National Freshwater Regulations FAQ


12 min read

Detail of the regulations Synthetic nitrogen fertiliser input limit Intensive wintering grazing Stockholding areas Stock exclusion regulations

National freshwater regulations relate to the quality and management of water. The 'Action for Healthy Waterways package' includes policies affecting farming practices. These policies touch on winter grazing, nitrogen fertiliser limits, and protecting wetlands. Regional councils need to update their water management plans by 2024. There's also guidance on what existing activities can continue under these new rules. Finally, the page defines water bodies like creeks, streams, and rivers. Make sure to engage in community discussions about these rules.

Here is a summary of common questions relating to the national freshwater regulations.

Detail of the regulations

What’s in the Action for Healthy Waterways package?

The ‘Action for Healthy Waterway package’, previously known as the ‘Essential Freshwater package’, includes several policy documents:

  • National Environmental Standards for Freshwater (NES): sets out rules that apply to farming and freshwater that apply across the country. The rules are set by central government, and regional councils are charged with implementing these rules. These cover intensive winter grazing, a cap on application of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, intensification of land use, stock holding facilities and protection of wetlands. They also cover fish passage and river reclamation standards.

  • Section 360 Regulation for Stock Exclusion: sets out requirements for stock exclusion such as stock type, land slope and deadlines for meeting the requirements.

  • The National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management 2020 (NPS-FM): a new NPS-FM has been developed, introducing additional compulsory values and attributes (for example for sediment and nitrate concentration) that must be met to maintain or improve the state of freshwater.

  • Measurement and reporting of water takes regulations: these have been amended to include requirements for water permit holders to provide electronic records of water takes to regional councils.

Regional Councils must work with their communities to review and update their regional plans by the end of 2024 to ensure they achieve these new limits – and set the timeframe for this. DairyNZ will be engaging closely with regional councils over the coming years as they address this and we encourage farmers to take part in community discussions also.

What does the discussion about ‘existing use rights’ mean?

Activities that require a National Environmental Standards (NES) may be able to continue temporarily under section 20A(2) of the Resource Management Act if:

  • the activity was lawfully established; and
  • the activity could have occurred without consent before the rule in the regulations came into force; and
  • the effects of the activity are the same or similar in character, intensity and scale of effects to those that existed before the rule took legal effect; and
  • you apply for a resource consent for the activity once the rule comes into force and by the following dates:

    • 2 March 2021 – for all activities other than intensive winter grazing, applications of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, and stockholding areas other than feedlots.
    • 31 October 2021 – for intensive winter grazing activities.
    • 31 December 2021 – for applications of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser and stockholding areas other than feedlots.

What is the definition of a creek/stream/river?

For stock exclusion purposes, it is a water body which is continually or intermittently flowing and at least 1 meter wide as measured as the bed width bank-to-bank. It does not include artificial watercourses such as irrigation canals, water supply races, electricity generation canals or farm drains.

For winter grazing purposes, it is a water body which is continually or intermittently flowing - including drains (regardless of whether there is any water in it at the time).

Synthetic nitrogen fertiliser input limit

What is synthetic nitrogen and how does the N-Cap apply?

Synthetic nitrogen is the nitrogen part of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser (which also contains other things). The N-Cap applies to the synthetic nitrogen amount, not the fertiliser amount. If the dry weight of the nitrogen is 5 percent or less of the fertiliser it is not counted as synthetic nitrogen fertiliser and the N-Cap does not apply.

What if I use both synthetic and biological fertilisers?

Biological nitrogen fertilisers, where the nitrogen content is derived from plants or animals, is not synthetic nitrogen, and therefore the N-Cap does not apply to the application of biological nitrogen (including dairy effluent where there is no added synthetic N). However, where fertilisers are mixed together and include both synthetic and biological nitrogen, they are considered synthetic fertilisers and the N-Cap applies.

How is a farm defined, does the limit to application of synthetic N fertiliser apply over my runoff as well?

