Nation's farming leaders reject notion of too many cows

Cows on a farm near Glenavy, South Canterbury. as cold weather approaches. Farming leader dispute that there are too ...
DOUG FIELD/STUFF

Cows on a farm near Glenavy, South Canterbury. as cold weather approaches. Farming leader dispute that there are too many cows.

A farmer's group is rejecting the notion that reducing the national dairy herd is the most effective way to make New Zealand rivers more swimmable.

This came a day after farming leaders representing 80 per cent of the industry, and including Federated Farmers, DairyNZ and Fonterra, pledged to make all New Zealand rivers swimmable. They did not say how or by when.

The goal was to make rivers swimmable for future generations, but achieving this was more complicated than just reducing the number of cows, said Mike Petersen, New Zealand's special agriculture trade envoy and a member of the group.

Federated Farmers national president Katie Milne at home in Rotomanu, West Coast. Getting rid of cows is too simplistic ...
Tony Benny

Federated Farmers national president Katie Milne at home in Rotomanu, West Coast. Getting rid of cows is too simplistic an approach to improving water quality, she says.

"I think that's too simplistic and we've been very clear in saying that every community and every catchment needs to work out how they plan to work their way down the path to better water quality," he said.

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Fish & Game chief executive Bryce Johnson said that if farmers were serious about cleaning up the rivers, then should cut cow numbers.

"We have simply gone too far, and even the Ministry of Primary Industries has been saying the same thing. We have just pushed the envelope a bit too far, and we've got to pull back."

National president of Federated Farmers Katie Milne said the problem was complex.

"Getting rid of cows is too simplistic an approach to improving water quality. Farmers  have invested in them, they are people's livelihood and what are people going to do to look after themselves if we did that?" Milne said. 

"Looking back, if we knew then what we know now there may have been some areas where we would have discouraged cows.

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"But we have got them, and it's a matter of making the best of it, learning going forward and adjusting our systems to suit."

There were some "great tools in the toolbox" and some even more amazing ones coming along that would help with water quality, Milne said.

"Our farming methods will improve, and over time the water quality will improve."

Greenpeace said the farmer's group should back the Freshwater Rescue Plan which had already been signed by 16 organisations and experts. It also wanted a cut in the dairy herd.

"The truth is, there are too many cows in New Zealand, and it's contaminating our rivers. Things are set to get worse with proposals to build massive, publicly-funded irrigation schemes that will drive more intensive dairying.

"As Greenpeace has been saying for some time, we can have an expanding dairy industry, or we can have clean rivers and streams. We can't have both. 

"The figure of one-third less stock by 2050 may be terrifying for the agricultural sector, but it needn't happen all at once," Greenpeace said.

DairyNZ chair Michael Spaans said cutting herd numbers was a simplistic answer to a complicated situation. 

"We don't have all the answers today, but we're confident that the significant investment in research and science underway will deliver the answers over time without having a nationwide cut in herd numbers."  

 - Stuff

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