Canterbury may have hit 'peak cow' with incoming rules

After decades of rising cow numbers in Canterbury, new rules will likely result in a decline.
ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ

After decades of rising cow numbers in Canterbury, new rules will likely result in a decline.

Canterbury may have reached "peak cow" due to new environmental rules that will limit pollution from farm animals, a farming leader says.

Some farmers will likely have to absorb large costs to meet the rules at a time when some are heavily loaded with debt and recovering from drought.

Environment Canterbury (ECan) last week made a significant step towards implementing Plan Change 5 (PC5), which would limit nutrient loads coming from farms.

It had been in the works since about 2012. It was expected to come into effect later this year or early next year.

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It requires farmers to limit the volume of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous, produced by their animals to reduce leaching into waterways.

Many farmers would be required to meet "good management practice" – a term defined in collaboration with industry groups.

Some would have to apply for resource consent to continue their existing farming practices.

ECan chairman David Bedford said PC5 was "hugely significant" and represented a major step towards improved water quality.

Until now, farmers had been required to hold the line by maintaining a baseline nutrient load; under PC5, some would have to cut back.

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"[I]t's the first time that all farmers in Canterbury are having to say, 'I might have to change my farming practices so I do better in terms of nutrient discharges than I was in that baseline period'," Bedford said.

"It says that just holding the current position is not good enough, in certain situations."

For farmers, it meant getting their heads around complex regulations and figuring out how best to limit the nutrient losses. That may involve reducing herd sizes.

Cow numbers have increased dramatically in Canterbury; Statistics NZ data showed about 200,000 dairy cattle in 1994 became more than 1.2 million by 2016, a nearly 500 per cent increase.

The rules were complex and would impose costs on some farmers, Mid Canterbury Federated Farmers chairman Willy Leferink said.

"It will have a significant impact on most farmers, not just dairy farmers," he said.

"There will be individuals who probably have opportunities to put new cows on or new systems or new ways of farming, but in broad terms ... I've only seen one conversion last year and I don't think they'll be any more in the coming season."

Resource consent applications could cost upwards of $10,000, when taking into account a farmer's time.

The good management practice rule also meant farmers had to account for factors such as soil type, which would add complexity.

Leferink said he once had a farm with many different soil types, which would have required different practices on each.

"When it's mathematical it may be beautiful, but then practice overrules it."

It would take a while for farmers to come to grips with the technology required, particularly with the rate of technological change.

While he had some issues with the plan change, it showed farmers and regional councils could work together.

"I don't expect every farmer to have the skills to find the inconsistency in applications of rules ... Lawyers and consultants can build a whole future on this.

"As long as we work together we'll get there. The moment we become draconian on either side it becomes unworkable."

Bedford said that six or seven years ago the prospect of farming restrictions was highly controversial, but many had now accepted rules that were "quite onerous".

It showed how far the rural community had come, he said.

"The very idea that a regional council came up with rules that dictated how they went about farming was like bringing the anti-Christ into the room.

"There's been a big shift there and many farmers are ahead of the game already. They saw the change and are already doing what PC5 tells them they have to do."

 - Stuff

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