Stepping lighter in the north

A Northland sharemilking couple are making their mark on the environment of the farm where they live and work.
By Delwyn Dickey. Photos: Malcolm Pullman

Booth Family farm, Tokiri Road, Titoki, Northland. Photo by Malcolm Pullman

The Titoki land Andrew and Vicky Booth farm sits in a quiet valley half-an-hour’s drive west of Whangarei in Northland.

The couple have been sharemilking here for the last 13 years – 50/50 sharemilking for the last four.

The original block was won by Andrew’s grandfather in a land ballot after World War II with more land bought over the years by Andrew’s father until now the farm covers 220 hectares with a 174ha milking platform.

The couple have made a lot of changes in their time on the farm that Andrew grew up on, to make it not just more resilient to climate change – while also reducing emissions, but also to settle the farm into the valley’s native environment while protecting the water that runs through it.

While Vicky works as a primary school teacher, she has lived on dairy farms most of her life. Her parents had also been dairy farmers – long-term 50/50 sharemilkers in the Waikato. While they had aspirations of one day owning their own farm, they eventually decided that wasn’t realistic and sold their herd, moving out of the industry nearly 20 years ago.

Work is 10 minutes’ drive away for Vicky, at the local primary school. And though a year in an accountant’s office after university may have put her off accounting as a full-time job for life, Vicky is heavily involved in the economics of their farming business.

It’s a progressive dairying area, Andrew says. Their aspirations for farming in a way that is easier on the environment, their staff and animals, and looks to the future in a warming climate are not that different from many of their neighbours, he reckons.

Always interested in horticulture and growing things as a youngster, Andrew headed off to Lincoln University to do a Diploma of  Agriculture and a Diploma of Farm Management. He got to know Vicky while he was there – doing a commerce degree in management. Both found they were fairly open minded about things generally and how to farm specifically.

“What we learned at Lincoln, and the practicals they have in place there with the research facilities, contributed to our thinking about how we could do things differently,” Vicky says.

“Our farming practices are reasonably conventional, and while profit is important to us, it’s not the be-all and end-all of our business,” Andrew says. “It’s the overall outcome – the environmental values are just as important.”

Andrew Booth on the family farm at Titoki, Northland. Photo by Malcolm Pullman

New normal

With the north getting hotter and drier as the climate warms and with more droughts on the horizon, Andrew has been working to make the farm’s pasture more resilient.

Northland soils tend to be clay – a bog in winter and concrete in summer. Ryegrass pastures are no longer fit for purpose in many areas.

Andrew has started to use multi species summer crops for the calves on a couple of leased support blocks while drought-tolerant cocksfoot is now added to ryegrass pastures as a matter of course.

Cocksfoot, along with tall fescue are also now used instead of ryegrass in their drier areas, while chicory, plantain, and lucerne along with different clovers – for nitrogen fixing, are also being used in different areas depending on the soil type. The root systems from a variety of pasture species also helps to maintain and build the health of the soil, he says.

This has seen Andrew able to reduce the amount of nitrogen fertiliser they use to between 100-110kg N/ha/annum, although he reckons they can still improve on that.

More feed is available in winter than summer and this saw Andrew transitioning the herd to autumn calving and the original herd of 430 cows drop to 390.

“We have less supplementary feed being consumed for maintenance and the same amount of milk. Our emissions profile is better with less nitrous oxide from fewer animals and the cows are also looking better.”

The clay soils see them careful about the physical size and weight of the animals in the herd.

“We don’t want a big-frame Friesian cow or a full Jersey cow either, so want to get a good crossbreed that will produce well but has lower impact on our wet winter soils,” he says.

One of the key traits they breed for is fertility, to increase the inherent herd fertility. This will see fewer empty cows – reducing waste, reducing replacement stock needed. This sees them with a better-than-average in-calf rate.

Breeding will aim at producing more efficient animals and potentially enable them to drop numbers again while still maintaining production.

Heat stress in northern herds is already a concern, and will increase as the climate warms.

Once-a-day milking is already the norm and removing the afternoon milking so cows aren’t walking the race in the hottest part of the day is likely to see more farms swapping over, Andrew reckons.

Fortunately, the farm already has quite a lot of shade – around the native bush blocks and with the windbreak trees. Cows are able to get out of the sun, and trees have recently been planted on a bare support block specifically to provide shade.

Sprinklers are already used in the cow shed which the animals seem to enjoy and have the added benefit of keeping flies off the animals.

Andrew has had to rethink a shade cloth setup he installed over the shed yards for summer use a couple of years ago after last summer’s storms completely smashed them.

“It was quite effective while it was up. It dropped the temperature on the yard and the cows liked it.”

Other changes to lower their carbon footprint have included swapping out a diesel pump set up for the effluent pond and replacing it with an electric one, and they are also looking at installing solar panels.

River life

It may be a relatively small body of water, but the Mangakahia River that runs along the farm boundary has always been a constant in Andrew’s life.

