Farming practices evolving for the better

Farming is seen as a major problem for New Zealand in relation to emissions – cows and sheep burping methane, and meat production is also increasingly under fire from minorities. But farmers are reacting, learning and changing some of their methods.

Farming practices have always evolved, especially through advances in technologies. The gradual switch from horse power (I watched  horse powered hay harvest at Chard Farm, Gibbston in the 1960s) to tractors obviously made a huge difference.  s did the application of fertilisers, which went far too far and is now more often more moderate. Chemicals like weedkillers and animal remedies have been overused and are still a concern –  use of antibiotics to improve animal and poultry growth rates and survival rates a particular problem with wider implications than farming.

The surge in dairy farming and cow numbers this century has resulted in a huge increase in dairy production – and methane, which is coinciding with increasing pressure to reduce carbon emissions.

I’m puzzled about one thing. Cows don’t create carbon, they convert it to methane through digestion of grass. Where does that carbon come from? Absorbed by growing grass? If so it’s just a cycle, so what’s the problem? The conversion from CO2 to methane?

People, for example Greens, have called for cow numbers to be reduced, some saying drastically. But the numbers seem to have at least plateaued.

Stuff: ‘Cow census’ shows NZ farms producing more milk from fewer animals

The latest “cow census” shows Kiwi dairy farms are producing more milk from fewer animals.

While total cow numbers were stable, the animals produced more milk than ever before last season, according to the New Zealand Dairy Statistics report released this week.

Issued by DairyNZ and Livestock Improvement Corporation (LIC), the report showed the country hit record milk production per herd and per cow in the year to May 31.

Dairy companies processed 21.2 billion litres of milk containing 1.88b kilograms of milksolids,  both up 2.4 per cent on the previous season.

However, the latest bovine headcount showed New Zealand had 4.946 million milking cows,down 0.9 per cent from the previous season.

The statistics showed farmers’ focus on productivity and efficiency was paying off, DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle said.

“Farmers have been focusing on improving their environmental management in recent years and they have been doing this while stepping up their on-farm efficiency to produce more milk from fewer cows,” he said.

“More efficient milk production has benefits in areas such as greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient losses.”

Dairy cow numbers had remained fairly stable over the last five years and the days of significant growth in the national herd could be over, Mackle said.

These are only small shifts (up in production and down in numbers) but they’re in the right direction, and improving practices and technologies should help further changes.

Stuff: Kiwi farmers are joining a revolution – farming the regenerative way

With many New Zealand farmers facing financial and environmental challenges, a growing number are showing an interest in regenerative agriculture.

Consultant Jono Frew calls a “revolution” that has people “engaged and excited”.

Frew, who hails from an agricultural spraying background, coaches farmers in the new methods espoused to require less intervention and says he can often save farmers 30 per cent in inputs in just one visit.

He’s a founding member of Quorum Sense, a Canterbury-based network promoting regenerative agriculture and supports farmers wanting to learn more.

Simon Osborne is happy to share the knowledge he’s garnered from a long-term, non-traditional approach on his arable farm. He describes regenerative agriculture as having a focus on soil and ecology.

Osborne grows varieties of plants, as many as 15 species in the same paddock, to provide soil functionality.

“Different species of plants have different types of roots and encourage different types of organisms in the soil to be fed and to thrive.”

Osborne says regenerative agriculture is also about keeping the ground covered at all times, and that means no tilling. He says that also results in carbon being retained in the soil, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

South Canterbury farmer Mike Porter reaches down to grab a chunk of freshly-dug Leeston soil. “There will be as many living organisms in that handful of soil as people living on earth.”

Less fertiliser.

One mentions he hasn’t fed out for four years and hasn’t put any fertiliser on for five years.

Less sprays required, healthier soils, healthier stock, and less carbon emissions all have to be good things.

And less water required.

With a lake and streams nearby, dairy farmer John Legge says the farm was under pressure in terms of water usage. “My whole idea was how do we farm without using water at all?”

