Trees and Dairying

April 2021

An award-winning farming family inspiring others with their environmental commitment.

The South Taranaki dairy farming Roper family are ‘tree-mendous’ advocates for farming environmentally and are award-winners for their own commitment and for inspiring others.

A judge of one of the prestigious dairy farming awards that Damian and Jane Roper have won said the couple, who farm at Alton, near Patea, are ‘passionate, enthusiastic and energetic with an ability to motivate those around them’. The judge of the Fonterra Responsible Dairying award in 2019 added ‘they are determined to be better than just compliant. Hearing where they have come from, where they are now and where they are heading in the future, I want a ticket to ride on their train’.


Damian Roper is the son of a central North Island family of sawmillers, and Jane grew up in South Australia on a mixed sheep, beef and cropping farm. Together with their children, Jack, Harriet and Adelaide, the Ropers are on a remarkable journey to ensure their dairy farm is profitable, has the lightest environmental footprint and is a haven for wildlife, be it the native swamp maire they have planted in wet areas, the birdlife that abounds in preserved stands of native bush, or the determined little boatman insects competing for gold paddling across the lake created in a formerly boggy area a short distance from their milking shed. For this family, trees are an addiction but so are bees and the no tillage/direct drill approach to pasture renewal.


These days for the Ropers it is not about the cut, but about digging in to fence off and plant out riparian areas and other environmental areas of their 150-hectare farm. There is a 2.2 hectare bush re-establishment, a riparian stream area measuring nearly four hectares where local school kids can learn first-hand about the ecology and local iwi can grow flaxes and reeds for weaving, and the creation of a lake area. 


Rewarewa and manuka for honey production is being planted on a retired 20-hectare block this year (2021), with a further 80 hectares to be planted with these two bee-friendly species once the current plantation of pine trees is harvested – probably in 2024. Favoured species include flaxes, carex grasses, cabbage trees, kahikatea, pukatea, tawa, rata and the waiwaka swamp maire that was once common in coastal and lowland swamps in Taranaki, having developed a specialised root system extending above the soil surface to take in air in wet conditions. Also important to son Jack are plantings of rewarewa and manuka, abuzz with bees that will deliver to plans for producing honey from the family farm.


The parents’ enthusiasm for the benefits of not tilling or ploughing soil to re-pasture paddocks as well as grow feed crops of chicory, turnip and maize has meant Jack has become the local go-to for direct-seeding with his specialised machinery. For the past three years, having decked out his tractor with technology including GPS and auto steer, he has worked the family farm while developing a successful business contracting to other farmers.


Damian says the benefits of not ploughing up the paddocks are already showing both through improving soil structure and helping to prevent soil erosion, especially during wind and rain events, therefore helping to improve waterways.  


As well as being busy with bees and pastures, Jack works with sisters Harriet and Adelaide on the Ropers Bush block being restored with help from Taranaki Regional Council. The block is already classified as a key native ecosystem and is destined to be protected forever under a Queen Elizabeth II National Trust covenant.  The younger generation have also taken it upon themselves to build a boardwalk so that visitors to the farm can view the bush without leaving a footprint.


With equal passion, the Roper family, with advice from a geologist, has turned a marshy gully just down from the cowshed into Lake Ohurai, a picturesque two-hectare waterbody. The calm pristine waters are tested twice annually to measure nitrogen, phosphate, sediment, dissolved oxygen and water temperature. Dotted with islets, this is home to native plantings – the planting programme is ongoing – as well as water species such as ducks and endangered daub chicks, and under the surface koura, a valued mahinga kai/traditional food species for Maori, as well as the diligently skimming boatmen. In the summer months Lake Ohurai is also a place of swimming, kayaking and even snorkelling for the Ropers and their farm visitors.


The Ropers operate a 50-bail rotary dairy with in-shed feeding.  They also have a feed pad located alongside the shed. This reduces wastage from feeding out in the paddock and allows effluent to be washed directly into the farm’s effluent management system to be used later to fertilise paddocks. To further lower their footprint, the Ropers have reduced the number of cows milked by 20 percent, a move that has reduced stress on the farm during the wetter winter and spring months, and lifted cow production by 28 percent. 


Damian Roper says: “We are better off having fewer high-quality cows that are more efficient at converting grass to milk, than a larger number of below average converters that emit more greenhouse gas”.


Showdown Productions Ltd.   Rural Delivery Series 16 2021