Update on dairy: More on the environmental consequences of the dairy boom

In a previous article I outlined the basic facts of New Zealand’s current dairy boom: the enormous financial returns on dairy production, the growth in the national dairy herd that have been spurred by these returns, and the consequent environmental impact of the ever-expanding numbers of dairy cattle. There is plenty to add to that original article both in terms of recent events and further information I’ve been able to find.

It is well worth noting that Fonterra’s dairy payout prediction for the 2007-08 season has been increased to NZ$7.30 per kg of milk solids. The numbers reported in the original article can therefore be revised upward as follows:

    The average dairy cow, which produces 330kg of milk solids, earns NZ$2409.
    A herd of around 225 cows (the commonest herd size) earns NZ$542,025.
    One of the larger herds of 1000+ cows earns more than NZ$2.4 million.

One of the reasons for this payout has been the leap in international dairy spot prices (data here). From 1998 to late 2006 the price of whole milk powder generally varied between US$1500 and US$2000 per tonne but from November 2006 the price began to rise steeply to peak around US$5600 in September 2007. The price is currently around US$4600. Some of the reasons given for the sharp price increase are increasing demand in growing economies such as China and India, and reduced production in Australia owing to drought.

Not surprisingly, the growth in the New Zealand dairy herd is expected to continue. Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry predictions suggest a further 12% increase in the number of dairy cattle in the four years to 2011. This continuing stampede to dairy production has been met with a symbolic protest by Greenpeace activists. A section of a recently cleared 9000ha block in the Tahorakuri Forest, north of Taupo, was replanted with more than 1000 seedlings and saplings to protest the “double whammy” against the environment of forest clearance followed by intensive dairy farming.

The Tahorakuri Forest is managed by the state-owned enterprise Landcorp Farming; when asked about the felling of the block by a state-owned enterprise, a spokesperson for Landcorp commented: “If we weren’t doing it someone else would be.”

The focus of the Greenpeace protest was the impact of continued dairy conversions on global warming owing to the methane produced by cattle, as discussed in the original article. Other pollution issues, deriving from the dung and urine produced by cattle, can be outlined in a little more detail here:

Each cow excretes 18-22kg of dung and 20-25 litres of urine per day. For the national herd of 5.28 million cows, the total daily waste output is around 100 million kg of dung and 115 million litres of urine. Most of that waste is deposited directly on to pasture, but around 5% is produced in the dairy shed during milking. With the washing down of the shed after milking adding to the volume, it is estimated that around 70 million m3 (= 70 billion litres) of dairy effluent must be disposed of annually by New Zealand’s dairy farmers (Saggar, et al).

‘Dirty dairying’, the failure to manage effluent disposal properly, is a serious and widespread problem that can’t be put at the door of one or two errant individuals. For example, Sudesh Kissun reports that in 2007-08 the Northland Regional Council issued 114 abatement notices and 88 infringement notices; there are 1000 dairy farms in the district, which would suggest that up to 20% of Northland’s dairy farmers are not complying with standard effluent management procedures. In a report from Radio New Zealand (audio here), Ian Walker, dairy farmer, regional councillor and former president of Northland Federated Farmers describes the pollution as “environmental vandalism”.

Corporate farmers were said to be among the worst offenders. One of those prosecuted was state-owned Landcorp Farming (yes, the same people mentioned earlier), which was fined NZ$20,000 in May 2007.

Given the continued growth in dairy production, the sector needs to act urgently to protect New Zealand’s streams and groundwater. The ‘Clean Streams Accord’ has been in place for five years and yet reports of ‘non-compliance’ are still widespread. The complacency of the most recent report on the accord is not warranted, and it also appears that the report itself is deeply flawed.

Fonterra seems to recognize that more needs to be done. At the beginning of the present dairy season, the company announced plans to dock the milk payouts of persistent polluters and says that if there is no improvement after three years, it will refuse to collect milk at all from the offender’s property. This is encouraging. However, given the scale of the problems being reported, it will be interesting to see the extent of the deductions applied when the cheques are written this year.

Thanks to Professor Surinder Saggar of Landcare Research for data on cattle daily dung and urine production (email, 22 April 2008).

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