Farm­ing our fu­ture

Element - - Planet - By Andy Ken­wor­thy

If eco­log­i­cal sus­tain­abil­ity is to be­come a re­al­ity for New Zealand, it has to hap­pen on our farms. Many farm­ers are al­ready cham­pi­oning this cause, in­vest­ing heav­ily in their nat­u­ral cap­i­tal and us­ing in­no­va­tive new fi­nance op­tions to sup­port that in­vest­ment.

Tucked away in some of the most peace­ful cor­ners of our na­tion, a quiet rev­o­lu­tion is un­der way. A new wave of Kiwi farm­ing pi­o­neers are do­ing the hard yards and ap­ply­ing the lat­est in­no­va­tions to im­prove agri­cul­tural sus­tain­abil­ity. It’s the chal­lenge of a gen­er­a­tion, vi­tal to main­tain our prime po­si­tion in world food mar­kets and to main­tain the land­scapes that cre­ate a big chunk of this coun­try’s wealth. In the finest tra­di­tions of Kiwi farm­ing, they are do­ing most of this on their own, but where there are tools avail­able to help, they are putting them to good use.

One new tool is ASB’s Ru­ral En­vi­ron­men­tal Com­pli­ance Loan. The fee-free loan of­fers up $200,000 for up to five years, at the bank’s min­i­mum costs for pro­vid­ing it, with­out tak­ing a profit. As I write that rate is 3.86 per cent. As the name im­plies, the loans are in­tended to help farm­ers meet lo­cal coun­cil en­vi­ron­men­tal by-laws, but are al­ready go­ing much fur­ther than that. The bank is also look­ing favourably on ap­pli­ca­tions to help fund a wide range of dis­cre­tionary projects that en­hance the farm­ing en­vi­ron­ment and as­sist agri­cul­tural busi­nesses at the same time.

Mark Heer, ASB gen­eral man­ager of ru­ral bank­ing, ex­plains: “We felt there was a lot of great work be­ing done by farm­ers that wasn’t be­ing high­lighted. We wanted to sup­port the ex­pan­sion of this con­ver­sa­tion on sus­tain­abil­ity, and this was some­thing we, as a bank, could do.”

Kevin Fer­ris has taken ef­flu­ent con­trol an­other step fur­ther on his 120-hectare prop­erty near Te Awa­mutu, where he cur­rently milks 440 cows and pro­duces 165,000kg of milk solids a year. The unique new sys­tem can man­age al­most dou­ble the farm’s cur­rent re­quire­ments, ready for it to han­dle the next few decades. It in­cludes a num­ber of unique drop­per stir­rers lo­cated at vary­ing depths in the pond that are ro­tated by a cen­tre pivot and wheel around the cir­cum­fer­ence of the pond edge. It largely runs it­self, re­quir­ing lit­tle in­put from staff, which re­duces the work­load dur­ing peak times, and it in­cludes pro­tec­tion de­vices that mean ef­flu­ent can’t be dis­charged if fields are al­ready wa­ter­logged or sat­u­rated.

“It comes down to cap­i­tal costs,” says Kevin. “The larger the stor­age you have the less it is cost­ing you per cu­bic me­tre, and you don’t want to keep spend­ing ev­ery three to five years. The ASB loan has made a tremen­dous dif­fer­ence. It helped us make the de­ci­sion to do things this way, and I am sure it is help­ing peo­ple to put in sys­tems where they oth­er­wise wouldn’t have.”

Kevin, who has pre­vi­ously sat on the board of Dairy NZ, also hopes that this kind of long-term think­ing will spread fur­ther across the in­dus­try, and be re­flected in the con­sent­ing and sign-off pro­cesses with coun­cils.

“It would be good to have that ad­di­tional se­cu­rity when you make an in­vest­ment,” he ex­plains.

The Ben­netts of Mata­mata are one farm­ing fam­ily grab­bing this op­por­tu­nity by the horns. With 20 years ex­pe­ri­ence on their cur­rent 280 hectare site and about 1,200 dairy cows, they were look­ing at wet-weather hous­ing for around 250 cows on an­other nearby farm so that they could also in­clude sup­ple­men­tary feeds. A pur­pose built ‘Herd Home’ shel­ter al­lows good com­fort for the an­i­mals. It also drains the ef­flu­ent through floor slats so that it aer­ates un­derneath to form a dry ma­te­rial that can be re­moved once a year by trac­tor for spread­ing on the fields. The Ben­netts have in­creased this ca­pac­ity, so that it takes in ef­flu­ent from the nearby milk­ing shed. This rad­i­cally re­duces the run-off, wa­ter use and po­ten­tial pol­lu­tion caused by tra­di­tional hard stand­ing ar­eas that have to be reg­u­larly cleared and washed down.

David Ben­nett said: “We wanted to do the job a bit bet­ter and be more sus­tain­able, it was some­thing that we looked at on other farms. If this one works well we will be look­ing to build an­other one.”

“The ASB loan has made a tremen­dous dif­fer­ence. It helped us make the de­ci­sion to do things this way, and I am sure it is help­ing peo­ple to put in sys­tems where they oth­er­wise wouldn’t have.”

