Nutrient management valuable if handled correctly says Allen

The National Party’s announcement of bipartisan support for the Climate Change Commission last week made it clear that environmental conservation is currently at the forefront of political and social concern in this country.

Part of that concern is the issue of national water quality, breached by David Parker several weeks ago with his announcement of plans to introduce nationwide farm nutrient limits.

A particular point of contention was the suggestion that destocking would have to take place in certain areas to meet the new limits. However, Federated Farmers national board member Chris Allen says if all else fails, it’s just something some farmers may have to accept:

“If you’ve gone through all the different tools in the toolbox and you say, ‘well we’ve used good management practise, precision agriculture, spreading of fertilizer, all the different feeds, etc.’ If you’ve used every option available to you and you still can’t get nutrient loss down to acceptable levels, then yes, you might have to consider reducing stock numbers”.

He also says, with the new technologies being developed, it may be possible to reduce nutrient losses from stock, but still achieve desired farm results.

One such example is a machine dubbed ‘Spikey’ - so called because of the rows of spiked discs which make contact with the surface soil when it is towed across a farm paddock. Spikey is able to identify individual urine patches and then spray them with an environmentally safe mix of chemicals, promoting grass growth and reportedly reducing nitrate leaching by as much as 50%.

Technologies like these are continually in development, but they need time.

Equally, farmers and regional councils need time to establish reliable, structured systems for dealing with water pollution, with the focus, according to Allen, being on good management practise:

“Large parts of New Zealand are already operating with nutrient limits, so it’s not a new concept. Water quality is not all about farming, but, farmers do have to own the issue to a reasonable level. We know we have to do something about these limits, and the first thing is establishing good management practise. That’s what the good farming practise plan for water quality is all about.”

Horizons Regional Council places heavy emphasis on good management practise as part of their ‘One Plan’, which “defines how the natural and physical resources of the Region, including fresh water, air, productive land and natural ecosystems, will be cared for and managed”.

Similar projects are in progress in parts of Canterbury, such as the Hinds catchment, where the local community has gone through a nutrient limit setting process to reduce pollution to a more acceptable level. As Allen describes, the process is lengthy, complicated, and may not show substantial improvements for some time:

“First of all, all farmers have to do a farm environment plan and they have to model losses through Overseer, which involves a multi-stage process. Then beyond that, over a predetermined period of time there will be a reduction in allowable nutrient losses for those that are above a certain threshold, then in another few years there’s a bigger reduction, and then a few years after that an even bigger reduction.

“At the same time, they are doing a lot of work exploring the potential of managed aquifer recharge, which is about trying to reset the water balance. The shallow aquifers are under pressure from abstraction, and lack of recharge from over time where we’ve had border dyke irrigation, which has been replaced by more efficient spray indicators. So we’re trying to get that water balance right. Once you’ve got the right amount of water in the ground, the concentrations of nutrients come back to a more helpful level. That also helps the streams that have been going dry down by the coast. We need them to start running reliably. It’s about the whole community working together. We know that it’ll take a few years for the results to start coming through, but we also know that eventually they will.”

That these things take considerable time seemed to have been lost slightly on the Labour Party when they made the nutrient limit announcement, the problem with which, as Allen says, is that it takes a blanket approach to a vastly complicated and variable issue:

“There’s a difference between what is happening currently and what Parker and Labour have proposed. What we’re saying is – ‘go catchment by catchment, and where there are problems, address them.’ Not all catchments have problems with nitrates because of different climates and different soils, and the water quality issues could have a number of factors - wildlife, farming activities, natural bush, urban sewage discharge etc. We are saying you need to address the issues that are effecting the water quality in the catchment. So rather than a blanket limit, go catchment by catchment. Sure, there might be some common methodologies you go through, but just by putting the same type of limit approach in place everywhere you might actually be causing a serious loss in terms of economic opportunity.”

He pointed to Canterbury and its implementation of this catchment by catchment approach, which allows individual community priorities to be addressed and promotes land use flexibility:

“If we go across Canterbury, they’ve done five or six different sub-catchments and each of them have had a slightly different approach to how they use Overseer. They use some of the thresholds for land use change, and for the regulators, understanding is improving, and, farmers are starting to understand that how the wording is put in rules can actually have perverse outcomes or conversely encourage the right behaviours and show the right signals.

“So, rather than picking out a golden bullet there are different things a community values - when I say community, sometimes it might be the landowners, sometimes it might be the wider community, depending on what they need. We’ve always said the lower emitters need flexibility, because if you’re a black currant grower (growing black currants is one of the lowest emitting undertakings in the country) and the market falls over for black currents, you can’t put pine trees in if the policy settings don’t allow an increase in emission. You’ve got nowhere to go. So that’s why we say you need a fair bit of flexibility for land use change for the lower emitters and those that aren’t really contributing to the problem.”

The development of these increasingly complicated regulations and the purchasing of new technologies to handle them will mean huge costs, and bring other risks, as Allen points out:

“All this stuff comes with huge cost, and with huge cost comes more risk that you will discourage our young up and coming talent’s ability to actually get there first step on the ladder in terms of farm ownership. I agree that there’s a real risk there.”

However, the priority for the moment is ensuring considered research is put into any regulations the government enforce regarding water quality in the near future.

If handled correctly, on a catchment by catchment basis, nutrient management will be a significant aid in further developing the nation’s clean, green image. If blanket regulations are rushed out, however, the already strained relationship between farmers and environmentalists will continue to deteriorate, and the economy will likely suffer.