Words and photos by: Karen Trebilcock

Almost all southern dairy farmers will have to apply for resource consent to winter under the 2020 National Policy Statement (NPS) for Freshwater Management.

Speaking at the Southern Dairy Hub’s October 8 field day, Environment Southland principal land sustainability officer Karl Erikson described it not as a ban on wintering but as a requirement for consent.

“A lot of the new rules under the NPS, if not all of them, will not be able to be met by farmers in Southland,” he said.

Although he would not guarantee farmers would be granted a consent to winter, a “fair look” would be given at the mitigations farmers were putting in place.

“We really don’t know how the process is going to work.”

Farmers would also have to work under regional councils’ rules, which for Southlanders was Environment Southland’s Water and Land Plan.

“Whichever one has the most stringent rule, either the NPS or the regional council plan, that is the one you have to adhere to.”

Behind the Environment Southland officer was a winter crop paddock with the crop eaten but still to go green with new grass. In the gateway were deep ruts from tractor tyres.

In the past week the paddock had been covered by snow, as had much of Southland, followed by surface flooding days later, which made some tracks on the hub impassable with water over the tops of the fence posts.

Another paddock still had 30t of fodder beet in it ready to be lifted and stored, but the wet conditions had meant the lifter couldn’t get near it let alone a tractor to spread grass seed.

Under the NPS, winter crop paddocks must be back in grass by November 1.

At the same time as the field day, more than 100 tractors drove through Gore, an hour away, in protest at the NPS, with farmers declaring they would be united in ignoring the new regulations.

Hub general manager Louise Cook said the decision had been made not to use the lower terraces of the farm for winter cropping in the future.

“We had 60mm of rain on Sunday, and when these paddocks flood there is flow over them and we don’t want to lose our soils.

“It will mean we will be going round our crop paddocks on the top terraces more than we would like, which will be a problem with compacted soils, but it’s a trade-off which we will have to accept.”

Sowing next winter’s crop paddocks would include trial work comparing direct drill only, strip tillage or conventional sowing.

“We won’t just be looking at the cost and the tonnage of feed grown, it will also be about how well the cows do eating it, how much mud they make,” she said.

“We’re taking the risks so other farmers don’t have too, to see what works.”

As well, MPI is funding an off-paddock wintering facility for the hub to be built this autumn.

DairyNZ senior scientist Dawn Dalley said during a trial in the winter, pugging depth (it must be less than 20cm under the NPS) was determined by pushing a plastic ruler into the soil.

“When it met resistance, that’s what we decided was the pugging depth. What the government comes up with is anyone’s guess.”

The trial, called “How Much Mud is Too Much Mud”, looked at whether cows were achieving the minimum standard of eight hours lying time per day while on winter crop paddocks.

Behavioural monitoring equipment (CowManager tags and HOBO accelerometers) were fitted to 30 cows in four mobs on kale and fodder beet for the five-week trial. Although the data, including rainfall, are still to be crunched, DairyNZ animal care team leader Helen Thoday said it was hoped visuals from it of what was good or bad practice would soon be available to farmers.

“Without a doubt, animals which have sufficient lying time do better.”

In answer to a question of whether public perception was a valid measure, she said apart from dividing media articles into negative or positive, it was difficult to tell what public perception was.

“We have asked the question whether it reduces our market access and there is nothing certain there either.

“But public perception should only be one measure. It is really how the animal genuinely feels and that can also be hard to tell, which is why we’re doing the trial work.”

Farm manager Charlie McGregor was an instant fan of the CowManager tags used during the trial.

“We got an alert from the system that one of the cows was sick and it showed it wasn’t ruminating, and we were able to treat it. Otherwise we wouldn’t have known.”