Fran O'Sullivan: Keep the cows off the grass

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New Zealand faces a horrible irony: our No 1 export earner is also the source of far too much of our greenhouse gases, and is ruining many of the pristine waterways that once underpinned the previous top earner: tourism.

This awful dichotomy is the real back story to the launch of the Global Agricultural Research Alliance in Copenhagen this week.

A diplomatic initiative, spearheaded by Trade Minister Tim Groser and Agriculture Minister David Carter, which has won support from another 18 or so countries.

But one that needs to be accelerated if New Zealand is going to make its contribution to the global challenge of bringing down greenhouse gas emissions.

The main problem is the humble dairy cow. This beast belches and farts methane gas and excretes more of the stuff in its poop.

But New Zealand is simply "not thinking big" about how to tackle this issue.

In the United States, methane has been damned as a "pollutant" by America's environmental tsar.

It is said to be a much more potent contributor to atmospheric warming that carbon dioxide - 23 times on an intensity basis.

In truth, New Zealand dairy farmers have not been overly troubled about this.

Far too many were too busy cashing in on the 'White Gold" rush during the past five years to think about the consequences of unbridled expansion. Others converted forest lands to dairying - a net loss on both counts.

The more unscrupulous allowed dairy effluent to seep into our waterways, ruining not just the fishing, but, also the quality of life my generation took for granted during our childhoods as we swam in our once pristine rivers and lakes.

So far, New Zealand has not been terribly smart about the way it has attacked the political necessity to "do something about methane".

Unlike India for instance, where farmers on small holdings use cow dung to produce domestic biogas, NZ farmers have been too busy milking the revenue stream to invest large in this area.

Unlike parts of the US, New Zealand does not sport major commercial biogas digesters in prime dairy farming areas.

Instead of scraping up excess poop from milking sheds and pasture and putting it through the digesters to produce commercial biogas, it mainly goes into oxidation ponds.

The official blurb from ministers Groser and Carter says the new research alliance will examine ways to reduce emissions and increase carbon sequestration in the agriculture sector while at the same time enhancing food security.

But in reality, the pace of research into new pasture types and other mechanisms to reduce bovine methane production has been pitiful.

All sorts of proposals are mooted: transferring bacteria from kangaroos' guts into cows' stomachs; genetically modified grasses - just the types of advances that will turn the "warmists" red.

Greenies now want more of us to reduce our reliance on livestock proteins and instead eat more vegetables. For right-thinking, meat-eating carnivores this is a frankly a big step too far.

The simplest answer may be to get the cows off our pastures and house them indoors.

Dairy giant Fonterra is kicking up a stink about a proposal to do just that in the South Island high country where it is simply too plain cold to keep cows outside all year round.

Fonterra claims it would do immense damage to the country's clean, green brand. But that brand is already in jeopardy because of the damage cows do to our pastures and waterways.

In China, Fonterra houses 3500 cows indoors at its 35ha farm in Hebei Province. That's how it is done there.

Hohnot, the capital of Inner Mongolia in Northern China, now sports about one million cows which are similarly housed indoors.

Most of them are at small holdings where the farmer typically runs a dozen or so cows.

The milk is supplied to China's two largest dairies, Mengniu and Yili, which are growing at a much faster pace than New Zealand's dairy behemoth.

There has been no consumer backlash in China.

Dairy cows are also housed indoors in many US operations and are brought inside for the European winter.

The facts are that while New Zealanders pride themselves on a fresh, clean image of cows padding about on green pastures, many Europeans believe the New Zealand practice of leaving cows (and other livestock) outside during cold winters is just plain cruel.

They also believe the lack of big shelter belts on many of our more extensive farming operations exposes dairy cows to too much harmful sun in the summer months.

Instead of tilting at windmills, the dairy industry should think big.

If cows are housed indoors for much of the time, their poop can easily be captured for commercial biogas.

And while they are about it, why not invent a gas exchange system to extract methane from the air inside cowsheds.

We could even follow the Swedes and run a railway on biogas produced from digesting the parts of cows that usually get discarded at slaughterhouses to extract residual methane.

The big upshot is our tourism industry will also be protected. And I will get my fishing back.

- NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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