The Canterbury farm company taken to court for destroying rare plants is planning to build huge cattle sheds. David Williams reports

A cattle feedlot is planned near Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere – although further approvals are needed.

Christchurch City Council has granted consent for farm company Wongan Hills to build two 200m-long composting feed barns, holding up to 1000 beef cattle each, in Kaituna Valley, Banks Peninsula. Together the 12,000m² sheds have a footprint almost as big as Christchurch’s monolithic, central-city convention centre, Te Pae, which covers 28,000m².

The cattle sheds breach several district plan rules, including those for maximum building footprint which is meant to be 300m². The barns and ancillary buildings will cover 24,330m².

The feedlot is a new controversy for Wongan Hills, owned by Brent Thomas, which made national headlines in 2018 for destroying rare native plants – the shrubby tororaro, or Muehlenbeckia astonii – on a 10km-long farm at nearby Kaitōrete Spit.

Consent for the barns was granted, with conditions, in August, after commissioner David Mountfort determined the effects would be less than minor, and there were no affected parties. The nearest house is 700m away.

The proposal has drawn criticism from environmental lobby groups.

Forest & Bird’s regional conservation manager Nicky Snoyink says it was superficial of the city council to just consider landscape and visual effects, especially in the Selwyn-Waihora catchment which is struggling with nutrients from farming, and so close to Te Waihora, acknowledged as one of the country’s most polluted lakes.

(The Land Air Water Aotearoa website states Kaituna Lagoon, on Te Waihora’s eastern side, has a “declining” trend for total phosporus, total nitrogen, chlorophyll-a, and cyanobacteria. However, there are likely improvements in clarity and E.coli concentrations.)

Snoyink believes a joint hearing, with regional council ECan, would have been better. “We’ve seen this piecemeal approach to consenting large, intensive developments in the Mackenzie and it hasn’t worked that well.”

The city council granted consent for the sheds to be built despite Wongan Hills not settling on an effluent disposal system.

Greenpeace is against “industrial agriculture” of the scale and intensity proposed.

“We already have too many cows, too much nutrient run-off and too much methane for our freshwater systems, our drinking water and our climate to sustain,” senior agriculture campaigner Christine Rose says.

“Feedlots like this, especially near sensitive waterways, need to be strongly opposed by civil society and by consenting authorities. Industrial feedlots like this are input intensive, reliant on imported palm kernel expeller, which causes the destruction of rainforests elsewhere, and creates toxic waste and methane legacies for generations to come.”

Newsroom asked Wongan Hills’ owner Thomas if that scale of development was appropriate for a rural area, and if the public should be concerned about such an intensive activity taking place 3.4km from the edge of Te Waihora. He didn’t respond.

The scale of the new sheds in Kaituna Valley. Image: Christchurch City Council

Christchurch’s council and ECan declared a climate emergency in 2019, within days of each other. The city council dubbed it a climate and ecological emergency. Yet its consideration of the Wongan Hills consent doesn’t mention the word “climate” once.

In the consent decision, Wongan Hills stated spreading effluent as fertiliser would fit within its existing nutrient budget, and it is seeking an amendment to its existing discharge consent from the regional council, ECan.

ECan consents planning manager Aurora Grant says a resource management officer is arranging to visit the property to discuss the feedlot proposal and provide advice. It’s unlikely to be covered by existing consents, she says.

“It is more likely that various new consents will be needed under the Land and Water Regional Plan and the feedlot requirements in the Resource Management (National Environmental Standards for Freshwater) Regulations 2020. Exactly what those look like will depend on the proposal put in front of us.”

Earlier this year, Wongan Hills secured new farming and irrigation permits from ECan for its 5400-hectare farming operation, spread over several properties and known collectively as Willesden Farms.

The city council’s August consent decision shows the cattle sheds breach several district plan rules. Beyond the already mentioned maximum building footprint, the maximum permitted site coverage is 2000m². The galvanised steel construction of the sheds and silos also breach reflectivity standards.

Wastewater ponds shouldn’t be more than 100m³ in volume or 600mm deep, but the proposed Kaituna Valley pond is set to be 600m² in area and 3m deep. (It’s not clear if cattle waste will be dealt with by a 4m-high effluent tank or a pond.)

Wongan Hills’ consultants said the sheds will have “very low to low degree of adverse effects” on landscape values and visual amenity. In fact, Paul Smith, of Rough and Milne Landscape Architecture, said the proposal “satisfies” the district plan “as it will maintain the landscape values and qualities of the rural amenity landscape of Kaituna Valley”.

The council’s consultant, Jeremy Head of WSP, agreed in principle, but suggested improvements to the sheds’ colour and further mitigation planting.

On the visual effects, a swaying factor appears to be a visit to a feedlot with a dairy shed in Chertsey, 70km by road south of Christchurch. Head said: “It was generally agreed between council and the applicant that the feed barns did not appear as large constructed as what was expected given their large size.”

Additional visual mitigation of the sheds to be built in Kaituna Valley will be provided by large rectangular hay bales stacked four metres high, in a shelter belt gap. Wongan Hills consultant Smith, backed by Head, said the visual effects on the owners of properties about 700m away would be low in the short-term and during winter, and very low or negligible during summer “after seven-to-10 years when the additional trees have matured sufficiently to fill the gaps”.

Composting sawdust under hoof

The floors of the 15m-high barns will be covered in a 700-800mm-deep layer of composting sawdust, maintained at between 40-60°C “which kills bacteria and ‘cooks off’ liquid effluent”.

“The compost is mechanically aerated once a day when the animals are moved into feed lanes for five hours. Waste from the feed lanes is flood washed into a screw press where the solids are removed, while the wastewater is sent to the treatment pond for further settling before reuse in the washdown process. Once no longer useable, the wastewater is spread onto pastures as fertiliser.”

Wongan Hills may seek a further consent for earthworks for a wastewater pond “in relation to the Kaituna River”. “But this will depend on the depth of groundwater at the final site chosen and its distance from the river.”

Methane emissions aside, some argue large cattle sheds are good for the environment.

In 2018, in the wake of images being released of the Five Star Beef Ltd feedlot near Ashburton, AgResearch science team leader for environmental research Dr Dave Houlbrooke said feedlots in New Zealand were typically of a different scale to those overseas.

Systems designed for drainage, and effluent capture and storage, “can present an advantage in less urine patches on the ground that result in nitrate leaching”.

A year earlier, housing cattle in shed cubicles was being promoted as a way to stop effluent polluting Canterbury’s waterways.

However, Save Animals From Exploitation spokesman Andrew Knight, a professor of animal welfare, raised concerns about high levels of lameness and mastitis. He said indoor farming was more about maximising profits than animal welfare.

There are also questions about whether a change to indoor systems will harm the cattle industry’s international reputation, given the image of cows roaming the country’s green pastures.

Forest & Bird’s court action against Wongan Hills to stop further destruction of native plants at Kaitōrete sparked a years-long behind-the-scenes discussions which culminated in the Crown spending $16 million to buy the land, now earmarked for an aerospace facility in a joint venture with rūnanga.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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