An open letter to New Zealand dairy farmers: December 2018
‘A farmer-lead way to sorting out the environmental circus’
Dr Bert Quin, Managing Director, Quin Environmentals (NZ) Ltd
Updated 29 December 2018
The dairy industry in New Zealand has grown much faster than anyone envisaged, and way faster than our RMA and the Regional Councils were equipped to manage in a way that minimised adverse effects on the environment. The farming of 6 million milking cows and their replacements has unquestionably caused adverse effects on the quality of many streams and rivers, and also some lakes and groundwater aquifers.
Of course, many towns have insufficient water treatment and produce local sources of pollution that must be rectified. Towns that lack the physical and financial resources to do this are likely to be depopulated over time.
But the reality is that NZ has 5 million people and 6 million milking cows. Depending on how you do the comparison, a cow produces 30-100 times as much excreted nutrient and bacteria as an adult human. If you compare daily food intake, the ratio is about 50 to one, so let’s take that. What this ratio means is that NZ would have to have a human population of 50×6 =300 million people for their total effect on water quality and greenhouse gas emissions to equal that of our current cow numbers.
However, as long as our cows are kept out of direct contact with waterways, dung is recycled quite efficiently in the soil; so is dairy effluent if it is managed and stored carefully, and spread evenly as much of the farm as is practicable. A minimum of 50% of the farm should be receiving effluent; on some farms effluent is applied to less the 10% of the farm area, causing excessive nutrient build-up and leaching. Nitrate leaching and greenhouse gas emissions from urine patches and urea fertiliser are a much bigger issue, but effective mitigations such as Spikey and ONEsystem have been developed already, and are simply waiting on the right combination of farmer-awareness, incentives and best-practice requirements for their uptake.
Unquestionably in my view, the biggest existing problem is the eutrophication caused by loss of phosphorus (P) in run-off water and through leaching. The great majority of this loss comes about – sooner or later – from soluble P fertiliser applications such as superphosphate. For dairy farms to be economic at the relatively low food prices demanded by consumers today, compared to those happily paid by previous generations, pasture production has to be pushed to near maximum, which means higher levels of P (and N) are necessary in the soil. When soluble P is used, which is totally unnecessary on established dairy farms, losses of significant and environmentally damaging quantities of P to waterways and aquifers occur.
The here and now
Unfortunately, the organisations charged with maintaining New Zealand’s water quality under the RMA, the 11 Regional Councils and 6 District Councils, are in the main very poorly equipped for the job. Most of their staff do not have the farming knowledge and awareness to recognise a perfect mitigation strategy if they tripped over it. They are staffed predominantly by people who believe that their sole responsibility is to take part in endless discussions and write endless reports that end up either in a long-forgotten computer file or on shelves gathering dust. They simply do not understanding farming, and certainly not the intricacies of managing nutrient cycles and losses. So they increasingly hope that somehow legislating Overseer® will rescue them. In the meantime, they buy time by placing increasingly difficult and expensive on-farm mitigation obligations on farmers. In many cases, these obligations have been thought up by the very research farmers who did the initial research that proved that the fundamental causes of pollution were the use of soluble P fertiliser and inefficient forms of N fertiliser. But now their research funding, chanelled from the taxpayer and farmers themselves through Ballance and Ravensdown, is only available for mitigations that ignore the easiest and most effective change – chanhging the forms of P and N we use, but rather put all the onus on farmers to spend money on poorly effective and very expensive ‘mitigations’ like frequent resowing with chicory and plantain, sediment and P run-off trapping walls and trenches etc etc.
But as has already been demonstrated in court in some areas, the Overseer model was never designed for this use, and is simply not up to the task of being used legislatively. Certainly, it has had a place as a nutrient advisory tool for consultants, but even then it needs to be rebuilt to remove its strong bias towards relying on superphosphate and granular urea. It is too vague on many scientific aspects, and excludes virtually all existing fertiliser-based mitigation strategies that would really help farmers. Instead, it has become a huge part of the problem. It predicts high nutrient losses where these could be greatly mitigated with existing new technologies. It greatly underestimates – by an order of magnitude in many cases – P run-off from, and leaching through, many soils, and underestimates the extent of reductions obtauned with RPR.
Another example is the ‘Spikey’ equipment for detecting and effectively treating urine patches. Despite invites, very few AgResearch or Regional Council staff have bothered to even come and see it. Another is ONEsystem, the system for using prilled urea (instead of granular), which is treated with urease inhibitor solution as it is being spread. Scientifically published trials have shown that it doubles urea efficiency so that only half as much needs to be used. But it is a real mitigation that you can see and touch, so the council staff aren’t interested. Ballance and Ravensdown management aren’t interested either, because it will halve urea sales and profits!
The current situation is a dog’s breakfast, but there is a relatively easy way for farmers to start to take the initiative back. This is to adopt fertilisers and technologies which have the science behind them to prove they mitigate nutrient losses to the environment. Under the RMA legislation, such mitigations must be approved by Regional Councils. Read about the Quinfert RMA 400 range for more details of the mitigating fertiliser option. Once you are using the Quinfert RMA 400 range, demand that your Regional Council set up downstream monitoring of your farm’s water quality.
The best news is, farmers will be saving money in the process, and your production may even go up!
Regional Councils are being given misleading information by the fertiliser industry, along the lines of “RPR is only suitable for small areas of New Zealand”. This is absolute rubbish. At the most, on areas with very low soil P (now very unusual in NZ), very low (-700 mm) rainfall without irrigation, or very low P-retention soils (>90%) with below-optimum soil P levels, it is ideal to include 25-30% of the total P to be applied as quick-release P for the first year or two, to prevent any minor, short-term ‘lag-effect’ in pasture production occuring. The rest – comprising the great majority of farmland in New Zealand – needs only RPR to supply its phosphorus needs.
Dr Bert Quin
Quin Environmentals (NZ) Ltd
Mob. 021 427 572