the farmer might have or the opportunities.
Allister And I think it really is the context that people probably need to understand is that in the New Zealand landscape from one end of the country to the other was covered in a primary grass, which had a unique and standard endophyte. It was literally a common endophyte from one end of New Zealand to the other, and that common endophyte was full of alkaloids, of which two of them are quite toxic and are quite highly influential on animal performance. So when we were discussing that, you couldn't break these liveweight game barriers. We're discussing summer ill thirft, which was identified in the late seventies, early eighties to be caused by this endophyte. It was only discovered pretty much on your watches as you guys were coming out of university. It pretty much was identified as the problem for this summer ill thrift where lambs and livestock were actually actively losing weight through the summer months.
John And I can remember we did all the trials with the first endophyte that was commercialised and there was nothing wrong with that other than the fact we gave it the wrong name, which was Endosafe, which was probably not how you should have positioned it, because nothing you can ever say is completely safe. But anyway, we were doing these trials with Endosafe and I could remember we had all the different, you know, we had different cultivars with different endophytes in them. And one of the endophytes we had and one of the trials was Ruanui with the old North Canterbury endophyte. You know what? That was so toxic that you couldn't leave these lambs on the trial. You had to take them off because it would kill them. But it was a marvellous endophyte for the persistence of ryegrass but was doing absolutely the wrong thing on farm for animal performance.
Allister Well that was what probably started to emerge as this technology started to develop because you played a major role in being involved in the investment in these technologies over the last 35 almost 40 years. But that really is the issue with those endophytes, is that they are ecotypes. And when breeders go back into the environment to select the biggest, the best looking grasses from the environment back in the day, they literally had the advantage of being highly toxic to the animals that were putting all the stress on them so ecotype breeding in New Zealand became very, very difficult. And actually Samson was one of the last true ecotype genetics that we discussed earlier, where it was selected from over something like between 18 and 23 different sites in New Zealand and brought through.
John It's only the DSI that could have afforded to do that.
Allister Exactly, tricky back in the day. But the reality is if you did that today, you would be going back to plants that animals were literally rejecting, which protected the plant, made them look better and you would be actively selecting against it. And so that was the flaw of the past. And we actually had a stop doing ecotype breeding in New Zealand because of the best plants tend to be the most toxic.
Glenn So as the endophyte stories are really interesting one and given you would say that largely it's been a huge success in terms of shifting pastures from something that we find very difficult to grow animals through to situations now where we've got this great degree of persistency and also animal performance some of the key in terms of success. What do you think some of the key things of that program were in terms of why was that so successful? I guess for me, one of them appears to be that the problem was well defined, that actually people recognised that this was a problem and to move on we needed to fix that.
John So it went through some steps. So the first step, when we recognised that the toxicity of the endophyte was a problem, we went well you need to have endophyte free either tall fescue or ryegrass with no endophyte. Well tall fescue was hard to manage and ryegrass with no endophyte didn't persist except in Southland. So straight away to get the animal performance, you traded off the persistence. So then there's a great economic value story to say, well, if you could get the persistence back, but you got the animal performance as well, then where would you be. So the next thing was AR1, which was soft from an agronomic perspective, but very good from an animal performance perspective. But then what that didn't do, it didn't cope with all the range of pests that we've got in this country. So then we had to get something which I say is a little bit more dirty or a bit more agronomically, robust, which it wasn't perfect for the animals, but was a hell of a lot better than.
Allister The system as a whole.
John Exactly. So, you know, there was a journey you wouldn't have been able to get from where we were to AR37 if you hadn't gone through those steps, because you've got to educate the marketplace. The challenges that how do you find these things? Because basically you're looking for a needle in a haystack. How do you go and find an endophyte that's got the right alkaloid profile. And the exciting thing now and we're investing in this and it's a joint program with MB and AgResearch and so forth. We are investing in a gene editing program with endophytes, which is basically it's called design an endophyte. And that's what it is. You can actually sit there now and knock out a gene and actually get what you want, because I don't think in the new world the next iteration will be able to find these needles in the haystack.
