So, why would one of the most established and powerful industries in New Zealand need to justify itself to the rest of us?
There’s a fairly simple reason: shifting public opinion over how much it really costs to produce 20 billion-plus litres of milk each year.
As dairy farms and herds have increased in size, so too our rivers and waterways are becoming increasingly polluted.
Then there’s agricultural greenhouse gas emissions – and over the past year, some highly-negative posts from animal activists about casual cruelty towards bobby calves.
Dairy farmers are copping much of the blame from townies like me, and they’re feeling the burn.
We townies might have some strong opinions, yet, there’s the good chance – if you’re like me – that you have little or nothing to do with farming.
As a kid growing up in the 60s and 70s, it seemed everyone had a connection with the country. Now most of us don’t, and the divide between town and country has only got wider.
With that in mind, I wanted to experience heartland dairying and hear from the farmers themselves for an “inside-out” perspective. So, with a TV crew, I headed to the Hauraki Plains in Waikato.
What I discovered was a rural community that feels that they’ve almost gone from hero to zero in the public and media estimation.
Instead of being appreciated for their contribution to the economy, they feel under siege. And that’s on the back of the crippling downturn in milk prices that’s already hit them hard.
“Why”, they ask, “finger us for simply responding to an increased global demand for milk? Isn’t that good business and didn’t everyone benefit? And how else to do that except through intensification and increased herd sizes?”
As a townie, I came up against some stark realities down on the farm. I hadn’t, for instance realised, that for cows to produce milk, they have to be annually impregnated and give birth.
Then, just days after giving birth, they are separated from their offspring. For someone like me who hasn’t seen it before, the mother-child distress was sad to watch.
At home, drinking my latte, I’d have never given it a second thought. Or the fact that millions of unwanted calves are born each year and mostly end up at the works.
The farmers I met shared a deep sense of connection with their animals and the land they farm and the same concerns about water degradation and animal welfare as the rest of us do. They’re proud of what they’ve achieved, but the rest of us don’t understand that.
They consistently felt judged by what they called “a few bad apples” who they felt were given far too play in the media.
I learnt that placing teats on udders in a rotary milking shed at 5am is not as easy as it looks, nor is removing your plastic overalls and Red Band gumboots in one fluid motion and leaving them at the door of a Ngatea café; that calves are incredibly slobbery and that their mothers have distinct personalities; that the reasons animals look so perfect at the A&P Show is that they’ve been shampooed and brushed within an inch of their lives; that calf day is a very serious business; and that rural life is all about community.
For someone who gets his meat in a cellophane wrapped tray, I witnessed my first home-kill. Not something I was looking forward to, but that all changed: to see an animal slaughtered and quartered with clinical precision and respect was compelling to watch. The entire job was over in less than 30 minutes.
Dairy farming on the Plains is for the large part done on the industrial model that’s proved so highly financially effective over the years; increased herd sizes, fertiliser spreading to boost grass growth, palm kernel supplementary feed as required, twice-day milking. Big commitments, big debt ratios and billions of dollars in returns to the country.
But I discovered there are some who choose to farm differently, with fewer animals and less impact on the soil and that they’re doing it very successfully.
This got me wondering about the long-term viability of our farming practices and land use management.
In the past fortnight, an OECD report has warned that our economic model is pushing the environmental limits and that the protection of the environment will be one of the greatest challenges we face.
In other words, have we reached ‘Peak Cow?’
My own feeling is that in the trade-off between economy and environment, something’s got to give, and right now it’s the environment.
At an individual level, the farmers I spoke to say they’re doing their best to find ways of reducing the environmental impact of dairying, even if they whinge about increasingly stringent regulations.
The dairy industry claims that farmers have spent around a billion dollars in fencing off streams.
Nevertheless, our rivers and creeks are being polluted faster than they can fix them, which means there’s a fundamental problem.
I don’t pretend to be an expert, but it’s difficult not to wonder how 400kg dairy cows, excreting some 70 litres of effluent a day are not going to have an impact.
Even if the waterways are fenced off, the cows are urinating in the paddocks and all of that nitrogen has to go somewhere.
It absorbs into the ground and surely runs the risk of leaching into the nearest water source.
So, where to from here? The government has signalled it would like agricultural exports doubled by 2025. But how to do that, certainly with dairy?
Can we really give over more land to more and more cows and meet carbon emission targets, let alone the immediate issues of impact on our water?
Down on The Plains, where they’ve been farming for four generations and more, they’ll tell you, tomorrow’s another day and they’ll be up at the crack of dawn to meet the demands and changes and weather that it brings – just like they always have.