Winter grazing: Southland farmers say aerial inspections show 'things have changed'

Farmers in Southland say new aerial inspections showing "widespread examples of good practice" in regards to winter grazing come just at the tight time, with a national tour by environmentalists against the practice launching on Tuesday.

Winter grazing - where animals are strip-fed a crop - has caused controversy in recent years.

Last year the issue received nationwide attention after a campaign sought to highlight the practice.

Activists say winter grazing is an environmental and animal welfare issue, with cows at risk of suffering painful health problems if they are kept in muddy paddocks.

Following last year's campaign a task force was set up by Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor, with an action group subsequently established in March of this year to implement recommendations to improve animal welfare. 

Last week Environment Southland said farmers "should be commended" for their efforts in improving their practices, following aerial inspections.

"I'm impressed that farmers have taken up the advice given to mitigate the effects of winter grazing on the environment, despite the many challenges this year has presented," said Rob Phillips, chief executive of Environment Southland.

Farmer Jason Checketts, who is also a spokesperson for Ag Proud NZ, says the praise has come just at the right time, with environmentalists launching a nationwide tour on Tuesday.

The Change Hearts for Healthier Farming speaking tour promises to present "unseen footage of the problems with intensive farming alongside practical ways forward and a vision for healthier agriculture". It kicks off in Queenstown on August 18.

"Intensification of our agricultural systems has overshot the natural, healthy limits of our shared land and water," says Geoff Reid, one of the organisers of the tour.

"There are big animal welfare issues in the current system as well as significant risks to our own health."

But Checketts says the latest aerial inspections show many of the concerns environmentalists have are already being addressed by the farming community. 

"It's perfect timing to show these guys that things have changed and moved on from perhaps what they used to be," Checketts told Dominic George on Magic Talk's Rural Today on Tuesday.

"I definitely don't have anything to hide in what we do on farm at any time of year no matter what's happening. And I'm sure a very large portion of farmers are in the same boat."

Tensions between farmers and environmentalists have often been fraught. Last year activists claimed they were "intimidated and harassed" by farmers while taking photos of muddy conditions on farms.

Checketts says on his own farm he recently "ran into a couple of blokes filming the cows through the fence", though they were "trying to find something that wasn't there".

He is calling for farmers to keep their cool when dealing with environmentalists but says discussion around the issue of winter grazing needs to be based firmly on science.

"It's about us just keeping our cool but at the same time we're not just going to take this lying down," he told Rural Today.

"Everyone is entitled to their own opinion," he said, but added it was important to "make sure this is a science-based thing that they're saying and not just an emotional thing".

Following the aerial inspections last week, Phillips said it was important for farmers not to become complacent as so far winter this year has been relatively mild.

"Intensive winter grazing continues to be under the spotlight, it's a high risk activity in relation to water quality and needs to be managed very carefully," he said.