Allister We have mined the landscape quite heavily.
John There's nothing left. There's no gold left there. We're going to have to be smarter about how we how we find it. And of course, at this point in time, this country, one of the few countries in the world that you can't do gene editing. We can't operate. We have got ryegrass plants with these gene edited endophytes growing in Australia. You can do it in Australia. But we can't do it here.
Allister I shall jump in here because I think it's a couple of very different scenarios associated with, you know, investing over time because actually what you invest in today is not what's here today. You're trying to create a future and future opportunities. I would really like to delve into some of the things that we've invested in that haven't really worked to just give some insight. Probably back to give the audience a bit of a vibe about how important tools will be in the future because it shows you how expensive and inefficient traditional systems have been. And, you know, I've been involved with both of the things that haven't worked that you've experienced over time. And that's one of them.
John And one of them was getting loline producing endophytes so they're expressed in the roots of ryegrass. Mainly to combat grass grub and I don't know, we've banged our head against a brick wall for 20 years trying to achieve that by putting a tall fescue endophyte into a ryegrass, which was a challenge in itself, you know. And then we couldn't get the expression in the roots that we wanted. You know, I still think probably in the design of endophyte we may well be able to achieve that one day, but that would be huge for the farming industry in New Zealand.
Allister I'll just define it because just for people that don't understand it. So the key is we have specific ryegrass endophyte that's evolved with it, whether it be Epichloë , and we've got other species of grasses they are historically related to ryegrass and one is tall fescue and the other is meadow fescue they both carry endophytes. Both of them are loline producers, but particularly the meadow fescue produces the lolines which are very animal safe but produces them at high enough concentrations and with its physiology that it actually circulates them in the roots in great concentrations, which means that they are really quite effective against root feeding.
John Grass grub is a root feeder.
Allister Grass grub is a really hard to target insect.
John We're losing a lot of arsenals we have got to deal with grass grub. But at this stage we haven't cracked it. Another one, we haven't cracked. Well we are getting there not quite the way we thought but it was interest specific crosses between white clover and Caucasian clover and trying to actually get better rooting systems. More persistence, really hard to crack that in terms of the science of it, but it's been really hard to crack that in terms of actually getting an effective product. And I can remember one of my partners telling me once, John, we could buy a building in the square in Christchurch for what you've spent with. Well it would have come down with the earthquakes.
Allister Yeah, absolutely.
John For what you've spent on this specific clover. We are actually now starting to crack it a different way with different species other than Caucasian.
Allister Other related species.
John That we're crossing. But again, it's a needle in the haystack story really, because you're actually saying, well. I want to bring genes from another clover plant into white clover. But you've got to cross and get everything. You know, so you start to think there's more precise technologies that a GM that you could actually go and say, Well, that's what I want. Let's put it in here. And again, we can't do that sort of stuff. So if you stand there and say, well, you know, what do we really want to be here? Do we want to actually solve the problems that are out there for the next generation? You know, a lot of these are environmental problems and so forth. Do we want to solve those problems? Well, if we want to solve those problems, give us the tools to do it.
John Because we need more efficient plants. We need more frugal plants. You know, there's a whole lot of things that we need that we're not going to get the old way.
Glenn And I think one of the challenges and the opportunities, as you were saying, the new technology is we'll get there faster.
John A lot faster.
Glenn And I think the other thing is we'll get there and the products will be quite precise and clean. Whereas in the past, you know, we've been dealing with nature and nature is not precise and clean. And so if we looked back on the stuff that hasn't worked and I'd say hasn't worked yet, it looks like.
John The journey has been long, a lot longer than we thought.
