Industry leaders respond to 'misleading' compliance report

Dairy NZ and Federated Farmers have voiced their dissatisfaction with Forest and Bird’s recently released report on dairy farming compliance, calling it misrepresentative and inaccurate.

The report involved an audit of nationwide annual dairy farm monitoring, compliance and enforcement programmes for the 2016-17 year, concluding: “there is still a significant lack of consistency in how different regional councils monitor for compliance and take action against those dairy farms that are seriously non-compliant”.

However, Katie Milne, head of Federated Farmers, says these inconsistencies are to be expected and do not indicate poor compliance monitoring:

“There can be various levels of reporting across the councils, this stuff is region specific, which makes sense. If you take Canterbury and the West Coast for instance, you’re talking a difference of up to 5 metres of rainfall in a season, so you’re obviously going to have different issues to deal with when it comes to stocking rates, groundwater effect and so on.”

A key finding of the report was that “only half of all councils inspect 100 percent of dairy farms annually”, a statement Milne says doesn’t tell the full truth:

“The fact that not every dairy farm is audited by the regional council every year doesn’t mean they’ve not been audited full stop. Most dairy farms have an assurance scheme with their milk company, and that aside, the milk companies get Asure Quality to come along and do an inspection themselves. Admittedly, that’s predominantly about the food/hygiene side of things, but they are at times employed to do a further check.”

Milne also says certain farms, identified as having excellent track records, will be audited biannually. This not only incentivises good, consistent farm practises year in year out, but allows a greater deal of attention to be focussed on farms that need it:

“If you have a good track record, your system is up to date and reliable, and nothing’s changing in terms of cow numbers, then the council will say to you, “well you’ll be on a biannual audit”. On the other hand, people who are right on the line will need to have more visits to make sure they’re OK.”

Arbitrarily auditing all farms annually as a blanket policy, Milne says, would only waste time and resources, and lead to council complacency:

“You want them [regional councils] to be in a position where they can spend that money wisely (it’s rate payers money) versus them simply adopting this attitude: “well we’re going to just do annual visits for every farm and because your farm is always up to standard, well just sit around with you and have a cup of tea”. We don’t want these things to simply become a tick-box exercise, that’s where the real problems will come in, because you’ll have council’s treating it complacently like they’re giving out parking tickets and they’ll miss something happening elsewhere that’s actually important.”

Dairy NZ’s David Burger was equally disappointed with the report, saying, like Milne, that it fails to tell the whole truth:

“It’s a one-year snapshot. It’s very difficult to compare a trend with a one-year snapshot. The dairy compliance story is actually a very good one across the country for us. I mean if we look at the statistics for dairy non-compliance 10 years ago, the number were significantly higher than what we have now. In areas like Waikato, Canterbury, Southland, where we have a lot of dairy cows, the statistics used to be 10-20% non-compliance, and now we’re down to less than 5% in those regions, even smaller numbers if you go by current regional council reporting data. We’re very disappointed that the report takes a very simple view, a one-year snapshot, when we know that over a long period of time there’s been a significant change in this space.”

Burger also agrees the report attempts to “compare apples with oranges” in it’s summary of nation-wide compliance:

“It’s very hard to compare regional council statistics across the country because every regional council approaches this slightly differently. You’re not really comparing apples with apples, and I understand a number of councils have voiced their discontent with that aspect of the report.”

Indeed, Waikato Regional Council (who were given an ‘F’ grade for compliance enforcement in the report) have responded to the criticisms, saying Forest & Bird’s findings were ‘outdated’ and their claims misleading.

The council, like Milne and Burger, say it is simply not realistic to expect 100% of farms to be monitored annually without seriously denting the pockets of ratepayers:

“We have a very proactive team who monitor these farms and another team who responds to complaints from members of the public about poor farming practice. In an ideal world we would inspect every farm every year, however that would be a huge burden on ratepayers of the Waikato.”

They also point out that considerable changes have been made to compliance monitoring in the Waikato region since the 2016/17 dairy season, something the report fails to factor in.

Horizons Regional Council have also responded to their rating (a D), saying the report used insufficient data and failed to look at the whole picture.

Horizons strategy and regulations group manager Dr Nic Peet said although the council had only done consent monitoring on 58 per cent of the 938 dairy farms under its umbrella in 2016-17, every dairy farm would get a visit within two years.

Resources for the year in question had been focussed on the farms that either did not comply or had known risks like old equipment.

For David Burger the inaccurate criticisms of the report do nothing to detract from the hard work that has gone into ensuring diary farm compliance in the past 20 years:

“The key point for us is that we have been doing a lot in this space for the past 20 years, and our current dairy water accord reflects that. We feel that as a sector we are on the journey to significant environmental change. The jobs not done but we’re certainly heading in the right direction.”