Decent Dairying

A group of Southland dairy farmers is showing how to get the cows milked and look after the environment.

By David Brooks.

The headlines about dirty dairying and worries about  declining water quality can obscure the efforts of many farmers who want to do the right thing for  the environment. One operation near Southland’s Curio Bay has gone the extra mile by improving water quality in creeks coming off the farm after converting a beef and sheep operation to dairying.

Planting on the farm with volunteers from the YMCA conservation training course

Planting on the farm with volunteers from the YMCA conservation training course

Owned by five families in the South Coast Dairy partnership, the 200-hectare farm has been managed by Chris and Lynsey Stratford since the land was bought and the conversion started in 2009. All the waterways have since been fenced, and about 8000 natives have been planted.  

A 29ha podocarp forest remnant on the farm has been fenced and protected under a QEII National Trust covenant and a pest control programme keeps down the numbers of
possums and mustelids such as stoats and weasels.

Curio Bay in the Catlins is a treasure, a place where surfers sometimes share the waves with Hector’s dolphins and yellow-eyed penguins. So it was no surprise the proposed dairy conversion attracted controversy and protests when it was fi rst publicised. But criticism has since turned to praise, and last year South Coast Dairy won regional council Environment Southland’s environment award for farming.

“Maybe people jumped to a conclusion and didn’t look at what we were actually proposing and instead went by the reputation of some poor-performing dairy farmers,” says Lynsey Stratford. “Dairying does get bad press, which I don’t think it always deserves. While there are some people who are not performing as they should be, on the whole farmers do try to take care of their land.

“We acknowledge it is a special piece of land and there are a number of outstanding natural features. We wanted to protect and enhance those features. We were lucky we were starting with a blank canvas so we took out the old fence lines and started again. That gave us the scope to take advice and work out the best places to put the new fences to take account of the environmental factors.”

From the start South Coast Dairy sought advice from Environment Southland, the Landcare Trust, local iwi, Fish & Game, Department of Conservation botanist and Forest &
Bird Southland branch committee member Brian Rance and others. Each year they are invited back to see the progress.

“This gives us a lot of positive feedback and we can see the benefi ts of the work we are doing. I think this model of stakeholder consultation and feedback could work well for
other farmers.”   

The first work was fencing off streams, gullies and the edge of a 30ha reservoir as well as the forest remnant containing tötara and other podocarps, which attract
kererü, tüï and other native birds. Riparian areas 5-30 metres wide around creeks, gullies and the reservoir edge were planted with fl ax and other native plants.

More planting has been done for shelter and to expand the forest remnant. The Stratfords carry out pest control, including maintaining 20 traps for possums and 10 for mustelids. In
the podocarp forest, they are also trialling 15 Good Nature possum traps, which can reset themselves up to 24 times, saving a lot of labour in the dense bush.  

An effluent pond was built to hold up to 120 days of cow waste – well above the 90-day minimum under planning rules. This ensures effluent can be stored before respraying
it on pasture when conditions are at their best for the nutrients to be absorbed. About 385 cows are on the farm at a stocking rate of 2.8 cows a hectare.

This is lower than most other dairy operations but profitability is still good. “We might have a lower stocking rate but we have very good production per cow and per hectare through good management. We concentrate on producing more from
fewer animals,” Lynsey says.

Life is very busy on the farm with planting and maintaining the native plants and pest control on top of the dairy operations. Lynsey insists the effort is well worthwhile. “We’re both confident we’re leaving this piece of land in a far better condition than we found it, so that is very rewarding for us.”