Holy Cow! Too many cows in New Zealand

We eat their meat. We drink their milk and make cheese, butter and cream products. We use them to introduce children to agriculture. Its beef is one of our favourite meats at the supermarket. But holy cow, New Zealand has a problem with their environmental footprint.

In Canterbury alone it is estimated that there are about 1.3 million cows, or about 2.1 for every single person living in the province. Each cow will produce the effluent equivalent of about 11 people going to the toilet, or between 14-15 million people in Canterbury. And Canterbury is paying a steep environmental price for it. In 2007, prior to the National Government of Prime Minister John Key taking office, the number of dairy cattle in Canterbury was 754,000. By 2016 that number had risen to 1.27 million.

The province, which is noted for its superb thousands year old ground water in deep aquifers under the Canterbury plains is in danger of having its drinking water supply wrecked by the spread of nitrates. Dr Alistair Humphries believes that in 100 years, it will not be possible to drink the tap water in Canterbury.

Each cow needs many litres of water to ensure it can drink, to ensure that the grass it will eat is adequate. A litre of milk will take about 1,000 litres of water or 1m³ to manufacture. In other words the 2 litre bottle of milk in your fridge takes about 2,000 litres (2m³) of water. In order for a 500 cattle farm to produce the roughly 2 kilogrammes of milk solids that each healthy cow will put out at their peak per day, roughly 1,000,000 litres of water or 1,000m³ will be needed. That has to come from a ground water source or be diverted from a river. As one can imagine in a country where dairy farming contributed $14.4 billion to the New Zealand economy in 2016, the pressures on our freshwater resources both at the surface and in the ground are considerable.

Many farmers are making an honest effort to reduce the impact of their herds on the natural waterways of New Zealand. Measures include fencing off streams so that easily erodible dirt banks are not crumbled, and to stop them defecating and urinating in the water. Some are replanting shelter belts that were torn down when the farm was converted to dairying so that irrigators could move through. Replanting damaged river banks with low level plants that help to anchor the bank is another measure.

However there is a problem. Cows also make a substantial contribution to New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions. The estimated contribution of the dairy sector to New Zealand’s overall climate emissions are about 43% caused by carbon dioxide and about 11% caused by nitrous oxide. The gases mainly come from biological processes – livestock burping in the case of the carbon dioxide and cows urinating in the case of the nitrous oxide.

It has been acknowledged with some resistance on both sides of House of Representatives. Initiatives have been tried such as developing grass that does not induce so much burping, alternative forms of fertilizer to reduce the amount of nitrates going into streams and medical research to see if the nitrous oxide discharge can be reduced.

But for all the good work these farmers are doing, it does not address the core problem with the 10 million cattle in New Zealand – there is simply too many, and the total defecation and urine output from them all would be roughly equivalent to about 140 million people or about 85% of the population of Bangladesh. Large scale depopulation of herds is not something a dairy farmer will want to do and it will be a vote killer for a lot of politicians if they are brave enough to try. Unfortunately the cold nitrate loaded fact of the matter is if New Zealand wants its clean green reputation back, several million cattle are simply going to have to go.


Mycoplasma Bovis decision devastating but correct

Yesterday New Zealand farmers found out the likely cost of a major biosecurity menace that has been found

The Mycoplasma Bovis crisis is at a critical level and the Government has made what looks like a gutsy call. Eradication of M. Bovis is the only solution and that it is going to cost around N.Z.$886 million to deal with over the time that the attempt to remove it from New Zealand is in progress.

Farmers, especially those in dairying have not always been popular in New Zealand. Whilst being a significant part of the economy and contributing over N.Z.$15 billion to it per annum in more recent years, there has been a significant environment cost. The cost has not just been a significant degradation of fresh water resources, but also a significant contribution to New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas output.

But if we put the negative aspects aside for a moment, there is no easy way to look at this. 160,000 cattle are going to be slaughtered in the near future, which whilst representing only 1.4% of the national herd, is going to devastate some farmers and their livelihoods. There are some who may have been farming their whole lives who will now find all of that hard work being slaughtered. A few may have to walk from their properties.

Federated Farmers New Zealand finds itself in rare agreement with the Labour Government about the direction that this crisis is going. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern found herself in agreement with F.F.N.Z. President Katie Milne and Dairy New Zealand boss Jim van der Poel who agreed that the one chance to clear M. Bovis from New Zealand is now and that eradication is the solution. All acknowledged the toll that this would place on farmers.

No one wants to see such a huge loss of animal life. It reminds me of the huge medieval response Britain made when Mad Cow Disease broke out there in 2001. That effectively crippled the entire dairy industry in Britain and costing 226 human lives as well as the lives of millions of animals. However the potential cost to New Zealand if M. Bovis is not eradicated is huge. It would have a lasting negative impact on New Zealand farming on the whole and on our reputation overseas, which is not something New Zealand can afford.

In the coming days, weeks and months, thousands of cattle are going to die. But if nothing done in those coming days, weeks and months, the cost is going to be much worse.



The need for less cattle in New Zealand

Yesterday the Minister for Environment, David Parker, admitted that too many cows exist in New Zealand.

The non-sustainability of New Zealand’s large dairy herds is not new and nor is it surprising given the high demands of the dairy sector. For years a healthy core of people, mainly Green and Labour supporters, have come out with letters, petitions, aricles and interviews in the media as well as protests have been pointing out the decline of water quality nation wide.

