Dairy goes green

Fonterra is helping dairy farmers write good farm stories: tales that start with basic effluent compliance, and could end in best sustainability practice and bridging the gap between conservationists and farmers

Emma Parsons herself is a dairy farmer’s daughter; her Dad is well-known for his on-farm environmental work. The land on the other side of their creek is farmed the usual way.

She knows how awkward it can be for neighbours to talk about cows messing in and with the local water, let alone townies and greenies telling farmers what to do on their land. But now, in her new role as the manager of Fonterra’s team of sustainable dairying advisers, “farmers are phoning us, asking for my team to come on the farm and help them tackle effluent compliance”.

This year, Fonterra has said and done some things that, depending how dung-splattered or rosy your spectacles, are either too little too late, or the groundwork for a sustainability revolution. At the very least, they’ve started a dialogue with farmers that voices for the environment can join. It promises some common basis for understanding, if not quite common goals.

National rates of ‘significant non-compliance’ with regional councils’ effluent management rules having risen to 15% in 2008/09, Fonterra will now check every farm’s dairy effluent system every year, referring those at risk of non-compliance to Emma Parsons’ team.

Since Every Farm Every Year was launched a year ago:

  • 10,500 shareholders’ farms have been checked (all farms);
  • this triggered 2,800 referrals, including a significant number where farmers themselves came looking for advice;
  • sustainable dairy advisers completed 1,940 individual visits with the farmers;
  • 1,200 farms (12%) have effluent improvement plans in place;
  • 600 of the 1,200 plans have already been implemented (6% of all farms), expected to climb to over 10% by the end of the year.

“For the first time [says Parsons], we have a completely clear picture of where the issues are.” And, “Most importantly, the farmers we’ve been working with have spent a couple of hours having a conversation about what sustainability means for their farm, and what challenges they will face in the future. For many, this is the first time they have had this conversation one on one, with someone that is prepared to support them on what will be a very challenging journey.”

Those conversations are about moving farmers’ frame of mind from obstacles to options: from “I can’t afford to better manage farm effluent” to “what are the best ways I can do it”. Others say they’ve wanted help for a long time, but not known who to ask.

In fact, effluent management is not dairy farmers’ or conservationists’ biggest problem. Nutrient management — specifically, nutrient run-off — has the biggest effect on water quality and profits.

While Parsons calls it a “work in progress”, Fonterra is also piloting work on this, with two aspects: benchmarking, and auditing.

Benchmarking means using ‘Overseer’ software to model where farmers sit on the nutrient management spectrum. It measures all parts of a dairy system — things like cow numbers, fertiliser use, feed supplements by type (grass, palm kernel, maize silage), soil and pasture profile, waterways, wetlands — and gauges the amount of nitrogen neither converted to milk solids nor taken up by plants.

Fonterra wants it all to be auditable. Ideally it would, in the end, guarantee that farmers are meeting their Dairying and Clean Streams Accord nutrient budgets. More importantly, once everyone can pinpoint where a farmer sits against his or her peers, that could support another kind of conversation about best practice, not just basic compliance.

That's the really interesting story, from a conservationist’s point of view. These new systems being tried by Fonterra could put the green back into dairy grass.

While it’s not clear that it’s tailored for it yet, Overseer sounds like the kind of model that could be used in accounting for sustainability. It could measure the whole ecological footprint of a dairy farm, to set off against milk production on the other side of the ledger. It could measure the cost, as well as the benefit.

Acknowledging that some parts of the country are more suitable for dairying than other parts, Parsons suggests a model of every area, from which Fonterra could one day approach people and say, “this is not appropriate, this would be more appropriate”. And that’s the same language conservationists are talking, when they say things like ‘caps on cows’, or worry about what intensive dairy will do to the landscapes and thin leaky soils in the Mackenzie country.

Dr Mike Joy, who called for the (numerical) caps on cows, has also criticised the Dairying and Clean Streams Accord for not focusing on the real problem: for being about bridges or fences rather than actual water quality, and cows pooing in streams rather than farm nutrient run-off.

Parsons, too, chooses to judge the Accord’s success by a different measure — although unlike Dr Joy, she does consider it a success. She calls it the start of the journey to tackle water quality issues. “It created an environment where every Fonterra farmer has had to justify their efforts around key metrics every year.”

So while the Accord can be criticised, like Every Farm Every Year, its real measure of success is in the culture change it is producing, if not yet quite the water quality change. The first step in convincing farmers that they do have an obligation to manage their land by external benchmarks, and making them want to do it, is getting on to the farm to talk, and the Accord has been a foot in the door.

Parsons also tempers the criticism with the reality she sees on-farm every day: the problem of “how you attain the desired pace, with people who haven’t acknowledged there’s a problem yet”.

Quite, because arguably Fonterra, itself, is weak on its grasp of the problem. Just as nutrient, not effluent, is the issue, the real issue lies yet further beyond: not just dairy’s effect on water quality, but its overall effect on global and local sustainability.

Fonterra says it is committed to sustainability, and “recognises that talking about sustainability is not enough. We know we must do it.”

That corporate mission statement continues by listing some things not confined to water quality: energy efficiency, carbon footprint, packaging waste, the Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium. “We must understand the sources of our supplementary feed and our water and we must consider animal health.”

It has oblique references to palm kernel there, and Fonterra’s lignite and coal use in its dairy factories. There's no reference to dairy’s impact on biodiversity and landscapes. (We could quibble, I suppose, over whether that’s a conservation, not a sustainability issue; they are, in the end, the same thing.)

It's no secret that the co-op and its shareholders are motivated less by altruism than their desire to keep growing NZ dairy to feed the world — ultimately, the biggest sustainability question of all. If you were going to write a mission statement for global and local sustainability, would either growth or dairy be part of it?