Winter grazing

Temperatures rise on this hot topic

As winter rapidly descends, the hot topic for farmers is winter grazing. The Government’s decision to defer this element of its new National Environmental Standards for Freshwater has sparked a Greek Chorus of opinions, from players across the sector, from activists, and from regional and local government.

What’s it all about?

As a quick backgrounder, the practice known as “intensive winter grazing” (IWG) is where stock are confined to consecutive strips of outdoor feeding areas planted with fodder crops.

Critics of this method say that it results in cows being overstocked on winter paddocks, in cramped, muddy and cruel conditions, and with little room to calve or to lie down and rest.

The effects of this overcrowding on the land are to churn the ground to mud, which can then wash into waterways, spread pathogens, increase leaching and smother insect and plant life. And of course in winter, an unwelcome weather bomb can magnify this damage significantly.

Government voices

The new Freshwater standards came into force in September 2020, and are partly based on an urgent remit to stop further degradation of New Zealand’s freshwater resources and to improve water quality within five years. However in March 2021, Environment Minister David Parker and Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor announced that the IWG practice regulations would be deferred until May 2022, with the proviso that farmers must use this winter to trial and develop actions that create better outcomes.

In April 2021, the Ministry for the Environment and the Ministry for Primary Industries co-released a “Intensive Winter Grazing Module”, which include the strong words “To do nothing is not an option”.

The delayed regulation enforcement is to give farmers time to find a way to include better winter grazing rules into their certified freshwater farm plans in 2022, Minister Parker said.

By contrast, the Green Party strongly opposes the deferral on environmental grounds. Agriculture spokesperson Teanau Tuiono says “Postponing regulations means yet another winter where intensive winter grazing causes avoidable pollution to rivers and streams, severely compacted soils and increased greenhouse emissions. Alongside this pollution, the animal welfare impacts are seriously negative.”

National and the Act Party also criticise the deferral, but on political grounds. Act’s primary industries spokesperson, Mark Cameron, says "It's in a farmer’s best interest to look after their land and their animals but Government can’t bring themselves to acknowledge this." National’s Agriculture spokesperson David Bennett’s view is: “The Minister has developed a policy based on ideological notions and has had to back down after realising it isn’t practical or based in science.”

Sector leaders

Sector bodies applaud the move to delay. Federated Farmers’ water spokesperson Chris Allen believes aspects of the original approach to be flawed, so emphasises: “It’s all about ensuring the final rules and provisions are practical and workable for farmers, and achieving the environmental outcomes everybody wants to see.”

DairyNZ chair Jim van der Poel has the same message: “Farmers now have time to continue implementing good management practices that will drive positive progress.”

Beef + Lamb New Zealand’s Director, Nicky Hyslop, encourages farmers to tackle this situation well this winter, to “demonstrate to the government that farmers are the best people to manage and protect their natural resources and their livestock.”


Greenpeace Senior Campaigner Steve Abel criticises the delay, saying that it’s: “leaving a bad practice unregulated. In the middle of a climate and freshwater emergency, it’s pathetic and depressing to see our Government so captured by industry instead of doing the right thing.”

Chief Executive of animal rights group SAFE, Debra Ashton, agrees that the Government is bowing to pressure from agricultural lobbyists: “Will we still be seeing more horrific images of cows standing and giving birth in mud, just as we did last year?”

And farmers?

What do farmers think? Well, they’re too busy trying to build on or create improvements. Multiple agencies are trying to help, publishing detailed guidance on this topic. District councils such as Environment Canterbury are pumping out useful advice and offering free advisory services. But there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that the heat is on farmers to make real change this winter, and to document it effectively, or else find themselves in more strictly regulated scenarios in the next few years.

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