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Councils ignore expert reports on irrigation impacts

Councils ignore expert reports on irrigation impacts

At least two North Island regional councils appear to have ignored their own reports showing farms run within environmental limits return better results than those dependent on irrigation schemes.

One report, commissioned by Hawkes Bay Regional Council (Appendix 19 here), shows that farms can adapt to local environmental limits and reap significant economic and environmental gains, but those that rely on irrigation are exposed to greater risks, and have a reduced return on investment.

A similar report produced for Horizons Regional Council (Annex N here) shows the Manawatu-Whanganui region could significantly reduce nitrogen leaching to meet its OnePlan targets while retaining farm profitability.

Forest & Bird Conservation Spokesperson Tom Kay says tcouncils and industry leaders around the country appear to be ignoring the reports' important findings, despite farmers struggling to meet rules designed to protect waterways from the impact of dairy effluent.

“HBRC's report plainly shows Hawkes Bay farmers who work within environmental limits are making a better investment than those who don’t. They now need to recognise that more production is not the key to success and reconsider the prevailing, polluting model of agricultural intensification.

“Forest & Bird wants to see regional councils doing their job of protecting the environment. They need to work with industry leaders, banks, and farm advisors to deliver the message that producing less is both environmentally and economically profitable.

“A farmer in the Horizons region invested $3.5 million in his farm for a net increase in production of almost 50,000kg of milk solids – but this increase in production couldn’t cover the running costs of the extra cows as well as the capital increase of $70 per kg of extra milk solid,” says Mr Kay (page 182, Horizons report).

The report commissioned by HBRC details how a 640-cow dairy farm in Hawkes Bay irrigated with water from the Ruataniwha Water Storage Scheme could be $177,000 better off if it refrained from irrigation, introduced different pastures, and reduced its herd to 506 cows.

Several Hawkes Bay farmers who are already going without irrigation were consulted for the report. Farmers who looked at the attributes of their land and worked to “what the land will do most years” were doing well.

It concludes that with the application of simple on-farm adjustments substantial gains in efficiency could be made, allowing Plan Change 6 changes to be profitably met.

One of the authors of the report, agricultural analyst Barrie Ridler, says “Irrigation in many regions is a high cost and high risk approach. It’s a crutch which results in users becoming incapable of seeking out better systems with less environmental and economic risk. If we have little or no irrigation we remove risk and the farm system becomes far more robust and invariably more profitable.”

Lincoln University Dairy Farm has used the same modelling process as applied to the HBRC report, and has increased production by 26 percent per cow after reducing herd numbers from 630 to 560 cows, resulting in continued profitability and reduced nitrogen outputs.

Mr Kay says “This research shows we can build economic, risk-averse farming systems and sustain the health of our rivers and wildlife. We now need councils and industry leaders to listen to their own experts”.


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