Farmers' dairying halt boosts river

NO GO ZONE: One of two fords on the Shag River connecting Iain Ford's 50ha farm blocks on either side of the river.
NO GO ZONE: One of two fords on the Shag River connecting Iain Ford's 50ha farm blocks on either side of the river.

Dairy farmers are adapting to the massive pressures of farming under the close scrutiny of the public eye, but one farmer on the outskirts of Palmerston township in East Otago has more at stake than most.


Otago Regional Council has applauded the efforts of farmers in the Shag River catchment in East Otago, the most improved river in the country, hailing it as a good example of what could be achieved elsewhere.

The Shag River won the grand award at the inaugural New Zealand River Awards, supported by the Morgan Foundation.

Water quality in the Shag River was "about as good as you can get" in a farmed catchment, according to the council's manager of resource science Matt Hickey.

He said it was an ideal response to the council's regional water plan from landowners and many regulators of rivers around New Zealand would jump at that kind of water quality, with very low levels of E. coli.

Otago Fish and Game chief executive Niall Watson welcomed national recognition for improvement in the Shag River's water quality, which he said gave some hope for other rivers in the region.

"It's very gratifying to see waterways moving against general trends."

For a start, Alan and Iain Ford's 100ha Glenlurgan dairy farm on fertile river terraces is neatly split in two by the Shag River.

To complicate matters further, the townships of Palmerston, Dunback and Goodwood all draw their water from a pumping station intake at the lower end of the farm.

LIFESTYLE: Palmerston dairy farmer Iain Ford with a few of the 24 breeding cows he still milks on the banks of the Shag River in East Otago.
LIFESTYLE: Palmerston dairy farmer Iain Ford with a few of the 24 breeding cows he still milks on the banks of the Shag River in East Otago.

So the Fords have learnt to live with the pressures of farming in full view of the public.

"We have to keep our act pretty clean because the water comes from our farm," Iain Ford says.

"Some of our neighbours have done the same thing to fence off the river and put in water reticulation systems."

His father Alan, a former field instructor for the Agriculture Department, chose East Otago for its mild climate and relatively reliable rainfall when he bought a small farm south of the river, right on the boundary of the Palmerston township, to run dairy cows.

Later he bought the farm on the opposite side of the river, and over a period of 50 years expanded his dairy herd progressively up to 60 cows, which crossed the river most days for milking.

Until nearly a decade ago there was no issue with the cows crossing the river, not until the dairy industry's Clean Water Accord came into effect in 2004.

Iain, a butcher by trade, returned to the family farm at a critical time when dairy payouts were about half what they are today.

"We had plenty of advance warning and knew we had to comply," he says.

"We had several meetings with the Otago Regional Council to look at our best options and decided to stop dairying. We switched to beef and dairy grazing, which was really expanding at that time."

"That sort of solved all our problems because we didn't have to cross the river," he says. They fenced off about two kilometres of boundaries on both sides of the river.

Before the river was fenced off, it was difficult to keep stock apart, as they could easily walk across the river when it was low. Since 2004 the land on either side of the river has been run as two separate farming operations with between 200 and 300 heifers wintered.

Iain says the change in farm management has definitely made farming a lot easier and compliance with the council's water plan is no longer an issue.

But there have been significant costs.

Because he can no longer graze about five hectares of riverbanks, he has to spend a lot more time and money controlling willows, gorse, broom and lupins.

Repairing or replacing flood-damaged fences and clearing debris is another thankless task requiring time and effort when the river regularly floods at least twice a year.

"When I was a kid the river was not as deep. It flooded a lot easier and much of the farm went under water," he said.

Over the years the river has carved a deeper channel into the mudstone and the Fords' river terraces are less flood-prone.

The Shag River is also renowned for its low flows during dry summers and Iain remembers it stopped flowing completely several times in his youth.

"We haven't really had a drought in the 10 years that I've been here," he says. "For the last decade we've had above-average rainfall and I think that's probably kept it cleaner and kept the flow going."

Because of his foresight a decade ago, Iain is thrilled the river has gained national recognition in the New Zealand River Awards as the most improved catchment in the country.

"I think each landowner has taken responsibility for their part of the river," he says.

"Because we have dairy animals we are a lot more careful about what we do. I guess we thought we had to be more proactive than anyone else."

Sheep farmers were not under the same pressure because they could graze stock right to the riverbank safe in the knowledge that sheep would not cross it.

With the benefit of hindsight, he does have a few regrets that he stopped milking. The milk price has doubled since 2004 and in he regrets not securing more land to expand his farm south of the river.

"It's very hard to make a living on a small farm these days," he says.

"It was my choice, but I do regret it. You make your decision and live with it."

Straight Furrow