A place fit for man, beast, frogs and kids

When Ray and Lyn Craig entered dairying 20 years ago they wrote a list of goals. At the top, along with a production target long since surpassed, was to own an "aesthetically pleasing" farm.

They have their wish. Their 550-cow farm on the outskirts of Carterton is criss-crossed with streams and drains, all planted with willows, flaxes and a variety of other natives. Three small wetlands have also been created and their flaxes, toetoe and other natives are home to tui, kingfishers, herons and an assortment of ducks.

So impressed were the judges in the Greater Wellington region's Ballance Farm Environment Awards that they awarded the couple the supreme title and remarked that the riparian plantings were among the best they had seen on a dairy farm.

Mr Craig admits to a quiet satisfaction with this.

"I think we've pretty well got it sussed," he says. "Even on a crappy day the farm looks pretty good, and the real benefit of that is in the improved water quality of the streams, the shelter for the cows and less evaporation from the pastures in summer."

The judges also noted how quiet and content the cows were, which Mr Craig says is thanks to a change to once-a-day milking made at the beginning of this season.

Instead of having to make a second trek to the cowshed, the cows are moved to a fresh paddock each afternoon.

"They come running," he says. "It is great to see them kick their heels up. They have more time to enjoy their normal social behaviour at their ease in the paddocks."

He was a cartage contractor when he met Lyn, an accounts clerk from Wainuiomata, and they decided to go dairying. They leased land from his parents at Greytown and from a neighbour as they built up assets till they were able to afford to buy 53 hectares at Carterton in 1998.

They put on 130 cows and started to tackle the farm's obvious shortcomings - dangerous stream banks that crumbled in high water, puggy silt loam paddocks and an invasion of ragwort.

They began to fence the two streams, the Enaki and Mangatere, and with regional council advice started planting willows and flaxes to prevent erosion.

The ragwort wasn't so easily dealt with. The poisonous weed persisted despite herbicides, grubbing and even, in desperation, the use of sheep, until, on the advice of Landcare Research, they tried introducing a natural enemy, the flea beetle.

They made the hard decision to allow the ragwort to flourish while the beetle's numbers built up and then watched with delight as the tiny creature got to work. "You could see a line across the paddock as the beetle advanced," Mr Craig remembers.

They set about draining the paddocks and now feel they have done all they can. However, they can still be caught out by sustained heavy rain, as happened last September. For a month they had to protect the pastures by allowing the cows on them for only half a day and then moving them to the races to be fed silage.

It is a different story in summer, when the paddocks dry out and irrigation, from a 50-metre bore, is needed.

The wetlands came about almost by accident. Instead of draining one low-lying corner of a paddock, it was easier to plant it, Mr Craig says.

Another came when a pit dug for metal filled with water. "It ended up full of frogs, which delighted the kids, so I planted it for them. I could have filled it in and drained it, but I'm glad I didn't."

He says patience was needed at first.

"They didn't look much for the first three years, then the growth took off and they started to look nice and the birds came. Then I thought, 'I ought to do this some more'."

He got his chance again when they bought a neighbouring farm that had a small swampy area.

"I could have got stuck in and drained it and maybe recovered half an acre of paddock, but I saw the chance to have another go. We got advice from Don Bell at the regional council and the local school came and helped on planting day. Everyone had a good time."

As the farm's size increased over the years to 262ha with small purchases and a lease block, the stress on the 550 cows, milked through two sheds, began to become apparent. Fewer cows were getting pregnant and with a 3km walk from the furthest paddock, lameness started to appear.

At the same time, Mr Craig began hearing of the success of once- a-day milkers Melvin Herrick, on the other side of Carterton, and Leo Vollebregt, near Martinborough, who came through the change without a drop in milk production. After further investigation he decided to join them.

THE benefits were seen in just a few months. "It's fixed a lot of things," he says. "For one, we don't have to deal with 30 lame cows in spring, and the empty cow rate has fallen from 15 per cent to 6 per cent."

Production is down 15 per cent, but the experience of Mr Herrick, Mr Vollebregt and others is that this lasts for only a two or three- year settling-in period. It has been offset by a reduction in costs and by this year's payout rise.

The biggest financial benefit has been that more cows are getting pregnant. "It's quite a relief, I can tell you," Mr Craig says.

"When we were at a 15 per cent empty rate it was usually the young cows with the best genetics that we were losing.

"You spend a lot of money getting the young stock into the herd and to have to get rid of so many of them is disheartening."

He is looking forward to improving that figure further and is relishing the extra selection choices he now has for improving the herd.

He has a mixed herd and will move more to the jersey end of the genetic scale to get cows more structurally suited to once-a-day milking.

The change has also brought more noticeably contented cows and humans, he says.

"The cows are happier in themselves. I never thought I would say milking could be pleasurable, but it definitely is now."

The couple are members of the Enaki Care Group that looks after the stream as it wanders through 17 properties on its way from the Tararua Ranges. The aim is to stop erosion, improve water quality and create a bush-lined corridor for birds.

Mr Craig feels he is doing his part. Bridges, fences and culverts keep his cows out of the water, he sprays his sheds' effluent over 105ha and fertiliser use is determined by soil tests. He applies up to 120 units of nitrogen if it is needed in a feed shortage, 27 units of phosphorous and 45 units of sulphur a year.

Living close to town has its good and bad points, the couple say. It means they are occasionally reprimanded by concerned but misguided people on animal welfare issues, particularly at calving. But they are pleased to be near schools and clubs and the sporting activities of their five children, aged from 20 to 10. The three youngest are involved in St John Ambulance and Mr Craig is a member of the local volunteer fire brigade.

He feels it is a shame more dairy farmers don't enter the farm environment awards, which are held in nine regions around the country.

"Competitions like this are a chance for farmers to show they are serious about sustainability and the environment. That certainly means a lot to us."