Council to scale back dairy farm chopper checks

New scheme to monitor effluent will see more ground visits, reports Ali Tocker.

Waikato Regional Council will trial a new way of checking up on dairy farmers' effluent systems, with fewer helicopter checks and a greater focus on “high risk” soil areas and ground-based visits.

The number of dairy farms to be checked by helicopter will more than halve, from about 1000 last season to “up to 500” this season, council compliance and education manager Rob Dragten said. This would mean up to an eighth of the 4000 dairy farms in the Waikato would be checked from the air rather than about a quarter.

The number of flights, where large batches of dairy farms are checked in one flight, would reduce from about seven flights last season to about five this season.

However, farmers should not relax. All farmers will still be expected to comply with the effluent management rules and anyone could still have a random helicopter inspection over their property, Dragten said.

The council trial would involve more ground-based work with farmers to identify and fix problems, and a focus on high risk areas. These areas are not being divulged in advance as this, combined with the helicopter checks, will encourage farmers to get their effluent systems up to scratch, he said.

The cut-back in helicopter monitoring was intended to improve environmental outcomes by better targeting of resources, he said. It was not a response to AgResearch studies, funded by DairyNZ, which showed that random helicopter checks were one of the highest sources of stress for under-pressure Waikato farmers.

Dragten said he believed the real source of stress for farmers is not the flights themselves, but rather uncertainty over whether they were complying with the effluent rules. A lot of work had been done in this respect, he said, and there was now good information and help available. Also, the council had been planning the new monitoring system well before the stress research was publicised.

The council is one of only two in the country to use random helicopter checks and the only one to use them as the primary environmental monitoring tool, Dragten said. The other council is Southland Regional Council which, like the Waikato region, has a significant dairy sector.

Until now, Waikato Regional Council had largely relied on helicopter monitoring of farms chosen at random, and complaints from the public, to detect breaches of effluent management rules, Dragten said. Significant breaches that polluted waterways, or had the potential to do so, could result in court action - with about five prosecutions last season. Prosecutions would remain an option this season.

Dragten said the decision to trial a new way of doing things followed the council's recent annual review of its environmental monitoring programme. The move from a random system to a targeted system was intended to get better results faster, he said. The trial was expected to get under way later this month or early next month.

The plan for the 2012-2013 season was to target up to 500 dairy farms in areas with soils seen as having a greater risk of allowing effluent into waterways.

“These higher risk soils include, for example, those with impeded drainage or infiltration rates, soils with a very coarse structure and land with a slope of over seven degrees.”

These farms would initially be flown over by a helicopter to identify any potential serious non-compliance, and these farms would be inspected first. Once any serious non-compliance was dealt with, the rest of the properties in the group would also be inspected.

“The exact boundaries of the high risk areas aren't being disclosed in advance. But farmers who will be visited at some stage during the season are being informed of this in writing and will receive a phone call shortly before a council officer arrives for a ground-based inspection. The advance warning by letter will give farmers a chance to do any needed work on their effluent systems before the officer visits,” Dragten said.

When officers visited for the ground-based inspection, they would identify any problems with the farmer's effluent system and, if needed, make a formal direction for improvements to be made.

“After recent work with the dairy industry, the council will now be in a position to tell the farmer to work with effluent system companies accredited under DairyNZ's farm dairy effluent code of practice and design standards.”

Dragten said this took away farmer stress from uncertainty over whether or not their effluent system complied with the rules.

“The new arrangements mean we can trial our different approach to compliance monitoring, involving us working with farmers more to sort things out.

“Helicopters may still be used outside the higher risk soil zones for random monitoring as required.” Dragten said the new way of doing things was not expected to cost any more.

The council's effluent management rules were designed to protect water quality, and the council had a strong focus on preventing untreated dairy farm effluent from entering waterways, he said.

“Many farmers have shared our environmental protection goal and have done much to protect water quality, including upgrading effluent systems. Fonterra and DairyNZ have also worked with us closely to improve the industry's environmental performance in the Waikato.

“Our combined strategies have been helpful in making progress over the years. We've been holding reasonably steady with dairying's environmental performance lately. Now the council is hoping its new, more targeted approach will make further gains."

The council's area extends from the Bombay Hills in the north to Mt Ruapehu in the south, and from the mouth of the Waikato River to Mokau on the west coast, across to the Coromandel Peninsula on the east. 

Waikato Times