The quashed ‘cubicle dairy’ consents and withdrawn applications were only the opening line of a much more difficult conversation: can you tell happy cows in a barn from sad ones in a so-called factory?

As the dust settles over the quashed ‘cubicle dairy’ land use consents, we’ve yet to grasp the bull by his horns.

You might have thought we’d laid that beast to rest: land use consents overturned, on judicial review; called-in effluent storage and disposal applications sideswiped, by million-dollar cost recovery. But he’s galloping off, up ahead.

The water take applications are still in progress. Richard Peacocke, on behalf of the applicants, says they’ll try again in future. But theirs was only the sharp end of it, the prod that shocked us into awareness: an unsuitable location, and extended confinement periods. Nothing surer: there will be other similar applications, and there are already similar farms.

I’m trying to find out how many applications. Semi-educated guessing, they’ll be in South Canterbury (Waitaki, Waimate, Mackenzie and thereabouts) and Southland — the parts of the country where dairy pressures are intense, and where the economic costs of investment, and environmental or animal welfare objections, can be offset against pasture damage from long hard winters, and plausible animal welfare arguments.

But the ground’s shifted, anyway, or if it hasn’t yet, it needs to. I'm not so sure that the number of applications matters any longer. The question is what to do about what's happening already.

Because we do know already, as I wrote here, that there are farms of that kind operating round Waimate. TVNZ Close Up did a piece on Glenavy, without quite addressing how long the animals spend in the sheds. The Otago Daily Times reports on Morven, where 500 cows are housed in a barn and milked by six computerised robot milking machines. “I have swapped human capital for technology,” says the farmer. Eventually he wants to milk 600 cows which will each spend 10 months in the shed. Shame he can't swap them for technology, too.

The failed Mackenzie applications were for animals to be housed full time 8 months of the year, and 12 hours per day for the remainder.

Kevin Tiffen, resource manager at Waimate District Council, was the first to reply to my email:

“I am aware of five large wintering or loafing barns in the Waimate District [three of them owned by the above farmer]. At the time of erection, we were informed that these barns would house cows over the winter months only, i.e. taken off to avoid damage to the pasture. During that time, there is no grazing and the cows receive supplement feed which occurs anyway even if the cows were outdoors. No one has applied for resource consent to operate a ‘factory farm’ as such (i.e. production of commercial livestock where the regular feed source for such livestock is provided substantially other than from grazing the site concerned) … .”

He pointed me to the ODT article. “We are currently chasing this up,” he commented, dryly. And, when I asked him whether resource consent processes would properly pin down the applicants on distinctions between bad weather shelter and what I would call ‘factory farming’: “I guess we have been caught out a bit by concentrating on the wintering of the cows. Certainly, cows being milked and housed indoors for most of the time is considered to be ‘factory farming’,” which would require resource consent.

By contrast, in the Listener this week, Rebecca Macfie reports on another Southland example, of dairy cows housed for 2 months, mid-winter. Which seems … almost self-evident. Certainly, humane. Who among us hasn’t heard those Morning Reports on Southland lambs and calves frozen to death in the latest spring blizzard — that happen every bloody year down there, yet the farmers rarely fail to sound surprised, and it perennially makes the ‘news’ — and wondered: how hard could it be to build some shelter for them?

Somewhere between those two extremes — two months of the year in a rugged climate, and ten months, or thereabouts — lies the difference between a barn and a factory. The difference between what's acceptable, reconcilable with our pastoral self-image, positive for the environment, and what's not. I’m trotting out all my lamest puns: this is a right cow of a policy problem.

The Greens, because of their core policies, are having to grapple with it. Local and central government policy makers must, too. I’m trying to confirm whether factory farm-specific consent would be required in all districts, and if so, how that’s defined. It’s clear that such applications wouldn’t always be publicly notified; that’s driven by separate statutory requirements. And perhaps, as in Waimate, it won’t always be apparent on the face of the applications what type of farming operation is intended, or maybe what started as one idea (wintering over the cows) might evolve over time into another.

Nor does the new 2010 dairy code of welfare address it. Agriculture Minister David Carter has asked for separate advice.

So, the status quo's ripe for exploitation — Mr Peacocke, et al, prove that. I mean ‘exploitation’ in a totally non-pejorative sense. If bureaucrats leave the gate open, what farmer in his right mind in tough times wouldn’t drive his herd through it?

