Taranaki farm wins effluent fitness warrant

UP TO SCRATCH: Blue Rata farm co-owner and Farm Venture CEO Tim Barrett beside the farm’s effluent storage pond which forms part of the effluent system which has just been audited.
UP TO SCRATCH: Blue Rata farm co-owner and Farm Venture CEO Tim Barrett beside the farm’s effluent storage pond which forms part of the effluent system which has just been audited.

What is believed to be the first dairy effluent warrant of fitness in Taranaki has been awarded to an Okato farm.

The warrant of fitness scheme was developed by Dairy NZ to improve farm dairy effluent infrastructure around the country. Certified assessors determine whether farm infrastructure meets industry good practice.

New Plymouth assessor Colin Kay, of Opus Consultants, awarded the warrant to Blue Rata Investments after auditing its 204ha (effective) Okato farm, named for the nearby bush reserve on the banks of the Stony River.

Taranaki's Farm Venture, a business that establishes syndicates to buy and operate dairy farms in Taranaki and the King Country, bought Blue Rata in 2005.

Currently owned by eight investors, Blue Rata has 518 cows milked by variable order sharemilkers Chris and Janelle Nicholls who are now halfway through calving the herd. In the last nine years farm production has increased by nearly two-thirds from 109,000kg milksolids to 174,000kg MS last season. It's tipped to reach 180,000kg MS this season.

The Mangatete and Kaihihi streams run through the farm, of which 18 per cent is in bush or riparian planting.

Blue Rata Investments co-owner and Farm Venture CEO Tim Barrett said the audit highlighted some minor deficiencies. An effluent management plan including a requirement for staff training has been prepared. A fail- safe system has been installed at the irrigator to monitor pressure and flow and shut down the pump in the event of a problem. A filter prevents blockages in the irrigator nozzles.

Barrett said the audit ensured the system was up to scratch. "Confidence the farm is fully compliant and is being operated using good industry practice is extremely valuable to owners, and helps us to ensure good use of all nutrients is being obtained."

Chris Nicholls said the system was simple to operate and required his attention for only about half an hour each day. "The pump and the filter system are virtually maintenance-free."

Barrett is impressed by his willingness to ensure the system functions properly.

"Nicholls has a good attitude towards [the effluent system] and wants it to work. Those people who want things to work and who want to grow, you have to help them."

Barrett said the development of Blue Rata's effluent system, undertaken over several years and based on existing infrastructure, had probably cost more than $100,000. The main pond has a capacity of 6914 cu m and the second pond provides back-up storage of 1210 cu m.

The system has enough storage to cope with a big rainstorm. The farm, at an altitude of 265m, receives 2300mm of rainfall a year.

Established in compacted clay, the ponds show no sign of seepage. "That's the beauty of Taranaki's volcanic ash soils," Barrett said.

"We weren't non-compliant, but we were looking for ways to improve and make our operation more robust."

Previously, treated effluent from two farm oxidation ponds was discharged to the Kaihihi Stream. Now all the effluent is spray- irrigated to an average depth of 6.48mm at an average rate of 8.84mm/hour over 43ha.

A GPS unit will be installed next season to record the location, time and date of effluent applications which will be taken into account when the farm's fertiliser programme is prepared. Soil tests are conducted on every paddock to ensure fertiliser is applied only as needed. "We monitor nutrient use over the whole farm. Efficient usage saves a tremendous amount of fertiliser costs."

He estimated spray irrigation reduced fertiliser costs at Blue Rata by about 20 per cent. "Over time the system pays for itself - it's a no-brainer. And it's good stewardship."

The health and safety and dairy effluent management systems on Farm Venture's four farms would be audited each year. Auditing provided farm owners with assurances about the integrity of the operation. "We do what we can to improve our systems - and be ahead of the regulator. Even if we don't have to, we still want to do what's best. We're following good practice and we'll keep improving."

He said he'd like to see regulators and farmers working more closely together and audits of effluent systems would help. "The majority want to do what's right. For those who don't do what's right, the rest of us are happy to see them prosecuted."

Kay said he was impressed with the way Barrett, the sharemilkers and staff had responded to the improvements proposed in the audit and in the training programme he had designed.

The changes ensured the effluent system complied with the Dairy Industry Code of Practice.

Last season Farm Venture's five farms milked 2800 cows on 950 hectares (effective) and supplied more than a million kilograms milksolids to Fonterra.

Its other farms are:

Wairere-Aria, 204ha (effective) and 116ha (effective) drystock unit at Piopio, 622 cows.

Tauraroa, 219ha dairy unit, 115ha runoff, 20ha in bush, Otorohanga.

Papakauri Dairies, Mokau, 203ha (effective), 91ha runoff, 56ha bush, 643 cows.

Tariki Dairies, 120ha (effective) has been sold.

This season the four farms are expected to produce 915,000kg milksolids.

Taranaki Daily News