Covid-19 kicked to touch any face to face community celebration of Kaiwaiwai Dairies Ltd taking out the Greater Wellington ‘Supreme Winner’ Ballance Farm Environment Award last year. But last month more than 150 people gathered at the 642ha farm near Featherston in the Wairarapa to see for themselves why the award judges described the six shareholders as being industry leaders in adopting sustainable management practices.
One of those six – Aidan Bichan – proudly noted his mother, his daughter and his grand-daughter were among the crowd seated in the calf sheds for the presentations, and on the farm tour that followed.
“So that’s four generations of us. That’s my ‘why’,” Aidan said. “It’s about leaving the place for our children and our grandchildren, and leaving it in a better state than we found it.”
Aidan – and the two fellow shareholders who also have a hands-on operational role at Kaiwaiwai, Vern Brasell and Neville Fisher – are well used to hosting visitors. It’s a favourite destination for Ministers or Ministry staff hosting primary industry dignitaries and officials from overseas; after the farm tour they can head off to Martinborough’s nearby vineyards.
Kaiwaiwai, a Federated Farmers member, is also a Fonterra ‘Open Gate’ host and on one memorable occasion in 2019, there were 1200 registrations – mainly city folk from over the hill in Wellington – and it bucketed down. The kids had a ball in the mud and puddles.
The pandemic disrupted last year’s Ballance Farm Environment Awards national event but, Alert Levels permitting, the 2021 National Sustainability Showcase will go ahead at Te Papa in Wellington on March 25. The evening will celebrate the achievements of Regional Supreme Award winners and announce the national winners of the Gordon Stephenson Trophy for 2021. See: www.nzfeatrust.org.nz
Scientists, school groups, fellow farmers and towns folk have also tramped around the farm’s wetland and checked out the graphs at the back of the sheds tracking milk solid production (the winter milk contract is for 500kg of milk solids from mid-May to mid-July from their herd of 900 cows) and water use (36 litres per cow per day, just on half the industry standard).
“We host somewhere around 20 to 40 groups every year, ranging from two or three people from Forest & Bird to turnouts the size of today,” Aidan said.
Judges of the Farm Environment Awards made specific mention of the Kaiwaiwai owners’ willingness to reach out to the wider community, whether it’s as official Climate Change Ambassadors or as participants in the Wairarapa Water Users, Ruamahanga Whaitua and a range of other environment and sustainable business groups.
As one of those judges, Leo Vollebregt, said at the open day: “The whole Kaiwaiwai team has made a tremendous contribution to the promotion of good food producing businesses to the general public and championing best practice to their peers.”
Grant Perry said he and fellow judges were often asked what were the factors that ‘tipped the balance’ when picking a supreme winner.
“There’s not a lot of secrets in it. Usually it’s a combination of a lot of very good things. Last year was the second time Kaiwaiwai had entered, and they were doing the same things they were doing [the first time]….rigorous discipline around attention to detail, striving for best practice.”
Grant said one catchphrase he liked to remember was “clean water in, clean water out” and Kaiwaiwai was making great strides with that. But as well as ticking environment stewardship boxes, they also brought rigour and excellence to animal welfare, best use of shareholder capital, safety and looking after staff.
Aidan picked up on the financial management aspects several times during the farm open day.
“There’s always a tension around what’s going to give you the best return, but also about functionality,” he said. “You can’t afford to do everything at once. So does upgrading staff accommodation take precedence over drainage or some other apsect?
“I think it goes back to the saying ‘to do good things and be green, you need to be in the black.”
As well as the wetland and solar panels (see break out stories), other environment and biodiversity initiatives at Kaiwaiwai include:
- Trialing different crops to strip potassium from effluent irrigation paddocks
- Sloping stock tracks to prevent run-off entering waterways and planting out the high sides where feasible to soak up nutrients
- Use of retention bunds where paddocks border waterways
- Riparian planting to shade drains
- Experimenting with fish passages for culverts and fish bays for drain cleaning
- Full use of Variable Rate Irrigation, soil monitors and the ability to turn off individual sprinklers to ensure pivots don’t drop water on lanes and other parts of paddocks that don’t need it
- Consideration of a denitrification bio-reactor if the issue of an $8,500 resource consent fee doesn’t undermine its viability
- Early adopters of dung beetles, with a regional council subsidy. A study is about to start to track how the beetle colonies are faring since their release last year
- Using ‘green wash’ for sluicing of yard and part of the feed pad, to conserve fresh water
Wetland delivers bang for bucks
The wetland on Kaiwaiwai cost $55,000 – $27,000 for the wetland itself, and the balance to do all the planting, irrigation and restoration work. But regular monitoring shows that it is taking out 660kg of Nitrates per year from water from the 200 hectares that drains into it (3.3kgN per ha).
Weigh that up against Kaiwaiwai’s $750,000 investment in effluent management systems, which take out 1.7kN per hectare.
“That’s pretty good bang for bucks. This wetland is delivering far more for the environment than 15 times the investment in an effluent system,” Aidan said.
The wetland consists of a series of 6m wide dug out bays, with the spill forming 3m flanking banks. The soil dug out was mainly peat, which quickly dries out. So the banks are irrigated, which helps with the growth of native trees, shrubs and raupo – a filter for water, and a haven for biodiversity including pukeko and hawks. Club rush had to be ripped out last year because it was clogging channels; carex secta around the edges provides fish habitat.
Aidan acknowledged the “tremendous input” of Greater Wellington Regional Council with the ongoing monitoring of the wetland’s effectiveness, and that the wetland build that started in 2014 secured government Kickstart for Freshwater and Wairarapa Moana subsidies.
Another tip from Aidan for other farmers considering a wetland was to make use of community interest in planting and clean-up projects. At the 2019 Fonterra Open Gate event, visiting members of the public dug in 400 donated plants for landscaping around the wetlands – “that’s a great system!”
Harnessing the sun
Kaiwaiwai Dairies installed 54 kilowatts of solar panels, set up in two long banks, in November last year. It’s a 600 volt DC direct injection system ( i.e. there’s no storage batteries). In January they earned a credit of $108 from their local power retailer – at only 8 cents a unit. So the company’s aim is to utilise all the electricity the panels produce.
“When the pivots are running, we use all of it,” Aidan Bichan said, “there’s a 75kW pump right there that happily eats all that power.”
The set-up cost $110,000 plumbed into the system, with quite a bit of switch gear involved. Aidan said they also looked at wind power, but the economics were not as good, and ruled out placing the panels on the milking shed roof both because of the weight, and because the roof facing direction was not optimal. The estimated savings are $17,000 a year.
“We probably should have done this some years ago, but you come back to that conflict of capital question. It’s a conundrum where best to spend your dollars.”
The system’s output is guaranteed to be 80% or better for 25 years, with the inverter having an estimated life of 14-15 years, a factor calculated into the return figures. Maintenance is minimal – drift from the pivot helps with dust accumulation – but the downside was that the farm had to switch from a day/night rate to a fixed rate at 22 cents.