National Party leader Simon Bridges has described the Government’s plan to cut pollution and clean up waterways as an “assault on the regions”. Is that what is proposed?
Q: What exactly has Environment Minister David Parker proposed?
A: The Government is going to set a nutrient limit for catchments through a national water policy statement. Regional councils will then decide the level of nutrients individual farmers can discharge.
Q: Has he said farmers will have to cut cow numbers?
A: Not expressly, he has acknowledged some farmers “may” have to reduce cow numbers but that will be decided according to how they manage their nutrient discharges.
Q: How many cows are there?
A: Statistics NZ’s latest figures show there were 6.5 million dairy cattle in 2017. Of these, 4.9 million are milking cows, the remainder are rising one-year-old cattle and bulls for breeding.
Q: How much have numbers grown?
A: In 2002, coincidentally a year after Fonterra was created, there were 5.1 million dairy cattle. Since 2002 there has been a 42 per cent increase in the area of land used for dairy, and a 20 per cent drop in the area used for sheep and beef.
Q: Have we reached “peak cow”?
A: Numbers reached a peak in 2014 when dairy prices were at an all time high. Then they rose to 6.7 million.
Q: How have the numbers changed according to region?
A: Dairy industry critics have argued there are too many cows in the wrong regions. For example, Canterbury has light soils and nitrates can easily end up in rivers. In 1994 there were 212,000 dairy cattle in the province, but by 2016 this had soared to 1.2 million. Southland numbers rose from to 114,378 to 709,000 over the same period.
Q: How much milk do those cows produce?
A: 21 billion litres on 1.7 million hectares of land. About 95 per cent of that is exported in the form of milk powder, UHT liquid milk, whipping cream, cheese and butter.
Q: What is the value of dairy to the country’s economy?
A: For the year to the end of March, dairy exports were worth $14.2 billion, up from $11.5b the year before. Dairy and tourism have been jockeying for position as the top export earner for the last few years, with tourism receipts $14.5b in 2017. But dairy is by far the top commodity earner, with meat and wool next at $6.8b.
Q: How many people are employed by dairying?
A: The total number working on farms is 33,760, while 13,550 are employed in processing plants for a total of 47,310 (in 2017).
Q: Could farmers earn the same money from fewer cows?
A: DairyNZ principal scientist Dr John Roche has carried out a study showing the average New Zealand dairy farmer is milking 100 more cows than in 2009, yet making no more money. In other studies at Lincoln University and Ruakura, productivity has remained the same while cow numbers have fallen. A key factor is the amount of imported feed used, such as palm kernel, which pushes up costs.
Q: What are the pollutants caused by farming?
A: Nitrogen (from animal effluent), phosphorus (from fertiliser and sediment), and E.coli (bacteria found in animal and human intestines).
Q: Are rivers becoming more polluted?
A: Yes and no. The Ministry for the Environment reported last year that between 1994 and 2013 phosphorus pollution was lessening at the sites it monitored, but nitrate was worsening (55 per cent) at more sites than improving (28 per cent). Nitrogen leaching from agricultural soils was estimated to have increased 29 per cent from 1990 to 2012.
Q: Are farms the only source of pollutants?
A: Cities and towns are also to blame. Compared with areas of native forest, E.coli levels are 22 times higher in urban areas and 9.5 times higher in farming districts.
Q: How much will it cost to clean up waterways?
A: Massey University ecologist Dr Mike Joy calculated, based on how much it has cost to clean up the Rotorua Lakes, Lake Taupo, the Manawatu River and Lake Wairarapa, that the repair bill from dairy farming could be as high as $15b. That figure has been disputed by Federated Farmers.
By: GERARD HUTCHING