It’s raining hard in south Waikato. Absolutely pouring. What a beautiful sound.
RICKY WILSON/STUFF Does New Zealand really have too many cows?

“It’s very good,” dairy farmer Pete Morgan​ agrees.

Four of the last five summers have been unusually dry where he is. No-one needs to tell Morgan and others like him about climate change. It’s a daily reality.

The official reason to be on the phone with Morgan, who talks thoughtfully and at length about farming’s challenges as well as its appeal, is that he is one of the speakers at an event in Canterbury on June 17 called Dairy 2032.

As the name suggests, it is about the future of dairy farming. The pitch from the organisers is that while dairy contributes nearly one in every three dollars earned from total goods exports, the sector is beset by multiple problems.

There is pressure to farm more sustainably and meet environmental standards. There are acute labour shortages and mental health concerns.

And while the organisers do not mention it, dairy farming is more political than it has ever been in New Zealand. Town and country are increasingly polarised, driven by groups purporting to speak for both sides, whether it is Greenpeace in the cities or Groundswell in the country.

Responses to this week’s release of the He Waka Eke Noa proposal, in which farmers could begin calculating their own emissions from 2025 in an alternative to the Emissions Trading Scheme, are typical of recent polarisation.

A tractor leads a Groundswell protest in Christchurch in 2021.
JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/STUFF A tractor leads a Groundswell protest in Christchurch in 2021.

Green Party agricultural spokesperson Teanau Tuiono​ dubbed it “He Waka Eke Nowhere” on social media. His ideological adversary, Groundswell, also opposed it, due to the costs it adds to farmers.

In the political centre, Tuiono’s own co-leader, James Shaw​, in his role as Climate Change Minister, welcomed the progress made by farmers in a joint statement with Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor​.

Only a week earlier, Victoria University senior researcher Mike Joy​ shocked Cantabrians with a claim that to continue dairy production and have healthy water “would require either 12 times more rainfall in the region or a 12-fold reduction in cows”.

The idea of a mass cull is appealing to some. Greenpeace, which called He Waka Eke Noa “an absolute lemon”, is promoting a petition to halve the national dairy herd, which has nearly doubled in three decades.

In 1990, we had 3.5 million cows. Now New Zealand is home to 6.3m of them.

If we used to joke about being outnumbered by sheep, now we can add cows to the list.

With this bad press, and controversial calls that only going vegan can truly combat the effects of climate change, some may wonder if dairy has any future at all.

Responsible Waikato farmer Pete Morgan says emissions are the central focus.
SUPPLIED Responsible Waikato farmer Pete Morgan says emissions are the central focus.

The middle ground

But loud voices on both sides conceal a vast middle ground, or quieter majority.

When a 1News poll asked if New Zealand should reduce the number of dairy cows to meet climate change targets, 34% agreed but 54% said no.

In the same story, O’Connor called the Greenpeace proposal “economically devastating”. Shaw called it “simplistic”.

Morgan is one of those farmers who is trying to do the right thing and is dismissive of the extremes on both sides. He and his partner, Ann Bouma​, were joint winners of the Responsible Dairying Award in 2021.

“The central theme, beyond water, beyond labour, beyond anything else, is us adapting to our need to reduce emissions,” he says. “We have that as a very central focus. There is not one bit of our business that isn’t reasonably clear what that longer-term picture needs to look like.”

The 2032 date is just one among many. There is 2025, when the self-reporting proposed by He Waka Eke Noa would start. There is the big 2030 climate target.

Given the speed of change and global instability, a decade must sound like a vast stretch of time, almost science fiction. Few would have picked labour shortages, inflation and Covid-19 a decade ago.

“We’ve already become accustomed to change,” he says. “Ten years might sound like a huge amount of time. But in a farming career, 10 years is the day after tomorrow.

“There’s been some fantastic advances in our understanding.”

And, he concedes, reducing herd numbers may still be part of the answer. He has reduced his own stocking rates over 20 years and stayed profitable.

