Organic Dairying - Naturally Better

By: Delwyn Dickey


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The sandy clay loam alluvial flats of Ruawai, on the northern shores of the Kaipara Harbour, produce 90 per cent of the kumara grown in New Zealand. The soil structure and warm sub tropical climate make the area ideal for this crop.

Organic Dairying - Naturally Better
Organic Dairying - Naturally Better

Dairy farming is also popular and this area. Northland has been home to Ralph Littler for the last 55 years. His parents originally moved on to a 30ha dairy farm here when Ralph was a baby. A neighbouring 32ha farm was purchased and then a 47ha run off, bringing the total operation size to 109ha. Having taken over the farm, Ralph and wife Lorraine have raised four children here in their lovely renovated farmhouse villa. Originally working in a bank at nearby Maungaturoto, as a youngster, Lorraine has done her stint of farm work over the years and now works in the office at the local Ruawai College.  Lorraine’s accounting skills have meant that she has handled the business side of the operation while Ralph has overseen the farming side.

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Eleven years ago Ralph and Lorraine began looking into converting their farm to an organic operation. They liked the idea that this farming method would be easier on both the land and the animals.  With organic operations there is a three-year transition period before full organic certification can be given, and Ralph and Lorraine’s entire operation became fully certified in 2000.

Initially, their organic milk went off for processing as usual and there was no financial gain for them. In 2003, Fonterra started taking it as organic and was originally prepared to offer a 16 per cent premium for their organic milk, which then rose to 20 per cent. However, as the Littlers organic farm was only one of three in the Northland region supplying Fonterra, and the organic milk processing plants were in Hamilton, they were advised no new organic farms would be offered contracts and their own would attract a transport charge. This would effectively drop their premium back to 16 per cent.

Unhappy with this, and after being in contact with the other organic dairy farms in the region, this group has now joined New Zealand Organic Dairy Farmers Co-operative Ltd, which has over 40 shareholders; 10 currently supplying. While during the start of the season the organic milk is sent further south, during the last part of the season organic milk from the Northland farms is sent to Fresha Valley at Waipu, just south of Whangarei. Organic milk from producers further south is processed into cheese for the export market.

Three years ago Ralph decided to alter the milking regime to give them a more flexible lifestyle and cut back to milking once a day, in the mornings. This has loosened their ties to the land somewhat and gives them more time for other interests. This, along with reduced stock numbers, has seen the milk solid rate fall from 36,500 to 21,500, but Ralph and Lorraine feel the extra freedom has been worth it. Organic farm management means there is an audit by the certifying body each year. There has to be a clear paper trail of applications being used and they must all be from a source that is acceptable to the certifier. Ralph says Lorraine thankfully sees to this administrative side.

One of the realities of farming in Northland is the spread of kikuyu grass. This grass was introduced into New Zealand by the Department of Agriculture in the early 1920s from what was then Rhodesia, Africa. It covers more than 10 per cent of Northland and while much money has been spent trying to eradicate it, most accept it is here to stay. It spreads by sending out both rhizomes, and stolons – which can create thick mats, as well as producing seed. This prevents other species from growing and can even kill small tree saplings by smothering them. In recent years work done by the Northland Kikuyu Action Group has seen extensive research undertaken to find the best way to manage kikuyu-dominant pasture. Correct management of this problem grass can see over 1000kg/ha of milk solids being obtained from dairy cows for a large part of the year.

Ralph, while being fortunate not to have very much of this grass on his property, isn’t able to use herbicide sprays to get rid of it as he would lose his organic certification. Instead, he rotary hoes the offending patches a few times and replants with chickory and tonic plantain.  While Ralph and Lorraine’s original move to organics wasn’t really for financial reasons, there has been a real benefit for them. In recent years farms have been increasing in size to stay viable. Ralph, however, didn’t want to expand the farm, which would have meant taking on a worker. He preferred to keep it a family operation. With organic milk fetching a premium, Ralph and Lorraine have been able to stay the size they wanted and still be viable.

They feel that there are very real benefits for the land and their animals. Having seen how healthy and happy the animals are under organic management – Ralph can’t remember the last time they had to call out the vet – and how well the soil and pasture is performing without the use of chemical sprays, and with an alternative fertiliser regime using liquid seaweed and fish fertiliser, rock dust, as well as the usual lime, they feel they’ve definitely made the right move.

Professor David Bellamy, well-known botanist, environmentalist, and television presenter thought so too, when he came to New Zealand in February 2006 and featured their farm as an example of sustainable farming. AGRIssentials NZ Ltd, who supplies farm fertilisers that are also acceptable for use on organic properties, sponsored him on this trip. They were thrilled to meet him but had to keep the visit a secret so that filming wasn’t interrupted by visitors or media, although youngest son Darren managed to get a family photo with Professor Bellamy for the school newsletter.

As Ralph and Lorraine think about cutting back the operation as they get closer to retirement, they have several options open to them. There is a market for organic dairy replacement heifers, organic dry stock as well as organic hay. One of their sons has also shown some interest in taking on the farming operation. In this carbon sensitive age, tests on both their neighbours and their own farm show that their soil now has 20 per cnt more organic material and, hence, more carbon. So, they feel they’re doing their bit for reducing the countries carbon footprint. In the meantime, this resourceful couple can enjoy the fruits of their endeavours, knowing that they are taking good care of the land that has taken good care of them over the years, tucked away in the winterless north.

For more information contact Northland Kikuyu Action Group: Enterprise Northland – www.enterprisenorthland.co.nz. Also, Helen Moodie, New Zealand Landcare Trust, phone (09) 435 3863 or email helen.moodie@landcare.org.nz

 

 

 

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