The muddied waters of the winter grazing debate

The winter grazing issue is becoming a highly-sensitised one that I hope will not become so politicised that it delays solutions and results in the suicides of some very stressed farmers.

Winter grazing has hit the headlines after a determined campaign, including the release of a video of some very common scenes around the country at this time of year. It recorded many examples of poorly managed grazing causing discomfort and stress to stock and graphically demonstrating the environmental degradation that this method causes. The campaign helped to motivate the Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor into announcing the formation of a task force to respond to the issues around the practice.

There has been some politically questionable responses to the campaign and the Minister's announcement and most especially from Clutha Southland MP Hamish Walker. He described the taskforce as "more money down the drain" and unfortunately related the conditions of winter grazing as similar to those protesting at Ihumātao. This displayed a good deal of ignorance of both issues.

The Southland region has suffered massively from the environmental impacts of dairying. To put the growth of the industry in perspective, the number of cows in Southland has grown over 500% between 1994 and 2015, the fastest growth of any region. The total population of dairy cattle in the region is now over 600,000. Each cow produces the same quantity of effluent as 14 people and this means that our Southland dairy herd is the largely untreated effluent equivalent of 8.4 million people.

Most of our rivers are now deemed unswimmable and Environment Southland warns people not to swim or collect shellfish for at least two days after heavy rain.

The New River estuary beside Invercargill has suffered hugely from farm sediment and nutrients to the extent that it is eutrophying at a shocking rate. A 2013 Southland Times editorial graphically described the situation:
"Anyone who regards the warnings about Southland's sick estuaries as alarmist should take their head out of the sand and insert it into some of the eutrophic nastiness of Daffodil Bay. Such a popular recreational area, it is now redolent of Rotorua and not in a good way." 

Six years later things have got exponentially worse, to the extent that it will take a massive investment to remove tonnes of toxic black sludge if we were to make any difference. A summary of a 2018 macroalgal monitoring report includes this statement:
"In short, the estuary is exhibiting significant problems associated with excessive nutrient fuelled nuisance macroalgal growth and likely represents the largest impact of this type to have occurred in a NZ SIDE estuary. Unless nutrient inputs to the estuary are reduced significantly, it is expected that there will be a continuation of these very difficult to reverse adverse impacts in the estuary."

Dairy farming and winter grazing are also seriously threatening New Zealand's most significant and internationally recognised wetland. Southland's Waituna Lagoon has been close to flipping for almost a decade and almost did last year when it suffered a toxic algae bloom. A combination of an unusually hot summer and high nutrient load caused the bloom. With climate change increasing the likelihood of future hot summers, we can only really look at reducing nutrient levels if we want to avoid a repeat.

Urgent action is needed but the consequences for farmers are massive. The growth of our dairy herds was enthusiastically supported by Fonterra, the previous government and banks, with little regard to the environmental consequences. Farmers were actively encouraged to increase production and Environment Canterbury was sacked when councillors were deemed too slow to provide water rights to the expanding dairy industry. During the main growth phase of dairying in Southland the regional council largely acted as an enabler and few restrictions were applied to sensitive catchments. The current council is able to better manage recent consent applications but retrospective action is hugely problematic. Southland Federated Farmers have fiercely fought any initiatives to restrict and manage the industry. 

However, it is unreasonable to lay the blame totally on farmers who set up and grew their businesses under a regime that encouraged growth and ignored the external impacts of the industry. Many are trapped with high debt and the label "Dirty Dairy". Farmers have told me that they are now reluctant to admit their occupation because of the social stigma and feel that they are becoming the fall guys (and gals) as environmental awareness within the public grows. Many farmers do not share the Federation's hard ball approach and there have been a number of farmers who have embraced the environmental challenges.

It is hard to change years of practice without cost-effective alternatives but there is a high level of urgency to find these for farmers and share the practical solutions that exist. Environment Southland have changed intensive winter grazing from a permitted activity to one that can only be permitted if a number of criteria are met. It is clear that many have ignored this and I am not aware of what consequences are being applied to those who do. A carrot and stick approach may be necessary to encourage some change of practice in the short term. However, even the best managed intensive winter grazing has negative impacts on soil health and ground water. 

Many believe that we have gone beyond "peak cow" with regards to environmental sustainability. We were recently importing around a million tonnes of palm kernel per annum because herd sizes grew beyond the capacity of many farms to support. A reduction in herd size would be an instant solution (and would also reduce our troubling methane emissions) but the economic consequences would be drastic to many unless there were other ways of increasing income with reduced stock numbers.

Farmers shouldn't have to be left alone to find solutions. The Minister's task force may be some help but there should be a considerable financial investment and a collaborative approach from industry, government, Agresearch and local communities. We have to get alongside farmers to create change before they completely lose their social licence to operate and their declining mental health has serious consequences. This may be both an environmental and social disaster if not managed well and quickly.


A couple of campaigners, one of whom has been photographing winter grazing for a number of years, had their vehicle rammed during the weekend. Enraged farmers also smashed a vehicle window and around a dozen of them blockaded a property to stop the activists from leaving. This is a concerning escalation.


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