The answer, according to Legge, was regenerative agriculture.

“We grew everything that we needed last year on the farm and we only irrigated for six weeks.”

These are all positive signs of changes in farming.

Many farms stay in families for multiple generations, so there are good reasons for keeping farms healthy for the long term.

The world still needs food production, and New Zealand is very good at doing that efficiently, despite our distance from markets. The signs are that this will get better as emissions are reduced.

Greens, farming and “more sustainable land use”

The leak of policies the Greens say were agreed on in governing negotiations will raise a few eyebrows in the farming and export sectors.

1. Climate action

“Significant climate action, with a shift towards a net zero carbon emissions economy by 2050” and the establishing of an independent climate commission. This would include shifting farms to “more sustainable land use” and a focus on transport, energy and primary industries.

New Zealand is supposed to be committed to zero carbon emissions anyway, and it was also Labour policy.

‘Sustainable farming’ is more contentious.

4. Water

Improve water quality and fund “freshwater enhancement”. Government support for irrigation will be wound down.

There has to be continued and increased efforts to reduce water pollution from farming. Somehow this needs to be done without impacting too much on farm incomes, employment and exports.

The farming sector may be concerned, given that Greens have said they want to reduce cow numbers by (I think) 25%. Some reduction is probably sensible, but significant reductions quickly could have a major impact.

During the campaign James Shaw said that a nitrate tax would cost the average dairy farm “no more than 5%” of their profits.

He said the party, if it were in government, would invest in the Sustainable Farming Fund and introduce a fund to support organic farming alongside a new sustainability accreditation scheme.

Mr Shaw said this would be paid for by a nitrate pollution levy on dairy farmers who continue to pollute the soils and water.

He said nitrate pollution was already measured by a modelling system called Overseer.

“The average dairy farm would pay no more than five percent of their pre-tax profits. So that’s the average and it would be no more than that.

That could be significant to struggling cow cockies, especially when it could be in addition to carbon tax for emissions as well as higher costs for irrigation.

What’s really important is that farmers would be able to get that money back by applying to the funds that we’re setting up.”

The Green Party would also place a moratorium on any more farms being converted to dairy, and instead support organic farming.

There have already been moves towards more organic farming methods and this should certainly be encouraged.

However the potential impact on the livelihood of farmers is not a minor matter.

Green policy (not all included in the governing agreement):  Clean water, great farming

The Green Party has a plan to support farmers to move to less polluting, more environmentally sustainable and more profitable ways of farming so that our rivers and lakes are safe to swim in and our drinking water from aquifers is protected.

We will put a levy on nitrate pollution from agriculture, starting with intensive dairying, and use the revenue raised to fund a package of game-changing support measures that farmers can use to reduce their impact on our environment.  We will:

  1. Help farmers move to more sustainable and profitable farming by
  • Extending the Sustainable Farming Fund with an extra $20 million every year.
  • Creating a Transformational Farming Partnership Fund of around $70 million a year.
  • Increasing funding for the Landcare Trust to $16 million over three years.
  • Rewarding tree planting by farmers and landowners.
  • Allowing accelerated depreciation on dairy farm equipment.
  • Support organic farming by introducing national standards, and new funding of $5 million a year.
  1. Implement a levy on nitrate pollution to help protect our rivers, lakes and aquifers, which will raise around $136.5 million in the first year. This will fund the programmes listed above, and an additional $20 million a year for freshwater clean-up projects.
  2. Put a moratorium on new dairy farm conversions.
  3. Wind up Crown Irrigation Investments Ltd and stop providing subsidies for big irrigation projects.
  4. Transition away from Palm Kernel Expeller/Extract (PKE) to alternative feed stocks, from 2018.
  5. Establish a ‘Good Food Aotearoa New Zealand’ national sustainability accreditation scheme for food products, processors and farmers, so those who work with the land, not against it, can prove it to consumers at home and overseas to fetch a higher price and are more attractive to export markets.