As is the alternative, if we accept this new idea. We’re only just, collectively, wising up to the many among our farmers pushing the boundaries of acceptability, for profit and convenience. Both the pork and dairy industries have a long ‘tail’: slow to relinquish intensive pork (sow crate) and dairy (induction) farming practices; slow to clean up their environmental act (eg, the clean dairy accord). The risk is of those old habits being dressed up in a new set of clothes.

So the 'cubicle dairy farming' argument’s unpalatable, taken to its furthest extent. It doesn’t, sadly, follow that it’s a dumb argument, or that we can avoid it any longer, even if we wanted.

Comments (9)

by peasantpete on August 10, 2010

Animals (plants even) need shelter from adverse weather conditions.  It is why humans have dwellings.

Humans have pushed themselves into very environmentally unfriendly habitats.

Humans have bred several varieties of animals to suit human purposes in a variety of habitats.

In pre industrial times most things balanced out. (probably).

Post industrialised society is only concerned with management contracts, directors fees, shareholder returns (after management has skimmed their share).

The only thing that matters is that more and more people are persuaded to consume dairy products.

The usefulness of which escapes me.

But then I am but a dumb consumer.

The "factory farm" applications apply in USA.

If the (questionable) "clean green" image of NZ produce could be sustained the introduction of dairy factory "farms" would absolutely destroy it.

Do we have to do a John Howard and follow the US in everything they do?

Cattle are meant to wander foraging vegetation.

They are not meant to spend most of their lives in a barn to satisfy an accountant or an economist.


by Claire Browning on August 11, 2010
Claire Browning

Pete, I've sympathy for some of what you say. In particular, your comments on whether dairy consumption expectations are sustainable (and is it sustainable for NZ to be positioning itself as the world's farm for this purpose?); and cows' natural habits.

But unless you're going to conclude that it's never ever acceptable, to build structures for sheltering and/or housing cows -- which isn't defensible either, in my view, or I take it yours -- then we need to start considering where and how to set the boundaries.

We need to do that quickly: industry's moving fast, in a direction we hadn't quite foreseen in this country, and current regulatory tools perhaps aren't quite up to the job. As we can see right now with pork -- and farming in general -- once an industry's invested in certain types of methods, and we subsequently decide we don't like some of the consequences, it is the devil's own job, and not fair on the farmers either, to readjust expectations.

And we also need to recognise that not all of the drivers for this are malevolent. Environmental protection is a biggie, hence the dilemma.

What worries me is that, as in the Mackenzie, it would then be used to put an acceptable face on what in my view is environmental rapacity -- justifying yet more dairy in locations totally unsuited to it; and more dairy intensification, in the other areas. 

by Claire Browning on August 11, 2010
Claire Browning

Yesterday I spoke to Matt Hunter, from the Southland District Council.

I should clarify that I’d only contacted Southland yesterday, and they responded immediately (whereas I emailed the other District Councils, Waimate, Waitaki and Mackenzie, Sunday before last. Which is not to imply the others are being slack either; I’ve heard from Waitaki, which is responding under the OIA).

He said that Southland District Council, in progressing these kinds of consents, is acutely conscious of the EDS Waitaki litigation, and media interest in the issues.

His first comment was that the industry is moving quickly in response to new technology. The Southland District Plan / Southland Regional Policy Statement are currently under review. Over a decade old, theirs was one of the first District Plans notified under the RMA, and farming pressures and practices have evolved a great deal in the meantime.

It was also clear from our conversation that there’s wide variability in the different types of indoor dairy proposals. It can’t, therefore, be assumed that whatever one might like or dislike about the Glenavy, Morven, and Mackenzie proposals is going to be copied by every farmer housing his or her cows.

Southland has some very large herd homes in the district, which are generally permitted activities in terms of the District Plan. The Council has no control over those, provided they’re compliant in terms of the Plan (eg, within the permitted structural dimensions), and any other consent requirements (eg, effluent discharge, building consent).

Council does review all wintering shed/herd home building consents against ‘rule Plains Resource Area 2(c)’, which seeks to control the effects arising from the housing or intensive confinement of animals or plants. It addresses:

  • Control of liquid and solid waste
  • Effects on any water body
  • Effects on any heritage site
  • Effects on visual amenity
  • Mitigation of noise smell, vermin and other potential health hazards
  • The relationship to any residential and effect on any residential or commercial activities
  • Proximity to land of significant conservation value

There is no District Plan rule administered by the Southland District Council that prescribes stocking intensity, or that (to my understanding) would prevent or control ‘factory farming’ as such, subject to the other considerations.

