The shareholders of a winning regional Wairarapa farm have taken up the environmental mantle. Jackie Harrigan paid them a visit.

Winners of the Greater Wellington Regional Council BFEA Supreme Award for 2020, the shareholders of Kaiwaiwai Dairies completely know their ‘why’.

Aidan Bichan, Vern Brasell, Neville Fisher and the other three original shareholders bought the dairy conversion in 2005 and have a clear vision – to leave the property in a better state than when they bought it, while being sustainable and profitable.

“We want it to be an intergenerational asset for our families, and to be always improving in terms of sustainability, profitability and best practice,” explained Aidan Bichan.

Of course there is always a tension between finding the capital to do farm development and paying out to shareholders, Aidan said, and with a diverse range of strengths and interests among board members, who all plead the case for their development projects, there is a robust discussion around the board table. But they are very much led by their vision and their ability to analyse and number crunch every project and weigh up the pros and cons.

Shareholders are Aidan Bichan, a dairy farm consultant; Vern Brasell, a farmer and climate change enthusiast; Neville Fisher, a civil engineer and farmer; Peter Warren, an earth-moving contractor; Robin Brasell, an atmospheric scientist and climate change policy advisor (retired); and the Estate of Neil Griener, a retired accountant and foundation shareholder from 1992.

All are numbers and data-focused – employing DairyBase, Cashmanager Focus for monthly monitoring and return on investment to monitor and measure the business along with Overseer and Farmax.

The farm milks 900 cows, calving 320 in March/April and 600 in August/September, supplying milk to Fonterra, with a winter milk contract from mid-May to mid-July for fresh milk. Ninety replacement heifers calves are reared in the autumn and 140 in the spring, and the rest of the 800 calves are sold for rearing with no bobbies in the autumn and 140 calves bobbied in the spring.

“We have worked at reducing the bobby calf numbers, and only the calves of heifers are now bobbied,” Aidan explained.

The milking platform is 325ha and 55ha leased and 22ha owned support land adjacent with a further 240ha leasehold in South Wairarapa and Carterton for young stock and providing winter grazing and supplements.

The South Wairarapa area is summer dry with only 860mm annual rainfall average but with the exception of some palm kernel, the farming system is self-contained for feed.

The support blocks grow 120t drymatter (DM) sugarbeet, 220t DM maize silage and 400t DM grass silage to feed the herd and produced 380,000kg MS in the last season.

“We buy in a small amount of feed but prefer to alter the stocking rate to manage the pastures and feed supply,” Aidan says.

In the 2017/18 season production suffered in the dry and landed at 318,000kg MS.

Particular emphasis is put on managing the herd around body condition score (BCS), calving the cows at 5-5.2 BCS and the two-year-olds at 5.5 BCS. This emphasis is reflected in the reducing not-in-calf rates, after eight weeks of mating the NIC rate was down to 14% last season.

Cows are calved onto oats to get bulk feed and to reduce metabolic problems on the low calcium crop.

“The cows start to mobilise calcium and less are affected with milk fever,” Neville explained.

Soils and drainage

The farm is a mixture of clay, silt and shallow peat soils and is typically summer dry and winter wet. A thick and impermeable rock pan under the soils means low leaching of nitrogen into soils and an Overseer N loss number of only 13-16kg/ha, but the pan makes drainage difficult with a trencher just not capable of pulling through the pan – so a large digger is needed.

Despite the low Overseer N loss rate, the shareholders were concerned about N losses through drainage water and were interested in monitoring a wetland to see how much N it was possible to remove, so they embarked on a constructed wetland project in 2014. A digger transformed a 0.75ha area of rushes and pasture, next to a regenerating bush remnant block into a wetland with permanent and controlled flow. The design comprises water coming in from an adjacent drain (which drains 35ha of Kaiwaiwai and 200ha of adjacent catchment) into three separate wetlands with a serpentine flowpath of water down 6m wide bays to slow water flow and maximise residence and water treatment time. The area is well vegetated and study on ideal aquatic plants is ongoing. After treatment, the water is redirected back into the drain.

Denitrification in the wetland is measured by monthly sampling of the water at the inlet and outlet and the flow is maintained at 14l/second (increased from initial rate of 10l/second).

