We are starting to see the development of a strange phenomenon in the New Zealand landscape, that of cows moving indoors. It started off in Southland, where some farmers had had enough of the mud and wanted more control in the winter months. There is nothing new about housing cows. Other parts of the world have moved to this type of farming in the past couple of decades, aimed at protecting the cows from the harsh climate outdoors and to achieve higher productivity.
It is likely that herds of greater than 10 cows there are housed indoors, and in some places these herds will be of greater than 10,000 cows, and indoors for a good portion of the year, if not all year.
So why do New Zealand farmers move the cows indoors while our strength was having them outdoors on grass all year, which kept our cost of production low compared to other countries?
I think that over the years we have pushed the price of land up to the extent that we now have to farm the land with such intensity that any severe weather event may cost us too much productivity and may put the business at risk. At the moment there is a wide range of opinion on whether moving cows indoors is the right way forward for New Zealand dairy farming and I believe this variation in attitude is correct, as there are a lot of different circumstances that make every dairy farm tick.
Farmers have also got to be ready and equipped to make the decisions on what the best option is for their enterprise.
We have also seen recently that the legislator is having trouble keeping up with the change of pace and is tempted to set rules and regulations based on perception.
The perception that grass-fed cows are best is seen in the Netherlands, where, in order to attract a premium milk price, a grass-fed cow has to be outdoors for more than 180 days for a minimum of eight hours a day. Meanwhile, in Ashburton the local district plan requires cows to be grazed on grass in order to avoid an intensive farm ruling, which means that it is pretty much impossible. The regional plan for the same district, however, sees cows off pasture at certain times of the year as part of the basket of solutions to mitigate nutrient leaching. It seems the one hand is not talking to the other.
There are many plusses on having a barn or maybe a herd home as part of your tools to manage your farm _ higher productivity, control, better feed utilisation, less pasture damage, sometimes better animal welfare, to name just a few. However, there are downsides too.
To operate these barns you need to be prepared to adopt new sets of skills, to spend more on equipment and diesel and to have features in place around these buildings like effluent systems and silage bunkers. Corners cannot be cut as these barns can quickly become a nightmare if you do not construct them right. For me the biggest issue is that we, in a short timeframe, will have to adjust our regulations, codes and advice so we can provide the farmer with the necessary tools to make the right decisions, as these barns do not come cheap.
A set of design and construction guidelines and possibly a code of practice for the construction of standoff pads and indoor barn systems could be helpful.
So is putting the cow indoors bad for New Zealand's image as some suggest?
I will counter this by asking if it looks any better to see 300 cows ploughing through a kale paddock, in adverse weather conditions knee deep in mud, with no place to lie down.