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NZ’s New Fresh Water Rules – What Every Farmer Needs to Know

On 3rd September 2020 the government introduced strict new rules for wintering stock on forage crops, controls on the intensification of land use, especially dairy conversions, and restrictions to protect wetlands and streams.


These are the first of a swathe of new rules governing the management of fresh water resources to be introduced under the new National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management.


In this Q+A ANZ’s Agricultural Economist Susan Kilsby looks at what this means for farmers today.


As of 3rd September 2020 what has actually changed?


To make sure the changes are not delayed, some new rules apply immediately, some will come into force next year, and others won’t apply until regional councils submit their specific plans.


The rules that apply immediately relate to the protection of wetlands, the further intensification of land and the controlling some existing intensive land uses.


The majority of these regulations will have the greatest impact on cattle farming – particularly dairying.


Intensification of land use is now controlled. This specifically applies to dairy conversions (of which very few have occurred in recent years), expanding the area under irrigation on dairy farms, and converting land from forestry to pasture. Vegetable and arable production are exempt.


Intensive winter grazing must now comply with ‘good management practice’ guidelines and consents will be required for most operations before next winter.


Minimum standards for feedlots now apply.


Protection of wetlands/streams means wetlands cannot be developed or drained and stock must be excluded. This applies to all wetlands that have been identified in either regional or district


Winter grazing is a big one - what guidelines and consents requirements should I be aware of?


The new rules apply to grazing stock (including sheep) on a winter forage crop.


A large number of farms are expected to fall outside the guidelines and therefore will require a consent for wintering stock next year (grazing anytime from beginning of May to the end of September).


Under the new rules winter grazing will be permitted if the following standards are met:


Land area in winter crop is less than 10% of the farm or less than 50ha i.e. if your farm is over 500ha then the 10% rule apples, whereas the 50ha threshold will apply to farms smaller than 500ha.


Paddock slope can’t be greater than 10 degrees. The definition of 10 degrees is open to interpretation by Regional Councils but it is to apply at the paddock level and isn’t defined by the map used to define ‘low-slope’ land for the stock exclusion regulations.


Pugging will be limited to a depth of 20cm, although regulations have recently been changed to exclude the area within 10 metres of permanent troughs and entrance gateways.


Pugging covering less than 50% of the paddock regardless of depth (i.e. can’t turn the whole paddock to mud). Pugging refers to areas where the hooves of livestock have penetrated the soil by 5cm or more.


A farm plan exists containing a certified freshwater management section.


If the above conditions can’t be met, then a permit will be required by July 2021. A permit will only be granted if the area in winter forage crop isn’t more than has been previously cropped (from 2014 to 2019). This will effectively limit new land being used for large scale wintering of cattle.


ANZ (NZ) Agricultural Economist Susan Kilsby


What do the new rules say about fencing and the need to keep stock out of waterways?


Anyone who owns or controls stock is required to comply with stock exclusion regulations.


Cattle, deer and pigs need to be excluded from waterways where the farm is considered to be ‘low slope’ or is intensively grazed. ‘Low slope’ land is defined as the land areas highlighted green in the Low Slope Land viewer – RM (Stock Exclusion) Regulations 2020 map.


This applies to the entire land parcel identified regardless of the actual slope of a particular paddock which, in some cases, will be very considerably steeper than the 10 degrees. Intensively grazed refers to land where stock are break fed, fed annual forage crops, or pasture that has been irrigated in the previous 12 months.


The area which is considered ‘low-slope’ land includes more land than initially expected and incorporates all paddocks within land parcels categorised as ‘low-slope’ regardless of the actual paddock slope.


This means cattle and deer will have to be excluded from more waterways than initially expected.


Fences need to be 3 metres from the edge of the riverbed but if a permanent fence (of at least 2 wires) is already in place (as at 3 September 2020) then this doesn’t need to be moved. A river includes any streambeds that are 1 metre or wider (bank to bank) at any point within the land parcel, irrespective of whether they run permanently or not.


Fences used to exclude livestock from waterways can be permanent fences, temporary fences, or virtual fences which are linked to GPS-enabled collars worn by livestock.


Several regional councils already have regulations in place relating to stock exclusion. Councils may elect to put in place stricter regulations than the national guidelines. This may mean fences need to be further away from rivers in sensitive catchments.


It sounds like a lot of new fencing is needed. Do we know how much and by when?


The Ministry for the Environment (MfE) estimate 81,000 km of rivers (wider than 1 metre) flow through farmland considered to be ‘low slope’. Fences are already in place on 60% of this land leaving a further 32,000 km of streams to be fenced before 1 July 2025.


Canterbury and Otago have by far the largest expanse of rivers that require stock exclusion. See our full report for a table with estimates of the length of river in each region that needs to be fenced. The majority of the fencing required is on sheep and beef farms. Much of the required fencing is already in place on dairy farms but this is not necessarily the case on dairy runoff blocks. Additional fencing will also be required on some deer farms.


