Don't give up on dairy

The challenge for the dairy industry is on two levels, says Tim Mackle, Chief Executive of DairyNZ and vocal advocate for the industry.

“Firstly, how do we make a contribution and play our part in addressing this major challenge that we have globally; and on the second level, how do we deal with the effects of climate change, with farmers starting to see and feel it?”

“New Zealand needs to keep moving, because we can’t be leap-frogged by other producers. We have to develop our own systems.”

Tim Mackle says that in New Zealand we know that the dairy sector is a big part of total emissions.

“Dairy is about 22%, and agriculture in general is about 48-49% of total emissions, although it is important to point out that this is on a carbon dioxide volume equivalent basis, not necessarily on a warming basis.

“They are different. The warming impact of methane in the atmosphere is potent, but it is only there for 12 years. By the time you account for that and use certain models, we’re not going to be 22% of the warming impact in New Zealand. That’s the bottom line. That might sound pedantic, but it is really important, because we have to know what problem we are trying to solve.”

That said, Tim admits that the sector has got to move on and play its part, because New Zealand has made a commitment to no more than a 1.5 degree temperature rise by 2050, linking to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

“We are saying ‘we’re up for it’, it is a big challenge, but at the same time you have to put it into context too. New Zealand is 0.17% of the world’s total emissions, and we are 22% of that.

“What I do lament a little bit with media is the context around why we are 48% of emissions. You know the story: we are high renewable energy and low industrial, with a tiny population, but when it comes to dairy, we are providing the recommended daily intake for around 100 million people globally every day of the year. We are feeding a lot of people and we are playing a vital role. On top of that, Kiwis might not understand that we are really good at low-emissions dairy production. We are the lowest emitters in the world we believe, based on our pasture-based system and our efficient use of feed. We don’t use big tractors to turn the soil and we don’t use big machinery typically to feed animals.”

“We are the lowest emitters in the world, based on our pasture-based system and our efficient use of feed.”

Tim points that in terms of total product lifecycle, you could be sitting in the UK drinking a glass of our milk and it would still be lower footprint than the local product.

“Shipping is miniscule in the grand scheme of things. Most of the greenhouse gas footprint is on the farm, so food miles are not as material as it used to be thought.”

WE ARE REALLY GOOD, BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN WE DON’T NEED TO MOVE

The dairy sector gets that, says Tim. However, farmers still have to understand the starting position, the base, he says.

“We have to move on two accounts because our Government has made a commitment and it is important to Kiwis to play that role, and our customers and consumers expect it as well.

“While our emissions profile might be the lowest, with a lower profile than a product from for example the US or Europe out of a big barn system, we can’t rest on our laurels from a customer viewpoint. The discerning customers we aim for expect us to take it seriously and keep moving forward and improving. We can’t rest on our laurels: we have to keep improving.”

When it comes to some of the other production systems out there – the confined systems, the barns in the Netherlands with developing technology to reduce methane – they do offer potentially easier ways to get compounds into animals says Tim, but that is because “the animals are sitting inside all day, and you’re pushing feed up to them. These compounds don’t last very long, so they are consuming them all day.

“On our free-range system in New Zealand, dairy cows might be brought inside once or twice a day, and not at all in the winter. It is more problematic, and for sheep it’s absolutely problematic because they don’t come in at all. That’s why New Zealand needs to keep moving, because we can’t be leap-frogged by the other producers, and we have to develop our own systems. This is why we have formed the Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium with the Government and Beef and Lamb New Zealand, well over 10 years ago, because it is so important to develop our own technology. There is some promise there, but methane is a tough nut to crack.”

NO SOLUTION OUT THERE?

Tim says that there are efficiency gains we can get right now, but no radical dial-moving solution. This is why he says the interim target of 10% reduction by 2030 needs to be reviewed by the incoming Climate Change Commission, even though in principle he accepts it.

