Planting a stream of thought

Taranaki-King Country MP Shane Ardern, shows the clarity of the Punehu Stream after riparian planting.
Taranaki-King Country MP Shane Ardern, shows the clarity of the Punehu Stream after riparian planting.

Dairy farmers in Taranaki have been reducing their impact on the environment for years, says Taranaki- King Country MP Shane Ardern.

Believing people have an instinctive desire to leave the land in a better condition than they found it, the MP - who also chairs the primary industries select committee - rejects accusations of environmental vandalism that activists level at farmers.

Describing his Opunake dairy farm as pristine compared with the man- made environment of a city, he draws attention to what he sees as the hypocrisy of environmentalists flying thousands of kilometres to conferences to discuss environmental vandalism. "It's bizarre - akin to alcoholics going to a booze-up to talk about the effects of alcohol."

He's noticed a significant change in farmers' culture and attitude to riparian planting since he started a riparian management programme on his own farm 20 years ago.

"But even then dairy industry waste was probably less than that generated by the average city," he says as he voices opposition to the New Plymouth District Council's discharge of partly-treated sewage into the sea while it upgrades its wastewater treatment plant this summer.

Ardern agrees there are farmers who need to improve their riparian management, but he hopes regulation won't be necessary. "I hope peer pressure will convince those non- compliant farmers to up their game."

Under Fonterra's conditions of supply, farmers must have their waterways fenced by December next year.

He reiterates his earlier rejection of a campaign for compensation to farmers for land lost to riparian management as one that they can't win. "There's a price to pay for being part of the larger community, for being environmentally responsible and to meet the expectations of international markets."

Ardern has no regrets about his decision 20 years ago to embark on a farm riparian management programme, which has cost him about $25,000 in the past five years - not to mention countless hours spent on maintenance. "It's enhanced the environment we live in and improved our farm."

Fencing and planting stream banks reduced leaching of nitrate and other trace elements like potassium and phosphorus and improved water quality. "Science says - soil tests, nutrient budgets, advisers, regional council monitoring - that river fencing and planting is world best practice to farm successfully in a sustainable way."

Back in 1992, Ardern was active in Taranaki Federated Farmers when ways to reduce the impact of farming on waterways were discussed. "Environmentalists today are talking about this issue as if it's new. But farmers were talking about it years ago - and have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix it."

Backed by Federated Farmers, the Taranaki Regional Council (TRC) implemented a riparian management programme in the province. "It was smart for the farming sector and the council to get together, devise a plan and encourage people to adopt it."

The TRC was now regarded as a New Zealand leader in riparian management.

Twenty years ago riparian plans were not free and Ardern paid for one to be prepared for his farm. "But implementing the plan is the real cost."

First, stream banks had to be fenced so cows could not eat the new plants and a maintenance programme of weeding and spraying had to be implemented. The TRC has now identified contractors and horticulturists with the expertise to manage plantings.

Ardern points out that while riparian planting enhances water quality and farm aesthetics and improves animal welfare, it also creates a haven for pests like rats, stoats and possums which can transmit tuberculosis to farmed animals. So pest management is essential.

Back when he embarked on the programme, the council did not supply plants. "It was hard to find plants but they came up with a package of suitable ones - some of which they got wrong."

For example, he paid $4000 for pampas grass which he subsequently had to spray after it was declared a pest plant five years ago.

He's planted salt-resistant banksia and a range of natives and installed a concrete bridge to stop the herd crossing the Punehu Stream, bringing health benefits to the cows - they now have fewer foot problems.

Ardern and brother Neville started their farming careers as sharemilkers, together, before they bought an unkempt, weed-infested 112-hectare dairy farm near Opunake in 1983.

Neville has since bought the property where their parents were sharemilkers and no longer has a share in his brother's farm, but they still share farm equipment.

Bearing a Gaelic name, Glen Artan - glen meaning river flat and artan (or ardern) meaning stones - the farm has almost doubled in size since the purchase to 216ha. It includes 20ha of land fenced off to protect the Taungatara and Punehu streams and 1 1/2 kilometres of stream banks. The couple also have two run-offs that total 32ha.

Ardern said the farm's rivers were dynamic and constantly changing course. Substantial fences and plantings had been washed away three times. "So you just start from scratch again."

Last season the farm produced a record 270,000kg milksolids (MS) in what Ardern describes as a a good average season. Production so far this season is already 10,000kg ahead of the same period last season.

Sons Jonathan and Cameron are in their second season as variable order sharemilkers on the farm.

"They've brought a lot of energy and new ideas and have broken every record so far - including how much is spent on the farm each year," he said.

They're producing 1300kg MS per hectare - well above the Taranaki average of 980kg - and 428kg MS per cow, more than 20 per cent ahead the Taranaki average of 350kg.

Ardern said his sons had brought a sharp focus to pasture management, using a CDAX grass scorer - which South Taranaki farmer Hayden Lawrence helped develop when he was a Massey University PhD student - and Livestock Improvement Corporation's Farmkeeper software.

Their system allows close monitoring of pasture growth and accurate forecasts of deficits and surpluses. Diploid pasture is being replaced by the tetraploid bealy cultivar to boost the cows' energy levels.

Ten hectares of maize is grown on a run-off. They also harvest 80ha of grass silage, grow 10ha of turnips on the milking platform as part of a pasture renewal and land development programme and buy 200 tonnes of palm kernel expeller (PKE) on contract. "PKE's a good option, but don't build it in and become too dependent on it, otherwise you're at the mercy of the market."

Effluent from their 40-bail cowshed, state-of-the-art when it was built 20 years ago, is stored in a three-pond system and sprayed on to pasture or discharged to a drain where further filtering occurs before it reaches the Punehu Stream.

Ardern says he's happy to argue his farming practices on his farm with environmentalists and is willing to listen to their suggestions about improvements. "Come and tell me what I can do better."

But no-one has yet taken up the invitation.

Taranaki Daily News