Tim and Rachael Phillips are great believers in simple and cost effective solutions when it comes to on-farm problems.
But finding a way of separating out ground water seepage to an underpass and effluent on their 78ha dairy farm, Waipā Meadow, eluded them for years.
The underpass on the farm, near Ōtorohanga, links two thirds of the property to the remaining third and is key to their operation.
But because of the high water table, water seeped into the concrete base of the underpass. At peak flows, they calculated that around 400,000 litres of ground water per day was flowing into the underpass. Although they had a means of diverting effluent contaminated water to their effluent system, it was always possible that a mistake could be made.
Rachael first put up the idea of an internal bridge within the underpass: "But that got pooh-poohed and I got frustrated. I said to Tim if it wasn't sorted out soon, I would call Environment Waikato on us."
They started thinking seriously about different options, eventually returning to the idea of the bridge and building a raised concrete floor in the underpass for the herd to use. Effluent is diverted to one side into a sealed sump where a pump directs it to the effluent bladder.
On the other side, ground water flows under the internal bridge into a second sump where it is pumped to a farm drain.
The project was just one of the factors in the couple taking out the Massey University Innovation Award in the recent Waikato Ballance Farm Environment Awards, with judges commenting on their measured approach to challenges, creative thinking and hard work.
Tim, his father, farm staff, and a local builder carried out the work along with professional concrete layers early last year; once winter rain arrived and the water table rose, it passed the test with flying colours.
"It was an area of the farm I was embarrassed about but now I want to show people what we've done," Rachael says.
They met when studying at Massey University, travelled overseas, then began lower order sharemilking back in New Zealand in 2005. The following year they moved to 50:50 sharemilking on Tim's parents' 110ha farm, milking 340 cows, producing 135,000kg of milksolids.
When the option came up to purchase Waipā Meadow farm, a kilometre away, they took the opportunity. This year they and their four children (Hayden, 14, Ana, 12, Reuben, 10 and Nathan, 7) moved to Tauranga. Tim is now working in an agricultural consulting role while Rachael is studying counselling. They lease Tim's parents' farm and have contract milkers on both properties. Tim visits around once a fortnight to oversee and carry out maintenance work.
Production on Waipā Meadow last season was 105,000kg of milksolids, a slight drop on previous years due to the dry summer. They buy in around 3ha of locally grown maize with 80 tonnes of palm kernel fed in their 24-aside herringbone dairy. Hay is also bought in with silage made on a 10ha leased block.
Their effluent area was enlarged from 12 to 25ha in 2018. A larger capacity line was put in, along with a flexi-tank effluent bladder and a travelling torpedo cannon used on the paddocks to make effluent application more efficient. An old barrier effluent drain was decommissioned and bigger stone traps put in – all aimed at lessening impact on the land and helping to improve water quality.
Fertiliser use is managed carefully with soil testing every two years. Over recent years, goat manure has been applied, adding nitrogen, potassium and phosphate along with plenty of organic matter.
The manure is bulky to apply but slow release, so there's not a boom of grass but a long, slow release of nutrients, Tim says.
A 1ha stand of 120-year old kahikatea was placed under a Queen Elizabeth II Trust covenant early this century by the previous owners, with the edges planted with flax and totara. The Phillips' task was to tackle the privet understorey which they did with the help of the Waikato Weedbusters group. Spot spraying is now carried out two or three times a year along with possum trapping.
A further 1.5ha of native riparian planting has gone in along the Waipā River under the Waipā Rerenoa Restoration Project which is restoring the river's biodiversity through replacing willows on its banks.
Land has significance to local iwi, Rachael says: "It's a privilege to own land and we need to be mindful and considerate of others' views and connection to the land."
So when looking at environmental improvements, the Phillips urge farmers to take their time, talk to lots of people and be open to many different ideas.
"They should also trust themselves because solutions can be found."