“Help farmers move to more sustainable and profitable farming ” – great ideals, but this is vague. I wonder if there has been any real research done on how much more profitable farming will be if it is made more sustainable, how much it will affect farm production, employment and exports.

There is a massive amount dependant on farming in New Zealand, and raising costs and reducing intensification could have a big impact. Do the Greens know how much?

If Greens reduce cow numbers by 30%…

…farmers have a solution.

Greens have often said they want to reduce cow numbers by up to 30%.

Farmers rallied in Morrinsville on Tuesday, concerned about what may happen if Greens and Labour get into government and force a reduction in cow numbers.

But they threatened a response – if they have to reduce cow numbers they will increase the size of cows.

mcgiven-small-under-cow-768x465

A spokesperson for Federated Farmers unveils a genetically modified cow that will enable dairy farmers to reduce cow numbers significantly.

 

Q+A: the city/rural divide

Fonterra have been doing a lot of advertising on television lately – are they trying to win over public opinion? Or is it too late?

On demand:

Tobacco dominates dairy revenue

A lot is being said about violent robberies of dairies. Tobacco is often the target of thieves, and suggestions have been made that dairies should stop stocking tobacco to protect themselves.

An Associate Minister of Health has said dairy owners should stop selling cigarettes, and the ‘higher security’ of liquor stores means they may be more appropriate outlets.

RNZ: Dairy owners blame cigarette price hikes for robberies

Dairy owners should stop selling cigarettes “if they feel too threatened” by robbers, says Associate Health Minister Nicky Wagner.

A packet of 20 cigarettes will cost about $32 by 2020, after four legislated 10 percent year-on-year price rises.

Dairy owners say the price hikes are making cigarettes more and more enticing for thieves.

Ms Wagner said cigarette sales might be more appropriate for liquor outlets.

“Maybe we should sell them with alcohol because the security systems in an alcohol convenience store is usually much higher than [in] a dairy,” she said.

There’ a major problem with these suggestions. A large chunk of dairy revenue is from tobacco products. Many dairies would be not be viable businesses without tobacco which can represent towards a half of their revenue.

And there are other complications too, as reported by the ODT: Liquor licence in doubt

A Dunedin supermarket  with a perfect record selling alcohol faces losing its liquor licence over the amount of tobacco products it sells.

A report  on the licence application by Brockville Four Square Supermarket said the police, public and Medical Officer of Health did not oppose the liquor licence, and there were no issues about the suitability of the applicants Greg and Zandra Davis.

The problem was a breakdown of the shop’s sales revenue showed the principal income  of the business  came  from the sale of tobacco.

Foodstuffs, which owns the Four Square chain, said tobacco was increasingly becoming shops’ main  revenue stream,  as prices rose each year because of government tax hikes.

Dunedin City Council liquor licensing inspector Tony Mole said in his report  39.50% of the shop’s  revenue was  from  tobacco products, while food products made up 28.64% of  income. According to  the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Regulations Act 2013,  the  shop’s high tobacco income meant it had to be considered its  “principal business”.

I’ve seen claims from elsewhere that suggest tobacco is the principal business of many dairies – this supermarket is in a similar situation to a dairy.

“Under this interpretation of the Act and the regulations, we would conclude that Brockville Four Square cannot be considered a grocery store for the purposes of licensing,” Mr Mole said.

The shop  did not appear to meet the requirements  for a different off-licence application, documents showed.

This is not the only supermarket with this problem.

Cockle Bay Four Square, in Auckland, also had its liquor licence renewal application declined last year on the basis it  sold too much tobacco to be considered a grocery shop.

This is a complex issue.

Security of supermarkets and dairies may need to be increased substantially if they want to safely sell tobacco.

The price of tobacco, pushed up by regularly increasing tax, has in large part created this problem, but it is also a law and order issue. It seems to be getting so bad that the police may need to put more resources into rapid responses to diary robberies – and liquor stores also have high robbery rates in some areas, so they aren’t necessarily the solution.

