We are not regulating our land effectively nor are we using it wisely says Ciaran Keough. He says the benchmarks are Holland, and what Fonterra is doing in China

We are not regulating our land effectively nor are we using it wisely says Ciaran Keough. He says the benchmarks are Holland, and what Fonterra is doing in China

By Ciaran Keough*

In a recent editorial Sir David Skegg quite justifiably took issue with the degraded state of the nation’s waterways and contended that maybe it is time that constraints should be placed on further growth of dairy farming.

Sir David is unfortunately falling into the trap of addressing the consequences of a problem and not the cause.

The problem is faring as the great majority of farmers do take care to be compliant with all regulations but equally they do no more than the law requires.

Our rivers are degrading because our institutions tasked with managing those effects are failing in their duties.

Under Section 30 of the Resource Management Act the function of regional councils is defined as being to "control of the use of land for the purpose of soil conservation, the maintenance and enhancement of the quality of water in water bodies and coastal water,  and the maintenance and enhancement of ecosystems in water bodies and coastal water."

Sir David’s comment clearly and accurately indicates that the quality of our water ways and aquatic ecosystems are definitely not being "maintained and enhanced" which can only mean that our regional councils have, after two decades of trying, clearly failed to effectively exercise these functions.

Sir David’s position on further intensification of farming is also wanting.

Some of the largest and most intensively managed farms have the least impact on the environment.

There are 3,000 cow dairy farms that have less impact than a sheep farm of the same land area while there are 300 cow properties farmed in the traditional manner on land that is marginal for dairy farming that cause significant environmental harm yet are not in breach of any provision of a regional plan.

The Dutch benchmark

To put the issue of further agricultural intensification into perspective a comparison between Holland and Southland is illuminating.

Holland is roughly the same land area as Southland (34,000km2). Southland has a population of 100,000 and about 600,000 cows and an annual agricultural production with a value of about $2 bln. Holland in contrast has a population of sixteen million and a dairy herd of 1.5million cows (it used to be 2.5M but got reduced in the 1980’s to contain the environmental damage). 

Holland produces $55 billion in annual agricultural and horticultural production.

Holland produces 20 times as much revenue from the same land areas as Southland.

Holland gets seven times the milk production from a little over twice the number of cows. 

It does this with very tight environmental regulations, and because of this it farms far more scientifically and responsibly than we do in NZ.

It would not be difficult to double New Zealand’s dairy production while at the same time reducing the adverse consequences to a tenth of their existing level. There are farms in in New Zealand doing this already and not unsurprisingly many of these are farmed by Dutchmen.

The China benchmark

And we can do it ourselves, unfortunately just not in New Zealand. In China Fonterra owns farms that run farms carrying 135 cows to the hectare rather than the three per hectare here.

The cows on these farms produce twice the volume of milk per cow as the typical cow on a Kiwi farm.

Fonterra has model farms and training programs for Chinese farm staff but sadly it doesn’t in New Zealand.

Setting higher standards

Our dairy farming industry is three decades behind the European Dairy Industry both in terms of on farm technologies and productivity and environmental practices.

Fonterra is doing a great job of developing the dairy industry in China and is transferring our best genetics and technology to China for little profit but it is not doing the same in its own back yard. 

It is vital to the future of both our environment and our economy that the issues and opportunities presented by dairy farming (or any more intensive use of the land) are addressed creatively rather than reactively as Sir David has done.

It is quite possible to more than double our agricultural GDP and it is just as possible to greatly reduce the environmental impacts of farming – it just needs effective regulation, better professional support for farmers and leadership and vision on the part of our politicians at both the regional and national level for it to happen.

We are not regulating our land effectively nor are we using it wisely.

This needs to change, and this change requires leadership from the top.


Ciaran Keough is an environmental consultant and business manager for GeoSolve Ltd a specialist consultancy (formerly Tonkin & Taylor’s Otago Group) and is based Dunedin. He was the chief executive of Environment Southland from 2007 to 2011.

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Are the farms that are following the Dutch practice in New Zealand, making more profit than those that aren't?
If they are, then there should be no need to regulate - greedy profit-obsesssed capitalist b*****d farmers will recognise and grab the money-making opportunity far quicker than any regulatory bureaucrat could make them.
If they're not, then you need to acknowledge that there is a financial downside to your proposals.
Also, you don't mention the animal welfare implications of the different systems at all.   That's also something that many people might also think important to take into account.

Also, you don't mention the animal welfare implications of the different systems at all.   That's also something that many people might also think important to take into account.
Many people don't care but equally many like myself do. I won't buy battery eggs or barn/stall raised pork and I definitely wouldn't buy dairy or meat from cows living on concrete and not eating grass. Canny dairy farmers will be marketing their product as "free range" and grass fed. If you're going to use an animal as an industrial unit of production and discard it, or kill it for meat, at least have the decency to give it a modicum of respect and quality of life....karma

NZ has been marketing the grass is green brand very successfully.

Why do you think there is all this pressure from competing foreign sig's to find ways to blacken our image and to try and force us to change a very successful business model?

