Council stresses proper planning for winter grazing

Environmental activist Geoff Reid visited Otago and Southland winter grazing paddocks over winter. Photo: Geoff Reid

ACKNOWLEDGING intensive winter grazing is a high-risk activity, Southland’s regional council has put an emphasis on the importance of proper planning.

The topic has proved as controversial as ever this year, and Greenpeace has launched a petition to end the practice of what it called mud farming.

Earlier in the year, footage of runoff and sediment in Otago, Southland and Fiordland flowing into wetland, lakes and waterways, as well as cows trudging through mud and drinking from their own waste-water circulated social media.

Intensive winter grazing is a farming practice where livestock, such as cattle and sheep, are grazed on paddocks planted with fodder crops.

While the official end of the intensive winter grazing period came at the start of spring, Environment Southland (ES) chief executive Rob Phillips made a point in his column in last week’s Southland Express that focus on the activity would not cease.

There had been improvement in the last few years, but he acknowledged the “terrible footage”.

“Poor practice is not OK and it needs to stop.”

Environment Southland chief executive Rob Phillips

Winter grazing was a high-risk activity, he said, which could have serious impacts on freshwater quality, affect soil structure and health as well as animal welfare.

The council compliance team completed three activity-monitor flights and responded to 23 complaints from the pollution hotline.

“There continues to be some farmers who need more support to do better.”

One way council attempted to do this was through a recently developed online tool, used to identify risks and to manage intensive winter grazing.

Catchment integration manager Fiona Young explained ES initially worked with the Aparima Community Environment group to develop the tool.

It was then largely form-based and aimed at supporting a farm plan, but user feedback suggested something more map-based would be of more value to the farmers.

“There was also new regulations released by the Government so the rule landscape became more complicated with both the National Environmental Standards for Freshwater and the rules in the proposed Southland Water and Land Plan.”

She described how council was then presented with an opportunity to support farmers to understand which rules applied when.

“We know that intensive winter grazing can have a significant impact on water quality if not done well, and planning on things like paddock selection and grazing strategies can make a big difference.”

The approach that was developed now included a cultivation and intensive winter grazing mapping tool; a permitted activity checklist, and a registration process, along with an online resource consent application process.

Ms Young said the map was particularly designed to help farmers make decisions about paddock selection and grazing strategies for their winter fodder crop using information such as floodways, stop banks, slope, topoclimate soil and physiographic data.

“By highlighting their paddock on the map, farmers can identify risks and other management considerations when selecting paddocks for cultivation.”

As well as the map, there was a permitted activity checklist and resource consent application form; the latter was used to determine whether a resource consent was needed.

The form was a tick box, and considers both the requirements in the proposed Southland Water and Land Plan and the National Environmental Standards for Freshwater.

Farmers can get a copy of this report, and send it to council to register their winter grazing as being permitted.

“So far we’ve had around 500 people access the page and the different resources there.”

This was hoped to increase.

Information was sourced from various local and central Government databases, including Land Information New Zealand and the Ministry for the Environment.

The ministry was consulting on proposed changes to intensive winter grazing regulations which aimed to make them practical for farmers to comply with, while ensuring improved environmental outcomes.

Farming groups were generally appy with the revision which included changing controversial pugging and resowing date rules.

At the time it was announced, Beef+Lamb New Zealand chief executive Sam McIvor said it was positive for farmers they had clarity on the proposed approach in this area, which aligned with the recommendations of the Southland Winter Grazing advisory group.

It was announced last month and will close on October 7.

Not all saw the changes as a positive, however, with Greenpeace “condemning” the decision.

The consultation document and online submission forms are available on the Ministry for the Environment’s website.