The nitrogen cap applies to a ‘contiguous land holding’ 20ha or more (for pastoral use). This is ‘one or more parcels of land within a farm’. So, if the run-off is contiguous (joined) with the milking platform, it is all subject to the same N-cap. If the run-off is separate, they must separately meet the N-cap.

How do I work out whether my farm is a contiguous landholding? What about my support block?

A contiguous landholding is any block of land which is connected. Contiguous blocks can include multiple uses (such as milking platform and support block as part of the same contiguous block). Contiguous blocks may be crossed by streams, roads or railways. As long as the land on each side of these features is part of the same farming operation (whether owned or leased, in single or multiple titles), it remains contiguous.

Where land is unconnected, i.e., it is separated by land not part of the same farming operation it is not contiguous and will need to be treated as separate blocks.

If synthetic nitrogen is applied above 190kg N/ha, can this be averaged or offset by other parts of the farm. Where and how is this stipulated in the NES provisions?

The NES defines the nitrogen cap, “for the land in pastoral land use in a contiguous landholding, means the application of nitrogen at a rate of no more than 190kg/ha/year— (a) to all of that land, as averaged over that land; and (b) to each hectare of that land that is not used to grow annual forage crops.”

Pastoral land use means the use of land for the grazing of livestock but doesn’t include the grazing on the stubble of a crop that has been harvested after arable land use.

Thus, there is a strict maximum of 190kg N/ha/year on any hectare of pasture. It is possible to put more than 190kg N/ha/year on forage crops but only if offset by applying lower amounts on pasture.

What about areas that are in crop for some of the year?

Any crops that are grazed in situ are included in the N-Cap.

However, crops that are harvested and not grazed (i.e., silage, hay, cut-and-carry) are not subject to the N-Cap. Where you have an area that is grazed for part of the year before being put into non-grazed crop then the N-Cap applies until the last grazing.

For example, a paddock that is in pasture for part of the year and periodically grazed, but then shut up for silage, would have a period when the N-Cap does not apply. Any synthetic nitrogen applied from after the final grazing, until the date of harvest is not included in the N-Cap. Any synthetic nitrogen applied after silage harvest but before pre the next grazing by animals, would be included in the N-Cap. Other types of harvested crops that this might apply to include maize silage, oats for silage, fodder beet which is harvested and feed on a feed pad etc.

You still need to record the synthetic nitrogen applied, but it does not contribute to the amount that must be below the N-Cap. Therefore, it is also important to accurately record grazing and harvest dates to ensure you can demonstrate it is not part of the N-Cap.

What period does the N-Cap cover and when does it need to be reported?

The ‘N-Cap’ of 190kg/ha/year of synthetic nitrogen application commenced on 01 July 2021. The 'N-Cap year' runs from 01 July – 30 June and dairy farmers must report their synthetic nitrogen use to their regional council by the 31 July each year. Therefore, the first report for the period 01 July 2021 – 30 June 2022 will be due by 31 July 2022.

How do I farm under 190kg N/ha cap?

The new cap on synthetic nitrogen (N) fertiliser will represent a challenge for many farmers who have been using N boosted grass as a price competitive feed source. The impact for your farm will depend on the amount of N you currently apply (affecting the size of the reduction required), its current use efficiency and how the transition period to low N fertiliser use is managed.

Working alongside farmers who have been reducing N fertiliser on their properties we have observed that:

a) many farmers managed to reduce N fertiliser with very little impact on pasture harvested (and profit) by improving N fertiliser use efficiency,

b) others have made good farm systems decisions and re-adjusted feed supply and demand in a way that has little impact on profit

c) some made changes too quickly or at the wrong time generating significant pasture deficits that were filled with more expensive supplements, reducing profit.

Successful transition requires planning and time. It is best to do it gradually, rather than in one big step (especially if the reduction is bigger than 50-60kg N/ha/yr). It is important that clover has time to re-establish and it is actively fixing N to compensate for the lower N from fertiliser. Time is also required to ensure management systems are in place to accommodate the changes. If you are using more than 190kg N/ha/yr you need to act now to minimise any impacts on your system.

