Science and solutions developed over the next decade will have a big impact on the future of dairy farming in the Waikato. Reporoa farmer Alan Wills tells Sheryl Brown why farmers should be doing everything they can now to minimise environmental impacts so they can continue to have choices in future.
The 10-year grace period in Waikato Regional Council’s Healthy Rivers Plan Change gives dairy farmers the opportunity to first understand and then make changes to minimise the environmental impact from their businesses.
Doing this will hopefully make the future less painful, Reporoa farmer Alan Wills says.
The Plan Change 1 aims to reduce discharges of nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment and microbial pathogens to improve water quality by 10% of the change required to meet the 80-year targets.
“I’m a really big fan of the 10 years,” the Rotorua/Taupo Federated Farmers chairman says.
“It gives us time to understand what it is all about. Farmers need to embrace it and do their farm environment plans. We need to do our bit by getting on with it. If we do it well enough, it should mean less pain later on.
“There is a real issue for those farming hill country, but people who are dairying on reasonable-contoured land I’m openly encouraging them to get stuck in and do the things identified in their farm environment plans.”
The Waikato Regional Council is empowered by the Government’s National Policy Statement for Fresh Water Management to have a plan in place to at least maintain and where necessary improve water quality, Alan says.
Some aspects of the proposed Healthy Rivers Plan Change definitely need to be reconsidered so that is what the submission process will be all about.
‘Just like the Auckland housing crisis or traffic congestion issues, clean water is not going to happen overnight, but we are trending in the right direction.’
“All we can expect to do is tweak the plan, not change it significantly. We don’t want fast and hard regulation so we all have to do our bit to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
The situation farmers are in is nobody’s fault, Alan says.
“The money was in cows. The expansion of the dairy industry and the impact wasn’t understood by farmers or regional council.”
It’s now known there are certain catchments that are carrying too many cows at the current levels of mitigation, but land-use change is a difficult process and the community has to have patience.
The urban community also has to acknowledge its impact on water quality and address those issues.
“Just like the Auckland housing crisis or traffic congestion issues, clean water is not going to happen overnight, but we are trending in the right direction.
“The last thing I want to do is point fingers at urban people, but I want them to understand that clean water is a collective process. We all have a part to play.”
Farmers have to be proactive to do their part because what the industry doesn’t want is to be regimented by regional council and the community controlling inputs, he says.
“I want a situation where farmers can still farm by choice. The best result would be a future where farmers could still have a choice in how they farm their land and we have water quality trending in the right direction.”
The environmental spotlight is evolving and constantly changing as new research comes to light. Tools such as Overseer, for example, will continue to be developed and updated in the next 10 years and there will be more information available to regional councils as well as the dairy industry.
The real world will be that some of the science could well go against dairy farmers and the industry will have to adjust to come up with more solutions.
It is important for dairy farmers to stay involved in policy and ensure the debates will be around the quality of the science, how that science is interpreted and what is fair going forward, he says.
Alan, together with his wife Alison, converted his family sheep and beef property to dairy in 1982. The 176-hectare milking platform has 10 crossings across the two streams running through the property.
The pumice country is easily eroded, so fencing off waterways to keep stock out became an early priority.
They made a start fencing the streams and drains and began riparian planting on the farm 17 years ago. All of the fencing is done so they now invest $5000-$6000 annually towards riparian planting.
“I was aware we needed to keep stock out of waterways. The pumice country is very easily eroded. I also knew that in some form that this whole environment thing was coming.”
The plantings have been easy to maintain, they get someone in to release the new plantings once a year. The waterways have never needed to be cleaned out and water continues to flow unobstructed.
“I can’t speak for other areas, but the last thing I want in my streams is a digger because of potential erosion.”
It wasn’t a great expense, with three-wire fences and the benefits far outweigh the cost, he says.
One of the big benefits of fencing all the waterways was onfarm health and safety, Alan says.
Years ago before they had everything fenced they had a young veterinarian student working on the farm who drove a quad bike into a drain at 5am. They were all extremely lucky she was not injured or worse, he says.
Five years ago they also embarked on establishing a one-hectare wetland on the farm. The area has always been too wet to be grazed and it made sense.
The benefit of seeing the plantings grow and bird life come back onfarm is another big benefit, Alan says.
When all the wetland and riparian plantings across all the other farms in the Reporoa Valley mature it will create an eco-corridor for bird life between Te Urewera National Park in the east and the Paeroa Range to the west.
“It will be great to see the birdlife come into our plantings.”
In regards to Alan and Alison’s farm environment plan, the big-ticket item still required is a new effluent storage pond on the home farm. They also need to put power to their underpass and pump effluent from there back to the storage pond – about 300 metres.
“We have made a commitment to fix the underpass this autumn and to build the new pond in the next three years.”
Alan and Alison bought their other family dairy farm two years ago from Alan’s mother’s estate and installed a new 600,000-litre Tasman Tank along with a new sediment trap and pump system.
“We irrigate effluent on about a third of both farms, on the lighter country so we can irrigate at any time of the year if you use your common sense.”
The other project they need to complete is building, where necessary sediment traps close to the 10 stock crossings on the farms.
“We will need to re-contour the approaches to the crossings so the rainwater collected from the races is diverted into the paddocks or to the sediment traps.”
The stocking rate is 2.7 cows/ha, Alan says.
“I’m comfortable that we are farming sustainably.”
They dress both farms with up 120kg N/ha/year.
“We put most of it on ourselves at low rates with our own fertiliser spreader.”
They’ve also got to update the cooling systems at both farm dairies this year which is an example of how farmers need to plan and budget in their environmental commitments because there is always something else to spend money on.
Having a lower debt/equity ratio is important so farmers have the flexibility to make infrastructure upgrades or put environmental mitigations in place when they need to. However he is well aware that because of their gearing many farmers don’t have that stretch so for farmers to continue to farm profitably and sustainably in the future, there is going to be even more emphasis on the farm gate returns, he says.
“A lot of these things can’t be done at a $5/kg MS payout. We need to be performing as an industry a little bit better payout-wise.”
Their son Hamish and partner Tracey have returned to the farm after running their own building business in Rotorua.
With Alan spending more time off farm with his role as chairman of Rotorua/Taupo Federated Farmers and other interests, having Hamish back onfarm will be vital, he says.
“Nothing is static these days so a hands-on driver with skin in the game is so important.”
Alan and Alison have started putting together a succession plan with Hamish and their three daughters, Emma, Jessica and Madeline. Emma and Jessica are both involved with their husbands in businesses in Rotorua, while Madeline, whose husband is a boat builder, works for Fonterra in Tauranga.
“We have a young fourth generation on this farm now. What we do going forward will be how the family want to approach it.”
Owner: Alan and Alison Wills
Palm kernel: 0.5t/cow
Crops grown on farms: 22ha turnips
Runoff: 60ha effective
Supplement made on farms: 80t grass silage
Supplement made on runoff: 450t grass silage (200t brought home to farms)
Finances below for both farm operations:
Farm working expenses (2014/15): $3.64/kg milksolid (MS)
Operating expenses: $4796/ha
Debt/equity ratio: (coming) 39.7%