Words by: Anne Hardie

When you farm within the catchment of the Te Waikoropupu Springs in Golden Bay, your environmental impact comes under particularly close scrutiny because the water is possibly New Zealand’s clearest and cleanest.

Steven and Daphne Woods own one of 14 dairy farms in the catchment, milking 450 crossbred cows on 174 effective hectares and they already meet the criteria for the Government’s new freshwater regulations. They farm in a high-rainfall region that can reach three metres a year, with 60mm in one rain event common. The last thing they want is heavy rain flushing nitrogen through the soil into the aquifer that feeds the springs.

To ensure that doesn’t happen, they apply nitrogen only when there’s a 14-day period without rain in the weather forecast and then water it in under controlled irrigation from their pivot irrigators. They restrict their nitrogen use to 160kg N/ha/year, using coated N-Protect for the added advantage of staying longer in the soil for the plant’s uptake so they can use less N overall.

It’s just one of the methods they use to protect their environment which in this case is the largest cold-water springs in the Southern Hemisphere. Concerns about the underground aquifer system that sustains the springs led to a proposed Water Conservation Order that is now going to the Environment Court. That could make many dairy farmers nervous, but the Woods have confidence in the Environment Court and the research that shows any increased N levels over the decades are not statistically significant.

Dairy farming has been under attack during the springs debate and the Woods became entangled in its heat when they sought to continue irrigating the farm with their brand new pivot irrigators a few years ago. It was only after they bought the pivots – two 360 degree pivots with arms and a 180 degree one – that they discovered the local council had inadvertently slashed their water consent years earlier through a misunderstanding and the family didn’t know.

It took a four-year battle and cost them an estimated $700,000 in lost income, plus the extra costs of running a dry-farm operation on river gravels. Bought-in balage to replace grass “cost a fortune” but was the only way to keep the cows milking through those stressful years. The battle ran out of steam when they reached the Environment Court and Steven says the judge basically told everyone to go home because the argument was about the aquifer and the Woods were simply seeking to continue their surface water take from the river. The result was they could irrigate again and more efficiently than in the past.

“One of the reasons for going for pivots was the efficiency of water and now we can irrigate 121ha with 30,000cu m of water per week compared with 35,000 in the past,” Steven explains.

With the pivots up and running, the farm business suddenly became more efficient as well and Daphne says they have finally been able to pay some of the principal on their bank loan after years of running up more debt without water.

The irrigation was part of an upgrade of farming systems when they bought into the family equity partnership a few years ago. Before farming, Steven had been driving trucks for 20 years and the family farm had moved into an equity partnership with neighbours. He came back for a year, realised he wasn’t over truck driving and then returned with Daphne for the 2011-12 season to work on the farm for the last year it was part of an equity partnership.

The next season they leased the farm and bought the cows and four years ago purchased the farm. It was the $8/kg milksolids payout year; a good year to buy a farm. It needed refencing and the irrigation was not efficient. The farm had been irrigated since the 80s – one of the first in the bay – using a big gun travelling irrigator and then a Rotorainer. But Steven says trying to improve the system was akin to trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. It needed a major rethink to make irrigation more efficient and the farm sustainable.

“We didn’t put irrigation in to milk more cows, but to maintain our cows,” Steven says. With that in mind, they considered fixed grid irrigation, K-line and pivots. The latter won because they decided it was the most efficient method at a lesser cost than the fixed grid. Despite the region’s high rainfall, irrigation is a necessary buffer through summer and often the irrigators are used for just six weeks. Though the drought a couple of years ago forced them to turn the water on between December and March.

Three terraces rise from the Takaka River that borders the farm, with river silts on the lower terrace and river gravels on the upper two terraces and it’s those upper terraces that really dry out without irrigation.

Those same terraces come into their own in winter though when cows can graze a crop of kale with minimum damage to the soil. In the past they grew a crop of fodder beet on the lower terrace with its silty soils and decided that wasn’t to be repeated.

