Peak cow? Dairy farming slows in Canterbury

Dairy farming is slowing down in Canterbury.
CHRISTEL YARDLEY/STUFF

Dairy farming is slowing down in Canterbury.

Dairy's meteoric rise in Canterbury may be over as applications for new dairy farming conversions in Canterbury drop to their lowest point in a decade, new figures show.

It comes as stronger rules promise to make intensive farming more difficult, alongside ongoing uncertainty about milk prices.

There were 20 consents granted relating to new dairy farms in the last financial year, Environment Canterbury (ECan) data shows.

It is nearly half last year's figure, and a significant drop from the 110 consents granted in 2011.

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The last time dairy conversion consents were that low was in 2007.

The number of dairy conversions can be derived from consent applications relating to dairy effluent, increasing herd size, or an amendment to an existing effluent consent.

The slow-down is likely partly due to incoming regional rules that put stricter limits on nutrient leaching, and require farmers to farm to good management practice.

Plan Change 5 was given indicative approval by the council in June. It is being appealed by multiple farming groups

The rule change would mean the region had likely reached "peak cow", as it would make further dairy intensification difficult and may require some farms to downsize.

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"There has been a significant push in the past five years to measure, manage and reduce the effects of intensive farming, which includes dairying, across Canterbury," ECan chief executive Bill Bayfield said. 

"What we are seeing is a reduction in the number of farms being converted to dairy, following several years of strong growth." 

The plan change would likely impose significant costs on farmers.

In June, Mid Canterbury Federated Farmers chairman Willy Leferink said it would make future dairy conversions unlikely.

Irrigation NZ called the rules "unachievable".

It may mark the end of dairy's meteoric rise in Canterbury, which began two decades ago.

The number of dairy cows in Canterbury increased from 113,000 in 1990 to a peak of more than 1.3 million in 2014, Statistics NZ data shows.

It was the country's second largest increase in dairy cattle numbers, behind Southland.

Canterbury tops the country in terms of intensity, however: the eight districts with the highest cow per hectare rates are all in Canterbury.

Hurunui has the highest with 3.56 cows per hectare, followed by Ashburton with 3.51. The national average is 2.85.

Canterbury also had the highest average herd sizes: Ashburton and Hurunui again have the highest, both with about 850 cows, double the national average. 

The level to which dairy farming replaced traditional sheep farming in Canterbury is at the core of the environmental debate.

Nitrate levels are increasing in some parts of Canterbury. The greatest contributor to nitrate levels in New Zealand is urine from cows, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has found.   

It is particularly evident in Selwyn: ECan told the Government that meeting its proposed water quality standard for Lake Ellesmere would require shutting down virtually every dairy farm in the district.

Industry group Dairy NZ said ECan's consent figures showed there was no need to fear a significant increase in dairy farming.

Canterbury regional manager Virginia Serra said farmers were doing their utmost to protect the environment.

"Dairy farmers in the region have farm environment plans which means they are set up to farm in an environmentally sustainable manner 365 days of the year," she said.

"Another major focus is on efficient water use, including good management of irrigation where more and more farmers utilise the latest technology water meters to ensure no more water is used than necessary."

 - Stuff

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