Is keeping cows in barns the solution to our water quality issues? DairyNZ is not so sure. Photo: Getty Images

Advances in technology and research will mean New Zealand can “have its cake and eat it too” when it comes to dairy cattle numbers, says DairyNZ CEO Tim Mackle – but unlike Federated Farmers, DairyNZ does not think a shift to keeping cows indoors is one of those new techniques.

Industry group DairyNZ last week released the latest Water Accord results, which showed 97 percent of dairy cattle are now fenced off from waterways, but also revealed a significant worsening of reported nutrient leaching in the areas with the biggest new conversions and no improvement in nitrate leaching nationally.

Green Party primary industries spokesperson Eugenie Sage praises the efforts of dairy farmers – who, DairyNZ said, had spent an average of around $90,000 per farm on waterway protection measures – but says New Zealand still needs to reduce cow numbers and stop new conversions of farms to dairy.

Not so, said Dairy NZ CEO Tim Mackle, when asked about the calls to cut cow numbers during a Q&A session after the release of the Water Accord results.

“I believe we can have our cake and eat it, as a country. I believe science can offer us solutions, so we can have a prosperous country from primary industries.”

The peak cattle conversation

That question from the floor came from Federated Farmers president William Rolleston, who told Newsroom he “wouldn’t have put it that way” himself, but agrees with Mackle that science is providing ways to reduce the environmental footprint of dairying, and will continue to do so.

“The conversation about ‘peak cattle’ is the same as the conversation we had 10 years ago about ‘peak oil’ saying there wasn’t any more oil left and actually we have got far more oil now. These are simplistic notions – they are catchy but they are just simplistic,” Rolleston says.

“If we want to be making a difference to the environment then we have got to be looking at what the environmental effects are and what we can do about it. In some catchments that might mean doing something rather drastic, in terms of putting animals indoors, for example.”

Cattle in the US fed with silage. Photo: Getty Images

Rolleston says barns, which are common in the US and Europe, are being quietly built all around New Zealand. “There are literally hundreds of them about the place.”

The barns – large, hangar like sheds – can be partially or fully enclosed and contain stalls for the cows to stand or lie in. Some also have “loafing” areas for the cows to move around in. Some farmers allow the cows the option of being in or out of the shed. Rolleston said they tend to choose to stay inside, especially in poor weather.

DairyNZ puts the average cost of building and setting up a barn at around $2900 per cow, although it can be up to $5000. For a farmer with 400 cows, that’s a cost of up to $2 million.

“We would merely be swapping one problem for another”

And that large set-up cost is one of the reasons DairyNZ doesn’t see barns as a magic bullet.

It says to make the barns profitable, farmers would have to add more cows and feed, thus eroding any potential environmental benefit.

In a statement provided by DairyNZ, its principal scientist animal science, John Roche, says of year-round barns: “anyone who has visited those systems internationally and witnessed the reality of the environmental, social, and economic problems would be unlikely to conclude they’re the most environmentally sustainable approach to dairying in New Zealand.”

“Environmentally, housed systems have their own problems with water and air quality, not to mention greenhouse gas footprint – we would merely be swapping one problem for another.”

Roche says pasture remains the best feed for dairy cows and “all other feeds, from a nutritional perspective, are inferior”. And importing feed, or even growing it here and using herbicides, fungicides and fuel to do so, comes with its own environmental costs.

He also points out that consumers want to buy milk from pasture-fed cows, and in Europe some milk companies pay a premium to farmers that allow their animals to graze.

DairyNZ’s website lists the benefits of barns as including better herd monitoring and a possible reduction in lameness, as well as minimising production losses from the herd travelling to and from grazing. It also lists cost savings on paddock and farm maintenance and from using barn waste to compliment fertiliser applications.

But it warns that farmers will have to buy high quality supplements and be vulnerable to price changes and, with higher input costs, they will be more at risk from fluctuations in milk prices. It also says the effluent management can be challenging and there is a risk of “community complaints” over smell.

“We will no longer be able to market our products as coming from ‘clean green New Zealand'”

The Green Party agrees that barns are not the solution.

“If there is a movement to barns on some areas, such as around the Rotorua Lakes, it does mean there is less nutrient pollution going into the waterways, it stops soil compaction during winter and is probably more comfortable for the stock – but the impacts are that it will shift our agricultural system away from pastoralism into even more industrial farming,” says Sage.

“It would be symptomatic of a complete change in New Zealand agriculture.”

“We will no longer be able to market our products as coming from ‘clean green New Zealand’ and it will lead to a lot more intensive systems with a lot more supplementary feed and that also means that stock numbers would have to increase to justify the very high capital costs to farms. So it’s another sign of farming being pushed to focus on production rather than on catching more value.”

Sage says both DairyNZ and Federated Farmers are “in denial” if they think science is going to provide solutions to allow continued dairy intensification.

“We have got to get serious about reducing cow numbers,” she says. “There are no magic bullets on the horizon.”

But Rolleston says it’s unrealistic to expect the water quality problem to be solved quickly but progress is being made, and farmers are spending time, money and effort on the issue.

“I always say farmers hate being told what to do, but if you give them a problem they want to solve it – and we are seeing that right across the country with water quality,” he says.

And for increasing numbers of them that might mean digging deep into their pockets and moving their cows into a barn, despite DairyNZ’s reservations.   

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