Glenn And a point where, you know, the endophytes have worked and we've said the reason they've worked is that the problem's been well defined and we have, you know, worked through a series of steps to get to that end product. It looks like the ones that haven't worked right. The problem's been well defined. What we want is still what we want, but that journey is a little longer and I guess the old adage, if you're going to fail, fail quickly and move on. That's very difficult, actually when we're in a breeding program because ten years is a short time.
John But it's also, you know, and I'm guilty of this when I talk to people because I'm getting a bit old in the tooth now. But someone will say something and you'll say, well, that didn't work, you know, so don't bother. But the bit that you miss is that today there's something else that you can bring to bear on that problem that will make it work, you know? And so that's part of this journey of you've got to remember the environment changes, the tools that you've got to deal with. These things changes and over time we will crack these things. If you've got something else that will make it work. So you discarded it last time, but hey, let's come back here because we've got something else now that applies to farm system that applies to lots of things.
Allister You know what freaks me out at the moment? I think this is a really valid point, is that I think we're seeing so much change occur. And I'm fascinated by your view on this because our technology, what we've just discussed, is two sets of, you know, moderate failures to date are around interest specific crosses with white clover to get true expressions and true differences and also lolines, particularly in ryegrass circulating and roots at high enough levels to be effective against root feeders. Now, those two projects have been going for closing in on 25 years now. And so this is this point is that everything is moving so fast. I have never seen our world and all the circumstances and the need for change to be, you know, driven so quickly. And yet I've just described systems that have taken 25 years to work out that we can't do it with the set of tools and the traditional techniques that we had in those moments. And I sort of put it.
John Interest specific hybrids are there after 25 years, but loline expression we still have a long way to go.
Allister But we have pivoted on those too.
John We have.
Allister And we've looked at different species. And I think just from an audience perspective, you know, what we are discussing is not true GMO, even discussing the roles of technology in the future. Because, for example, remember what I said is that fescue and meadow fescue are actually distantly evolutionary related to ryegrass. So they're close in evolutionary terms. Likewise, when we're discussing white clover with a lot of these triforium are related historically.
John If you can cross them without other techniques, other breeding techniques. Sometimes the crosses are not easy to do, but if you can cross them, you're just making the shandy of all the genes.
Allister But the difference now is doing it with precision and doing it with aims and objectives.
John Going for the ones that you want and not the genes that you don't. But anyway, we can't do that in New Zealand right now. So there are not solutions for us today. So in life you've got to concentrate on the stuff that you can do. Have an eye on what you might want to do in the future, but concentrate on the stuff that you can. There's been a lots of successes. That, you know, we've had, you know, one of the successes and it's not in the Agricom portfolio, I know, but has been Clean Crop brassicas. That's been a huge success. Getting a herbicide tolerant of brassicas. And why is that so important? Because it takes the risk, the winter feed, as you guys know in New Zealand farming systems, especially in the South Island is so important. Your success of the year is often and how good you want to feed crop is. So if you can actually do that properly. And then of course now with all the environmental legislations we've got, the high yield that you can grow on a small area is a lot better for the farmer and also a lot more efficient and the cost per kilogram of dry matter of that feed. So that's been really, really.
Glenn Good example.
John A good example of something that's been really successful.
Glenn From an R&D perspective, I'm taking a slightly different slant on this. Some of the discoveries, you know, we've got these programmes we're working way with sometimes some of these discoveries come from really left field where people are given the opportunity to go and play and do something. How important do you think, you know, having a part of a program that you can just go away and play is.
