Lost export earnings

By Trevor Cook

In Livestock7 Minutes

IN DECEMBER I SEEMED TO GET exposed to an unusually high incidence of problematic land use, none of which were new, but in abundance were concerning.

I spent some time in two North Island areas in which highly valuable soils were being covered with houses. Of course that value is seen only in my eyes but to the homeowner most of that value would have been in contour and location.

An irony is that the environmental cost of that land changing from livestock use to residential use is huge. The sheep and beef systems that were replaced, some of which had been very intensive, would have had a tiny environmental cost compared to houses at 15 a hectare. The cost not being acknowledged is the lost export earnings from those livestock systems. But of course the houses have to go somewhere and their accompanying pollution.

Also in December I was at the forefront of the competition between hill country being used for livestock farming and it being used for carbon farming.

‘Right tree in the right place is another phrase being used when the intent of the user was never going to be that selective.’

The rhetoric calling it tree farming is just fudging what is happening by using a more friendly name. Right tree in the right place is another phrase being used when the intent of the user was never going to be that selective. Again, the big cost not being acknowledged is the lost export earnings from those livestock systems, let alone other community and environment costs of whole farm tree planting.

My home ranch of 25 hectares is getting closer and closer to being covered by those pesky houses. The value of that land use change to me will be big and my soils are far from being pristine.

Those that have begun the change across the road now realise that living on heavy clay has its drawbacks. But in the meantime for me it is a pasture platform enjoying an awesome start to summer. The big cattle on finishing mode and the larger mob of year younger cattle on clean up mode is working just as planned.

I have had some doubts that my deferred grazing might be surplus to requirements, but then I do have better pasture quality due to it being there. Also working so well is the growth of my hardly pristine lawns.

A year ago I wrote about the three follies of having grazing systems that require lambs and calves to be drenched every month. It was the need to mow my lawns every three or so weeks that sparked my reflection about monthly drenching. For me to not mow that frequently requires me to do something very different.

The benefits of mowing a lot less are huge. Of course the big one would be that I am emitting a lot less greenhouse gas from my lawn mower. But on the other hand maybe stimulating my lawn to grow faster is capturing more CO2. It is a very messy equation and how we know at all what the relative status of emissions and CO2 sequestration can only be a guess at best.

My column a year ago stirred a lot of comments and that need to make significant change has become a reality for many more farms. Two of my reasons for these “drench every four week” grazing systems to be flawed were the financial cost and liveweight gain cost. But the third reason was that the mainstay tool for managing worms, drench, has just continued to fail.

More and more farms now know that they have limited fully effective drench options. So to still farm with that constraint and not have the production costs of continuing to use products less effective, there have had to be significant changes to the system. Just as changing lawn mowers would not change the need to mow, changing drenches is no longer a way to manage this major threat.

Farmers have managed change extremely well over the years and mostly that change is driven by financial gain. The incentive to change and the benefits are obvious. Many changes being asked to make now do not have obvious benefits.

Greenhouse gasses and riparian strips are good examples of this, so it becomes a compliance-driven change. The worm issues described above are not that visible as long as the four week approach is maintained. The costs are an accepted part of the system and the weight gain losses are not visible to the eye. The weight gain losses due to drenches not being fully effective are usually not visible. But the farms that do not need any tests for them to know something is wrong are very open to change. Intervening before that happens is surely a good investment.