Last December’s uproar about whether we should have cubicle dairy farming in New Zealand was misinformed, because it’s already happening in New Zealand

It’s like an episode straight from Jane Eyre: New Zealand’s grubby secret, the gibbering creature in the attic.

When the story broke, last December, that resource consent applications had been made for cubicle dairy farming installations in the McKenzie Basin, there was a furore. Some of that was location-specific to the McKenzie Basin; however, quite a lot of it was responding to larger questions of principle, about animal welfare, and New Zealand’s clean green brand.

But cubicle dairy farming has already arrived in New Zealand. An unspecified number -- I’m told a small number -- of “open stall” dairy farms are already operating in South Canterbury, their precise location deliberately undisclosed.

The cows are housed in sheds all but permanently, certainly for a large part of the year, perhaps full time. The floor of their sheds is concrete. I don’t know if they have natural light; let’s assume they do. Each cow has a stall, bedded down with a rubber pad. She can exit the stall when she chooses and walk freely around the shed, in the small amount of available space. However, she cannot get out of the shed. She is robotically milked, at will, in separate bays set aside for the purpose. Effluent is swept away by automated scrapers and collected for disposal.

If you’ll indulge me in quoting myself for a minute (just to save you clicking back to what now seems a very silly post), in December I wrote about the McKenzie Basin proposals:

But this is a novel development in New Zealand. It poses philosophical and strategic questions, with irrevocable consequences. We ought to take this opportunity as a country to decide what we think, in a way that has never been offered to us with the expansion of dairy to date.

Wrong. Or at least, wrong on the first point, too late on the second.

Then I started wondering: what happens next time? What would stop a similar application in an ordinary Waikato paddock, that is currently used for dairy farming? The balance of considerations might change quite a lot. … overall, Im a bit dismayed, at our tenuous grip on sources of our national identity and pride -- how easily they might be lost, for no better reason than lack of vigilance.

I guess I’ll give myself a bit of a tick for that.

It would seem that this method of dairy farming has arrived in this country, and the only response is to manage it: to decide carefully when and where and why it is appropriate; and how animal welfare can be assured, and environmental goals optimised. Perhaps there are ways in which it can be used for some good. For example, the robotic milking machines tell us that cows who can take charge of their own milking like to be milked, on average, 2.7 times per day. It’s more like having a calf, perhaps, and their incidence of mastitis is reduced. They also appreciate shelter. Their effluent can be collected for controlled disposal.

They like sunshine and fresh grass, too, and soft paddocks to take the weight off their hooves. For every advantage gained by controlled effluent disposal, there are some corresponding disadvantages of the industrialised process. Is the net effect better or worse? I don’t know. I’ll take some convincing that this should be anything other than very cautiously employed.

You might recall that we heard from everybody bar the cattle dog, in the media storm that ensued after the story broke, including Don Nicholson, some other Federated Farmers spokespeople, and Fonterra. Fonterra said they would have no option but to collect milk from such farms, although they did not want it, because it could be damaging to New Zealand’s clean green brand that opens marketing doors.

It would have been so simple to say: this fuss you’re all making is ignorant. We already have these farms in New Zealand, and they have done no damage to the brand. It would be astonishing if the Feds, Fonterra, et al did not know about the existing farms. Certainly, the McKenzie Basin applicants do, because they are using them as a template, and a showpiece. And yet there was a peculiar silence, in which the farms were never mentioned, which to me speaks volumes.

Comments (6)

by Claire Browning on February 26, 2010
Claire Browning

The new Animal Welfare (Dairy Cattle) Code of Welfare 2010, issued by David Carter on 19 February, doesn't address stall farming. Further advice is being sought on that from NAWAC.

However, some bits of it have some bearing on the description of the existing farms, set out above, and raise questions about how the two will be reconciled in the further advice.

For example, in the section relating to "stand off areas and feed pads", the minimum standard is simply that "dairy cattle must be able to lie down and rest comfortably for sufficient periods to meet their behavioural needs". However, the accompanying text talks quite a lot about cows' scientifically-proven preferences for particular surface types, and for lying down anywhere between 8 and 13 hours each day, and the adverse welfare effects on them if those needs are not satisfied.

"Cows are likely to suffer significant discomfort if the surface type and area per cow are not appropriate for the frequency of use." The recommended best practice is that, after standing on concrete surfaces for 12 hours or more per day, for more than three consecutive days, cows should be given at least one full day on a suitable alternative surface, where they are free to lie down and rest. Cows deprived of lying down show signs including hanging of the head and appearing tired, choosing to lie down instead of grazing, excessive stiffness or lameness. Cows prefer to lie down on soft surfaces and are reluctant to lie down when the surface is slippery and/or wet. A well-drained woodchip, bark or post-peeling pad is preferred by cows (post peel is another kind of woodchip). Where harder surfaces, including concrete, are used for periods of 12 hours or more on consecutive days, welfare will be compromised. Lameness, stiffness, agitated behaviour and weight loss are likely outcomes. [pp 16-17 of the Code]

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Nadine Conner
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