John I think it's everything. I mean, we've been through a cycle. If you go back years and years ago, I think 40 or 50 years ago, there was a hell of a lot of playing being done and not enough target. And so you think when the Crown got out of its plant breeding investment and said that needs to be done with industry and it needs to be what the market needs and the right signals need to be sent. That was what happened. So then, you know, we got very prescriptive. You know, you need to do this and the marketplace needs to tell you what you want. We know some of the biggest things that have happened. The marketplace would not have been capable of telling the scientists, this is what you need to do. So I say you have to let people play in the sandpit. You have to have an element of prescriptive and you have to have an element of people playing in the sandpit. Sometimes it's the same person that could be 70% of their time prescriptive and 30% sandpit. Sometimes you actually are more successful. The sandpit type of guy will never actually deliver something tomorrow. So they're two different sort of people. But in your whole R&D investment you need to make sure you've got both. It's one of the reasons why as a company we have formed Grasslands Innovations, a joint venture with AgResearch and Forage Innovations, a joint venture with Plant and Food, because in doing that. In our end, the company end we can be a bit more prescriptive about what we want our people to do. And the Crown research institutes can be a bit more visionary in terms of the sandpit of things. Or I often talk about they can be on the other side of the Valley of Death doing the stuff that's got a lot of risk that a private company can't afford to do. And because there's a lot of failures in that stuff. And if a private company tries to cover the cost of the R&D on the things that failed, you just have to charge far too much for the things that don't fail. So you actually there has to be the Crown and the industry. There has to be a mechanism for dealing with that risk. But if you don't take the risk, you won't get the new stuff. You can't recover at all on the products that are successful. There's going to be something that's just written off.
Allister A true investment.
Glenn Yeah. And then there's one other thing and this is probably the bit that makes all this work. So we've got some prescriptive part of the programme. We've got some blue skies or some guys playing in the sandpit as you say, John. And then I think the other bit is you've got these practitioners who understand farming systems. They understand the challenges and can look into the sandpit and give people context.
John That's a really, really good point Glenn and it's one of the things that really worries me in our company today because I've been around when I was in the Agricom days, I was the company, I was A to Z. It I could see it, the farming piece, I could see the R&D piece and I could say, I can make that work. Now, what I worry about in our company is how can the company see from A to Z? Because a lot of cases we haven't got any individual that can actually see from A to Z. You guys are a bit unique in that respect, but you can't see all the way because you don't know everything that's going on inside the R&D tent. You know, you've got a pretty good view here. So what we've got to do in this company, in our company now, we've got to make sure that you can't do it any longer in one person's head. But we have to make sure we've got the forum of the people talking together and working with each other so you can see that's what's there in the sandpit. And that's the problem. And yes, I could make it work because, you know, I go back to AR37 and quite honestly, and I don't want to be smart about this, but if I hadn't said I could make AR37 work, it would not be there today because AgResearch were going to reject it because it had an element of risk. And you know, what I could see is that having something that was not robust enough agronomically was not going to fly. We needed something that was more robust agronomically, and you could trade the risk off. But because I could see A to Z that I hadn't been able to see A to Z we never would have run with it, you know. And so how did we get to A to Z in the new world is it gets more complicated. There's a lot more going on. That's when you've got to mingle people together. You got to have those forums, you've got to discuss it. It's all a lot takes a lot more time. But if you don't do that, you won't actually get the right solutions.
Glenn And I think the challenge here is, you know in the sandpit someone's failure in the right context could be a roaring success. And it actually takes those different contexts. But as you say, you've got to have those people knowing what's there.
John Looking at it through a different lens.
Glenn Absolutely. And I think that's again, when we come to some of the products where we've found a new job for them or a new life for them, it's because someone's recognised that there are some other elements that we haven't considered in some of these products. And we've got a new job and some of those you know, if we're looking into the future, there's some things there that we don't know, we don't know and there's going to be some challenges that come forward. And I guess it's about trying to find solutions for those, you know, trying to pick what we might need because this game is a long game.
Allister It's a very long game.
John And I think we've got to be very careful. I was talking to someone the other day about this, but we've got to be very careful that we're not running yesterday's race, you know, So we've been very successful over the last 20 years, breeding for more drymatter production, breeding for performance on the shoulders of the season. But that might not be what will get us there for tomorrow, you know. So we've got to be really careful. And we've been doing things based on the fact that we can modify the environment with irrigation and fertiliser. Well, I think the opportunities to modify the environment are being diminished. You know, it's a lot harder to put in irrigation schemes and get water and all that sort of stuff. We've actually got to start more to say, what's the environment that we've got? And we all know that's changing too with climate change. But what's the environment that we've got and what are the plants that can cope with that environment and be resilient in that environment? And what are the farming systems that can be built to do that. And they're different systems to absolutely just maximise dry land production they're very different systems.