Cairan appears to be ignorant about the latest information on the effect of using European farming systems in NZ - now some of them have been used for a while, there are cracks starting to show in these sytems in NZ.  Ms D M has a very valid point.  There is a farmer with such a system, as held as a shining beacon by Cairan, and they are finding the profit isn't there that they thought, despite producing >700kgs/cow, and what's more interesting their Overseer nutrient budget is showing they are no more environmentally friendly under barns than they were under their previous no barn system - due to intensification required to financially justify a confined system.  Hence some Regional Councils appear to backing away from barns as the panacea for water issues.
As for Fonterra farms in China - if they are what we should be aspiring to - god help us!
Any system that involves exporting effluent off farm is not going to work long term.  It's alright while only one or two are exporting but if it was going to become 'the norm' there will be problems.

It is fairly elementary (or is that alimentary) the sh..t still has to go somewhere


We are not regulating our land effectively nor are we using it wisely says Ciaran Keough"

...checks the receipt for the rent....
WHOSE land Ciaran?

...who was out in the rain fixing that fence?
...who was troubleshooting the water system at the runoff?

NOT YOU, eh Ciaran.
not "our" land Ciaran, until you'll willing to pay and do the miles.

"In China Fonterra owns farms that run farms carrying 135 cows to the hectare rather than the three per hectare here." - Ciarian

Ciarian, that hectare must grow rather proilifically to produce the 25+kgDM ( around 400+kg wet cut) per cow.  ( 3375 kgDM or 54 _tonnes_ wet cut per hectare PER DAY )

I wonder where the fertiliser might be coming from to keep the nutrients pouring in (66% of nutrient input into a cow becomes effluent output.  US studies)

oh perhaps Ciaran...they're not really doing 135 cows to the hectare.
they perhaps have huge support areas, elsewhere.  I wonder why you have chosen to deliberately ignore such an important factor Ciaran??    Afterall, what speed does the support crop grow at?  who harvests it? who carts and stores it?  what equipment is needing to perform that, what about unloading and supply to animals.
 then you've got all that equipment to collect and transport HAZARDOUS WASTE by road.
and then you have to spread it.

That's a huge amount of overhead and a MASSIVE amount of extra mechanism and energy (fuels and equipment production and maintenance.)  Don't forget to factor in the spares and repairs, and redundancies (as equipment gets older the Oriental supplies like to change part configurations to force people to discard equipment that would otherwise be repairable).

Where is all that fuel coming from Ciaran?
Where is all the feed coming from Ciaran?
Who gets all the profits Ciaran?    (hint: the bank who fronts the investment)

Quoting one section of the RMA without acknowledging the PURPOSES of the RMA is not very clever.


Part 2
Purpose and principles


  • (1) The purpose of this Act is to promote the sustainable management of natural and physical resources.

    (2) In this Act, sustainable management means managing the use, development, and protection of natural and physical resources in a way, or at a rate, which enables people and communities to provide for their social, economic, and cultural well-being and for their health and safety while—

    • (a) sustaining the potential of natural and physical resources (excluding minerals) to meet the reasonably foreseeable needs of future generations; and
    • (b) safeguarding the life-supporting capacity of air, water, soil, and ecosystems; and
    • (c) avoiding, remedying, or mitigating any adverse effects of activities on the environment.

1.....is about promoting the sustainable management....
2....provides for the meaning of sustainable management. I always end up with the opinion that the "meaning" becomes ambiguous depending on who is undertaking the interpretation.
The Interpretation Act Part 2 Principles:

Ascertaining meaning of legislation

  • (1) The meaning of an enactment must be ascertained from its text and in the light of its purpose.


"offical purpose"

it is true, that smaller dairy farms are those with higher cell counts in milk testing (a bad thing). Perhaps there is an optimum size for dairy farms to explore? Much like the optimum size for a heriachical organisation tops out at 200.

High cell counts can be environmental (wet condtions etc), management, or age of cow, related.  As a generalisation herd size is irrelevant. 

Other way around.  Mechanical (ie robots) have higher cell count.
Then is average rotary.
Lowest is herringbone.

But it really depends on staff, and a lot of that depends on money pressure.  (ie can the farmer hire enough people to keep work loads light and to give staff/farmowners options in times of problems.)

Someone who is getting booted by cows, or who irritates cows by dogging them all the way to the shed, is going to have uptight staff.  That far outweighs other generic considerations (herd size, shed type)

And someone who can't sleep at night because of stress, or who is panicing about his girlfriend/wife, their mortgage, the pump that just blew up despite thousands spent on it..... isn't going to be in a calm space to work with animals.... and on a farm you don't get the choice to wander off or put today's milking operation off for few hours or ajourn for a week.

The reason larger herds appear to have low cell count animals is that at any given time only a few animals will have a sore or bruise udder or have body stresses.  If thats 3 animals in 100, that's 3% contribution to bulk.   If thats 10 animals in 600, it's 1.6% to bulk.
In large herds cutting those 10 animals for upcoming replacements is routine, and probably easier than dealing with the cause of problem (600 cows, replacement raised 20% = 120 incoming. 50% better than average quality.  10 cull vs 60 promising).   
When you've got 100 cows, 3 cows is $7000. and a rather steep cost when the animals coming in have only 50/50 chance of being better than existing animals (.100 cows, 20% = 20 incoming, 50% better than average quality.  3 cull vs 10 replacements.)
 Add 1 or 4 that will die of natural causes or other problems...figures show trend clearly.