Opinion: No more cheap shots at dairy farmers over water quality

By Tim Mackle

OPINION: In the past week, I've opened two newspapers to two cartoons that take a cheap shot at dairy farming, both frustrating and offending the dairy farmers of New Zealand.

One cartoon portrayed a dairy cow polluting the sea, and the other showed dairy cows polluting a river. 

My wish for 2019 is that all New Zealanders, cartoonists and media, are up with the play on what is actually happening on dairy farms before they make comment.

In recent years, dairy farmers have collectively undertaken what I believe to be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, voluntary conservation initiatives this country has ever seen.  

The simple reality these days is that no dairy cow can get into a stream thanks to dairy farmers having fenced off 97 percent of significant waterways on farms. 

And that's only the start. Dairy farmers are also planting the riparian strip between the waterway and the fence, restoring wetland areas and establishing new ones  all to remove contaminates before they reach the water.

Tim Mackle says there is a lack of understanding by some about what modern farming is all about.
Tim Mackle says there is a lack of understanding by some about what modern farming is all about. Photo credit: Supplied

They have also installed sophisticated on-farm effluent management systems, and many have retired sensitive areas of their land, often placing them under protective covenant. In many regions farmers are going even further as they work towards meeting nutrient limits through changes in farm practices and systems. 

Yes, just as there are some laggards in most sectors, there are still some farmers who need to up their game, but these cartoons show there is a lack of understanding of what modern dairy farming is about, and therefore the picture they cast is far from reality. 

Sediment, bacteria, nitrogen and phosphorus  as well as heavy metals from urban areas  all have an impact on water quality in New Zealand. 

The burning issues all Kiwis need to address, including farmers, are how these contaminants get into our waterways, and what do each of us need to do to reduce our collective footprint.  

I can't go past noting the sheer frustration expressed on social media this week from farmers at the apparent hypocrisy shown by those organisations and businesses that regularly criticise dairy, and their reluctance to publicly call out concerns over urban or wildlife induced environmental pollution.

Clear examples are human waste contamination of Auckland beaches and even the E. Coli contamination of Queenstown's Lake Wakatipu - possibly from freedom campers and/or wildlife (in this case, ducks). Are they so concerned for their balance sheets that criticising urban pollution has become a sacred cow?

Every one of us, including people living within city limits, has the potential to contaminate waterways for the simple fact that what we put down any drain can end up in our oceans and on our beaches, or in our rivers. 

Dairy farmers and the wider dairy sector believe so strongly that collectively we can all look after our streams, rivers and beaches that we're taking a leadership stand.  Let's all do our bit and start a movement in New Zealand to change how we all look after our waterways. 

The vision is clear  and we all have the same vision. So, let's get behind it, work together and stop pointing the finger at one group of people who are already working hard to look after their part of NZ. 

Tim Mackle is CEO of DairyNZ