John Anything from nutritional content to environmental impacts. And with climate change impacting and changing our zones, you know, is a big deal. I think this still comes back because we are in such a long term industry and I still keep coming back to the speed of everything. Everyone will want stuff to change and I still can't help but feel your investments in our businesses, investments in future technologies, particularly offshore, with the hope that New Zealand will recognise that we cannot change anything fast. Fast in our level of industry is between 15 and 20 years. And I just don't think everyone quite gets that to meet the descriptions that you've both been raising. It is a 20 year outcome and anything we can make that a 15 year outcome would be amazing and or even a ten year outcome. But ten year is literally the shortest we can do anything in our industry.
John But the other aspect of that Al is and you've been on the other side of the fence from me on this. But what happens when you fail?
John So, you know, I look at Pyne Gould Guinness, and why did Pyne Gould Guinness buy Agricom? Pyne Gould Guinness bought Agricom because it failed to recognise the importance of the endophyte technology. By the time Pyne Gould Guinness woke up, it was too late and to catch up it had to go and buy another business. And so, you know there's failure to deliver technology in the marketplace. But failure can also mean quite significant things actually have to happen.
Allister Yeah, absolutely.
John With some of the organisations to deal with that.
Glenn So there's a, you know, moving forward. You know, there's going to be a lot of technology that comes to, you know, we become aware of a lot of technology. Give me a couple of things that you look for in terms of working out, whether you think it's a technology that could have some legs and could succeed. What are the things that you look for if someone says here's a great piece of technology?
John Well, I think you have to look at will it provide a solution. You have to understand what are the problems that are out there. And when you're looking for technology, you've always got that framework. What are the problems that you're trying to deal with? Now, remember, I'm not on a farm like I used to be. And I don't understand that I still have reasonable perspective because I am a farmer first and foremost who happened to get into the seed industry. But, you know, you guys who are out on farm every day understand that stuff better. But you got to understand, What are the problems? That's the first thing. And then the second thing is just scan what's going on and could you make that work? And then you've actually got the key thing here the farmer can't be the risk taker. You've actually got to work out a way that if you think you have found something, you've got to work out a way that you can take that risk and show the farmer, here's a package and I've done it not on a bloody five by two metre plot, you know, actually in a farming system, because there's too much risk in farming today to go off chasing on something. Most people don't have the balance sheets to be able to do that, chase something and take that risk. So that's the second piece of it as well. If you think you're so smart that you can work out how to provide the solution, do it yourself first. Before you tell someone else. So again, that delays the journey because you know it might be available, but you can't actually just say do it tomorrow. You've actually got to get two or three years of comfort and you know where I sit I'm not going to be involved in any seed company that takes stuff to market that it hasn't worked out the positioning and the value proposition to the farmer, because that is the farmer is not our research lab. So we've got to take products to the farmer that we know are going to work.
Allister I think that's super important message of the way we've invested both in future technologies but also in our R&D platform, our investment in the Marshdale beef unit, our investment in animal safety testing, which is a huge investment every year, which is very much what our businesses is based on.
John People say, We don't need to do that. But you know, we've been called left field before. And it shouldn't stop with the animal testing at the plot level. There should be some on farm stuff because it could be a different environment that creates a different scenario, we've got to be very careful.
Allister And that's the point is we do appreciate farmers who work with us and take that first step with us too, because many of those first adopters and our very key supporters, you know, they do get a first opportunity to build these systems with us. We've done it both from the arable side with our key arable growing partners have helped us crack different and hard to grow species right through to getting our new products onto farm. And it is a bit of a journey. It is very important though, that we don't unload that risk. And I do think there's elements such as the regenerative Ag discussion, which is actually said no as a farmer, you take all the risk, you walk that path and you work out whether it works for you. So I suppose these things that we have to understand, our role has been to try and provide the greatest level of success, greatest level of confidence. And so sometimes you get differing messages about this in the industry as well, which is quite common.
