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As farmers face increasing environmental and freshwater rules and regulations, one Waikato farmer has stepped up to play a bigger role in helping farmers achieve their goals and meet the regulations. Gerald Piddock reports.
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Melissa Slattery | October 20, 2020 from GlobalHQ on Vimeo.

New Dairy Environment Leaders Forum (DEL) chair Melissa Slattery wants to explore ways of getting its members to play more of an active role in the industry as tighter regulations come into force around freshwater management.

This could see the DEL be more active at a regional level where farmers have more of a voice about the effects of these new rules on their businesses.

This approach would allow farmers’ local knowledge to be better utilised when looking at the effects of these rules. They could also be the ones to strike up conversations with community groups or organise events where award-winning farms are showcased, she says.

As regional plans continued to be developed throughout the country, it was important that farmers have a voice during the process.

“Get involved, stay informed, build awareness around what is happening around your local community in terms of, for instance water quality,” Slattery says.

“The only other advice I would give are farm environment plans. If you haven’t done one, look to do them, they’re a good starting spot.”

DEL are farmers that are active in their communities at grassroots level, on boards and local committees.

They come together for a forum every year to accelerate positive change for the sector. Increasingly, the focus is on building regional action to meet the wider Dairy Environment Leaders outcomes.

Melissa says she remains hopeful there will be a forum later this year, despite the risks around covid-19.

DEL’s purpose is to foster kaitiakitanga – stewardship for the future and to support farmers to implement on-farm and catchment scale change to reduce their environmental footprint. 

Formed in 2013 by DairyNZ, there are now over 300 DEL leaders throughout New Zealand.

Melissa was first invited to attend the DEL Forum in Wellington in 2017.

“I was exposed to a lot of interesting information and met a lot of great people from around the country,” she says.

Since then, she has attended three of the forums, describing the information she learned from the forum over the years as “mind boggling”, particularly around environmental monitoring and the policy process.

When the chair position was vacant when Matamata dairy farmer Tracy Brown stepped down after three years, Melissa decided to apply for the role.

“I really enjoyed attending the forum and the information I got from it and learning and growing and I could see great potential for it to grow and develop for farmers as well,” she says.

Melissa says she was excited and humbled to secure the role.

“I look forward to building on all the great work dairy farmers are doing throughout New Zealand to improve water quality, reduce climate change emissions and dairy’s environmental footprint while maintaining our profitable farm business,” she says.

“DEL is about farmers supporting farmers – this has always been a key part of the culture in our sector. 

“Sustainability is a constantly evolving topic and Dairy Environment Leaders help us stay ahead of the sector’s needs and the wishes of New Zealanders.”

DairyNZ strategy and investment leader for responsible dairy Dr David Burger says Melissa brought a wealth of dairy farming and business experience to the role and a deep appreciation of the importance of environmental sustainability.

“Melissa is forward-looking and collaborative and we know she will make a significant contribution to the dairy sector’s commitment to environmental stewardship for future generations,” he says.

DEL members are forward-looking and motivated to achieve positive outcomes using tools such as environment plans and leading through.

Highlighting these tools would help shift the bottom tier of the industry to achieve better environmental and financial gains, she says.

Melissa puts those words into practice on the 106-hectare farm she owns with husband Justin near Te Aroha in Waikato. They bought the 300-cow farm three years ago, fulfilling their long-held ambition of being farm owners.

Both are members of the Dairy Step Change Action Group for Waikato, which looks at options for farmers to reduce its environmental footprint while remaining profitable.

“Having that knowledge and having it to achieve outcomes is important,” she says.

Melissa is also former regional leader for both the Canterbury/North Otago Dairy Industry Awards and the North Canterbury Rural Business Network.

Both are from farming backgrounds in Waikato with both of their parents owning farms in the Te Aroha area.

Melissa grew up on the family dairy farm but after leaving school in 2004, went to work in a chartered accountants office where she studied while working and qualified as a chartered accountant in 2012, and is currently an associate at Te Aroha-based firm Diprose Miller.

Justin started out as a filter-welder before switching to dairying.

The couple knew of each other from school but were introduced by mutual friends in 2006. They married in 2011 and now have three children, six-year-old Ryan, three-year-old Connor and one-year-old Tim.

They relocated to Canterbury where they sharemilked for six years, firstly near Fairlie and then on a farm at Culverden, North Canterbury. 

In 2015, they won the national Sharemilker of the Year title and then relocated back to Waikato when they bought a 106ha, 300-cow farm near Te Aroha.

“Our goal was to simply buy a farm,” Justin says.

They had a handful of offers on-farm in Canterbury, but this farm had the added attraction of allowing them to return to the district they had grown up in.

Winning the national sharemilking title not only lifted their profile, providing opportunities they otherwise would not have got, it also gave Melissa her first experience being a leader in the dairy industry.

“It’s the connections and people that you meet and learn and grow from,” she says.

Justin says they still keep in touch with the regional winners from 2015 and had a reunion last January in Northland.

They operate a System 3 farm, calving in spring, buying in supplementary feed and grow fodder beet as a summer feed crop, growing 22t/ha last season.

Justin says the farm needed a lot of work when they bought it to get its infrastructure including water lines, pasture and its effluent system up to standard.

The system they inherited with the farm was a sump and pump at the end of the yard. Although managed well, it was high risk for non-compliance.

Knowing that they needed a new effluent system, they set about doing it right. First up, working through the Dairy Effluent Storage Calculator (DESC).

DESC is a software tool developed by Horizons Regional Council and Massey University to determine the effluent storage requirements of a farm. It works by taking into account a number of assumptions, including the square meterage of your yard, soil types, drainage, effluent application depth of irrigator, rainfall, cow numbers and wash water in the dairy.

“Doing the calculation gave us a really good base of what we needed out of an effluent system,” Melissa says.

“It’s a bit of an intense process so we worked with Karl Rossiter who is a sustainable dairy advisor from Fonterra to run the calculation and double checked that the assumptions were correct. It told us we needed 700m3 of storage for a covered storage system and 1200m3 for uncovered,” she explains.

They also looked at ways they could potentially reduce their effluent storage requirements and optimise their dairy.

Introducing a storm water diversion system made immediate sense, reducing the application rate with modifying their effluent irrigator and other small changes to their daily operation in the dairy to reduce water usage.

“A lot of small changes can add up to quite a big saving of water,” she says.

“We basically looked (it) up on the DairyNZ website, working through the smarter water use in the milking shed for things we could do and figured out what would realistically work for us and be practical to reduce our water usage, then we trained our team so we were all working towards the same goal,” Justin says.

“It finally feels like we have turned it around and we’ve got it doing what it should.

“We’re onto our fourth season on this property and it’s finally doing what it should have been doing when we got here.”

The Slatterys also had to battle the elements.

In their first year, 20% of the farm was flooded, the following year they had a wet spring that affected pasture growth and last year they were affected by drought.

Despite those challenges, the farm produced 110,000kg milksolids off 100 effective hectares last season.

Justin says they have managed to increase the farm’s production by 10,000kg milksolids every year since they have been there.

This season has been kind so far, with the winter temperatures more like a late autumn than the hard, cold frosty weather that the region is used to.

As a result, production is up 30% for the season so far, he says.

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