The Waikato region has the highest number of dairy farms in New Zealand. It also has the largest number of dairy cattle – 1.9 million animals – one of the largest concentrations in the world!
Dairy is New Zealand’s largest export sector, producing $17 billion of revenue. Stats NZ reports that, from 1995 to 2017, there was a 70% increase in dairy cattle. Increases in herd numbers also come with an increased environmental footprint. Historically, the dairy industry has had significant impacts on water quality. The industry recognises the crucial role it plays in protecting waterways and has implemented initiatives to improve or maintain water quality.
The dairy industry launched the national Sustainable Dairying: Water Accord in 2013. Over 11,000 farmers are part of the voluntary accord, as are dairy companies, DairyNZ and supporting industry partners. The accord includes measures for:
- mandatory stock exclusion – fencing must exclude dairy cattle from permanent waterways over 1 m wide and 30 cm deep, all lakes and wetlands of regional significance
- mandatory stock crossings – all points on waterways where stock make regular crossings must be bridged or culverted
- riparian planting – all farms are to prepare a riparian management plan, with planting completed by 2030
- nutrient management – farms must provide annual information that will allow their dairy companies to model nitrogen losses and commit to enhancing nitrogen management performances when necessary
- effluent management – all effluent systems must be capable of meeting resource consent and/or regional council rules 365 days per year
- water use – all farms must comply with regional rules controlling water takes. By 2020, it is expected that 85% of farms will have water meters.
DairyNZ reports that, 5 years after its launch, the accord has achieved significant results including fencing off 98.3% of permanent waterways (24,249 km), and 100% of regular stock crossings are now bridged or culverted. There are still areas that need to be addressed. For example, in the Waikato region, a small percentage of farms have significant non-compliance issues regarding effluent systems.
Waikato Regional Council provides education and outreach to assist farmers to comply with resource consents and effluent regulations. The council has a farm services team that inspects farms, with inspections often focused on high-risk farms. Farmers who breach their resource consents can be charged under the Resource Management Act.
For many farmers, looking after the environment goes beyond meeting mandatory compliance issues. Waikato dairy farmers Rod and Sandra McKinnon are leading by example. They have transformed their dairy farm over the years. The farm’s initial appeal included a stream and a bit of native bush. When they lost their favourite cow in a boggy part of the farm, the couple decided that things needed to change. They fenced off the swampy areas and other parts of the farm – the riparian areas along the stream and areas of native bush in the less-accessible areas. Riparian planting has helped curb stream bank erosion and encouraged wildlife to return to the area.
Rod and Sandra have a ‘less is more’ mentality. They have fewer cows but feed them well so the cows produce more milk. Rod’s breeding strategy is for medium-sized, high-producing cows.
Their custom-designed effluent system is capable of storing water for up to 100 days. This capacity allows for the recycling of green water to wash the feed pad when needed and for targeted irrigation. The McKinnons irrigate their land when growing conditions require it rather than to empty the effluent pond.
DairyNZ has information on some of the things that can be done on the farm to improve water use and/or maintain waterbodies and wetlands.
DairyNZ’s guides on planting waterways have advice on riparian planting, including regional guides to enable people to put the right plants in the right places.
Stats NZ has information about livestock numbers and why knowing the numbers is important.
The Vision is Clear has a series of stories on how farmers and community groups are working to clean up New Zealand waterways.
This article has been developed in partnership with the Waikato Regional Council as part of the Rivers and Us resource.