“We were running the cows on and off the crop and they pugged the hell out of everything. Made a hell of a mess. Animal welfare was the biggest issue because of the mud.”

Though they haven’t repeated it for the environment and animal welfare concerns, there were also the financial implications that flow on from that scenario.

“We don’t do things just for the environment because it’s a flow-on effect from other farming practices,” Steven says. “It’s the whole package. And if you don’t make money, you aren’t here tomorrow.”

All the cows are wintered on the farm, while young stock are grazed off the farm from weaning through to May when they are rising two-year-olds. Through winter the herd is grazed on a mix of kale, grass and straw. Plus they grow the cereal silage, triticale, for its low ME and high protein to use as a stomach filler for winter. Usually they grow 15ha of kale for winter and break feed the crop in combination with a paddock of triticale and a paddock of oats and ryegrass.

That is strip grazed or can be baled to feed out during late lactation.

Paddocks are sown back into permanent pasture in autumn because sowing them in spring in a high-rainfall climate requires too much chemical to get them established.

‘One of the reasons for going for pivots was the efficiency of water and now we can irrigate 121ha with 30,000cu m of water per week compared with 35,000 in the past.’

That means they have to get from spring to autumn without those paddocks in production and they have tried different things to achieve that, including baling surplus in spring to feed out in late lactation.

They’ve grown maize on the farm which was ideal because they could use it as a green feed, but now grow maize on contract off-farm on a per kilogram basis over the weighbridge after harvest. That’s a lot less stress than growing it themselves and it provides a backup feed, especially during those unpredictable seasons. They use it to extend lactation and put weight on the cows before they are dried off at the end of May.

Daphne says it’s about animal welfare, but has financial implications as well because if the cows go into winter in poor shape, they will come out of winter in poor shape to begin the next season on a the back foot.

Their season runs from August 1 to May 31 and from calving they milk twice a day, dropping to 3in2 as the weather heats up to reduce heat stress on the cows. By dropping to 3in2 instead of once a day, she says they have the flexibility of cranking up again to TAD.

“If we have them on 3in2 and we get an autumn flush, we can go back to twice a day. Last year we went to once-a-day for 14 days before drying off because that is supposed to lead to less mastitis.”

Through the season they also top the cows up with palm kernel, buying in 250 tonnes and feeding it daily so they can increase it if the cows require a boost, particularly on the shoulders of the season.

Resulting production is between 196,000kg milksolids (MS) and 200,000kg MS (1126kg MS/ha), though they prefer to focus on per cow production which is between 430kg MS/cow and 440kg.

One of the reasons their business achieves its environmental, animal welfare and financial goals is the relatively low stocking rate of 2.6 cows/ha on the farm.  That is dictated by the extended 44-bail rotary dairy that limits cow numbers and Steven says the herd size is ideal for the dair

“In a perfect world I’d milk 100 cows and they’d be all my pets. But in reality I know that’s not possible.”

They have a few pets in the herd that stay regardless of whether they get in calf and produce milk and Steven says those cows are good for everyone’s mental health, especially when someone is not having a good day.

“When I drove a stock truck I absolutely hated dairy cows. Now we have cows that are pets and I can’t get rid of them. There’s the odd cow that doesn’t get culled and stays with the herd. You can be having a shit of a day milking and then number five turns up and the platform gets turned off so I can give her a good scratch.

“We’re not just in it for the money. We’re in it for the lifestyle as well, which comes from a generational farm.”

Their lifestyle improved this season by taking on a contract milker though they still work with them as needed and rear the calves. It has given Steven the chance to do some more truck driving, which he apparently hasn’t done his dash on yet.

Despite being part of an industry in a region that gets a lot of flak from some of the community, Daphne says they are confident about their farming business and their ability to leave the farm in a better position for future generations.

“I feel comfortable that we produce nourishing, good food with the least impact we can and I’m proud of that,” she says.