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