The pressure on NZ’s dairy footprint

The production sector in the New Zealand has been under attack from a number of industry sectors (mostly direct or indirectly associated with tourism) and regional communities for several years about its impact on the pristine environment. New Zealand has a heavy economic dependence on dairying

In the decade to 2015, Environment Aotearoa reported a 28% increase in the land area used for dairy farming – which it asserted has resulted in amplified pollution of waterways, an increase in greenhouse gas emissions and is resulting in compaction of soil.

Increasingly stringent regulation and monitoring of dairying activities has been applied by regional councils through “resource consents” to prevent effluent emissions and run-off into waterways. The measures have gradually increased the capital and operating costs of milk production.

Dairy NZ reports that the land area under dairy farms peaked in 2017/18 and has fallen slightly since.

There is widespread expectation that to meet requirements of GHG emissions targets, the NZ herd will shrink. The NZ Climate Change Commission found that some of the work to reduce methane emissions could be done through improved farm practices and breeding animals that produced less gas – but it would also require a drop in the number of total herd numbers by 10%-15%.    

NZ farming systems are largely focused on highly seasonal production, using low inputs compared to most other major producers. Could NZ producers compensate for the loss in cow numbers by increasing the productivity of the herd – while improving the intensity of emissions? Changing production systems in NZ to more intensive high-input operations would require a revolution in approach but a significant increase in production costs.

Will the returns from the world market be sufficient to incentive such change?

What does this impact?

The structural limits on production will contribute to an expected tightening of global milk supply but in the case of NZ’s dairy balance sheet, it depends on China’s ongoing dependence on whole milk powder imports. LongView explores scenarios for both variables and their impact on the global market.