By Andrew McRae of RNZ.
A campaign to highlight environmental and animal welfare issues around winter cropping on farms was launched this morning.
Winter cropping or winter grazing is where cattle are strip fed a crop. After eating it down they are often left standing in mud, particularly after it has been raining.
Enviromentalist Angus Robson was leading the campaign, and was launching it with supporters outside the offices of the Ministry for the Environment in Wellington, from 7.30am.
Robson said as an individual - just a citizen of New Zealand, he had seen some things he felt he could not walk past.
"The animal welfare issues, I don't know how anybody could see that and just turn a blind eye. And the huge loads of pollution into our waterways and estuaries and coastal environment, if you think you can do something about it then you should."
Robson said while winter cropping happened in many areas, Southland's wet winters meant the region could have the worst affects from the practice.
With paddocks being churned up after cattle have been through, sediment and nitrates then flow into waterways, causing pollution, he said.
"So if you take how long we winter crop, and how many cows there are at the time, and work out what that damage is during that time, it's possible to say that winter cropping is between 50 and 100 times more damaging than other typical land use."
Robson said it was obvious some places are not good for winter cropping, and the answer was to stop. And he had the support of the animal rights group, SAFE.
Its head of campaigns, Marianne Macdonald, said it was totally unacceptable to be wintering cows often deep in mud.
"And in muddy conditions they spend a lot less time lying down, which really puts them at high-risk of painful mastitis and lameness, because they are wet and dirty all the time."
She said it is a particular problem with calving.
"It's appalling that pregnant cows will be forced to give birth in mud with no shelter. What a terrible start in life for the vulnerable little calf."
The Veterinary Association's chief vet, Dr Helen Beattie, said there was no place in modern farming for winter grazing practices that compromise animal health and welfare.
However, she said, when winter cropping was carried out well it is not necessarily a problem.
Beattie said when animals are on wet ground it affects their ability to display natural behaviours.
"Lie down, rest, ruminate, have a snooze... becomes an altered behaviour because of the substrate they have to lie on, and that becomes an issue obviously, not resting properly, not ruminating and not being able to get full rest."
"We need to take a second look at these practices and when animal welfare isn't protected, find solutions that rectify this safely," she said.
Federated Farmers viewed the campaign on winter cropping as another attack on the industry, but it conceded animals standing in mud in the rain is not a good look.
President Katie Milne said people need to understand why farmers use winter cropping.
"It's about making sure the cows are really well fed, crops are a good way to put weight on cows and keep them warm, and the more food a ruminant has got in its stomach, the warmer it is."
She said the industry was aware of concerns about winter cropping and was working on a solution.
"The environmental effects, if everyone is sticking to best practice, can be managed to a pretty good degree. They can't be 100 per cent managed, no, absolutely not."
Milne said in terms of animal welfare it is important to pick the right paddock in the right place.
"There should be adequate rooms for animals to find somewhere that it is free-draining after they have eaten."
"We try and make sure that everyone who partakes in winter cropping understands best practices, and the best way to get the best result."
Milne said a lack of understanding from the community on why farmers winter graze makes it difficult for farmers.
"That's part of the challenge we face as farmers, and that social perception is a big part of our lives too now, and it never use to be 20 to 30 years ago."
Fish and Game New Zealand was not involved in the campaign, but does have a view on winter cropping.
Its chief executive Martin Taylor said, if done incorrectly, winter feeding is the single-most devastating farming practice on the environment, contributing to the collapse of ecosystems such as the New River Estuary in Southland.
Forest and Bird supports the campaign to raise awareness about winter cropping. It believed winter cropping was not necessarily a problem, but intensive winter cropping was.
The organisation wanted to entirely eliminate intensive winter grazing, calling it a disgusting farming practice.
Forest and Bird freshwater conservation advocate Annabeth Cohen said regional councils were turning a blind eye to the problem.
The Southland Regional Council said it did have concerns over winter grazing, agreeing it has an impact on water quality.
Compliance manager Simon Mapp said there was no doubt winter grazing caused some effects on waterways, but it was not the only cause.
"Our rules are trying to minimise or eliminate those effects."
"We rely on things like good management practices, and they are part of the rules from May 2019, and studies show you can reduce quite a lot of contaminants and sediment if you use these good management practices."
Mapp said the regional council had done a flight over the region recently, and was disappointing to see that good management practices were not on-the-whole being picked up.
"We have done just one flight so far and hopefully in the next two we will see some improvement."
Angus Robson agreed winter cropping won't stop overnight.
"We must start with the laggards, and they are just people who know what the right thing to do is probably, but refuse to do it."
"A lot of them are old-school and consider that nobody tells them what to do."
Robson said, ultimately, public pressure will bring about change.
"I know a tonne of good farmers, and they will be saying 'how can I unlock myself from these other guys who are doing the wrong thing'."
"For every laggard that gives a bad image there's three good guys doing the right thing who are screaming and don't know how to get out of it."