Results are encouraging with more than 10% removal of N from the farm (66kgN/year) – and up to 100% removal from the water through the wetland in the warmer summer months (as inflow rates are lower then). Nitrogen removal fluctuates with the time of the year in relation to aquatic plant growth and water temperature. Results for the total phosphorus removed were 14.3%, above the 10% normally expected.

Fish are present in the drain at the exit and frog and bird life is abundant – and the regeneration of the forest remnant is ongoing.

At an installation cost of $55,000 the cost of removal of nitrogen is less than $90/kg N, which is comparable with other methods of reducing farm nutrient losses, Aidan said.

Green house gases

Vern and Aidan are both DairyNZ climate change ambassadors and have been carefully tracking their numbers and coming up with strategies to mitigate GHG emissions. The numbers sit at GHG CO2e of 9.7t/ha with 7.9t/ha of biogenic CH4.

Strategies for reducing emissions include: direct drilling pastures, different pasture species, minimising pugging, use of the feedpad, use of more irrigation to increase grass growth and reduce supplement (new grass and irrigation can lift DM production to 20t DM/ha/year), improving reproductive performance and increasing production/cow through better longevity and better animal health outcomes, building dung beetle populations and increasing the soil H20 holding capacity and soil carbon sequestration.

Vern said they are confident about reaching the 2030 target with the low-hanging fruit, but are nervous about grandparenting rules since they have been early adopters of many technologies.

Going solar

Spending $110,000 in November 2020 on two banks of 54 photovoltaic solar cells is not for the faint-hearted, but works for the Kaiwaiwai Dairies shareholders. They calculated, and then demonstrated that they can capture enough solar to cover the 50kW base load of the irrigators, water, greenwash and effluent pumps, milk chilling, water heating and dairy shed load on a daily basis.

Opting not to install batteries, they planned to cover the peak daily load and sell nothing back to the grid, and have a payback period of five years with estimated savings of $17,000 per year and a life expectancy of 25 years with 80% output at the end of the period.

Community involvement

Kaiwaiwai is staffed by seven full time and numerous casual team members from the local community. The shareholders are proud of the long-serving record of the fulltime staff, many having been at the property for 11, 13 and up to 19 years.

Community involvement and contributions of shareholders and team members are very numerous to list, and the farm hosts up to 40 groups each year, including school and local community groups, farmers and politicians, policy makers and industry-good groups. The shareholders are always looking forward, planning, strategising and crunching numbers and are happy to be early adopters and role models from who the rest of the industry can learn.

They are proud to be food producers delivering high-quality products while exceeding animal welfare standards, helping the environment and helping to save the world from climate change, while contributing to their local community and their Fonterra co-operative.

Water efficiency

Six years ago the KD shareholders decided they wanted to halve their water use in the dairy shed. They have now managed to reduce dairy usage to 36l/cow, which is around half the national water use level. Other initiatives to reduce water usage on the wider farm include:

  • Monitoring water in and out of the shed
  • Monitoring stock water
  • Monitoring water use online with Harvest Electronics
  • Treating effluent as a valuable resource
  • Using greenwash for washing the yard and part of the feedpad
  • Installing 120 days of effluent storage for winter milking
  • Monitoring water on the pivot irrigation – set up for variable rate irrigation (VIR) so no irrigation water is spread on races, fences or troughs, and differential irrigation is possible across each paddock
  • Solids separation, using the liquid for the greenwash, applying solids to cropping area
  • Using chilled water for milk cooling

Environmental projects and trials

  • Establishment of a wetland to filter drainage water from 200ha, removes 660kgN/year
  • Potassium stripping from effluent irrigation paddocks by use of crops
  • Reshaping stock tracks to prevent runoff entering the waterways (the tracks have been recontoured to drain into the pasture and the high side of the laneways planted to slow down nutrient runoff
  • Planning to install a denitrifying bioreactor to remove nitrogen from the water
  • Solar voltaic power installation
  • Constructed a retention bund to trap sediment and reduce from waterways
  • Featured in a Ministry for the Environment video on Climate Change Mitigation on farm
  • Presented a workshop on Climate Change options
  • Installing and experimenting with fish passages for culverts and fish bays for drain cleaning
  • Riparian planting to shade drains, lower water temperature enhances fish life.


P: People focused

R: Results focused

I: Innovative

D: Doing the right thing

E: Enduring