Sunday, November 28, 2010

the conversion aversion

A few days spent driving around Southland is a sobering experience. It is one of the regions of New Zealand with the most of its natural character left intact. So perhaps in that case the cavalier attitude to the land probably makes more sense. Even so, it’s a dismal shame the rate that the wetlands in particular of the south seem to falling prey to land use change.
A major proponent of this change is the dairy industry. Dairy conversions are taking place all over the region, and those nearby. The media has been rife with reports on this phenomenon. Most reports and concerns however have centred on their need for high amounts of water, promoting such ventures as the crop circle irrigation debacle in the Mackenzie Basin.
But the effects of a dairy conversion are far reaching and most of their impacts are insidious, yet poorly understood. Dairy is a far more intensive land use than most other livestock-based farming. The cows and the milking operation generally require more inputs than comparable land uses (sheep and beef farming) in the way of infrastructure (under-road culverts, irrigators and dams, milking sheds or storage and transport facilities, stand out areas).
Whatever the reason, the pressure or greed that drives the intensification process leads to every square inch of pasture created that can possibly be created. Streams, wetlands, sinks, and other natural land forms all get bowled by the diggers until the postage stamps of green are laid side by side for kilometre upon kilometre. The justifications include, as I have read, the need to pipe streams to ‘stop the cows going in them’ (the word is ‘fence’!). I am sure there are good examples of dairy farming conversions somewhere, but they would not appear to be the norm.
And then once the dairy conversion is complete, often the owner is on the edge of financial ruin (many people appear to have borrowed near on 100% of the capital required to purchase and convert the land). Best-practice land management barely seems to get a look in as the focus goes on recouping and repaying for likely decades to come.
What streams remain are rarely fenced, much less planted out. The wetland margins are strewn with gorse and suspicious drainage activity invades most margins. The drains typically have cows lolling in them or near them and the effluent no doubt makes the water quality results (if they’re taken) make your eyes water. The need to forever increase the stocking rates seems to truncate innovation for the bulk of the newly converted and the environment wears the consequences.
It’s rather like being in a time machine...we just don’t learn....

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