Environmental sustainability and profit possible in dairying

Managers at St Peter’s dairy farm hope to prove it was possible to remain profitable while implementing a strong environmental policy around wetland management.

The 160ha farm near Cambridge sat adjacent to the Waikato River. This location made it ideal to be able to demonstrate best environmental practice backed up with robust science for wetland monitoring, demonstration farm manager Doug Dibley said at an open day held on the farm.

It would also provide an opportunity to show leadership and influence the urban communities about the positive work the sector was doing around environmental management.

Nutrient management and water quality on dairy farms was a topical issue. The dairy industry had been in the limelight on this issue and it was a great opportunity for the farm demonstrate best practice on this issue, Dibley said.

Water quality regulations were still being drafted at a regional level and he welcomed the opportunity to work with the Waikato Regional Council to change practices to show that dairy farming can be environmentally and economically sustainable.

“We can be profitable and sustainable. We don’t have to be one or the other and I think we certainly can achieve that.”

Opus consultant Roger MacGibbon said there was no reason why both cannot be achieved. The starting point was to know the elements causing any environmental impact and this meant understanding the farm’s nutrient profile, particularly nitrogen and phosphorous.

Every nutrient not utilised ended up in the Waikato River. That made the farm ideal for studying and demonstrating dairying’s environmental impact, he said.

“Not only what seeps off the surface but what ended up in the ground water and that ground water is moving down there at a rapid rate of knots.

“The footprint is glaringly obvious, but from a research or demonstration perspective, it was a good place to monitor what the cause and effects of this farm are,” MacGibbon said.

Economic performance and environmental sustainability had common threads in soil management, optimum nutrient usage and water management.

“If we look after those three factors, we are going to have a good farm performance-wise and we’re also going to have a good farm from an environmental perspective.”

The farm had a very good planting of native riparian plants in the wetlands. At first glance, the growth of the raupo plants in the dry summer could be an indication that there was nutrients coming in through the ground water, he said.

Plants like raupo in wetlands were excellent natures tools for removing nitrogen.

“We can extract 50 per cent of the nitrate if we build these wetlands properly.”

Where and in what form wetlands could be created to capture water escaping from the pasture was still being considered. He said they planned to look at each area, soil type and block and question what was the best interest of the farm’s environmental and economic performance.

The school’s partnership with Lincoln meant there would be a larger amount of monitoring occurring and there was a significant investment by the partners to monitor the cause and effect of the farm’s footprint.

MacGibbon hoped monitoring would eventually result in the scientists being able to quantify the costs of nitrogen or phosphorous saved on a per kilogram basis.

“If we can do that, and demonstrate how to do this really cost effectively, and show that it doesn’t bankrupt the farm, I think we would have achieved something.”

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