Sunday, August 14, 2022

Enhancing the environment

Neal Wallace
Southland’s Miller family have seen the benefit of farm environment plans. Neal Wallace joined a recent field day on their central Southland farm where the family extolled the benefits.

The Miller family of Roslyn Downs in Southland, from left Eleanor Miller, Jocelyn Miller, Rachel Miller, Andrew Miller, Quentin Miller and Jason Miller.

Southland’s Miller family have seen the benefit of farm environment plans. Neal Wallace joined a recent field day on their central Southland farm where the family extolled the benefits.

The Miller family mantra is quite simple: In God we trust, in all others we will bring data.

It says plenty about the attitude of the Southland farming family towards the management of their environment and ultimately preserving family ownership of their Glencoe property, Roslyn Downs.

Jason Miller says 20 years ago the family could see change was imminent in the way they were able to farm and the decision was made to move first.

They introduced more planning and recording of what they do and the results and impact of their actions.

“Whether we’re serious about supplying a premium market or just having a right to farm, we need data,” Jason said.

To achieve that they created a farm plan alongside Environment Southland and became a NZ Farm Assurance Plus pilot property.

In the past 20 years they have erected 30km of fencing to exclude stock from 10km of waterways, installed sediment ponds to capture soil and nutrient runoff, extensively planted native and exotic plantations and, in conjunction with a neighbour, built a 6ha wetland.

“We are partway along the journey,” he said.

Roslyn Downs is a 620ha farm that runs into the Hokonui Hills.

The original block was settled by the family in 1960 and is now run by brothers Jason and Quentin Miller, their wives Jocelyn and Eleanor and Jason’s son Andrew and his wife Rachel.

They run 4000 Coopdale ewes, 1200 hoggets, 200 bulls and 200 trading cattle.

Lambs are finished to 19kg and Friesian bulls to 300kg, while Wagyu cross weaners are bought at 95kg and sold to a local feedlot before the second winter.

Ewes lamb at 150% to 160% and hoggets at 80% to 85%.

The opportunity to change the way they manage the farm occurred in the mid-1990s when the family bought two adjacent blocks of land, which required significant fencing and capital investment.

It was a relatively simple decision to undertake that development to utilise the natural aspects of the land. 

Jason says through the farm planning process they identified various soil types on the enlarged property, which became instrumental in how they manage their livestock classes without causing damage.

He told those attending a recent field day, part of the Beef + Lamb NZ annual meeting earlier this year, the plan identified some areas that are totally unsuited for wintering cattle, including wetter areas which had previously been used.

It also led to a development for which the family is especially proud.

A decade ago, the Millers and a neighbour agreed to change their boundary line so a 6ha wetland, which straddled both properties, could be fenced to exclude livestock and allow it to regenerate and return to being a native wetland.

The project has been helped with the planting of 5000 native trees and shrubs, including harakeke flax, but the growing birdlife population is now enhancing the process by spreading seed.

As part of a push to improve biodiversity on the wetland, a bird count is held every year and as well as ducks in the wetland, it supports tūī, bellbirds and swallows.

The bird count entails standing in one spot for an hour and counting what birdlife can be seen and Jason says numbers are increasing.

However, the recent discovery of a stoat in the wetland means pest control is required.

Weirs have been built to help create a myriad of channels and ponds and a self-contained hut on the wetland is used by friends and family, which adds to the appreciation of the restoration and helps spread the word about the work being done to enhance the environment.

“For all the productive land we have lost, we have enhanced the environment,” he said.

The need to reduce pugging has led to changes in the way stock are wintered and an end to the common practice of growing brassica crops for sheep.

Instead, ewes are wintered on four-day breaks on pasture and he says they have noticed an improvement in pasture production and ewe performance.

He attributes this to less competition for feed, which has resulted in improved body condition scores that are constantly in the range of 3 to 3.5.

Cattle are wintered on 35ha of crops beginning with swedes, then shifting to fodder beet from August to October. Swedes yield about 13t/ha and fodder beet 24t/ha.

“This keeps cattle off wet spring pastures, allowing pasture covers to be built and minimising soil damage,” he said.