However the rate of reduction in New Zealand cattle numbers is not sufficient. Nor is it happening very fast because unless timetables are set, a farmer might well decide to procrastinate in terms of complying.

This article was written in 2015 as the dairy boom that dominated New Zealand agriculture for most of the last 20 years came to an end.  Nearly three years since the article, many of the pressures have been brought into focus quite crudely, either by the public deciding that they had had enough of the agricultural lobby turning a blind eye to the plight of rivers affected by large dairy herds. It was estimated in September 2017 that New Zealand’s dairy herds use the equivalent water to the needs of 60 million people or roughly the population of Italy.

Aside from the large contribution to environmental degradation in terms of water quality and occasionally, quantity, there are legitimate concerns about cows belching and contributing to our climate changes emissions. Whilst not a problem that is new by any means, it is perhaps new in terms of being yet to be subject of a comprehensive plan across industry and government agencies for tackling emissions.

So, what has been done?

  1. The former Minister for Environment, Nick Smith allowed a plan to go through that would announce the protection of the main stem of major rivers, but not their tributaries which meant any progress made in the main stems of rivers would be undone by pollution from tributaries
  2. The Minister for the Environment, David  Parker has announced changes to nutrient limits as to what can go into a river, which are intended to directly assist with the improvement of water quality around New Zealand

What needs to happen?

  1. Regional Councils need to stop treading warily about their patches and start prosecuting those that violate their plans; national standards and other legal instruments with regards to violators of water policy.
  2. Fines that can be charged for violators need to be significantly overhauled
  3. Changes in land use to sheep, cropping

Government to end irrigation funding

Last week it was announced that the public funding of irrigation projects is going to be wound down. The move, which has elicited complaints of a “kick in the guts” from some farmers, and National, has also drawn widespread praise from pro-environment groups and Greenpeace.

I support this move entirely. I do not believe that it is in New Zealand’s interests to have public funding redirected towards irrigation.

New Zealand is at peak dairying. The industry is as big as it is going to get. The environmental cost will be like mining into an unstable slope – one wants the gold to show investors, but are completely oblivious to the danger of dairy herds. One animal may produce as much as 10x the output of a human being in excrement. Vast tracks of the Mackenzie Basin have been or are being converted to dairying. The cost to ratepayers to maintain water quality standards is increasing and tourists are becoming aware of the problems that dairy farming is causing.

Do not get me wrong. Irrigation has its place in New Zealand. However the extent to which it appears to influence economic policy is not proper and nor is it practical. Many rivers are completely allocated in terms of available surface and ground water. No matter how one reallocates the water it will not change the fact that it is 100% allocated and that reallocation is simply re slicing the pie.

Nor will it change the fact that the high intensity usage of water for dairy farming has had a substantial impact on the environment.The effects of this range from a widespread decline in water quality to potential salinisation of aquifers in coastal areas.  In the aquatic environment of fresh water courses such as lakes, rivers and streams, water quality has degraded significantly and this is shown in the reduction of the number of water bodies where one can physically the water. Cyanobacteria forms more readily in water courses whose low flows in summer have been exacerbated by increased water use – it presents as a green-blue algae and is deadly to dogs if consumed.

I also have concerns about the welfare of animals. Not normally something I comment on, but wish to point out with relation to South Island high country. In a harsh sub alpine environment with intense winter cold with large open spaces, grazing stock would find it a challenge staying warm, whilst in summer there would be little shelter from the sun and temperatures which can reach 40°C. Keeping them adequately protected protected when shelter belts that double as wind breaks against northwesterlies have been removed to enable K-line irrigators to work, is a significant concern.

This move, whilst welcome is just the first step, as a comprehensive programme will be needed across New Zealand to undo the potential damage and keep the tourists coming.


Don’t get too excited by dairy price spike

After years of serious decline in the dairy sector with a combination of drought and economic downturn affecting dairy product prices, farmers will be allowing themselves a bit of a smile following the release of the latest data. The news comes as New Zealand farmers begin to think about the spring and summer ahead.

However the duration of the drought and the fact that it has continued over winter, means this is unfortunately not a time to get too excited. Yes there has been a rather noticeable spike in prices since the start of August, but the outlook is still not flash. Consecutive winters of below normal rainfall mean that aquifer recharge will require more than just a couple of significant heavy rainfall events. The low levels are exacerbated in places like Canterbury where ground water allocation is at or near 100% of the known supply. Further water use will start to deny existing users their allocated quota. A reversion from El Nino to a La Nina phase in the weather means the likelihood of another dry summer with potential drought like conditions is high.

The drought is just one part of the environmental choke on the New Zealand dairy sector. Without significant changes to the natural environment and possible flow on effects to tourism and extra cost to New Zealand citizens, particularly those in urban areas whose water quality may be adversely affected, New Zealand dairy farming is at peak performance. Because of the contribution that recreational tourism – particularly water based – plays in the economy, a balancing act between maintaining good freshwater resources is needed.

Then there is the global economy. This has spluttered along and at times looked like starting to recover from the Global Financial Crisis. However combination of factors including slumped petrol prices, global instability and key economies slowing down have eroded any progress that has been made. In the case of slumped oil prices, partially caused by weak demand mean that significant capacity in countries like Saudi Arabia is not fully utilised.

Is it time for farming to reduce the emphasis on dairying? For too long New Zealand has been busily putting all of its economic eggs in one or two proverbial baskets. Yes, supply and demand means there will always be a case for dairy products, but what happens when the conditions for good dairy sector performance are simply not there?