“I wouldn’t say we support it though, but we think it is theoretically doable because there are a number of farms that can still get more efficiency out of their feed utilisation.

“Right now, the only real levers for farmers to improve their greenhouse gas emissions output are more efficiently utilising the feed they are buying and using, growing more and not buying, and fertiliser input.”

HOW DOES IT WORK FOR PEOPLE WHO ARE ALREADY REALLY EFFICIENT?

This is the big challenge. Tim says that DairyNZ is working on that now, starting a programme to drive profitable and financially resilient systems and address the two big issues: water quality, which is mainly about nitrogen, and greenhouse gas (GHG). He says that these two topics will take a lot of research and systems thinking, working with partners and farmers.

“The reality is,” he says, “if the Government is looking for a 10% reduction in methane by 2030, some farmers may do it relatively easily because they are wasting methane right now, but for others it will be a real struggle.

“Some farmers may hit the target relatively easily because they are wasting methane right now, but for others it will be a real struggle.”

“There is a lot of water to go under the bridge yet. We do need to work out how we do that. The Prime Minister has said to us on several occasions that she wants to make sure they reward early movers – people who have moved already. That is an apparent unfairness at the moment, and we have to address it. We have submitted that we think the Climate Change Commission needs to review that number. It might come down.”

GM-MODIFIED GRASSES WITH TRIALS UNDERWAY

Among the big issues NZ Inc – and farmers – need to grapple with for our future is the one of genetically enhanced grasses. The question for Tim is ‘does our brand involve genetic modification (GM)’?

“My personal viewpoint is that there will be a point in the future when even the affluent moral compass may shift, and they might realise that producing food with superior technology and no scientific risk is good for the world. I also think – as does Bill Gates – that’s where it will go, but the question for New Zealand is when.

“At the end of the day it will be a big call to make, and it won’t be made by DairyNZ. Ultimately it will be made by the food companies and the Government together–they need to work through it together. On that note, dairy farmers are investing to partner with AgResearch and the Government to have those GM plants put out in fields and grown and grazed in Missouri. We are doing it because we need the options, and it’s not just greenhouse gases – a significant reduction in nitrogen will help as well. These things take time.”

He adds that DairyNZ is exploring other non-GM avenues too.

“We have got some hybrid rye grasses we have just started growing in Canterbury, technology that the Australians developed. We have come in with investment at the back – end of it to keep it going. It is quite promising. Hybridisation is something the maize and corn industry has done for decades, and that is why they have got such great yields. It’s like crossing a Jersey and Friesian and the ‘hybrid vigour' you get from that. They have finally cracked how to do it with rye – grass. We can potentially get elite rye – grass cultivars that are compatible for crossing, and then hybridise them to get another hopefully 10-20%. That’s biomass so it’s also more methane, but it is also less bought-in feed.

“There are some exciting technologies going on, but they take time to get through the seed production industry and to farmers. It takes time to implement–we can’t change it overnight.”

“There are some exciting technologies going on, but they take time to get through the seed production industry and to farmers. It takes time to implement–we can’t change it overnight.”

Tim adds that DairyNZ has been investing in research that relates to environmental sustainability, in nitrogen and latterly in greenhouse gasses, for almost 20 years.

“We have a body of evidence that will help us. I think it is important to know that we haven’t just started this in the last couple of years – we have been at this for quite a while, and that is dairy farmers’ money. We do take this seriously. Probably 15 years ago we had a RED trial – Resource-Efficient Dairy – with multiple farm systems, all about how you farm with less inputs, be more efficient, generate profit but have a much lower environmental impact.”

In  the  meantime, what  he  says  to  people  is “don’t  give up on dairy”.

“The answer to unsustainable dairy is sustainable dairy, so let’s get on and keep solving it.”

“It might sound a bit melodramatic, but that’s how people are feeling at the moment. The answer to unsustainable dairy is sustainable dairy, so let’s get on and keep solving it.”

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