Soil health assessments are done every spring, from which management decisions are based.

“We do annual visual assessments which are simple and give us confidence our farming systems are sustainable,” he said.

Annual rainfall is between 1000mm and 1100mm and water quality leaving Roslyn Downs is monitored every two months by Environment Southland, with results showing an improvement as it flows through the property.

Jason says data and evidence is crucial for farmers to retain their social licence to farm.

“The only way we can push back debate is if we have verifiable data,” he said.

But the other requirement is to introduce management and systems that reduce the farm’s environmental impact.

Nutrient losses are calculated at 17kg/ha, with the majority occurring over winter, but they are trialling the use of oats as a catch crop to capture some of those surplus nutrients.

He says management focus now is on utilising the better quality land and having natural filtration systems by fencing off and planting waterways to improve water quality, provide shade and to keep water cool.

Where once creeks were straightened to make room for more livestock, they are now fenced and riparian strips planted.

“That makes our life much more comfortable that we are doing something to enhance the water quality before it hits the Hedgehope Creek,” he said.

The areas surrounding ponds, sediment traps and difficult or strategic parts of the farm, are planted in native trees and shrubs.

Where once creeks and wet areas were drained, today the Millers are constructing ponds and traps at the bottom of gullies to capture sediment and nutrients.

However, fencing off these waterways has required the installation of a stock water system using pumps to lift the water to a high point before the water is fed by gravity to troughs throughout the farm.

Similarly, tiles used by earlier generations to drain wet areas actually provide ready evidence of drainage outlets into creeks, which can then be incorporated into sediment and nutrient traps.

Exotic plantations are slowly being replaced with natives, and while fencing is designed to provide natural shelter, the next stage is to plant shelterbelts.

Jason says weeds in riparian areas and wetlands are not too much of a problem and are managed through a small annual weed control programme.

This is all managed and contained in a farm plan compiled two years ago and regularly refined with Environment Southland, but also by being a pilot farm for the NZ Farm Assurance Plus programme (NZFAP).

The trial standard was developed under the Red Meat Profit Partnership and focused on independent verification of the sustainable supply chain, which is focused on the principles of economic, environmental and social responsibility.

He says the involvement of the regional council and NZFAP gives them structure about what information was required and what was expected.

It also reinforced the reality that farmers have budgets and cannot achieve every desired environmental outcome overnight.

Plans must reflect the family’s values and for the Millers that is water quality and protecting the environment.

“We are now at the stage where we are getting rewards as our plan grows and we are achieving environmental gains,” he said.

Anzco manager of systems and a NZFAP board member Grant Bunting says the Millers are proof such plans are not something to be afraid of.

They are an extension of the livestock supply requirements with meat processors, something that dates back to the days of NZ’s first frozen sheepmeat shipment.

“All we are doing is changing the concept of trust. Now you have to demonstrate it. There was a day your word was your bond, now you have to prove it,” Bunting said.

He says the intention is not to duplicate paperwork or farmer obligations, but he believes regional environmental plans and related requirements will inevitably become a market requirement.

Among those requirements will be stating how land is used, how biodiversity is enhanced and managed along with health and safety of family and staff.

“So why not be prepared for that,” he said

Bunting says audits of the plan will not be punitive – a pass and fail scenario.

“No one is going to beat up farmers for the fact they cannot demonstrate a requirement,” he said.

“It is more the fact they are aware and acknowledge it is a requirement and are moving in that direction that will be sufficient.”

Quentin Miller agreed.

“This is not box ticking, but we’re learning along the way,” Quentin said.

“From the outside it may seem scary, but in reality it’s not.”

For example, during winter they take photographs of stock on crops to illustrate what they have done and to contribute to an audited compliance trail.

He says it is crucial that data collection is centralised and formatted so it can be easily dealt with.

Having six family members involved in running the farm is viewed as a positive.

The family meets each month to discuss issues such as finance and planning and Quentin says those meetings utilise the various skills and strengths of each family member.

“We are part of the value chain so we have got to be part of the process,” he said.

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