Saturday, December 2, 2023

Water policy stymies green work

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Hill-Country farmers will be deterred from doing environmental protection and enhancement because of limits put on land use by the proposed Essential Freshwater policies, Tararua farmers Simon and Trudy Hales say.
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They believe restrictions on farmers’ ability to realise the productive potential of their land will stymie investment in environmental protection.

The couple, this year’s Supreme Award winners in the Manawatu-Wanganui Region Ballance Farm Environment Awards, estimate over the past four years they have spent about $120,000 on environmental protection on their 970ha, 819ha effective, hill country farm.

They have retired land and more actively managed other areas through planting but have been able to do it only by lifting productivity.

That has included growing 60ha of forage crops including kale, which, along with genetics and body condition scoring the Hales credit for significantly lifting reproductive performance in their 3700 Romney ewes. Since using kale to flush ewes, scanning percentages in light ewes, below BCS 3, have lifted from 150% to 185%.

This lift in performance has allowed them to drop ewe numbers and reduce their stocking rate from a peak of 9.9 to eight stock units/hectare. The farm system changes are known as eco efficiency gains, which result in increasing farm performance while reducing the environmental footprint across soil health, greenhouse gas emissions and freshwater health. 

Feed crops have become a critical part of the Hales’ system and chicory and clover are used to drive pre- and post-weaning lamb growth and put condition back on ewes after lambing and lactation. Rape crops are used to grow out ewe lambs to get them up to mating weights. Kale is used to tup early and light ewe then again pre-lamb to maintain ewe condition while improving pasture covers for lambing.

Under the Government’s proposed policy the growing of these feed crops on slopes of 10 degrees or more, which is most of the Hales’ property, would be prohibited without a resource consent. And they would be unable to increase the area of crop grown under the land use change restrictions and freshwater module. 

For the Hales, that would affect production and significantly slow down investment in environment work because they wouldn’t be generating the income to enable them to invest in fencing, land retirement, erosion control or wetland development.

Beef + Lamb environmental policy leader Corina Jordan is also concerned the Government’s proposals to restrict increases in cropping area and farm emissions, irrespective of a farm’s starting point, will prevent other farmers wanting to follow the Hales’ example and increase farming efficiency and improve environmental performance.

“Cropping is an important tool in the hill country farmers’ toolkit as it provides for pasture regeneration, can be used to break pest lifecycles and supports animal health and wellbeing. It can be used to build resilience both economically and environmentally.”

Lincoln University research found hill-country cropping can be done in a way that reduces losses of phosphorus and sediment to water bodies by 70% to 90% and, as shown by the Hales, losses of nitrogen can also be kept to really low levels.

Trudy says they would love to give their children the chance to go farming but the broad regulatory brushstrokes being proposed remove their financial confidence.

“If we have to pay for resource consents to grow crops, pay a tax on our carbon and pay for audits on top of what we are doing already without having the ability to intensify then we won’t be able to do the environmental work we have identified as a key part of our farm.

“We will just see our environment spend being absorbed by third parties.”

As part of Manawatu-Wanganui Regional Council (Horizons) sustainable land use initiative Simon and Trudy have done land use capability mapping and identified vulnerable and sensitive areas they have protected. 

They also identified areas that had not reached their productive potential and it is those areas that drive the business and allow investment in environmental protection and enhancement. 

Their plan is a constant work in progress as each year, in consultation with their council field officer, the Hales allocate funds to environmental protection work on areas they consider a priority. Coming work includes fencing off a wet area to create a nutrient and sediment trap and more pole-planting. 

“We are working hard to make the right environmental decisions,” Trudy says.

But their ability to do that depends on generating a profit and they can only do that when the land resource is managed in a way that enhances stock performance over the long-term.

Simon says they have identified an area of hill country in the middle of their farm that has been cut, burnt and sprayed three times in his lifetime. 

“We now want to let it regenerate and add to the biodiversity on the farm and while we haven’t entirely excluded stock yet, the long-term plan is to exclude stock, but we can only do that if we intensify on other parts of the farm.”

The intensification is done following best practice, which includes minimal cultivation, identifying and isolating critical source areas, grazing forage crops across the slope and using stand-off areas in wet weather.

Despite intensification their Overseer-calculated nitrogen loss is minimal at 19hg N/ha. 

 “It’s a whole approach to stock and land health and they usually look after each other,” Simon says.

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