Minister: ‘limit to further dairy intensification’

Nathan Guy, Minister for Primary Industries has said there is a limit to further dairy intensification.

That limit may have already been reached as the environment, especially waterways, has not coped with the surge in cow numbers.

NZ Herald: NZ dairy expansion will hit limits as environmental impact grows, must chase value, Guy says

Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy says there is a limit to further dairy intensification in New Zealand and growing exports in the future will depend more on increasing the value of products rather than the volume.

The number of dairy cattle in New Zealand has surged as farmers were lured by higher prices for dairy products while demand for sheep meat and wool waned.

That price lure has been wound back with the slump in dairy prices since 2013 (currently running at about two thirds of what they were at their peak).

The latest agricultural statistics for 2016 show New Zealand had 6.5 million dairy cattle, up from just 2.9 million four decades ago.

Dairy products are the country’s largest commodity export worth $11.3 billion in the year through February, and the government aims to double the value of primary sector exports to $64 billion by 2025 from $32 billion in 2012.

In the past two months, New Zealand’s worsening environmental record has come under the microscope of the OECD, Vivid Economics and the Prime Minister’s chief science adviser Peter Gluckman, adding weight to previous reports by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright.

Today, New Zealand published its first Fresh Water report under the Environmental Reporting Act which showed urban areas have the biggest problem with polluted freshwater, but rural areas are showing a faster-declining trend in the quality of fresh water in lakes, rivers and streams.

While efforts have been made to reduce dairy related pollution more has to be done, and it makes sense economically and environmentally to wind back cow numbers and aim to add more value to milk products, and aim for optimal herd numbers rather than just adding more and more.

Why do dairies sell tobacco?

With a growing number of violent robberies of dairies in Auckland why do they sell Tobacco products? They are not the only target of thieves but the escalating price seems to be a major factor in precipitating the spate of attacks.

Tariana Turia wants to take it further:

More:

Dame Tariana Turia says New Zealand needs to stop selling cigarettes – “we should not be allowing it to be sold in our country”

“get rid of the cigarettes, get them out of the country, and allow our people to enjoy some good health”

Would removing cigarettes from dairies and service stations stop violent robberies? That’s unlikely, but it would probably reduce them significantly.

Would banning tobacco altogether be a solution (it would reduce tobacco consumption) or would it just create different problems? Like more cannabis use?

Also on Q & A -the regions and farming

Also on Q & A this morning:

Can we reboot our regions?

The future seems grim for some of our regions that are facing flat-lining growth or even decline. But could there be a silver lining? Demographer Professor Paul Spoonley talks solutions in his new book, Rebooting the Regions.

And the man that runs New Zealand’s biggest farm talks about the future of dairy, doing more to fix our water problems and the changing face of modern farming. Landcorp CEO Steven Carden is interviewed by Corin Dann.

Joining our host Greg Boyed on the panel are political scientist Dr Bryce Edwards, former Labour candidate Dr Deborah Russell and businessman Sam Stubbs.

 

China allegedly threatens NZ on trade

The Sunday Star Times claims that “behind the scenes” China has threatened “retaliatory measures” against New Zealand trade if inquiries continue into the quality of Chinese supplied steel.

If accurate this is chilling. It puts a small country like us, dependent to a significant degree on trade with China, in a difficult and relatively powerless position.

China threatens reprisals on NZ dairy, wool and kiwifruit if government doesn’t back off cheap steel inquiry

China has threatened “retaliatory measures” against New Zealand trade, warning it will slow the flow of dairy, wool and kiwifruit imports.

The world’s biggest trading nation is angry at New Zealand inquiries into a glut of Chinese steel imports flooding the market; the Chinese believe New Zealand is part of a US-led alliance to target Chinese national interests.

New Zealand is angry that China should take such a combative approach, and is asking that it desist.

