Dairy farmers are voluntarily making huge progress fencing and planting waterways

Gareth MorganEnvironment

Fonterra’s 2014 Annual Report makes for impressive reading when it comes to water quality. Dairy farmers are voluntarily making huge progress fencing and planting waterways, and ensuring that when stock have to cross rivers, they do so on a bridge.

In coming weeks we will be shining a spotlight on the impact of poos and wees – both human and animal sourced – on our rivers. Before we start it is worth acknowledging the good work that is happening on our farms. In this blog we’ll look at what dairy farmers have achieved, why the Government has promised to regulate regardless, and what Fonterra has planned for the future. We’ll start by looking at why fencing and planting our waterways is so important, particularly if you want to swim in waterways.

Why is fencing and planting important?

Keeping stock out of rivers is crucial because it stops cows from pooing directly in the river. This is water quality improvement 101 – an obvious first step. This ultimately reduces the amount of bacteria in a river, bacteria that can make a person sick if they swallow or come into contact with the water. Reducing bacteria levels in our rivers is a major part of ensuring our rivers are swimmable.

After a big rainfall, poo left on the land can get carried to the river by the floodwater. This is why you don’t want to swim in most rivers after a big downpour as bacteria levels go through the roof (and as we will see in coming blogs, it isn’t just cow poo causing the problem!). The ideal is that the fenced area next to the river (known as a riparian margin) is big enough so that the long grass or other plants there can slow the flow of water into the waterways. Meanwhile the plants can act as a filter for the poo, allowing the bacteria time to oxidise before it reaches the waterway. This is similar to what happens in a sewage treatment pond before it gets discharged – the nutrients still end up in the water but at least the bacteria are reduced.

We will look more at the science of poos and wees in our waterways in coming blogs.

What has Fonterra achieved?

Thus far 95% (23,300km) of Fonterra defined waterways have full stock exclusion. That usually means the waterway is permanently fenced, but fences are not always the answer. Take for example the braided riverbeds in the South Island, where floods are a regular occurrence – fencing and planting riverbanks might not be appropriate but regardless stock have to be kept out of the river. Where stock have to cross a stream, 99% of regular stock crossing points have bridges or culverts installed.

Those of you trained to be skeptical will probably wonder how a ‘waterway’ or ‘regular stock crossing’ are defined. You might be surprised to know that Fonterra have defined it pretty tightly:

A waterway is “a lake, spring, river or stream (including streams that have been artificially straightened) that permanently contains water”. So what constitutes a stream? It has to be “deeper than 30cm and wider than one metre” – a reasonable criteria. A regular stock crossing is any waterway “subject to more than once “there and back” stock crossing every month”.

In other words, it is all pretty straight forward, not a great deal of room for fudging. It doesn’t look at all like Fonterra’s claims are greenwash.

On top of this, another 9,000 km of smaller streams and wetlands have also been fenced – those that fall outside the deal in the Sustainable Dairy Water Accord. These might be temporary streams such as we saw when we interviewed Dave Stewart from the Manawatu. Hopefully this number will continue to grow.

That is not to say that all in the garden is rosy – New Zealand has water quality issues and dairy farms are one of the contributors to that. As we saw in our review of the Government’s water policy, the increased intensification of farming is causing issues in some areas. This is usually because of the sheer amount of nitrogen being peed onto the ground by cows, and ending up in our waterways. This problem is not resolved by fencing waterways. However, we should acknowledge this for the huge achievement that it is – a great example of voluntary corporate action on behalf of the environment.

Why was Government regulation needed?

During the election campaign, National announced that it would be mandatory for dairy farmers to keep stock out of waterways from July 2017 onwards, a month after Fonterra’s deadline for its suppliers. The policy was met with some derision by environmentalists and farmers alike (about the only thing these two groups agreed on in the election campaign), because farmers are already doing it. Some farmers felt that by legislating on the issue, National were sending the message that the Sustainable Dairy Water Accord has failed, when it hasn’t.

It is true that the legislation won’t achieve much in terms of more dairy farmers actually fencing their waterways. But this isn’t unusual for regulation – it really is there to back up what most good businesses do as a matter of course. The useful part of this regulation is that not all dairy farmers are suppliers to Fonterra. Potentially smaller dairy companies could have a cost advantage through their farmers not meeting this standard. Regulation removes that possibility.

What else do Fonterra have planned?

Action won’t end with fencing off waterways, there is plenty more to come. Fonterra ensures that all supplier farms receive an independent environmental farm audit every year, which helps them reduce the impact of farming on carbon emissions and water.

Under the Sustainable Dairy Water Accord half of dairy farms with waterways will have a riparian management plan (a plan for planting the areas beside waterways) by 31 May 2016, and all of them by 31 May 2020. During the election campaign the Green Party wanted to shunt this along – ensuring that farmers had riparian planting in place by 2017. Their concern was that some dairy farmers are simply fencing off waterways without enough space for planting.

Fonterra are also investing $20m over 10 years working with farmers, communities and the Department of Conservation in 5 key catchments where water quality is under severe threat: Kaipara Harbour, Tikipa Moana/ Firth of Thames, Waikato Peat Lakes, Te Waihora/ Lake Ellesmere and Awarua/ Waituna Lagoon.

Why is voluntary action a big deal?

A visiting water quality specialist from Spain was surprised to hear about Fonterra voluntarily working to improve water quality. She explained why: in her region of Spain (Osona), pig farmers create twice as much nitrogen as the land can handle, and the rest ends up in the rivers. The government has tried to help by building sewage treatment plants for the pig farmers to use, but since the global financial crisis they (the government) can’t afford to run them, so the raw sewage has gone back on the land. Even though there are water quality problems – in some areas drinking water is even being affected by high levels of bacteria and nitrogen – the farmers there are refusing to take action.

In coming weeks we will be shining a spotlight on the impact of poos and wees – both human and animal sourced – on our rivers. But before we embark on this journey it makes sense to start with acknowledging the good work that is already taking place by our dairy farmers. Some might argue that this is too little too late, but remember this is a positive voluntary action, so deserves credit.

Dairy farmers are voluntarily making huge progress fencing and planting waterways was last modified: December 15th, 2015 by Gareth Morgan
About the Author

Gareth Morgan

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Gareth Morgan is a New Zealand economist and commentator on public policy who in previous lives has been in business as an economic consultant, funds manager, and professional company director. He is also a motorcycle adventurer and philanthropist. Gareth and his wife Joanne have a charitable foundation, the Morgan Foundation, which has three main stands of philanthropic endeavour – public interest research, conservation and social investment.