Dairy NZ is trumpeting the achievement of fencing off farm waterways, but the Water Accord report card is far from perfect. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

DairyNZ is hailing the fact that 97 percent of dairy cattle are now fenced off from waterways, but its latest Water Accord report reveals a significant worsening of reported nutrient leaching in the areas with the biggest new conversions, reports Lynn Grieveson.

DairyNZ described the fencing on waterways as going from Cape Reinga to Bluff 12 times, and Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy had it going to Chicago and back – but they both agreed the 26,197 kilometres of fencing stopping cattle from getting into streams, rivers and lakes was something to celebrate.

The Sustainable Dairying: Water Accord was launched in 2013 and set targets for improving environmental performance on dairy farms. Its progress report for the 2015/16 season, which covers 11,400 farms, shows that 97 percent of dairy cattle are now fenced off from “measured accord” farm waterways.

But the national average for nitrogen leaching over the season was 39 kg per hectare, unchanged from the previous year. Leaching of nutrients in Canterbury and Otago, the two of the fastest growing dairying regions, rose 28 and 18 percent respectively. Leaching in Canterbury rose to 64 kg per hectare in 2015/16 from an average of 50 kg over the previous two years, although DairyNZ said the inclusion of more irrigation data used in the modelling of leaching was a factor in the higher leaching estimate.

Other goals were also marked as ‘not achieved’ in the report: the target of 100 percent stock exclusion from significant wetlands is “still in progress”, the target of riparian management plans for 50 percent of farms with waterways was only 27 percent achieved and the deadline of having nutrient management plans collected from all farms by May 2015 was missed (marked 83 percent achieved).

It’s not just the rivers and streams

And while farmers are congratulating themselves on the fencing achievement, critics say it is still not enough.

Kevin Hackwell, Forest and Bird’s advocacy manager, told Newsroom that recent NIWA research found the main culprits for water quality were small, trickling creeks and ditches, not the rivers, lakes and streams targeted by the accord.  

“It’s great that the fencing is on the accord streams, the wider ones, but we are going to have to go beyond that otherwise it’s not going to work,” he said.

“To be fair to the farmers, that’s a difficult thing to do.”

“Fencing is good and it’s important we don’t have the cows in the water, and it’s great to have riparian planting – but if most of the pollution is coming in the smaller streams you are not catching it. Or you’ve got the cows, the amount of leaching that is coming out of the paddocks, that’s some big issues that we have yet to deal with.”

Hackwell said the failure to tackle the problem of wetlands was of real concern.

“Of all the numbers there, that’s probably the one thing I am most worried about. The goal was to fence 100 percent of all the wetlands that have been defined as regionally significant back in 2012 and to have them all done by 2014. I think it is very disappointing that here we are in 2017 and we are nowhere near achieving that goal.”

Even DairyNZ’s CEO, Tim Mackle, described the fencing of the accord streams as “low hanging fruit.”

“Fencing was, if you like, a big critical issue, almost low hanging fruit, something that would have a really, bit demonstrable impact on water quality and something that took a lot of effort, but we could get on as an industry and do.

“Nutrient is clearly the thing we really have to focus hard on now,” Mackle said.

Nutrient leaching the hard nut to crack

Under the Water Accord, milk companies collect and model nitrogen loss from all dairy farms, with farmers required to provide performance information and benchmarks to their suppliers.

Mackle told reporters that, although it was “difficult and challenging at the start” to engage farmers on the issue of nutrient leaching into waterways, an educative approach had helped.

“It was really about the ‘why’ and that is really starting to take hold now,” he said.

“We will keep working on that one. We know we are not quite there yet. Clearly we are not where we want to be on the target. We are in the 80s, we wanted to be well above into the 90s by now. But you’ve got to stand back and at least acknowledge the work that has happened and where we are now.”

“Old gear and attitude”

One of the striking features of the report is the apparent divide between regions, with far more farmers in the North Island reported as “significantly non-compliant” on effluent management.

In the Auckland region, 21 percent of farmers had significant non-compliance issues, such as overflowing ponds and sumps, and broken or uncapped pipes discharging effluent.

In Northland, 14 percent of farms were rated significantly non-compliant after failing water quality tests, and being caught discharging untreated effluent into water and having broken pipes and other equipment.

In Southland, however, only 1.7 percent of farms were significantly non-compliant.
With the exception of Marlborough (on 18 percent), all South Island regions had less than six percent of their farms marked significantly non-compliant.

Forest and Bird’s Kevin Hackwell said this was probably because many of the South Island farms were recent conversions, with new infrastructure. In the more traditional dairy farm areas in the North Island, they have older equipment and infrastructure – along with the “my grandad did it this way” attitude.  

But he said the report also reflects more vigilant monitoring by some regional councils. “Northland has got a high number [of non-compliant farms] and so has Auckland, but they are probably doing a better job of monitoring, so the public are probably being better served by a more vigilant council.”

Hackwell was particularly scathing of Waikato, where 10 percent of farms were found to be significantly non-compliant.

“It’s appalling. Waikato, one of our wealthiest regional councils with a third of all dairying, and they only monitor 16 percent of all dairy farms in a year, they give them 48 hours notice – and even then, there’s ten percent that are non-compliant.

” Imagine what it would be if they were doing everybody and just turning up?

This compares to Northland, where all farms are inspected at least once annually, with all visits unannounced.

DairyNZ’s Tim Mackle agreed that the Waikato figures could be due to a combination of “old gear and attitude”.

He said DairyNZ had always argued that consistency in monitoring programmes across regional councils would be useful, and claimed “we are starting to see that movement and they are sharing their ideas as well.”

But, for now, the regional councils remain inconsistent in their approach.

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