But some opinions get him warmer under the collar, especially when they are repeated uncritically. One is the idea that dairy in New Zealand is akin to coal in Australia, in terms of both economic size and environmental impact.

That comparison ignores the changes and mitigations dairy can make.

As for Mike Joy, “what he’s got wrong is he’s paying very limited attention to where the majority of the industry is wanting to go. He’s using historical data to make assumptions about what the future is going to look like.”

Morgan thinks Joy is “being selective in the way he uses the statistics, for example the volumes of water he’s using, extrapolating those across all of New Zealand”.

The research was from five Canterbury farms, in 2017 and 2018, but those not paying close attention might have seen it as a snapshot of dairy across New Zealand in 2022.

Still, the arguments are welcome, Morgan says.

“I’d rather have someone out there nudging our comfort zone, testing our integrity and being part of the conversation, so we do get challenged and get the chance to show what the truth is. We should never shy away from that.”

Political scientist and climate advocate Bronwyn Hayward says we must avoid inflaming differences.
CHRIS SKELTON/STUFF Political scientist and climate advocate Bronwyn Hayward says we must avoid inflaming differences.

Social cohesion

We live in times when social cohesion is strained and even fraying. The city-country polarisation is just one example, as University of Canterbury political scientist and United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) co-author Bronwyn Hayward​ has observed.

“We told everyone to invest in dairy,” she says. “It’s what we wanted as a country. And now it’s a problem that we have so many cows and need to reduce methane emissions.

“Yes, there was a large amount of money made, but there was a large amount of debt, and people were actively encouraged to do that. Thinking about it as a shared problem is important.”

Hayward says she has been disturbed listening to young teenagers who are growing up on farms, especially dairy farms, and who are feeling victimised or anxious about how their family and their role in the environmental crisis is seen by others.

“They feel it in classrooms and general conversations, and they feel torn, defensive of their parents and proud of the work they do, and wanting to make a difference in farming for a better, more sustainable future.

“I think we have more opportunities to connect across our communities than we are doing at the moment. We also have to be very thoughtful and targeted about this, because it’s too easy to inflame our differences.”

When it comes to He Waka Eke Noa, she wonders whether the farm-level reporting model could add strain to already strained relationships. That means “the accounting has to be transparent and the action far-reaching”.

Emissions are not just farming’s problem: “It is similarly hard to reduce urban transport emissions.”

Morgan agrees we need to be collectively moving forward. Individual choices must be balanced with collective need.

“When it comes to Groundswell, while I defend anyone’s right to express how they feel, given the pace of change that is needed to meet these challenges, it has never been more critical than now that we do that collectively.

“I do not demonstrate. I have conversations with my peers, and with anyone that would like to explore the differences we have, within and without the dairy industry.”

He goes to conferences, he hears from experts, he listens to evidence. He was recently at a dairy environment leaders’ conference during which Environment Minister David Parker​ spoke, and “some really frank conversations” followed about “the three biggies”, nitrogen, water and emissions.

“That’s how I choose to move forward,” he says. “That’s my approach, rather than driving a tractor down the main street. But it’s not up to me to judge how anyone else does it.”

Halter CEO and founder Craig Piggott says we have to be better.
SUPPLIED Halter CEO and founder Craig Piggott says we have to be better.

The holy grail

Technologies to mitigate methane and other emissions cannot come on stream fast enough. This is the holy grail, or the promise of the near future.

The Government committed $339m towards research and development in the Emissions Reduction Plan last month and established the Centre for Climate Action on Agricultural Emissions.

“Farmers are crying out for solutions to help them lower their agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, so any new investment and impetus in the area of research and development is welcome,” as AgResearch senior scientist Robyn Dynes​ said at the time.

Areas of research include methane inhibitors, methane vaccines and low-methane feeds.

“There is a shift at the moment,” Halter founder and CEO Craig Piggott​ says. “Farmers know they can’t just do nothing. They have to be better. There is a macro tailwind on technology adoption.”

