Static cow numbers in Southland might have reached ‘peak cow’

I arrived in Southland from Matamata, with 300 cows, a dog, a cat and a dream. A dream to own land. I was a sharemilker looking for opportunities and Southland had it, in bucket loads.

Southland Dairy co-op was diversifying and expanding from just a cheese factory to a milk powder plant as well. It was keen to secure farmers to make their factory work and I was keen to be involved.

Soon, after making friends in Southland, they decided that me being single, was not cool and that it was time that I settled down and got married. They went about making it their business to ensure this happened within the century, so with one personal ad in the Southland Times, and a reply to boot, the stage was set for the plan to come to pass.

READ MORE: Why is Landcorp selling a farm to overseas buyers?

Much to my horror a blind date was arranged. The plan was arranged for the following week to go on a double date with my friends as support to a meal and a movie . We arrived at my date’s house. The path to the door looked six miles long. My mouth was dry, my heart was racing and my mind had vacated my body. In a trance, I arrived back at the car with my blind date. My friends helped as we carried out the night’s entertainment which seemed to drag. It rapidly became obvious that it was not going to work; that this relationship had as much spark as striking a match at the bottom of Foveaux Strait, in a howling southerly.

After this dramatic experience, I thought that my friends would be satisfied with status quo, and give this relationship thing a rest for a while. Arriving at their place a week later for tea, I sat down to the table, smug with recent experience that at least I would have the next six months to enjoy the company of my dog and cat, with no plans of romance on the immediate horizon.

Starting the debrief of the previous week’s experience, I quickly announced that I was done with finding my life partner for the time being. They looked at each other, smiled, announcing that were changing up gears in the hunt for my wife. A radio ad. What lengths these southern people would go to, to fulfil their missions. Instantly my meal looked like a plate full of vomit and the recent memories came flooding back. With my mind in another place, and almost in a foetal state from the announcement that radio ad, I blurted out about an old flame up north.

This seemed to please them somewhat, and the lady of the house put a condition on the table that I would at least ring this girl before I could come back for another meal. After talking to the old flame’s cousin, who talked to his mother, who then went on to talk to the mother of the old flame, we had the phone number. With this in hand and the dramatic experiences of the last two weeks, I phoned Jo 11 months after I had last seen her up north with the opening line “Do you remember me?” Thankfully she did, and love bloomed. I am not the fastest kid off the block nor the most romantic, but 11 months later I eventually proposed (although Jo would say that I still never did).

We progressed through a couple of 50/50 sharemilking jobs and soon realised my dream of farm ownership in 2000, with a couple of kids and a wife, happy to be putting down roots. Nine years later we expanded the existing operation, farming 800 cows at Ermedale and another 240 cows at Wyndham.
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Both of our farms are quite unusual for Southland, in that they have always been dairy farms since the 1920s. The Wyndham farm had three cowsheds at one stage.

Dairy cattle numbers have increased 539 per cent to 616,831 in Southland, 490 per cent to 1,041,501 in Canterbury, and 368 per cent to 302,806 in Otago between 1994 and 2015 (Statistics NZ)

My uncle once said, “farming was like surfing, in that when you get a good wave you ride it through to the end”.

We have had a good wave in dairy farming, a wave of expansion and opportunities. Also, like a good wave, you do not realise this until the wave ends and how good it was from a growth point of view. It was awesome.

Much is changing in the farming sense, and as the conversation begins to change to resources that are showing signs of stress, we are finding that companies are not talking growth, but more a stabilising of cow numbers.

Last year we had a decrease of 100,000 cows nationally, which is the first time that we have decreased numbers since I have been farming, which is over 40 years. So if we find ourselves in a stable cow numbers market with a high number of properties on the market, how would farming practises change?

Would the province be excited in seeing new milk plants going up and existing powder plants being underutilised? (deja vu of the meat works)

DIRA was set up in 2001 and created legislation for Fonterra to exist. This year it is up for review because the 80 per cent supply threshold has been reached and it appears that the government is going to roll it over so they can review the dairy industry in more detail at a later date.

Open entry and exit is damaging the dairy industry’s reputation by accepting milk that may not have best environmental outcomes for a catchment. This will need to be reviewed in my view as some parts of New Zealand will not be better off having large animals destroying pristine ecosystems.

It’s a relatively well-known point that China, for all its wealth, does not have sufficient productive land to feed its 1.3 billion inhabitants and so has been buying up large tracts of land in Africa and other countries, to help meet its population’s food requirements.

Societies with long-term planning horizons such as China are acting now to secure their food sources for the long term. Societies with shorter planning horizons, such as New Zealand, are selling their productive lands to them.

This predicament is made all the more difficult by the fact that milk production will need to be done with less land than is presently farmed, less water than is presently used, less agricultural inputs, and if the present rate continues, fewer farmers to produce the food.

What is the vision for Southland agriculture? If cow numbers are at ‘static growth’ phase, how will our industry adapt?

Sheep milking anyone?

David Diprose is a dairy farmer in Southland’s Pourakino Valley.

 

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