In the heat of summer, it was the place to go to cool off and have fun as he was growing up. Now his two children Tamsyn and Hannah swim and play in it. The river is also the centre of attention with friends and neighbours during an annual raft race, with adults and kids piling on to their home-made river rafts and noisily paddling to the finish, and camping overnight in a paddock.

The seemingly never-ending deluge that washed out last summer in the north was one of the few summers Andrew hasn’t been able to swim in the river – the flow too fast at times but also just too dirty with sediment. Forestry harvesting further up the river is likely behind most of the silt coming down in the floods particularly, Andrew thinks.

The river flats have always been prone to flooding, and with that comes erosion into the river. This saw protecting the river and the Kaipara Harbour that it eventually flows into become one of their first focal points for change on the farm.

During their time they have completely fenced the animals away from the river and planted up the river banks. Vicky’s connection to the local school has helped them bring the local community, including children at the school and parents, along for the ride.

Together they have helped to plant about 2000 native plants each year including on the 25ha of river flats to protect the soil from being washed away. Involving children especially helps them to appreciate the environment, Vicky says.

“We’ve been planting for five or six years with the kids, and they can come back and see the difference it’s making on the river bank.”

Visits also helped to show where their food comes from.

One youngster’s surprise that the milk, from a cow Andrew had hand-milked for them, was warm, still sticks with Vicky. It may have been a small thing and funny at the time, but shows how removed kids are from their food, she says. After all – everyone knows milk comes from a fridge – and it’s cold.

Protecting the waterways hasn’t just been about protecting the river. When Andrew was growing up, an area of the farm had been a swamp. There had been an attempt to turn it into pasture by putting a drain through it, but it hadn’t been very successful.

About three years ago, in partnership with the Northland Regional Council, work began to not just allow the failed paddock to become wet again, but to fence it off and create a 1ha wetland.

“There have been massive ecological gains,” Andrew says, not just with wetland wildlife but also becoming a way to link pockets of bush including a couple of hectares of hilly areas they plan to drop out of production and retire into native bush, earning carbon credits.

“Once everything is done there will be a big biodiversity corridor through the centre of the farm.”

Bush remnants are scattered around the farm, including some backing on to the river. Only partially fenced off, stock were still able to eat out any young plants, stopping the bush from regenerating. These bush remnants have now all been fenced off.

Although they didn’t do much trapping when they first started planting, it soon became clear that some of the biggest winners in the restoration process around the farm were possums. Pest control is just part of farm life now and has also helped the bush remnants to regenerate.

A little further downstream the Mangakahia River flows into the Northern Wairoa River.

This bigger river has a massive 3500 square kilometre catchment and eventually pours into the Kaipara Harbour – the biggest natural harbour in the Southern Hemisphere.  The harbour has been struggling under a deluge of silt for years with about 85% of that silt coming down the Wairoa River – mainly off farmland and forestry blocks.

Of the North Island west coast harbours, the Kaipara is the last one that still has large seagrass meadows which act as a nursery for young fish, both as a feeding ground and providing protection from predators.

Seagrass meadows in other harbours have largely disappeared, mostly because of sediment. This has helped to make the remaining meadowsin the Kaipara Harbour the nursery to virtually the entire west coast snapper fishery – along with supporting large numbers of juvenile trevally, parore, spotties, piper, pipefish, and other species.

The sediment also affects cockles and scallops in the harbour by reducing the time spent feeding as they have to sort through the sediment for food. This means they are smaller and not as robust, which in turn affects their reproduction as they need to be a good size to breed.

There has been a big push in recent years by local and regional councils, landcare groups, iwi and farmers to fence waterways in the catchment to protect the harbour.

Making a difference

While they’re enjoying their time on the family farm Andrew and Vicky have also decided to spread their wings and have bought a small 100ha dairy farm south of Whangarei at Mata.

They’re enjoying having free range here to try out more things and have particularly enjoyed growing sunflowers in their pasture mixes.

Sunflowers don’t tend to contribute much as a stock feed as animals often don’t eat much of the plant.

They do, however, have deep roots which helps to aerate the soil and draw up nutrients, while fungi on their roots help to transform phosphorus in the soil into a form other plants around them can then use to grow. Andrew and Vicky love seeing them in the paddock and watching cars driving past slow down as people look at the cows grazing among the sunflowers.

Despite being the only sharemilkers among the northern finalists the couple were the Northland regional winners at this year’s Ballance Environmental Awards and want to encourage other sharemilkers not to wait for farm ownership to start making changes.

“It’s a mindset,” Vicky says, “where often small incremental changes can have a big impact overall. Just because you don’t own the land doesn’t mean you can’t improve it.”

“Over the last 13 years it has cost us time rather than money.”

  • Andrew is a Dairy NZ Climate Change Ambassador, and involved with the Dairy Environmental Leaders Group and Northland Dairy Development Trust.