New Zealand ‘anger’ may be futile in a trade war between China and the US.

The quality of steel from China is becoming a concern.

Pacific Steel, the sister company of iron miner and processor NZ Steel, has lodged a confidential application, under local and World Trade Organisation rules, for an investigation into China dumping cut-price steel on the New Zealand market.

The local industry is struggling to compete with the glut of sometimes substandard Chinese metal, which is being used in major projects like the $1.4 billion Waterview Connection and bridges on the Waikato Expressway.

Competing with cheap imports from China has been a problem for New Zealand manufacturers for a long time, as has the quality of imported goods.

The durability of structural steel is is of much greater concern than the durability of track pants and onesies.

Right now, lawyers for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment are deciding whether the investigation should proceed, which could result in punitive anti-dumping tariffs against China.

But somehow, China learned of the application – and it is taking retaliatory action.

In the past week, representatives of New Zealand’s biggest export industries have been called in by Chinese officials, and told to exert their influence to make sure the MBIE investigation does not go ahead.

To up the ante, they have been told China has begun consulting with its local food producers about imposing reprisal tariffs to slow down the access of New Zealand dairy, wool, kiwifruit and potentially meat to the 1.35 billion-strong Chinese consumer market.

Local producers are alarmed. 

So the should be – and not just local producers.

A trade war with China is definitely not in our interests,” says Andrew Hoggard, a Manawatu dairy farmer. “It’s about 20 per cent of our markets and we’re getting good market penetration with added value products in there.”

Highly-placed sources have confirmed China is applying pressure in an attempt to sway regulators away from imposing anti-dumping or countervailing duties – which are imposed when goods are subsidised – on imported Chinese steel. Zespri and Fonterra are said to have been heavied, and other exporters may have been.

But I don’t thing New Zealand can compromise on the quality of critical things like structural steel.

The world’s biggest trading nation believes the United States is leading an alliance of sycophantic nations, doing the US bidding by shutting down Chinese trade and trying to force its military out of the contested islands and atolls of the South China Sea.

China’s unusual tactics have caused government and industry to close ranks. The Ministry of Commerce of China (MOFCOM) has denied consulting on retaliatory tariffs. Fonterra spokesman Phil Turner and Zespri’s chief operating officer Simon Limmer both denied any knowledge of the Chinese industry consultation.

But trade expert Charles Finny, who has worked on China-New Zealand trade issues for decades, said sources in Government confirmed at least one major exporter had been told “the Chinese Government would like pressure to be applied to MBIE”.

I don’t think we have a choice – New Zealand has to stand firm on our procedures for dealing with potentially substandard imports of building materials.

If China takes retaliatory action in other markets then we just have to bear the brunt of that. We can’t allow another country – any other country – to dictate how we do things via threats.

It may adversely effect some of our trade but the alternative is worse.

UPDATE:  McClay to follow up on China retaliation claims (NZME)

Trade Minister Todd McClay says he will ask officials to contact the Chinese Embassy in Wellington to clarify China’s position on competition issues.

He was commenting about news reports that China could take retaliatory action against dairy and kiwifruit exports from New Zealand if a formal investigation into alleged steel dumping by China is launched by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).

McClay said he would be asking his officials to contact China’s embassy.

“Certainly I would be asking officials to clarify the Chinese position in as far as any competition issue was concerned,” he said today from Townsville, en route to Indonesia with a trade delegation, where he is meeting up with Prime Minister John Key.

Retaliatory action was serious.

“Market economies don’t do that with each other. WTO [World Trade Organisation] rules don’t allow it,” McClay said.

“I will certainly be talking with my colleagues and the Prime Minister when we get to Indonesia.”

Dairy slump continues

There’s no sign of recovery for dairy prices with another drop in auction prices overnight.

15 March 2016 auction result:

DairyAuctionMar2016

10 year trends:

DairyAuction10yrtrendMar2016

Tough times continue.