Editorial: Are we at our limit?

They're everywhere, aren't they?

Cows, that is. Of the dairy variety.

Or at least there are times when it might seem like that, particularly if one happened to be driving some of the country roads of South Canterbury.

Figures just released by dairy genetics company Livestock Improvement Corporation and DairyNZ tell us we're not wrong to think that the number of dairy cows in our neck of the woods has increased dramatically: in fact, their numbers are up 157 per cent in the last 10 years, an exceptional increase by any measure.

But then it's probably not that surprising a statistic, given the country's dairying boom in that time. Dairy conversions have continued to mount up, in tandem with the high payouts generally being enjoyed by the industry, with a massive increase of 33,000 cows in the South Canterbury herd in the 2008-09 year, as further conversions followed that year's high payout.

Of course, that all makes sense. Why wouldn't farmers go where the big payouts are to be had? It's a huge New Zealand success story and the growth of the dairying industry in South Canterbury shows we're right in the thick of it.

Dairy farming is the primary driver of this region's economy. Any boost in a projected Fonterra payout injects millions of extra dollars into the local economy, with flow-on effects into numerous associated industries.

So is there a downside to the rapid growth of the dairy industry here?

Well, there are the regular criticisms about the removal of shelterbelts to allow for irrigation, and the possibility of waterways being contaminated. They have been around as issues for some time, and not just in this region by any means. They certainly continue to attract critics.

But perhaps the biggest issue at this point might be that, in the view of South Canterbury Federated Farmers dairy section chairman Ryan O'Sullivan, we seem to have exhausted the region's potential water supply for irrigation. Mr O'Sullivan says in our story today that he can't see more dairy conversions taking place without water being brought into the region.

Is that not, then, an indication that the growth of the industry has reached a point where it's not sustainable into the future? Even though Mr O'Sullivan says that the proporion of farmland devoted to dairy herds here is modest compared with areas like the Waikato, if our water supplies are fully allocated - and remember, those supplies would be down in dry years - should that not give the industry locally pause for thought about trying to go any further?

Unless it can somehow source more water.

The Timaru Herald