Readers may be cheered that my kowhai tree started flowering last week, and perhaps we can – like Punxsutawney Phil on a shadow-less Groundhog Day — declare an early spring.

However, a beleaguered dairy industry faces a sombre winter of discontent.

Dairy farmers are naturally reeling from the devastation being wrought by virulent cattle disease Mycoplasma bovis. But, as ASB Bank chief economist Nick Tuffley points out, there may be a silver lining.

Given the Government's decision to go for eradication of the disease, he speculates that the inevitable cull of an estimated 150,000 cattle will impact on industry returns much the same as a severe drought — namely that ensuing reduced milk production will drive up prices through lack of supply, and thus create corresponding fiscal compensation.


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The impact on the unlucky individuals whose herds have been stricken will still be gut-wrenching (although compensation will soften the blow somewhat), but overall the industry should remain buoyant.

Once again, nature has stepped in and called the shots — and it may be a sea change for the whole industry. For instance, some are predicting the demise of sharemilking as we know it – the standard gateway into farm ownership.

Sharemilkers will naturally be discouraged from investing in a herd — probably their main asset — when it may need culling at a moment's notice.

Ironically, this forced cull may achieve what many environmentalists could not. Pre-eminent eco-scientist Dr Mike Joy, of Massey University, who once managed a dairy farm himself, has long been a burr under the industry's saddle with his advocacy of herd reduction.

His main contention is that the dairy farmer individually and the industry collectively has been shooting itself and the environment in the foot by over-stocking.

His analysis shows that farmers' efforts to squeeze an extra 20 per cent or so by volume out of their herd and land is responsible for most of the ensuing environmental and waterway degradation, yet their financial return for this increment is negligible at best.

The expenditure required in extra fertiliser, feed supplement and soil and stock management negates the net financial returns, while the land and waterways bleed.


Some farmers have already reached the same conclusion, and correspondingly de-stocked, with resulting less degradation, less stress, and – ironically – greater profitability. Mycoplasma bovis will painfully force the issue, but with a similar outcome industry-wide.

It may be no accident that the disease seems to have established itself here on what could only be called a factory farm in Winton. Prior to this outbreak, New Zealand was purportedly one of only two dairying countries in the world still MB-free.

The dairying mania of recent years, with its accompanying exponential intensification, may not be coincidental to the disease turning up.

My grandparents (and later my uncle) dairy-farmed on about 50 hectares of prime, flat Waikato land. The farm was solely dairy, with a herd of only about 120 cows.

Given the same land, a herd that size would be considered laughable by today's standards, but one thing it could never have been accused of was being a factory farm, with all the attendant pressures and contamination risks.

When I travel up north, occasionally I hang a left just before the Brynderwyns and go up the centre of the island on the Paparoa-Oakleigh Road. Much of it runs along a ridge, affording panoramic but tragic views of kilometre upon rolling kilometre of sparsely grassed dairying "pasture", grazed and sprayed to within an inch of its life, hardly even a shelter tree in sight.

No wonder discerning tourists are appalled to come here for the clean, green eco-balance experience, yet encounter vast grass-only deserts of industrial farming.

Closer to home, the stripped Parapara sheep country increasingly resembles an end-product of World War I artillery barrages.

Time to taihoa. And in the meantime, there's also a certain disease to try and send packing.