But limits are just part of the equation and truly sustainable businesses are striking a balance to get the best out of their farms, their people and the environment. Here, a group of farmers share their experiences of developing a Sustainable Milk Plan (SMP) with DairyNZ.
SMPs were first developed by DairyNZ about five years ago, funded by the farmers’ levy and co-delivered by consultants in areas where the pace of regulation was accelerating. Their primary purpose was to help raise awareness of environmental issues and start a conversation with the farmer about how to move their business to a more sustainable footing – before change was forced upon them.
Farmers found SMPs helped them gain a better understanding of issues affecting the environment, learn where win-win outcomes can be achieved, and recognise positive things they’d achieved on their farms over time.
Environmental and economic benefits
Ross and Sue Duncan, with sharemilkers Lyndon and Lizzy Grant, run a 196ha (effective) block near Ashburton. The farm was converted to dairy in 2010 and they peak milk around 700 cows. They took part in an SMP assessment with DairyNZ in 2016 as a result of changes to their irrigation consent.
“This farm is not part of any local irrigation scheme so we have our own groundwater wells and ECan irrigation consent,” says Sue. “Our irrigation consent requires us to have a farm environment plan and in Canterbury the SMP is recognised as a consent template.”
Technically, the SMP was compliance-driven but it provided wider benefits, says Sue.
It helped the team recognise that many existing practices – such as having auto shut-off valves installed on irrigators and using local recycling firm Wastebusters to dispose of silage wrap – provided good environmental wins on the dairy farm.
“The shut-off valves protected our farm’s environment, minimised irrigation water wastage, reduced pumping costs and gave our staff peace of mind. The Wastebusters solution was not only environmentally friendly, it was cheaper for us as well,” says Ross.
“The 2016 SMP also showed us the value of not putting fertiliser on the farm in May, June and July – with a major reduction in nitrogen loss environmentally and big savings economically. We learned how different types of winter feed crops can be better managed for the benefit of the cows and the environment, and we improved the regularity and detail of record-keeping around irrigation applications, effluent applications and winter grazing patterns.”
On the journey
Pat and Sue Crowe, from Cambridge, found their SMP focused on the value of diverting water off races and away from culverts so runoff wasn’t carried downstream. Their 126ha (effective), 395-cow farm includes three streams flowing from nearby Maungatautari Mountain, a significant ecological icon in the Waikato region. For that reason, planting trees on the farm was an early focus, says Pat.
“I counted 58 kahikatea through the swamp in one place on the farm the other day.”
For Pat, the process also confirmed that the money he’d already spent installing an effluent holding tank and a feedpad had real benefits. It reduced mud levels, enabled more efficient collection of effluent, and minimised mastitis levels thanks to keeping the cows cleaner.
On top of that, Pat and Sue’s SMP process identified ways to increase water efficiency. They became more aware of on-farm sustainability and staff education.
“We learned where we sat with Fonterra in relation to our nitrogen use, and how we compared with other farmers. We also have a paper trail that shows we’re doing what we said we would. And that’s not just about compliance – it’s about our own awareness and commitment.”
Simple steps have big impact
Justin Koenig’s 370ha, 1200-cow dairy platform is in the Waituna catchment, Southland. He’s completed two SMPs, in 2012 and 2016.
“Diverting runoff from the race and culverts into the paddock away from the creek – that was a simple thing which had a big impact,” says Justin.
But the SMP had wider benefits too, he says. “It helped us identify that the farm’s petrol, diesel and chemical storage tanks were a potential point source of contamination in the event of a spill. We learned how to make them more secure and install a spills response system. Even simple things help – like having sawdust ready at all times, just in case.”
Minimising pain, maximising gain
These farmers agree on the education value of SMPs. Knowing what needs to be done and why has made a big difference to their motivation levels and on-farm consistency. The approach of ‘working-in-partnership’ with a local consultant also gets the thumbs-up.
“It’s nice to have someone come and work closely with you and explain the reasons why. It’s much better than just being told what you have to do by the regulators,” says Pat.
If there’s one main point to take away, it’s that sustainability does not equal compliance. Much of the benefit gained through an SMP may not show up in a consent, but it can certainly help you be more sustainable, offering benefits to the environment, your farm team and your bottom line.
Try the Envirowalk app
As the regulatory environment has matured, a raft of providers have emerged to provide a tailored SMP-type service for your farm business. These plans are often called Farm Environmental Plans (FEPs). Plans like SMPs and FEPs are taking on more significance as regions move into consenting frameworks, which is why DairyNZ is winding down its provision of SMPs.
However, we think it’s important that all farmers can access an SMP-style assessment and get the benefits enjoyed by our case study farmers. To do this, DairyNZ has developed the EnviroWalk app – check it out at dairynz.co.nz/envirowalk.
For more information on sustainable farm management and good environmental management practices visit dairynz.co.nz/environment.
This article was originally published in Inside Dairy October 2017