Piggott, who is only 27, is one of the rising stars of the agriculture tech sector in New Zealand. From a Waikato farming background, he founded Halter five years ago after a year at Peter Beck’s Rocket Lab​.

Halter now employs 130 people, and operates in Waikato and Canterbury, while head office is in Auckland, “from a talent perspective”, he says, almost apologetically.

The company puts solar-powered, GPS-enabled collars on cows, enabling them to be managed remotely while collecting data about their behaviour. Farm work becomes less tedious and more varied.

Farms become fenceless, optimising pasture without being constrained by paddock size.

“Who’s to say a paddock is the perfect amount of food a bunch of cows need for that day?” Piggott asks.

As for the collar, “it’s a bit like Pavlov and his dog,” Massey University professor of animal health Scott McDougall​ explains. “It trains the cow with sound and physical stimuli.”

The technology is only scratching the surface, McDougall says. The promise is that it will collect health data as well.

As Piggott says, if there is one farmer for every 200 or 300 cows, it is not always easy to detect when a cow is sick or behaving strangely. Heat detection could also pick up on which cows are in oestrus.

It may be labour-saving, but are there environmental benefits?

“To give you an example, animals that are not well expend energy in fighting infections and are less efficient,” McDougall says. “The impact on the environment of a sick animal is bigger than a well animal.

“If we can reduce the disease burdens on animals, we can actually produce food more efficiently, with less welfare costs and less environmental impacts as well.”

Morgan, Piggott and McDougall will all be presenting at Dairy 2032, along with agribusiness academic Hamish Gow​, environmental consultant Charlotte Glass​ and Ngāi Tahu Farming general manager Will Burrett​, at the Ngāi Tahu Farming Dairy Hub, just north of Christchurch.

Given the money and urgency involved, is there a technology arms race to solve the methane problem?

“It’s not zero-sum,” Piggott says. “There could be five different approaches that cumulatively add together. For instance, we know that the genetic variation between how much methane a cow emits is large, so breeding for methane is very doable. But that doesn’t mean you also can’t be more efficient with your feed, or you can’t be intentional about where they urinate.”

As for the political polarisation over farming, Piggott is diplomatic and neutral.

“I think there are valid views on both sides,” he says. “Most of these are a bit nuanced. I think we have to be better. The science on climate, emissions, even the labour shortage. We have to solve that.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern promotes New Zealand farming in New York in May.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern promotes New Zealand farming in New York in May.

Feed the world

The paradox is that agriculture is responsible for 48% of New Zealand’s emissions, with dairy cattle proucing nearly half of those, yet our milk production has the lowest carbon footprint in the world.

But image matters and consumers notice. Dairy farmers must answer to global markets.

Or local critics. Try having 20-something-year-old children, Morgan says.

“Two of mine are environmental scientists and one of them was lectured by Mike Joy for a number of years. She’d come home, challenging us, which doesn’t do any harm at all.”

Speaking again of Joy, Morgan took issue with a comment during a recent RNZ interview. It was a dismissive remark about New Zealand milk powder mostly ending up as “cheap junk food filler”.

Morgan has been to markets in South America, the Middle East, Australia and the US. He has read the fine print in supermarkets. He has seen our milk powder go into high-quality feta in Saudi Arabia or into millions of affordable milk sachets in North Africa. Junk food? That line really bothers him.

“I could not disagree more, based on some very strong evidence.”

For Morgan, as for many others, there is even a sense of mission about farming. He sounds almost lyrical as he describes it.

“There are very few things more fundamental to humans than caring about people, animals and environment, producing food, which is so critical, and ensuring security of food supply into the future.

“That is what it means to be a farmer as an identity, our whole careers. We’ll ride through any ups and downs. It’s not just about the profitability, although it’s an important part of the performance, to be sustainable.

“But we really love what we do. How meaningful it is to be actually producing food.”

Look also

High protein DDG from corn ethanol refining is a quality protein source, but not ideally matched to NZ dairy cows’ already high protein diet, says animal nutritionist Dr Lucy Waldron.

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