Environmental work beginning to reap benefits


4 min read

A tui spotted on Waiorongomai Valley Farm in the Waikato is a testament to the positive impact the van Ras family’s environmental work is having.

“I haven’t seen a tui on the farm in our 12 years here,” Johan van Ras says. “Yesterday I took a photo of one. Visually, you can see the changes.”

The tui’s appearance – and other environmental change – is due to a journey Johan and wife Kylie have been on since they bought the farm with his parents in 2010. They have retired a 4.5ha block of land with poor pasture production and turned it into a native wetland. This process started after they bought the farm and identified the area as a potential wetland site. Their budget and external funding were limited then, though, and getting the farm business on its feet was their priority.

In 2019 they fenced off the area, which was planted in 2020 and has been maintained ever since. “Now we are starting to see fantails and tuis,” Johan says. “Hopefully we’ll get some matuku-hūrepo soon – that will make me think I’ve won Lotto.

“Environmental DNA samples taken before the wetland was planted provide a baseline of biodiversity in the area. It will be exciting to do another eDNA sample, now the planted area is three years old and the array of biodiversity in and out of the water is changing.”

Constructed wetland on the van Ras family's farm.

Johan and Kylie have installed a water treatment system to remove iron, manganese and E.coli from their water so everyone on the farm has good quality drinking water – including the cows – and they use trucks with GPS systems for applying fertiliser. This, Johan says, has been a game changer in terms of efficiency. “Investing in that saves us about 20 percent a year in our total fertiliser spend.”

They’ve also planted thousands of trees – 12, maybe 15,000, Johan says – alongside the Te Puninga waterway that runs through the farm, to help. These trees include Carex, which strengthen the stream’s banks, reduce sediment and help with N and phosphorus run-off.

Waikato Regional Council and the Billion Trees Fund helped fund the planting, covering half the total cost. Johan and Kylie funded the rest themselves, which helps hold them accountable for looking after and maintaining the site.

“In future this will be a valuable biodiversity asset,” Johan says. “The other big difference we’ve made is around effluent management. Putting those measurement tools in place has given us better control of our fertiliser inputs. We’ve saved money and seen decent reductions in N and P losses.”

A DairyNZ event on Waiorongomai Valley Farm this autumn will showcase the work Johan and Kylie have done on-farm and encourage discussion about what other Waikato farmers can do to meet environmental objectives profitably.

The power of plantain

In the early days on Waiorongomai Valley Farm, Johan and Kylie’s average N and phosphate losses were about 30kg per ha each year. Once they started investing in their various environmental measures, Johan says, that figure dropped to the high 20s. Their adoption of plantain has reduced it further to the low 20s.

Johan and Kylie have been using plantain on their farm for several years. As a partner farm in DairyNZ’s Plantain Potency and Practice programme, they’ve had the opportunity to learn from other farmers who have successfully used plantain. The programme supports farmers nationwide to incorporate plantain on-farm. Trial results to date indicate Ecotain plantain can be successfully incorporated into farm systems, to significantly reduce N losses while maintaining milk production.

“Using plantain is the right thing to do,” Johan says. “At the moment we’re working with an average of 10 percent plantain across the farm. If we can get to 20 percent, we should be able to reduce that N loss to the high teens. We’ll be happy with that.”

As a partner farm, Waiorongomai Valley Farm will continue to be monitored until 2027.

The farming journey

Johan grew up on farms. His parents emigrated from the Netherlands in 1982 and went to work on the farm circuit with their young family – Johan and his younger sister.

“They started as farm workers to learn about farm operations, then became sharemilkers and worked their way to ownership in 1996,” he says. “They worked so hard to get where they got. I can count on one hand the number of holidays we had as kids, but we didn’t miss out on anything and we learned from that. When you get older you realise the sacrifice they put in.”

Johan and Kylie, who met through friends while she was studying to be a vet, leased a farm in Te Aroha for six years. “That’s how I started farming,” Johan says.

His parents sold their farm while Johan and Kylie were leasing, and in 2010 the two couples decided to go into partnership. Johan’s been running the 76ha Waiorongomai Valley Farm ever since. They have 215 cows on 66ha of effective land.

His parents are now retired and living in town. “It’s the first time they’ve had a new house, so they’re excited. Dad is still an essential part of the farm but doesn’t have the pressure of running it – and now has nothing to stop him going fishing.”

There’s no pressure on Johan and Kylie’s children – Blake, 14 and Dana, 11 – to take over one day, either. “If they want to take it over that would be good, but they’re too young to make those decisions,” Johan says. “For now Blake loves driving round on the motorbike and Dana loves helping out with the cows. They enjoy the farm life, and there’s always something to do.

“It’s a bit of a tie in a way, but you’ve got to make time to get away.”

As a family, they do that when they can. They’ve employed a contract milker, Tracey Brown, to try and get more time together. Late last year they completed the Routeburn track, which was exciting for the team, Johan says, and an experience he’d highly recommend.

Environmental leadership

Since early 2023, Johan has been the Waikato chair for Dairy Environment Leaders – a network of environmentally focussed dairy farmers who are committed to creating a sustainable future in dairying and lead by example to reduce on-farm environmental footprint. Supported by DairyNZ, Dairy Environment Leaders (DELs) are actively involved in sharing environmental knowledge across the sector through a network of actively involved farmers who lead by example to reduce on-farm footprint.

Johan recognises the effectiveness of farmer-to-farmer learning. Given his on-farm environmental focus, he wanted to share his knowledge and learnings with other farmers to help them along their own environmental journeys. This led him to an environmental specialist role with DairyNZ, which he started in May 2023. The role sees him leading the industry body’s work to improve the health of the Pokaiwhenua catchment, alongside iwi and the Pokaiwhenua Catchment Group. This is the first DairyNZ project of its kind that brings western science and Mātauranga Māori together to better understand catchment ecological health and how to improve it.

Johan and Kylie have been recognised for their commitment to reducing environmental footprint. They won the 2021 Waikato Ballance Farm Environment Awards supreme award, seeing the competition as a chance to influence change, advocate for farmers and share positive stories from the sector.

They remain committed to reducing their environmental footprint because, Johan says, it’s simply the right thing to do.

All this work has not been easy, though, he says. “You have to make sacrifices, and it’s tough in the early days. It’s the same for every farmer. But in the long run it’s worth it.”

Media contact
Justine McLeary
Senior media specialist
p: 027 808 0673
e: justine.mcleary@dairynz.co.nz

Page last updated:

26 Feb 2024