Which tools are available for reporting and how do I find them?

You can submit your synthetic nitrogen fertiliser use through the national online reporting tool.

These training videos will assist with using the National online reporting tool. The tool also has a help centre with explanations of the most common terms.

The major fertiliser suppliers Ballance and Ravensdown have also developed tools you can use to record and report your synthetic fertiliser use through the MyBallance and HawkEye programmes respectively.

If you are not able to report using any of the online tools, please contact your regional council to discuss your options.

What needs to be reported?

Synthetic nitrogen purchases and applications need to be recorded in enough detail to be able to provide the required information to the Regional Council annually.  While GPS proof of placement is ideal, this is not mandatory and manual records are satisfactory.  As well as recording nitrogen applications, you also need to ensure you record grazing and non-grazing periods in mixed use areas.

You need to record your information in a way that allows you to report information for each contiguous landholding that includes a dairy platform (reporting is not required for contiguous landholdings that do not include a dairy platform, but the N-Cap still applies).

You can report your fertiliser use via a fertiliser supplier or directly to your regional council.

If you’re planning to use the regional sector’s reporting tool, you’ll need access to the following information:

  • total land area of your farm in hectares
  • total land area used for:
    • grazed land split into:
      • grazed forage crops
      • grazed non-forage crops
    • un-grazed land
  • kg of Nitrogen fertiliser applied for each land use category
  • name/s of the fertiliser applied (including its Nitrogen percentage) for each land use category
  • your New Zealand Business Number (check whether you have one, or apply for one)
  • your Dairy Supply Number.

How do I calculate how much synthetic N I have used?

Appendix A of the Ministry for the Environments Nitrogen cap guidance for dairy farms outlines a process for calculating how much synthetic N has been used. MfE are anticipating releasing a nitrogen calculator app which will be available at www.environment.govt.nz/nitrogencalculator when available.

Until the calculator is available, the process outlined in the guidance could be used. If  the calculations show that average or per hectare applications will exceed the cap, corrective actions will be needed. The guidance also explains that measuring the nitrogen applied per hectare is best done with GPS technologies. If spreaders are used that cannot do this, then the average application rate per hectare should be calculated for each area of pasture where fertiliser has been evenly spread whether that is a paddock, a group of paddocks, or part of a paddock.

Can I apply to use more than 190kg/ha/year of synthetic N?

You can apply for resource consent to exceed the N-Cap. There are two options;

  • A 'phased reduction' consent which can only be granted until 01 July 2023 by which time synthetic N use must be able to meet the N-Cap, or
  • A longer term (up to five years) consent for higher N use. To be granted ‘good practice’ must be demonstrated to limit nitrate loss to what it would have been if only 190kg/ha/year was applied. You will need a suitably qualified expert to prepare evidence of this requirement being able to be met.

Both the above consents have ‘non-complying’ status under the Resource Management Act, which means in addition to the above, in order to grant consent, the Council must be satisfied that the effects of applying more than 190kg/ha/year of synthetic nitrogen are no more than minor, or that the activity will comply with all policies and objectives in the regional plan.

If you are thinking about applying for a resource consent, we suggest that you talk to the consents team at your regional council to find out what will be required. You can find their contact information on your regional council website.

Intensive wintering grazing

When do winter grazing rules come into effect?

Some of the requirements for winter grazing which were to come into effect in May 2021 have been changed and further delayed until November 2022.

Changes have been made to the default conditions: slope, pugging and resowing. A new condition around critical source areas has been added.

The changes were done by Government to address implementation issues following advocacy by DairyNZ and other groups to raise concerns on behalf of farmers about the practicality of these rules. While these changes have been deferred, there is still a strong focus on making sure good wintering practice is being used on-farm - both by the Government and the public.

Do I need a consent for winter grazing?

