How Can We Make Dairy Sustainable? Part 1

Keith Woodford is an independent consultant who holds honorary positions as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University and Senior Research Fellow at the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University. He recently published an article with suggestions on how we can make dairy sustainable. This is part 1, addressing the challenge at hand.

The challenge

The big challenge for New Zealand dairy is how it can become sustainable in the coming decades. This sustainability includes both financial and environmental sustainability. And it needs to occur in the context of both scepticism and some antipathy from within the urban community.

One of the challenges for our new Government is to come to terms with the extent to which dairy and indeed the broader pastoral industries provide a key pillar that underpins the export economy. Without a vibrant export economy, there is no practical way we can address poverty and inequality within Zealand. However, that is not the way that many New Zealanders currently see it. And therein lies the challenge.

I live in an urban community, and my assessment is that most urban people think we do have too many cows. When I ask what alternatives they recommend, the responses are typically naïve. A typical response seems to be that we should be developing more plant-based industries, but there is seldom any understanding of the climatic, soil, topographic and market limitations thereof. 

We do have some outstanding horticultural success stories, with kiwifruit, wine and pip fruit being standouts. The ‘big three’ have succeeded because they have focused on consumer markets as the starting point for industry development. It has been a way of thinking with which the pastoral industries still struggle.

If dairy is to prosper then it has to have a social licence to operate. That licence includes both environmental and animal welfare components. Each needs to be addressed separately, but both then come together into overall farming systems.

A starting point with dairy environmental sustainability is to recognise that there are at least four important measures. These are bacteria levels in water (with E coli as a key indicator), phosphorus runoff, sedimentation, and nitrogen leaching. 

The dairy industry has made huge progress with the first three of these but not the fourth. The ongoing successes with the first three need to be acknowledged by the wider community. 

The key stumbling block to future dairy environmental sustainability is nitrogen leaching. There has to be increasing recognition that the fundamental problem is the concentration of nitrogen in the cow urine patch. During much of the year, this concentration of urine is not a big concern, as plants take up the nitrogen without major leaching. But urine deposited in the second half of autumn is not so leaching occurs. And nitrogen added in winter itself largely goes down through the soil and into underground water, only to emerge again downstream. 

The only solution is to recognise that cows need to be off-paddock during the second half of autumn and throughout much of winter. Anything else is tinkering. Cows can still graze in the paddocks for a few hours per day, but the ruminating and resting needs to occur in an environment where the urine can be collected and spread back to the fields in the following spring and summer.

For many farmers, the above will be like the supposed red rag to a bull. It looks like a lot more cost, and where are the extra returns going to come from?

My own conclusions are that there are economic solutions. However, I do accept that in a heavily indebted industry, where the debt has been structured around assumptions of ongoing capital gain, that many farmers lack the headroom for capital investments. This is where Government will need to come in with concessionary finance for sustainability investment, funded perhaps at their own cost of borrowing.

Read part 2 of this article for Keith’s take on possible solutions.

This article has been edited from its original format. Read the full article here.