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Published: 2008-02-14 00:00:00

New research into how the trampling of wet pasture by cattle affects carbon loss in the soil has earned University of Waikato student Paul Mudge the $5000 Dr Stella Frances scholarship.

The award, jointly sponsored by Environment Waikato and the Department of Conservation (DOC), was presented at the regional council’s Environment Committee meeting in Hamilton today.  It was created as a tribute to Dr Stella Frances, a former Waikato regional councillor and DOC conservator, who died in 2003.

Mr Mudge, who comes from a farming background, is currently completing a thesis on how cattle pugging affects carbon levels in pasture soil.

Environment Committee chair Jane Hennebry said Mr Mudge had touched on an “innovative topic that had caught the eye of the judges”.
 
“Carbon is an essential part of pasture soil which makes Paul’s investigation into the affect of cattle pugging so beneficial,” she said.

Mr Mudge said carbon was important for soil quality and structure, acting as the glue that held soil particles together in clumps called aggregates.

However, large amounts of carbon had been lost from some New Zealand pasture soils over the past 20 years.

We don't know what has caused these losses, but it’s most likely that something has upset the balance between carbon inputs to the soil via photosynthesis (fixing CO2) and outputs via plant root and microbial respiration (releasing CO2),” he said.

“Cattle pugging could be one possible mechanism contributing to the carbon loss, because physical disturbance of soil tends to destroy soil aggregates, exposing previously protected carbon to microbes.  These microbes consume the carbon and it is lost to the atmosphere as CO2.

“The main objective of my research is to test the hypothesis that severe dairy cattle pugging will increase CO2 emissions from soil and decrease photosynthetic inputs, thus causing a decrease in soil carbon content.

“I hope it will help farmers retain pasture productivity and environmental sustainability.”

DOC Waikato Conservator Greg Martin said Mr Mudge’s research was of particular interest to the department, which was moving towards carbon neutrality.

“Increasing our knowledge of how much carbon is lost and, especially, how it is lost, is extremely relevant to both Environment Waikato and DOC,” he said.

Waikato Conservation Board chair Philip Hart, who presented the scholarship to Mr Mudge, said the award kept alive the memory of the late Dr Stella Frances, a “very fine conservationist”, and had helped with important research projects.

“Students need money and support and there’s a lot of research going on that, without things like this, simply wouldn’t be done,” he said.

Mr Mudge said although receiving the Dr Stella Frances scholarship hadn’t affected his goals for the future it had brought them closer and made them more achievable.