If you are planning on expanding the area you use for winter grazing above the maximum area used in the reference period, then you need a consent. You might also need a consent if you cannot comply with any of the default conditions. Check with your regional council before applying.

What is the reference period?

The regulations introduce a reference period which is the period from 01 July 2014 and ended 30 June 2019. The regulations put a hold on expanding IWG activities above the area used in the reference period. This is still in force and should be followed for the intensive winter grazing to be a permitted activity. This means that the area of intensive winter grazing on the farm cannot be larger than the maximum area used in the period 2014-2019. If the farm didn't have any area in intensive winter grazing during this period, a consent will be needed.

What is important here is the word 'farm'. A farm is defined as a landholding whose activities include agriculture. A landholding means one or more parcels of land that are managed as a single operation.

How will the area limitations be decided for intensive winter grazing? If a farm has two or more support blocks, does this apply across the board or per location?

The intensive winter grazing limits apply to a 'farm', which is defined as one or more parcels of land (that may or may not be contiguous) that are managed as a single operation. Thus, if a run-off and milking platform are managed as a single operation, they can be considered together to determine compliance with the requirements for intensive winter grazing.

Both the maximum area winter grazed during the reference period, and the 50ha or 10 percent (whichever is the greater) permitted activity criteria apply.

Stockholding areas

Do I need a consent for my feedpad?

If you have a feedpad, standoff pad, wintering pad and loafing pad (wintering pads and calf sheds are excluded) it must meet minimum standards (impermeable base, effluent capture and disposal and siting away from water bodies) or a consent must be applied for.

Consent must be applied for by mid-2021 unless the criteria for existing use rights applies (in which case there is a 6-month extension to the date by which a consent must be applied for). For 2020 and 2021 this means:

  • Holding cattle in feedlots and other stockholding areas can continue without a consent indefinitely if carried out in accordance with the relevant permitted activity rules in the new regulations.
  • Holding cattle in feedlots and other stockholding areas can also continue without a consent temporarily if all the conditions in section 20A(2) apply.

− For feedlots, consent applications must be made no later than 2 March 2021.

− For other stockholding areas, consent applications must be made no later than 31 December 2021.

Note: a consent will not be required if there is a certified freshwater farm plan that addresses any adverse effects generated by the stock holding areas. However, this requires that certified freshwater farm plans are enabled through new regulations.

Stock exclusion regulations

What are the dates and details I need to know around stock exclusion?

Any person who owns or controls stock must follow these rules.

Stock class On By
Waterways (lakes and 'wide' rivers):  

Stock must be excluded and kept at least 3 meters from the edge of the bed of a lake or a river with a bed greater than 1 m wide at any point on the parcel of land – includes intermittent streams but excludes drains.  

NB: Buffer width doesn’t apply to a lake or river with a permanent fence already in place.  

Stock (except deer) must use a bridge or culvert if they cross the waterway more than twice a month.
Dairy cattle Any NEWLY developed farm 3 Sept 2020
Dairy cattle (and pigs) Any terrain 1 July 2023
Dairy support cattle Any terrain 1 July 2025
Beef cattle and deer intensively grazing (break-fed, fed on annual forage crops or irrigated pasture) Any terrain 1 July 2023
Beef cattle and deer Low slope land (as identified on MfE website - generally up to 10 degree slope) MFE site 1 July 2025
Wetlands: All stock must be excluded from natural wetlands. All cattle, deer and pigs Any natural wetland on a newly developed farm 3 Sept 2020
Any natural wetland identified in the regional or district plan as of 3 September 2020 1 July 2023
Any wetland greater than 0.05ha on low slope land or with a population of threatened species 1 July 2025

Exception: A bridge or culvert is not required if the river has a highly mobile bed, and stock are supervised and actively driven across the river.

For definition: Dairy cattle = cattle farmed for producing milk (including bulls and unweaned calves, but not dairy support cattle). Dairy support cattle = cattle farmed for producing milk, but not being milked (eg young stock or dried off), and grazed on land that is not grazed by dairy cattle.

Last updated: Aug 2023

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