Water 'Dilemma' Faces New Zealand Cattle Industry

NEW ZEALAND – A government report has linked dairy farm expansion with increasing stress on water quality.
calendar icon 21 November 2013
clock icon 4 minute read

Published this week, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Environment report, Water Quality in New Zealand: Land use and nutrient pollution said that, as beef and lamb units covert to dairy, water degradation would persist.

Given such a trend exists, recent national and regional policy interventions such as the Dairying and Clean Steams Accord and the Land and Water Forum appear justified in managing water quality.

This is according to report summariser and Environmental Commissioner Dr Jan Wright, who indicated that the dairy boom shows little sign of slowing down.

Dr Wright said that, even with best practice mitigation, the large-scale conversion of more land to dairy farming will generally result in more degraded fresh water.

"...in this case, New Zealand does face a classic economy versus environment dilemma"
Dr Jan Wright

Consequently, she said New Zealanders face a ‘dilemma’ which pits the economic value of milk powder exports against the environmental costs incurred during production.

“When this investigation began, I hoped the modelling would provide happier news,” said Dr Wright. “In much of my work, I actively seek out ‘win-wins' for the economy and the environment. But in this case, New Zealand does face a classic economy versus environment dilemma.”

She stated that the plethora of work done on ‘internalising’ environmental costs into the economy is eluding industry.

She added that taxing polluters, while to some extent logical, is fraught with challenges.

The report uses land use models which say dairy farms will cover over 650,000 more hectares of land in 2020 than in 1996 – the year expansion took off.

But, environmental impact is affected by geography, she explained.

“The nature of the catchment and the waterbodies within it are all-important. For instance, on the West Coast, nitrogen loads on rivers are very high, but this does not affect water quality because the nitrogen is rapidly carried out to sea.”

Likewise, not all areas will be subject to dairying expansion at the same time, with projections expecting 70 per cent of the increase in Canterbury, Otago and Southland.

This week, producer commitment to water quality was illustrated when Fonterra stated 90 per cent watercourse fencing ambitions will be complete by 1 December, the self imposed deadline.

The cooperative announced farmers had installed over 20,400 kilometres of fencing to exclude stock from waterways.

Theo Spierings, Fonterra Chief Executive Officer, said the initiative forms part of a three-pronged attack, also including effluent and nitrogen management.

Erosion, run-off and track maintenance are also important and assessed during Fonterra visits to all 10,600 of its farms.

Farm inspection shows the financial commitment many producers are making to sustainability, Mr Spiering stated.

“Our Supply Fonterra programme makes that commitment real,” said Mr Spierings. “The programme is creating real change, and will continue to do so.”

“We share New Zealanders concerns about water quality and we recognise that we must continue to up our game in the area of environmental sustainability. This is not just about dairy, but about New Zealand’s international reputation,” he added.

“All of this work is part of a 10-year plan for a strong, sustainable future that provides community value, protects our natural resources and underpins the resilience and profitability of our farmers. We will be discussing this further with our farmers and communities early next year.”

“We will work in partnership with our farmers and communities to deliver results that benefit New Zealand and ensure the country retains its competitive advantage.”

Federated Farmers of New Zealand (FFNZ) welcomed the report, reiterating the need for 'good science' to underpin any policy. 

FFNZ environment spokesperson, Ian Mackenzie said a separate publication, the National Objective Framework for freshwater management will give water aspirations to individual communities.

He agreed with Dr Wright's summation of the growing impact of farming, but said the modelling may represent a worst case scenario. 

He added much work is going into looking at how livestock systems affect the soil and water in other ways. 

He said: "AgResearch, for one, is involved in a number of research projects investigating both nitrogen and phosphorus losses from pastoral land use to water. The scope of this research includes improving our understanding of nutrient transport processes, methods for reducing nutrient losses and adoption as well as practice change."

“AgResearch started another project this year looking specifically at improving our understanding of phosphorus loss to groundwater and connected surface waters in areas with shallow soils."


Michael Priestley

Michael Priestley
News Team - Editor

Mainly production and market stories on ruminants sector. Works closely with sustainability consultants at FAI Farms

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