New regs for winter grazing

James Hoban says farmers shouldn’t ignore the new winter grazing rules even though they mean more work – on farm and on paper – but he does wonder how successful the new rules will be.

In Environment10 Minutes

Winter 2023 harbours a new landscape in terms of rules for intensive winter grazing. After several years of increased public scrutiny, numerous complaints and regional council investigations, many farmers across the country will now trigger rules requiring them to apply for resource consents. This is after two postponements of the rules.

In many cases, the farmers triggering rules are only continuing a practice they have been carrying out for years. Arguably, public pressure is a greater cause of the national rules than actual environmental impacts. Inarguably, intensive winter grazing on forage crops can have major environmental impacts when it is not done well.

What are the rules?

The Government has attempted to establish rules that draft higher-risk intensive winter grazing scenarios into a consented framework and let lower-risk activities continue without the costly paperwork. Whether the rules raise the bar for the right people remains to be seen. The rules apply to annual forage crops grazed in situ between May 1 and September 30. Only policy planners could create a five-month winter. The following conditions need to be met to avoid the need for resource consent.

Critical source areas need to be identified and carefully managed – this includes not sowing them in crop and not grazing them during winter. Fencing around these areas can be temporary. Critical source areas are low points where water and potentially nutrients and other pollutants accumulate in high concentrations and flow to waterways.

The slope of cropped areas needs to be below 10 degrees. If there is an area in winter feed that is greater than 10 degrees, measured across a distance of 20 metres, then technically a consent is required.

Waterways should be protected from stock, with a minimum of five-metre buffers.

The total area of winter crops needs to be less than 50ha or 10% of the farm area (whichever number is greater).

The area of winter crops needs to be no more than the maximum used on the property between June 2014 and July 2019. The property needs to have been winter grazing during that time. This clause is designed to capture expansion and new winter grazing.

Thankfully, the challenging draft rules around pugging and sowing dates after winter have been removed. These were largely unworkable – potentially requiring sodden paddocks to be drilled and stock to leave no footprints. It is important to remember that being on the wrong end of these rules does not mean winter grazing has to stop – it just means a consent is needed.

How will councils handle the process and how many farmers will apply?

It would be uncharitable but not entirely inaccurate to say regional councils have no idea how this is going to unfold. The prospect of rules requiring resource consents en masse is not new – but this is the first time it has gone so far and is actually in place, as opposed to a being a twinkle in the corner of a government minister’s eye. This set of rules is a decree from the ivory tower in Wellington. Stretched regional councils are only slightly more excited about processing consents and implementing the rules than farmers are about applying.

It is reasonable to expect a number of farmers who trigger the rules will choose not to apply for consent. In Canterbury, the cost of applying is a minimum $3500 deposit. While a quick and seamless processing would in theory see a portion of the deposit refunded, the road to riches is not paved with resource consent refunds. There must be people somewhere who have received partial refunds because of council efficiency, but they remain elusive.

The wisest of the people who choose not to apply will have an updated winter grazing management plan in place, ready to show any interested parties who knock on their door. They might successfully avoid detection for a time. It is not unreasonable to rationalise that councils will focus on high impact, visible sites first and that they will struggle to catch up with everyone this winter. Avoiding the law forever is a naïve hope though, with councils across the country having already used aerial winter surveys to monitor compliance. This scrutiny will only increase.

To give Environment Canterbury credit, they have signalled that their first response to any issues this winter will be based on educating rather than demonising farmers. Unfortunately, whenever the regional council takes a gentle approach to farming rules, rabid hordes of environmentalists keep the pressure on, easily incensed if they feel farmers are being treated softly. If it ever comes to the crunch, it is difficult for the council to explain in court why it is not implementing rules according to the law.

The least-wise rule dodger will not have a grazing plan in place. They will at best have their fingers in their ears and at worst will be imitating an ostrich. They will be living somewhere highly visible to the public, they might well have heavy animals on wet soils and an apparent lack of management of critical source areas. Being frustrated is not a sufficient reason to join this camp.

Regional councils have long talked of streamlined consent processes that would help handle this type of situation. Forms that applicants could complete without the assistance of a consultant would standardise things nicely enough for the council staff to process quickly. To give Environment Canterbury credit, it has had a go at designing this document. The result is a 34-page application form that has tested the will of even the earliest of adopters.

Applicants should not be daunted by the policy-wonk language in the application form and process. Despite the fact that an array of bureaucratic terms are now being applied to a normal farming activity, good practice has not changed. Mitigations that help reduce issues around winter grazing are not new and do not need to be explained to regulators in a complicated way.

For the past two years, intensive winter grazing management plans have been a smart tool to adopt. They are now a requirement and fortunately they are much more manageable than a consent application. There are several templates for these plans available from industry groups and regulators. They all involve mapping risks associated with individual paddocks and explaining what management practices will ensure grazing is well conducted on the farm.

Completing these plans is only mildly onerous. They will be the first document taken out of the drawer if a council employee arrives in response to a complaint. They are also the key part of a consent application. A well-prepared plan will answer most questions a consent processor will have. These documents need to be reviewed annually and adapted where necessary.

For those who cannot face resource consent application forms, a number of consultants are available who can help.

Unfortunately, they will not do this out of the goodness of their hearts and their charges will be in addition to any fees paid to a regional council. Farmers who opt to use a consultant need to choose a good one, which will require some basic research. It is also worth completing the easiest parts of the application and having all relevant information well organised before engaging a consultant. Saving them time will save money.

Realistically, applications are completable for many farmers but will require effort and perseverance. A good consultant will save stress but cost money. This decision needs to be made based on what applicants are most comfortable with.