Not for sale

900-cow dairy farm shows how water quality, wetlands & technology make a difference.

"Be good to the environment and it will be good to you" is the motto which has seen a group of Wairarapa dairy farmers recognised and rewarded for their environmental stewardship.

The joint owners of Kaiwaiwai Dairies, halfway between Featherston and Martinborough, received a handful of awards at the recent regional finals of the Ballance Farm Environment Awards, including being named Greater Wellington Region supreme winners.

Among the farm's recent achievements are nearly halving the amount of fresh water used per day per dairy cow, establishing a significant wetland and using technology to irrigate more efficiently. The farm has also significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions – and is working to improve energy efficiency and strictly manage dairy effluent.

Photo / NZ Farm Environment Trust.
Photo / NZ Farm Environment Trust.

The property lies in the catchment of Wairarapa Moana, the largest wetland in the southern North Island, so reductions in the amount of farm run-off, and improvements to its quality, are critical to improving its health.

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Aidan Bichan, one of six shareholders in the 325ha property, says setting an example and showing other farmers — and wider New Zealand — what can be done is a key part of the farm's mission.

"Because we have a bit of time and a bit of expertise and some funds up our sleeves, we can get involved in these things," he says. "We know it's pretty hard for young farmers, particularly if they've got a bit of debt and are head-down working, so they don't have time to go to regional council meetings and consult on plans. So it's important for people like us to go out there and champion this stuff."

Champion is the right word. Among the prizes Kaiwaiwai was awarded were the Ballance Agri-Nutrients Soil Management Award, the Bayleys People in Primary Sector Award, the DairyNZ Sustainability and Stewardship Award, the Hill Laboratories Agri-Science Award and the WaterForce Wise with Water Award.

Photo / NZ Farm Environment Trust.
Photo / NZ Farm Environment Trust.

In their citation, the judges said Kaiwaiwai was "an excellent example of how sustainability can be managed in all areas of the operation — from financial, environmental and social responsibility to great staff management practices."

The farm runs just over 900 dairy cows. On a traditional dairy farm, each cow would account for up to 70 litres of fresh water usage each day, but sustainable practices at Kaiwaiwai have drastically reduced that.

"That water usage can really start to add up — in our shed that would be around 63,000 litres per day," Bichan says of typical water usage in a dairy milking shed. "We're currently running at 36 litres per cow per day, down from 65 litres and we're still looking at tweaks to the system to cut back further."

Photo / NZ Farm Environment Trust.
Photo / NZ Farm Environment Trust.

Clean water is still used for washing milking plant and the interior of the shed but all water used for cleaning down the yard and feed pad is recycled. Their cooling water is also diverted to the stock water supply, keeping lot of clean water out of their effluent system.

"From an environmental point of view, the less water we put into the system, the less we end up with in our effluent system. But there's also an economic benefit too, as that means there's less effluent we need to store or return to the ground through irrigation. It's a win-win in our book."

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Kaiwaiwai's managers also use technology to monitor water and effluent levels and quality, with more than 70 live data feeds available. Technology has also enabled the farm's managers to increase the efficiency of its pasture irrigation system, by targeting flows using a variable rate irrigation (VRI) system, and to monitor the farm's wetland area – created in 2014 with a grant from the government's Fresh Start for Fresh Water clean-up fund.

"We took about three-quarters of a hectare of a perfectly good paddock and basically dug it up and made it into a wetland," Bichan says.

Photo / NZ Farm Environment Trust.
Photo / NZ Farm Environment Trust.

A zig-zag network of drainage channels was dug and the area planted with native species, at a cost of around $55,000. The team has been monitoring water quality since the wetland's establishment; Bichan says it is now removing around 660kg of nitrogen a year from the water flowing through it.

"When you look at that compared to other methods of managing nutrients in water, it works out really competitively," he says. Around 400 more native plants were planted in the wetland last year, and the winter planting season is currently underway.

The farm's owners believe in taking a holistic approach, covering not only environmental responsibility but also health and safety, animal welfare and milk quality.

"These awards reflect what Kaiwaiwai has been doing in the environmental space, but also that we are farming sustainably. It has to be profitable but it also has to be ongoing," Bichan says.

"It's like there are four legs, and profitability is one of them. Environment is another leg, people are another, and we need to be working more on the cultural leg as well, working with local iwi around the Wairarapa Moana catchment.

"One of the focuses of our business is around being a good role model — being a leader in terms of showing what is possible. What's good for the environment is good for everyone."