However, farmers are also subject to the requirements of other regulators (eg, MAF), and the industry’s own requirements (eg, Fonterra). MAF, in particular, is there to protect animal husbandry; this is not directly a Council concern, although they do take an interest in it.

Where the proposed wintering shed / herd home structure exceeds specific bulk and location minima, a land use resource consent would be required.

A recent example of one that had just progressed, with consent being granted, was a wintering home, with associated covered yard and milking shed. The proposed covered area is almost a hectare. The 16.5 metre maximum height breached the District Plan rules for rural buildings, triggering the need for a non-complying resource consent.

Questions were asked at the hearing about duration of occupancy. The response was winter months only, and in inclement weather conditions — not 365/24/7.

I asked him why so high — was it because animals would be stacked up in multi-storeys? — and he said no, primarily for passive ventilation, animal welfare, and working environment reasons.

The proposal differs from the Glenavy and Morven examples. It was for a dry bed facility — cows housed on deep organic bedding on either side of the shed (ie, a soft base, as opposed to concrete and rubber-floored open stalls), that gets turned regularly, and develops into dry compost. The shed is an open sided structure, with abundant natural light and ventilation, because of its height. The farmer’s proposal was also to reduce the size of his herd from 1350 cows to 750, with the aim of converting ultimately to organic.

Overall, it was environmentally a very positive proposal, with no apparent animal welfare issues.

Another four of the same kind of structure are being looked at in the district (not the subject of resource consent applications, as yet). They have also had two recent applications for wintering sheds for milking sheep.

The general impression I got was that proposals of this kind are maybe not, in fact, very much of a dilemma for Southland, trying to manage dairy’s environmental consequences in an area with high rainfall. Seasonal indoor housing is a possible way forward for them to manage the potential for adverse environmental outcomes (on soil and water, for example).

Which returns us to my question, in the post: how do we then manage the potential for other, different adverse outcomes?

by mudfish on August 11, 2010

I wonder if the animal welfare and RMA issues are getting mixed up here - perhaps the pressure needs to be on MAF rather than district councils.

We need RNZSPCA to follow their pork and hen campaigns and produce a standard for cows, based on the 'five freedoms', which are obligations under the Animal Welfare Act :

  • Proper and sufficient food and water;
  • adequate shelter;
  • the opportunity to display normal patterns of behaviour;
  • appropriate physical handling; and
  • protection from, and rapid diagnosis of, injury and disease.

    The SPCA hen one includes max stocking density etc, similar to MAF codes but doesn't seem to allow for caged hens as MAF does, presumably because normal patterns of behaviour (how does flying fit in here? not even best practice encourages that...) are difficult in a cage.

    For cows, provision of adequate shelter must be more difficult when you've cleared your 50 year old shelter belts (planted with soil conservation subsidy money) to fit in your centre pivot. I can see the need for buildings in some climates, but when you get to more than, as you say, perhaps 2 months mostly indoors, I'd be saying the land use is wrong. Ok back to land use, which is a district council issue...hmmm. Back to happy cows...if you can provide a space that's large and clean enough, what's wrong with being indoors 24/7? SPCA accepts you can have happy chickens indoors...  

    I'd like to see how organisations such as SPCA and MAF can be supported in their inspections and recommendations (funding?). How about the bottom 10% of farmers (not just the tiny few we hear about in the papers) having to take remedial courses and rethink their operation, or being named and shamed in the local fed farmers newsletter?

    And I'm also interested in how general standards are raised, not just the lowest common denominator. Again, RNZSPCA has a blue tick for eggs reaching their standard, as consumers we have the power to support such initiatives. Where's the blue tick for animal welfare and the green tick for complying with the resource consent on the bottle of milk we buy? (to go with the red heart tick for the fat that's been removed and turned into something else?) Or a red/yellow/green sticker on every pack of supermarket meat like the good fish guide?

    by Claire Browning on August 12, 2010
    Claire Browning

    Thanks Matt.

    Both animal welfare and RMA issues are relevant; it's not either/or.

    I approached the district councils not to apply 'pressure' to them, but on the assumption that a consent of one kind or another, and probably multiple consents, is likely to be necessary for such an operation. Therefore, they'd be as likely as anybody else to know what's going on on the ground in their territory. It was information-seeking, not sheeting home blame or responsibility.