In addition, dairy cattle, dairy support cattle and pigs need to be excluded from waterways no matter what the terrain is. This may make it less viable for sheep and beef farms to graze dairy stock, including young stock, carry over cows, and winter dairy cows.


Any intensively farmed hill country will also be subjected to stock exclusion requirements. Cattle, pigs and deer will need to kept out of waterways on farms that have a carrying capacity of greater than 14 SU/ha or for individual paddocks if they carry more than 18 SU/ha, are irrigated (or have previously been irrigated), or where crops are break-fed.


The new rules apply immediately for any new pastoral farms (ie conversions from forestry) but some regulations will be phased in over the next five years.


On 1 July 2023 they will apply for all dairy cattle and pigs, and for beef cattle and deer that are intensively grazed and all stock need to be excluded from natural wetlands identified in regional or district plans by this date.


On 1 July 2025 the rules will apply to all dairy support cattle (regardless of slope of land) and all beef and deer on low-slope land. By this date all stock must be excluded from all wetlands on low-slope land and wetlands that support threatened species.


‘Low slope’ land is defined as the land areas highlighted green in the Low Slope Land viewer – RM (Stock Exclusion) Regulations 2020 map.


How does my farm plan fit into this?


Regulations have been passed which give Ministers the ability to make Farm Plans (also referred to as Farm Environmental Plans) mandatory.


At this stage no rules have been set relating to farm plans and consultation with industry is happening but farm plans, which include a plan to manage risks to freshwater, are expected to become mandatory for all farms greater than 20ha.


Initially these plans are expected to be focused on identifying potential risks to freshwater, and detailing how the farm will be managed to mitigate these risks. Eventually these plans are likely to become much more wide-reaching covering all consented and regulated activities.


At present some farms have a different plan for each consented activity but the aim is for each farm to have a single plan covering all activities which, in theory, should streamline planning and auditing processes.


Over the next year or so the Government will liaise with various groups to develop the regulations. The MfE has indicated that is likely that farm plans for freshwater will need to include:


Farm map identifying waterways, discharge area, erosion prone land, etc


Risk assessment for specific activities such as effluent and nutrient applications, irrigation, winter grazing, stock exclusion, offal and rubbish pits.


A plan as to how risks and features will be managed.


It is expected that these plans will need to be approved by a qualified person, audited by independent auditors, and enforced by regional councils. Farm plans are expected to be phased in over time with priority placed on less healthy waterways such as those with high nitrogen levels.


Are there any changes to how I can take water for irrigation?


Regulations relating to the measurement and reporting of water takes has been amended with additional requirements for water permit holders coming into force from 2022.


Water meters with the ability to store data and electronically transfer data to councils will be required for water takes used for irrigation purposes. Known as telemetry devices, these must be able to monitor water usage at 15 minute intervals and transfer this data to the relevant council on a daily basis.


The timing of the requirement for water permit holders to have these devices in place depends on the rate of water usage permitted. The new regulations will apply to water takes greater than 20 litres per second from 2022.



Could regional regulations end up being tougher than the national rules?


The government’s National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management requires councils to plan long-term objectives for freshwater. By the end of 2024 regional councils must have notified their plans and at that time these plans become enforceable.


Once notified a hearing process then takes place, which will be open to appeal on limited grounds. Unless extended, this entire process must be completed before the end of 2026 at which time the plans must be fully operational.


When these regional plans come into play these may be more restrictive than the national standards, so at this point there is still some degree of ambiguity on the actual rules that will apply to any particular parcel of land.


However as the regional rules generally have to be at least as strict as the national rules, there is a little more certainty than previously. Exactly how some rules will be applied at the regional level is open to interpretation, meaning some regulations remain opaque for the time being.


Anything else I should know about?


From July 2021 nutrient limits will apply with a cap of 190kg nitrogen (N) per hectare per year applying to all farms except arable and horticulture crops. Only dairy farms will be required to report their N use to councils annually (first due mid-2022 for preceding 12 months). Estimates on the number of dairy farms that currently would exceed the nitrogen cap range from approximately 20% to 35%


In addition to farmers reporting on fertiliser use, fertiliser companies will also need to report on their sales of all nitrogen fertilisers.


The cap on the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser will be reviewed by 2023. It has been made clear that if there is not rapid progress in reducing nutrient losses then the 190kg N/ha limit could be revised down and/or restrictions on input measures such as stocking rates and limits on supplementary feed.


The use of tools such as taxes on farm inputs have been ruled out by the Government in the current term (election due to be held in 17 October 2020) but could be brought back to the table at a subsequent date. Fertiliser and supplementary feed are potential targets.


From July 2021 stock holding pads must comply with standards or will need to apply for resource consent. Resource consents will be required for areas used to hold stock for more than 30 days per annum or 10 days in a row. Pads must be 50m away from waterways and have a plan to manage effluent.



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