Waikato dairy farmers who reduced their environmental footprint by cutting herd numbers and spending tens of thousands of dollars on infrastructure are being penalised by new planning regulations, says Alison Dewes, dairy farmer, veterinarian, and sustainable agriculture consultant.
“These leading farmers have been penalised by the Waikato Regional Council’s Plan Change 1 in a number of ways. They have been ‘grandparented’ a nitrogen reference point that is lower than the average, because they lowered their footprint ahead of time, and ahead of the industry trend,” she says.
Under Plan Change 1, which has been notified and is to be the subject of hearings later this year, all farm enterprises in the Upper Waikato will have limits imposed on the amount of nitrogen they can leach, based on figures produced by the Overseer programme in the year 2014-2016.
“Unfortunately those innovative farmers, trying to do the right thing, who consciously lowered their nitrogen leaching, greenhouse gas emission and environmental footprint, are now penalised under Plan Change 1.”
The grandparenting of nutrient loss rights using Overseer favours intensive, leakier farm systems in high milk price years, says Alison.
That’s because the limits set by council mean farmers with low leaching levels can’t increase stocking rates or change their land use for livestock farming.
These leading farmers who have taken steps to farm in environmentally sustainable ways, says Alison, are in the same situation as sheep and beef farmers who are also hit by the grandparenting rules.
However, farmers who haven’t attempted to improve their environmental impacts will benefit under the rules. “In August 2017, only two per cent of all farms monitored by the Waikato Regional Council were deemed fully compliant to a high level.
“It’s a sad message to good farmers and those that have tried to show leadership in the industry. One does not get rewarded for it; instead the present system of grandparenting of nutrient loss rights using Overseer that favour intensive and leaking systems and coupled with a low level of enforcement by regional authorities, means that leadership in farming is penalised rather than encouraged.
“The message of rewarding poor compliance, higher emission farming and taking your time to change, is the wrong message for our agricultural industry right now.
“Agricultural leadership needs to come from within the industry and from the ground up. There are lots of questions being asked about leadership right now. The real agricultural leaders for the 21st century will be the ones that have done the right thing – just because it was the right thing to do.”
Among those leaders are farmers who were part of ‘Tomorrow’s farms Today’ group that Alison studied in the upper Waikato between 2010 and 2014. They were farmers seeking to understand what farming systems had a lighter footprint on water, climate, people and animals.
“Twenty-five farmers exposed all their financial and environmental data annually in a four-year project. At the end of the project, they were all clear what was the most profitable, lowest footprint systems.
“Many in this group destocked by 15 to 30 per cent in some cases, prior to the milk price drop in 2014 and fared reasonably well during that difficult period as they had fewer, more efficient cows, with similar profitability.
“Other farmers we have worked with also wanted to do the right thing. They put in sheltered stand-off areas, reduced cow numbers, adjusted their systems and also upgraded their effluent systems, in some cases to the tune of $300,000 to $400,000 per farm.”
The practice of grandparenting (rewarding the highest leaching farmers) for allocation is likely to be challenged, and a more equitable allocation system sought.
“Change is coming, including in the form of increased public scrutiny and pending pressures from climate change, nutrient restrictions, consumer perceptions and increasing demand for transparent and ethical behaviours.”