Sustainable Farming in the Bay of Plenty

October 2016

The Birchalls operate a 280ha dairy unit on difficult country in an environmentally sensitive location close to Lake Okaro near Rotorua.

In 2008 we visited Shane and June Birchall and looked at the efforts they had made in conjunction with EBoP to mitigate the effects of their farming operations in an environmentally sensitive catchment close to Lake Okaro. They have continued to improve management systems and this year, with daughter Megan and son Daniel, won three awards in the Ballance Farm Environment Awards for the Bay of Plenty:

    • Ballance Agri-Nutrients Soil Management Award


    • WaterForce Integrated Management Award


    • Bay of Plenty Regional Council Award 2

The Birchalls operate a 280ha dairy unit on difficult country in an environmentally sensitive location close to Lake Okaro near Rotorua. About 60ha of the property drains into the Lake Okaro catchment which in turn drains into the Lake Rotomahana catchment. A further 120ha of the Birchalls farm drains directly into the Rotomahana catchment, and both catchments are part of the overall Lake Tarawera catchment area. This means that their dairy farm needs to be managed with great care to avoid environmental damage.

To make matters even more difficult, much of the terrain is rolling to steep with only ridges and gully floors readily accessible.

The main milking platform is easy rolling country and then there is 40 ha of reasonably steep to rolling land. The rest of it is the young stock block thats not easy, it's not really steep either but it is awkward broken country, says Shane. He says theres only 30 ha mowable on the milking platform and on the young stock block is another 10 ha mowable, total 40. Over 100 ha is only accessible on the tops of ridges and the bottom of the gullies and the rest is difficult for a wheeled tractor.

Most of the farm is covered in Rotomahana mud, which is very fertile but comprises heavy clay and is prone to pugging making the Birchalls no-pugging policy almost impossible to achieve.

Since taking over the property from his parents in 2003, Shane and June have taken many steps to reduce not only pugging but also other impacts of dairying on the environment. In 2008 they moved to once-a-day milking because the farm contour made twice daily visits to the cowshed stressful for both the herd and staff.

"Getting cows in calf was difficult and our empty rates were too high at 12% so we put the young herd on once-a-day milking and the empty rate dropped to 3 per cent. Whats more, production went up because the young herd milked through until May, says Shane. After eight seasons I still enjoy being able to carry on working or taking an afternoon off without having to milk again.

The Birchalls have put a lot of effort into breeding and selecting for cows that thrive and produce well under once-a-day conditions. They also look after them well and run a split herd first calvers, second calvers and the lighter of the third calvers do with the longer walks while the older, heavier cows are on easier country closer to the cowshed. Both herds are milked starting early in the morning, which take about four hours to run 530 cows through their 35-a-side shed. However, the time taken is well spent, according to Shane.

You only see them once so you make sure you do a really good job, he says.

A major contributor to the reduction in pugging was the building of two 60m x 10m herd homes, the first in 2007 and the second in 2009. Each home has a feeding capacity of 200 cows.

We use them over summer as a feed pad unless it is very hot, in which case we put the shade cloth over them. So from the end of January to March, the herd will be in there on and off, and then when we dry them off, normally around the end of May, all the mature cows will stay there right through until the end of July, says Shane.

After that if the weather gets really wet we will stand them off and use the homes as feed pads. This has avoided much pugging and made a huge contribution to the protecting and improving pastures and reducing nutrient runoff.

Runoff has always been an issue in such a sensitive area close to Lake Okaro, which at one stage had extremely poor water quality and was subject to algal blooms every summer. In 2004 the Birchalls planned to develop a constructed wetland and when they discovered that Environment Bay of Plenty proposed a similar wetland for the Lake Okaro Reserve, they provided 2ha for the project.

In 2005 the wetland was planted with 60,000 rushes, grasses, flaxes, kowhais and cabbage trees and has been very effective in reducing the amount of nitrogen entering the lake.

Shane and daughter Megan were also been instrumental in forming and chairing the Okaro Catchment Lake Restoration Group comprising the seven landowners in the Lake Okaro catchment. Together they applied for SFF funding to help formulate an action plan using the OVERSEER program as a benchmark for each property. It also resulted in another ponding area on a Landcorp farm that was designed to slow down runoff during storms so that silt settles further up the gully instead of filling up the wetlands.

Today Shane and daughter Megan are part of Project Rerewhakaaitu Inc, which aims to develop nutrient management plans for properties with the catchments of Lakes Okaro, Rerewhakaaitu and Rotomahana.

Dealing with effluent from the dairy and the herd homes has also been improved with a weeping wall to trap solids, large storage capacity effluent ponds, carefully controlled irrigation, a slurry tanker and solid muck spreading gear.

Other improvements on the property include fencing of all drains, streams, wetlands and seepage areas, pest plant and animal control, and re-routing two streams through the constructed wetland.

The Birchall familys enterprise in working to protect and improve the environment has been rewarded this year with three awards in the 2016 Bay of Plenty Ballance Farm Environment Awards the Ballance Agri-Nutrients Soil Management Award, the WaterForce Integrated Management Award, and the Bay of Plenty Regional Council Award 2. In their comments the judges mentioned the "innovative family with individual talents and collective strength. They have excellent understanding of nutrients and soils and have an environmental focus within the farm and the community".

Shane says that they have completed their environmental plan but there is always more to do. We have put a lot more emphasis on safeguarding the cows, we have a slurry tanker and a solid muck spreader, we have put quite a bit into an effluent system for the cowshed, so we have covered ourselves pretty much for anything that could happen, he says.

We have timers, alarms and cut-off switches on the effluent equipment to avoid problems. My son Daniel is on call with both muck spreaders in case there is a breakdown at another farm so if an effluent pump breaks down or something like that happens, he can be there within a day to help out.

Above all we are a family and it is a family farm. Its not an easy farm but we love it, there is always something different to do, always something going on. My first three grandsons have hit the ground running, wife June does the accounting and bookwork. But it either of us fell over tomorrow, or both of us, Megan and Daniel could take over, both of them could do the books and generally run things. It is a great delight to me that there can be four generations here. If the grandchildren are around when I come back from the cowshed I always stay around for a second cup of coffee!