A Northern Southland dairy farmer is "pushing hard" for Fonterra to pay a premium for milk produced using regenerative farming practices.
Freedom Acres Ltd owner Dylan Ditchfield runs about 420 dairy cows on the more than 160ha he owns in Wendonside and about 130ha run-off he leases nearby in Freshford.
He and his wife Sheree run life and leadership course Farming to Freedom, which they founded.
South Otago dairy farmer Mark Anderson did the course a few years ago and told him about the bale grazing system he uses in winter.
For the system, hay bales were laid on pasture in a checkerboard formation for cows to graze on.
He was inspired by Anderson's quest to produce healthier, nutrient-dense food by eliminating chemicals and improving the biology in the soil to grow pasture for stock.
"It's working with nature, instead of against it."
In winter 2020, Ditchfield tried bale grazing in two paddocks to winter cows transitioning from being dry to lactating, which then calved on the land.
The plan was to continue bale grazing in both paddocks so they were covered in hay residue by the end of winter 2023.
He once wintered his cows on fodder beet.
The beet was dense so cows were standing on a small area for a long time and destroying the soil.
He supplies milk to Fonterra and was talking to the co-operative about paying more to dairy farmers using regenerative grazing practices.
"I'm pushing hard for them to start to recognise 'regen' is something that stands to offer a premium product."
His farm was part of AgResearch field experiment The Soil Armour Project, which aimed to find if cattle grazing on pasture in winter could reduce nitrogen leaching and mud compared to traditional forage crops.
On the farm this winter were 30 experiment plots with soil solution samplers measuring levels of nitrate leaching in the water table.
The plot sizes were the same, but the stocking rate was different from mirror industry practices of two grazing systems.
On control plots, four cows ate kale and baleage for two days.
On bale grazing plots, two cows ate pasture and hay for two days.
His cows had been condition scored before and after winter this year.
Cows eating kale and baleage, had slightly higher scores but nothing significant.
"The bale grazing cows were still comfortably in calving condition."
He believed the condition of the cows on bale grazing could be improved by growing more nutritious grass, with more green leaf.
The quality of the grass was impacted by a dry autumn this year.
Dairy farmers could save money by bale grazing.
As the pasture in the bale grazing paddocks always had a living root, it could remain in the rotation and continue contributing feed.
A traditional crop, such as kale, was "out of action" for months after winter, as it was brought back into the rotation.
Bale grazing needed fewer resources, such as fertiliser, than a traditional winter crop system, reducing costs.
Since starting bale grazing, he had learned of a North Island farmer who has been using the system for five years and in that time, their animal health costs had plummeted from $100 a cow to less than $20.
Most of the animal health costs were for preventive measures rather than treatments.
Since he had started bale grazing, he had been lowering his cow numbers to find a sustainable stocking rate for regenerative grazing practices.
Consequently, it was too soon to see any improvement in the health of his herd, but he was sold on the benefits of bale grazing.
"All these things take time and we are still learning but the concept makes sense."
Fonterra sustainable dairying general manager Michael Hide said in June this year, Fonterra launched its The Co-operative Difference payment, in response to increasing demand around the world for sustainably produced dairy.
Initially, up to 10 cents of each farm's milk price was determined by meeting sustainability and milk quality achievements (7c for sustainability, 3c for quality).
"Every year we will review the payment amount and the achievements to ensure that we remain as one of the most sustainable producers of dairy in the world."