Canterbury dairy farmer John Tanner has been working hard to improve sustainability on his Leeston farm, Dunlac Dairies Ltd.
The farm is located in the Selwyn Waihora catchment and is just 20 kilometres from Lake Ellesmere (Te Waihora), which is considered one of New Zealand’s most important wetland areas. On either side of the catchment are the Rakaia River and the Selwyn River.
“In Canterbury we have to lessen our nitrogen footprint on the farm,” says Tanner, who milks 730 dairy cows during the peak of the season on 260 hectares. “In our catchment, we farm on environmentally sensitive land.” Tanner is one of many farmers turning to genetic solutions to help him farm well.
In recent years Lake Ellesmere has been plagued by water quality issues related to intensive farming practices. Nitrogen leached from farms on the Canterbury Plains will eventually make its way into Lake Ellesmere, therefore farm activities in the catchment are carefully regulated by Environment Canterbury, with set nitrogen limits per farm.
The Selwyn Waihora Water Plan, a section of the Canterbury Land & Water Regional Plan, includes policies, rules, and limits to manage water quality and water quantity in the Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere catchment, with particular emphasis on the long-term health of Te Waihora. Among other things the strategy requires dairy farms in the catchment to reduce their property’s nitrogen limits by 30 per cent by 2022
Tanner is making an effort to reduce Dunlac Dairies’ environment impact, and has made significant improvements with water management and fertiliser usage. The farm was a finalist in the Dairy Business of the Year 2016, and Tanner takes pride in doing his bit for the environment.
However, like many farmers in the region, he is feeling the pressure. “We are trying to milk at our current numbers, but lessen our nitrogen footprint. So you are trying to do the same, but with less environmental impact,” says Tanner.
He believes that science will offer a solution for farmers. When he heard about CRV Ambreed’s genetic discovery, and its LowN Sires bull team, Tanner was very interested, purchasing more than 200 straws.
In March, CRV Ambreed announced a genetic discovery, thought to be a world-first, which could reduce nitrogen leaching on New Zealand farms by 20% within 20 years.
CRV Ambreed identified and selected bulls genetically superior for a new trait related to the amount of urea nitrogen in milk. Farmers are now able to breed cows using straws of semen from CRV Ambreed’s LowN Sires, and those daughters will have reduced concentration of Milk Urea Nitrogen (MUN).
Cows bred for lower levels of MUN are expected to excrete less nitrogen in their urine which will, in turn, reduce the amount of nitrogen leached from grazed pasture. This could potentially save New Zealand 10 million kilograms in nitrogen leaching a year, based on the national herd number of 6.5 million dairy cattle.
“When CRV Ambreed came up with their LowN bulls, we thought ‘we’ll have a go’,” says Tanner. “We have 730 cows and if we can lessen the nitrogen from the herd by 20%, then that makes a big dent.”
Tanner is interested to see how his herd’s genetics will improve over time. “I know it’s going to take a few years, but if it’s something that does improve nitrogen leaching from my cows, I will probably buy more straws in the future,” he says.
Tanner was also pleased with the other traits. “We wanted the best in genetics, and CRV offered that,” says Tanner. “To also have the option to reduce nitrogen leaching is an added bonus.”
Canterbury regional councillor John Sunckell is also a big fan of CRV Ambreed’s LowN Sires programme.
Sunckell is a third-generation farmer from Leeston, in the Selwyn/Waihora zone. He understands the pressure on farmers in the area, and says most farmers “are aware of what’s required and that change is happening”, and understand the importance of reducing their environmental footprint.
“Technology and information is vital; that’s why I’m so excited about (CRV Ambreed R&D scientist) Phil Beatson’s work and CRV’s work,” says Sunckell. “It will enable us to still farm and meet environmental regulations.”
Sunckell says dairy farmers in his catchment are required to reduce their nitrogen loss by 30% “which equates to getting rid of every third cow”.
“However, if LowN Sires can have an impact by reducing nitrogen by up to 20%, and with other new scientific developments (like Agricom’s Ecotain plantain) we able to reduce nitrogen in the cow’s urine patch, then all – of a sudden – with these two bits of science, we are getting there.”