Glenn One last question for me, John. Let's just have a little peek into the future without being terribly specific. What's one product or project that you think might be something that will be quite influential in the future in terms of the seed industry?
John Okay. Well, this one's GM. It's condensed tannins in white clover. We have now got white clover plants that have got the condensed tannins that will make a huge difference to bloat, but more importantly will make a huge difference to methane emission, like I'm talking 15% type levels and we actually have those white clover plants now planted out under OGTR regulations in Australia. It's really, really exciting if we want to get something that'll make a difference in the environmental piece for animals, it's the one. People talk about it being the Holy Grail. And I don't think that's an exaggeration.
Allister Yeah. I believe in it so much because white clover, as we've discussed in previous discussions, is such an important impact on New Zealand agriculture. And I feel this is the thing about reaching into technology from around the world. There's many others that can multiply it and do it at much greater scale, but that's one that we can do very strongly in New Zealand that has an impact.
Glenn Isn't it interesting you know, it's a point well made here because, you know, we've said in this podcast, maybe in the future we won't be breeding for drymatter yield and we've got this new plant and all aspects of it have got nothing necessarily to do with how well it grows or how much it produces. And so I think it's a really clear message.
John It's what the new world might look like.
Glenn Exactly. And so the ability to control bloat from an animal welfare is if it was just that, it would still be very useful to have this plant.
John But the fact that is it is a lot more than that.
Glenn But the fact that it is also able to reduce methane and then it will also have a very profound effect on the animal as well. All of that, and we haven't even talked about what we used to talk about in the old world as being dry matter production or, you know, some of those agronomic aspects. So I think it's a point well made.
Allister Yeah, absolutely. So I think Juddy we need to wrap it up now and would you like to do a bit of a summary?
Glenn So I guess this has been great having you in John.
John You've both lost your jobs in the process.
Allister Worried about that.
Glenn I think this has been a really unique opportunity because we've had someone who's been in the seed industry, a long time. But you've given us a real flavour of both being within a seed company but also being a consultant, working overseas, working in New Zealand and some of the key aspects of that lead to either success or failure. And I think the nice thing about it from what I can see is that you've learnt from the stuff that hasn't gone so well and probably less likely to happen. And the other nice thing is that, you know, in your day to day job, I think you impart that experience really well. So we don't need to be making the same mistakes that you've made as long as we listen to you. So I think it was really good. I think the other really interesting part about that was the talk of this technology and how we might move forward and in what is the old world and what is looking like the new world and the demands that come from it. So I really enjoyed that trip through that technology session.
Allister That's good Juddy and I would probably only expand on it one more thing and I have a lot of empathy for it. It is the fact that we can develop a lot of experience, but we can't transplant it everywhere. I think there's some really strong messages from your experience in Eastern Europe and South America. And I think that is, you know, we can help the pollination process, we can share, but we can't transplant things in different landscapes. And I feel that's a really strong message as well. And also the investment and the sandpit. I quite like that analogy. Blue sky. You know, we think we have lots of ideas Juddy, but the reality is we don't know what we don't know. And if you don't invest in a portion of your quite significant investment and technologies in blue sky future thinking, thinking for future solutions. And then the big message I took also from that, because it's close to my heart as well, is that you still need to find interaction within your networks so that the right people can see into the sandpit and to see into the blue sky technology because they may not be the same person.
John And the guys in the sandpit can see into the real world on farm.
Allister Yeah. And have those moments as well. So, you know, I really enjoyed that. So I thank you very, very much for joining us today.
Glenn Yeah, well, looks like I've got a CV to tidy up. So I better go. Catch ya later.