Ti­rau Dairy Goat is an ex­am­ple of how many forwardthinking farm­ers are giv­ing whole farms a sus­tain­abil­ity makeover. Riemer Loon­stra and Kylie Van Bys­ter­veldt are clean­ing up swampy wet­lands to pre­serve and pro­tect the nat­u­ral springs and wa­ter­falls that are an ex­tremely at­trac­tive fea­ture of their new prop­erty on the shores of Lake Kara­piro.

“Sus­tain­abil­ity is a big part in what we are do­ing here,” says Riemer. “The land we are on is right up against the lake. It’s a beau­ti­ful area of the coun­try and we re­ally want to pre­serve that.”

Still in their first year on the 30-hectare prop­erty af­ter gain­ing six years’ goat farm­ing ex­pe­ri­ence else­where, they are cur­rently milk­ing about 470 goats. The plan is to plant and fence the nat­u­ral water­ways and keep graz­ing stock from en­ter­ing ponds and erod­ing the banks. They also plan to get the wa­ter wheel back up and run­ning, and use it to pump wa­ter back to the milk­ing shed. Al­ready they are col­lect­ing rain­wa­ter from the roofs as drink­ing wa­ter for the stock and to wash down the build­ings, partly as a buf­fer against pos­si­ble fu­ture lim­its on ground­wa­ter ex­trac­tion.

“Ours is a housed farm­ing sys­tem,” Riemer ex­plains. “They don’t al­ways have the best rep­u­ta­tion, but it can still be done prop­erly and be sus­tain­able for the fu­ture.”

Ross and Lou Har­ring­ton are us­ing the ASB loan scheme to com­plete the task of fenc­ing off the seven kilo­me­tres of river run­ning through their farm in Bide­ford, 20 kilo­me­tres north east of Master­ton. The cou­ple have worked the 860-hectare prop­erty for 11 years, and now have about 6500 sheep and 350 cat­tle.

“It’s pretty im­por­tant, and it’s work we were go­ing to have to do sooner or later,” says Ross. “Stock in the water­ways is not ideal, and we like to do our bit.”

The cou­ple also have plans for more tree plant­ing and shel­ter­belts around the farm in the near fu­ture.

“The work is on­go­ing,” says Ross. Brother and sis­ter Shayne and Char­maine O’Shea won this year’s North­land Supreme Award in the Bal­lance Farm En­vi­ron­ment Awards for the ex­cep­tional man­age­ment of their im­mac­u­late show­case dairy farm near Whangarei. Theirs is a busi­ness ap­proach that in­cludes a very high stan­dard of fenc­ing to ex­clude stock from water­ways, and ex­ten­sive plant­ing of ri­par­ian ar­eas with flaxes, poplars, manuka, cab­bage trees and wil­lows. Their vi­sion state­ment is to op­er­ate a fi­nan­cially, en­vi­ron­men­tally, and so­cially sus­tain­able busi­ness, where ev­ery day is show-day.

There is also an ex­cel­lent three-pond ef­flu­ent man­age­ment sys­tem, where wa­ter from the sec­ond pond is re­cy­cled for clean­ing the feed pad. A new land ap­pli­ca­tion and retic­u­la­tion sys­tem has also been in­stalled, and al­though the farm has con­sent to dis­charge into a lo­cal wa­ter­way the O’Sheas go to great lengths not to do so.

Their over­all strat­egy has re­sulted in a stock­ing rate at 50 per cent higher than the area aver­age, and the kg/milk solids per hectare at 85 per cent above the area aver­age – 1698kgMS/ha in the 2011/12 sea­son.

Shayne says: “Our sus­tain­abil­ity prac­tises sim­ply stem from best man­age­ment prac­tises and un­der­stand­ing what is best for the en­vi­ron­ment and our­selves. Wa­ter, I be­lieve, is a nec­es­sary re­source for our fu­ture. So it is im­por­tant to me to keep this and the life of our rivers and streams healthy. With­out soils we don’t grow grass, so man­age­ment of soils and pas­tures is also very im­por­tant. Ef­flu­ent has been turned from a waste prod­uct into a highly re­garded re­source. And with­out staff we can­not run our busi­ness ef­fec­tively, so ed­u­ca­tion and growth in this sec­tor is vi­tal to the sus­tain­abil­ity of the in­dus­try. All th­ese things I can con­trol from within the bound­ary fence of the busi­ness.”

“Sus­tain­abil­ity is a big part in what we are do­ing here. The land we are on is right up against the lake. It’s a beau­ti­ful area of the coun­try and we re­ally want to pre­serve that.”

Once the bub­bles of oxy­gen are re­moved from the ef­flu­ent by stir­ring, the aner­o­bic slurry is used to feed the pas­ture on Kevin Fer­ris’ land near Te Awa­mutu.

Pho­tos: Ted Baghurst.

Kevin Fer­ris and the state-of-the-art ef­flu­ent pond made pos­si­ble by an ASB En­vi­ron­men­tal

Com­pli­ance Loan. Above: The stir­rers which oxy­genate the ef­flu­ent.

Pho­tos: Ted Baghurst.

Kylie Van Bys­ter­veldt and Riemer Loon­stra. Be­low: Kids at play.

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