We Are Not Anti Dairy

Gareth MorganEnvironment

A common reaction to our clean rivers initiative is that we are anti-dairy farming. This is completely untrue.

The truth is that many dairy farmers, with a little cajoling from Fonterra and Dairy NZ, are doing a lot to improve water quality. The vast majority of farmers now control their shed effluent, leaving only a small rump of offenders that give the whole industry a bad name. Many are also fencing and planting their riverbanks. This great work is probably the source of the improving trends in phosphorus and E. coli we have seen in some rivers in recent years.

For many farmers the poster child of ‘dirty dairy’ – cow shit in the river – is a thing of the past. If farmers transgress this (by discharging effluent or letting their cows stray into waterways), they risk Fonterra refusing to pick up their milk. In theory anyway – we are yet to see Fonterra resort to this ultimate sanction.

The cows and steers spotted in rivers nowadays are either those on beef farms (some of which are used to winter dairy cows – a big loophole in the rules) or from that small rump of dairy farmers that Fonterra is yet to bring to heel.

[quote pull=”Right”]We can’t eliminate the impact of farming on the environment, but if we are smart we can reduce it and continue to grow our economy.[/quote]

That said, there are still issues with intensive farming such as dairy. The main one is the sheer number of cattle peeing on the land. The soil can’t soak up the nitrogen, so it ends up in the groundwater and (eventually) the streams. Nitrogen in water can contribute to the growth of algae, which makes things difficult for critters living in the stream, and can make swimming unpleasant. This isn’t a problem caused by any one farmer, it is simply down to the sheer number of cows in a catchment.

There are ways to reduce the impact of farming on water quality, sometimes with little or no cost. Using nutrients more efficiently can improve profit and help the environment at the same time. Nutrients are valuable to farmers – they help grow grass. So letting nutrients leach into rivers is literally letting money go down the drain. Smart farmers have realised this and are doing everything they can to reduce the amount of nutrient loss. Improved management practices are reducing nutrient leaching and saving farmers’ money. There is more scope for improvement.

With the substantial rise in the price of milk solids, revenue and even profits from more intensive farming have been stellar. However, increased intensity of farming greatly increases the potential for nutrient loss, and environmental damage, which only careful management and mitigation strategies can address. The challenge is to limit that damage while still allowing for growth.

Setting limits to pollution in every catchment can help farmers achieve this. Farmers that want to increase production will have to find ways to operate more efficiently, or offset any damage by making improvements elsewhere in the catchment. For example dairy farmers could help their cousins in the sheep and beef industry fence and plant their riverbanks. We can’t eliminate the impact of farming on the environment, but if we are smart we can reduce it and continue to grow our economy.

Intensive farming is still possible even with nutrient limits, but farmers would have to invest in ways to mitigate their impact. For example, stand-off pads to collect effluent while cattle are resting.

New Zealand has a huge opportunity to be the world leader on this issue. Not only could we protect our ‘100% Pure’ image and reputation for high quality food, but we have an opportunity to find innovative ways to farm sustainably. Our farmers led the world in phasing out subsidies, we could do the same again with farming in a manner that doesn’t wreck water quality.

We are not anti-dairy. It is after all a major part of our economy. We just think that growth doesn’t have to come at the expense of the environment.


We Are Not Anti Dairy 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.