    Nor should it be the SPCA's responsibility in the first instance: MAF, via NAWAC, administers the development of Codes of Welfare under the Animal Welfare Act, and enforces agricultural welfare. But we need to be clear about what those codes do. Fundamentally, although they also describe some 'best practice', they're minimum standards, not optimum: standards that, if met, offer a defence to charges of animal cruelty. The SPCA's written its own standards, for industries where the codes in their view (and mine, and, in the case of battery hens, Parliament's Regulations Review Committee) don't meet the five freedoms' requirements. But they shouldn't have to do that, and I'd argue that where they've done it, it's again in the nature of a minimum, not necessarily optimum.

    And given their reaction to the Mackenzie proposals ("we'd have to collect the milk, even though we wouldn't want to"), the industry itself should be thinking, too. I'm told Dairy NZ may be doing some work on it.

    As to why land use is relevant, it is for all sorts of reasons. Is this a landscape that can accommodate great big buildings for cows? It's hard to comprehend the size of that one to be built in Southland. Is it one that can support the demands of cows -- ie, what goes in one end of them, and comes out of the other? If not, what are they going to be fed? If grain (as in the US), or PKE, whole new sets of ethical/environmental/welfare problems.

    For cows, provision of adequate shelter must be more difficult when you've cleared your 50 year old shelter belts (planted with soil conservation subsidy money) to fit in your centre pivot.


    by Marika Gerhards on August 13, 2010
    Marika Gerhards

    Hi Clair,
    I do have a few questions for you:
    -Could you refine the defenition of ' factory farming'  for me?
    - Could you explain what your main issues are with housing cows indoors?
    - Could you explain your issues with with robotic milkers?


    by Claire Browning on August 13, 2010
    Claire Browning

    Sure. Were you talking to me? -- cause it's 'Claire' with an 'e'.

    1.  As I made clear in the post, I don't know where the line is crossed. That's what the post was about. I thought we might, collectively, discuss it. Treating animals like production units, not sentient creatures, might be a start. Which may or may not have anything to do with housing them indoors. And isn't a definition of any use for legal purposes.

    2.  My main concern with housing cows indoors, as again I think I said pretty plainly, is the risk of it being the thin end of the wedge, for yet more intensification and dairy expansion. I would rather express the worry now, than in hindsight when it's too late. We haven't had a good history, with the pork and chicken industries; I'm not sure why cows would be any different. We need to put safeguards in place now, to try to make sure that the outcomes are different, and positive.

    3.  I didn't express any "issues" with robotic milkers. I simply described what had been reported in the ODT, about Morven. In my earlier post, I also noted that they may have some advantages. But see further 1. above.

    Seems to me, if a farmer wants to farm, he or she ought to be out there, in touch with the land and the animals and the weather, with all of the good and bad that this brings. If, on the other hand, you want a hands-off 9-to-5 lifestyle, get a city desk job.

    Could you now explain what your own issues are -- though I think I can guess -- and refine your argument, if you have one?

    by Claire Browning on August 17, 2010
    Claire Browning

    Waitaki District Council and I agreed that they would give me, free of charge (because they have an OIA charging policy), information about intensive dairy resource consent applications currently in progress, and any such consents granted within the last 12 months.

    On that basis:

    The Council can confirm that we have received the following resource consent applications for intensive dairy farm consents:

    LRC 10/36 Southdown Holdings Ltd

    LRC 10/37 Williamson Holdings Ltd

    LRC 10/38 Five Rivers Ltd

    These were: "basically the same as previously lodged and are on hold for an indefinite period. If and when they do proceed they will do so on a notified basis."

    by Jim Ridley on September 25, 2010
    Jim Ridley

    Loafing Barns.

    I struggle with the arrogance of those who believe they know what is the best for animals, when it comes to housing them for their welfare and production.

    We have been trialing (under the radar) for a number of years, different ways of housing animals in all weathers.

    We have found that leaving the gates open to loafing barns, so that animals can come and go at will does not make one bit of difference. Although animals prefer the temperture about 6 deg cooler than humans, 90 + percent prefer inside shelter.

    Loafing Barn Advantages, include less animal deaths/ food required/damage to pastures. Bigger conditioned animals, More production but the most important point is the these animals are CONTENT.

    Where are the comments from the Greenie Faction during snow blizzards, hail, rain or generally cold driving winds, which a number of the lower provinces tend to have at least one of for the bulk of the year.

    Let the animals tell you by watching them with the gate open. "And your mind the same"

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