Horizons Region councillors want rules about farm feedlots and council officers are in fact-finding mode before making them.
Feedlots are a relatively recent phenomenon, says Horizons Regional Council strategy and regulation manager Nic Peet. They have attracted publicity, with people saying sediment and effluent run-off from them is affecting the relatively pristine Rangitikei River.
Horizons councillors had a workshop on feedlots about a month ago. They said they wanted progress toward workable rules, and wanted staff to work with farmers and other groups to make them.
Dr Peet said feedlots fell on a sliding scale of intensive winter grazing practices.
At one end is break-feeding of crops. It has been done for a long time, and is used to get beef cattle through the winter when grass growth is slow.
Then there's break feeding, with the addition of supplement, or grazing with the addition of various amounts of supplement.
After that comes feeding purely by supplements such as silage or palm-kernel extract, with cattle concentrated in a small area. It gets the "feedlot" label.
Then there's supplement feeding on a sealed surface. It's mainly done for dairy cows and the sealed area is called a feedpad.
Any area where a lot of animals are feeding and excreting close together risks loading the soil with nutrients and E.coli bacteria. The nutrients and bacteria, and sediment, can make their way into water, degrading it.
The public perception is that beef farming has become more intense, but Dr Peet is not sure that is true. He said overall numbers of beef cattle in the Horizons region had declined over the past 20 years.
According to Statistics New Zealand the region had 824,881 beef cattle in 1994, and only 567,333 in 2015. During the same time the number of dairy cattle increased from 308,022 to 451,421.
He also said beef cattle concentrated in one paddock for winter excreted the same amount as beef cattle spread across a farm. But he said people were becoming more aware of water issues, which fuelled anxiety about intensive farming.
People operating feedlots could minimise their effects on water by setting them back from waterways and making sure water doesn't run across them. Properly lined silage pits also reduced the amount of leaching to water.
Horizons had begun work toward regulations for intensive winter grazing of all kinds, Dr Peet said.
It is doing an aerial survey of what's happening now, concentrating on Rangitikei and the coastal sand country. And it is looking at the One Plan's rules for stock food management, to see whether they are effective.
It's also working with a group of farmers and with Beef + Lamb NZ, and looking at how other councils regulate intensive winter grazing. Dr Peet said the practice was especially prevalent in Southland, Otago and Hawke's Bay.
When rules were in place the practice would be regulated, he said.