NZ's farming paradise disappoints import
When arable farmer Bill Davey moved to New Zealand from England 13 years ago he was told "the world's your oyster, you can have what you want here", but so much has changed in the intervening years that he's now reliant on the dairy industry and is even considering milking cows himself.
"It's turned out that we have been channelled into doing something that we're not really comfortable with," Davey says.
Disillusioned with subsidised farming in the United Kingdom, Davey, with wife Lynda and son Nick, arrived in Mid-Canterbury in 2001.
It seemed they'd come to a farming nirvana, free of the regulations stifling European farmers and with plenty of profitable options.
"It was a simple choice. You might as well stick to your knitting, grow what you're good at and just think how lucky you were to have an option of so many choices."
The first step was to put irrigation on the 300-hectare farm near Rakaia and the Daveys grew wheat and barley, grass and clover seed as well as vegetable seed on soils that he believed were among the best in New Zealand, if not the world. They also finished up to 14,000 store lambs in winter.
In 2011 they were runners-up in the South Island Farmer of the Year contest. But for all the hard work and recognition as top farmers, Davey wasn't sure they were as profitable as they should be.
"Here we are on the south bank of the Rakaia River on this lovely soil, generating about a third - and that's trying hard - compared with the income that they're generating on the north bank on what was deemed rubbish soil with huge stone content," Davey said.
"It clearly demonstrates that with irrigation you can grow grass and produce milk, and those guys are making some serious income on land that was deemed unfarmable not even 20 years ago."
Finishing lambs was a hard, seven-days-a-week job and Davey wasn't convinced it was earning sufficient returns.
"Surely, to work as hard as this you've got to be making money, we thought, and it was only when we stood back and really ripped our accounts to bits and analysed every section of our farm that we were able to weed out the crops and enterprises that weren't really making any money," he says.
"About four years ago we got the picture that we should really be thinking about doing dairy cows. The lambs didn't seem to be leaving the margin that we expected.
"They were a huge amount of work and the vagaries of the meat schedule were just so unpredictable there was no guarantee."
Cropping was similarly uncertain and the higher the price offered, the higher the risk.
Today, the Daveys grow feed for cows, on the 300ha home block as well as on 200 irrigated hectares down the road. They make maize and grass silage to sell to dairy farmers and no longer grow milling wheat or malting barley.
With lambs gone, they now graze up to 1700 dairy cows in winter.
But while grazing cows lifts soil fertility and is proving profitable, Davey doesn't like seeing the farm's nutrients being carted away in the feed he sells to dairy farmers. Soil indices are falling on that part of the farm.
To keep the nutrients on the farm, the Daveys are now looking at milking cows themselves - or at least milking them with robots. The proposal is to house the herd and feed them with maize and lucerne. "It's only in its infancy. We've got to deal with councils, Environment Canterbury, there's all sorts of headaches and lots of hurdles to jump before we get there, but at this stage it's something that's quite exciting to us."
With the Canterbury land and water regional plan now setting nitrogen leaching limits, Davey believes this may be the only option.
"We're probably going to be restricted on grazing cows in the winter because of effluent discharge and our Overseer limit is probably too low on certain parts of the farm to continue doing this. So why not be more in control of our own destiny rather than be at the mercy of other things beyond our control?"
But for all his excitement over a new challenge, Davey said he's disappointed by the way farming in New Zealand has changed in the 13 years the family has been here.
"We thought we'd come to a farming paradise, you could do what you liked," he says.
"In England, subsidies are paid on people's co-operation - you're paid a subsidy as long as you do what's required.
"But here regulation seems to come at a cost to us. There's no payment to us, we have to pay to comply and that's probably the bit that's spoiling the party."