Vision for enviro-friendly dairying

By 2025 New Zealand could have a dairy industry that’s emitting 25 per cent less greenhouse gases, 40 per cent fewer pathogens and nitrogen, and earning 60-100 per cent more profit.

This is the hope held by veterinarian and agri-ecology consultant Dr Alison Dewes, and she gave delegates at a recent seminar sponsored by Sollus NZ an insight to the challenges the industry faces in achieving that.

Veterinarian and agri-ecology consultant Dr Alison Dewes.

In 10 years’ time dairying could be an industry that prides itself on being the “farmers’ market for the global village,” she believes.

Drawing upon her experience as a farmer, veterinarian and consultant acting as an expert witness for regional councils, Alison says the dairy industry has to ask itself how much more it can intensify.

She points to predictions that schemes including the Central Plains Water irrigation scheme in Canterbury would result in a 29 per cent increase in nitrogen in waterways. Thirty per cent of the region’s shallow wells have already experienced an increase in nitrogen and pathogen levels within 10-15 years of irrigation on shallow lighter soils.

“And out of 99 sites monitored in Canterbury, 42 per cent show the presence of faecal material and are classed as risky for swimming.”

However, Alison also cautions there is risk things will get worse before they get better.

A proposed government review of water quality standards predicts the “bottom line” level of coliform in water increase 400 per cent.

New conversions

There is also growing conflict between established long-term farmers in the Waikato, who may have to reduce their nitrogen losses by 30 per cent where thousands of hectares of new pine to dairy conversions continue to occur.

This is to counter the additional 30,000ha of converted land that’s come on stream in the last few years – and that’s in addition to the 29,000ha converted between 2003-2012.

Alison says farmers are receiving mixed messages from government and councils on how to manage nitrogen reductions. As the subject of NZ’s first nutrient mitigation scheme, Lake Taupo used ‘grand-parenting’ of rights to nitrogen losses. But this is a very defined catchment.

“And such an approach tends to reward polluters, and penalise innovators. It is not a fair way to allocate polluter rights, and regional councils are weak at enforcing them.”

Alison urges farmers to push harder for greater investment in Overseer, the only tool available at present capable of calculating nutrient losses.

“Given our national reliance upon it, the reality is it needs significant investment and increased transparency as to how it works, now.”

Promising signs

Some regions are showing promising signs in developing realistic means of managing nutrient losses. This includes the Hawke’s Bay region using land use classification for determining acceptable nutrient losses within a farm’s boundaries.

Given how hard much of lowland NZ’s pastoral systems are already working, Alison challenges Fonterra’s CEO who maintains the country has the potential to continue expanding during the next decade.

Theo Spierings stated in October 2014 that 60 per cent of expansion was based on conversions and more cows, 40 per cent was on more productivity. He disagreed with Environment Commissioners comments that more dairying means a drop in water quality, and believed NZ dairying could grow for the next 10 years by two to three per cent a year.

Alison anticipates future efficiency measurements are likely to see farm production measured in kilograms of milk solids per hectare versus kilograms of nitrogen leached.

She has worked with farmers achieving a six to eight per cent return on investment who are only losing 20-25kg nitrogen per hectare, against the Waikato average of 40kg/ha.

“We have a lot of farm systems running 20 per cent or more cows than optimal. This meant the average 350-cow dairy farm could lose 80-100 cows immediately.

“But this will be unique for each farm, so needs considered marginal analysis that balances resources, capability and cows.”

Natural capability

“We are starting to see two herds develop on farms, a marginal herd – where costs to run those cows costs more than they return, and a profitable herd that is sustained by the natural capability of the system.”

Changes to make NZ dairying the first stop for higher value boutique consumers would revolve around a lower intensity system.

“It is likely we will see more varied forages, including assorted herbs and grass alternatives to rye, enhancing more productive/profitable cows in an optimal state of wellbeing to ensure more milk from less.

“We could also have more calves reared for alternative revenue, less support land required, unproductive land retired, coupled with ‘closed loop’ nutrient cycles, coupled with pathogen (bug) loads intercepted before they reach waterways,” says Alison.


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