A lake once covered the Ruataniwha Plains, and its name remembers the two, human-eating, taniwha who lived there. One day they fought over a boy who had fallen into the lake, and so fierce was their battle, their writhing tails slashed the land; the lake drained, and the Waipawa and Tukituki rivers were formed.

Geological history tells us the lake was once part of a long narrow seaway running between Hawke’s Bay and Wairarapa. The Plains formed through millions of years of tectonic activity, glaciation, and the depositing of limestone, silts, sands and gravels. Before the land was cleared for grazing, it was covered in flaxes and grasses, with kanuka on the dry patches, and stands of kakatia and totara.

The plan to build a $200 million dam and infrastructure, to provide ample water for year round irrigation on the Ruataniwha Plains, will – advocates say – unlock the productive potential of the land. The soil types range from rich silts capable of supporting vegetable crops to patches similar to the Gimblett Gravels, perfect for grapes. Much is suitable for dairy farming. The area involved is 25,000 hectares, a comparable amount of productive land as the Heretaunga Plains.

The Regional Council is investing $5m in a feasibility study and are consulting with interested parties. Conceptually, general opinion sees water storage as a good idea. But it’s the details that matter, and following are the opinions of some of the folk with interest in the process.


Andrew Watts

Andrew Watts is 5th generation Central Hawke’s Bay. He’s farmed in Porangahau, Onga Onga, Takapau, and Ashley Clinton. As well as sheep and cattle, he’s farmed dairy cows, and grown vegetables and fruit trees. In 1983 he pioneered large-scale spray irrigation on his farm on the Takapau Plains. He currently operates a sawmill for untreated timber in Waipukurau.

“I’m an environmental realist living and acting with a consideration for our environment while being realistic. Considering the environment is part of my makeup, but we have to do things to make the community prosper. We need to create jobs in the farming sector and ag-related businesses, but not at the expense of the environment.

I’m not getting myself in a lather over this dam because nothing will happen unless it’s bankable. Unless the farmers can borrow the money and make it pay, this dam won’t happen. Most of the farmers left are my age and older and they’re not going to borrow that money, so this dam could exponentially modify land ownership in Central Hawke’s Bay. Many will be forced to sell.

Dairying is the only thing you can produce on the land in New Zealand where the person who is collecting the product is trying to pay you as much as they can. Every other product we produce, the person who’s buying and processing, is trying to pay you the least amount of money.

While the Fonterra model persists you won’t stop the dairy cows. The farmer owns the product from the farm to the sale. Everyone else like Richmonds and Affco and Wrightsons are all trying to pay the farmer as little as they can. So all these ideas of growing beetroot and so on is going to be bloody hard work. Most crops are so subject to weather. Not dairy cows.

For this dam to work they have to get the costs right and they have to put in some rules so we can’t degrade the river systems. We have to have nutrient caps, and nutrient budgets. And that might mean caps on the amount of livestock they run per hectare as well. And they’ll have to spread their effluent more efficiently, not just on a few paddocks, but over the whole farm.

The dam cannot go ahead and have livestock in the system, that’s dairy farming, unless the streams are fenced off. I think there should be margins planted in natives, but they have to be decent margins so they’ve got filtration ability. The dam is not a goer unless the major streams in the Tukituki system are fenced and planted properly. Farmers won’t like it, but I’m prepared to stand up to that.

Dairying is not the only thing that could pay the bills. Only a few years ago spud growers in Central Hawke’s Bay were making more money than cows, but you wouldn’t want to know some of the fertilisers and chemicals going into these processed crops. You can get uptight about the nitrogen coming from cow pee, but if you see the amount of fertiliser and spray that goes into potatoes you could get uptight about that too.

A big plus for irrigation is that the guys who’re putting high fertiliser on and irrigating have less leaching problems than those who high fertilise hoping it’s going to rain … because when it rains heavily, it just washes off. Irrigation gives the farmer more control over the uptake of the inputs.
My first job as a 16 year old was on the biggest spray irrigator in the Southern Hemisphere in Ashburton. Ashburton was a town about the size of Dannevirke then, but if you went there today you’d find a thriving, vibrant humming town. And it’s irrigation that’s driven that. It was all pipes, no guns, that was 1968. There wouldn’t be any dairying in Canterbury without irrigation.

It’s interesting with the Fish and Game guys. They’re pretty proactive, but as I keep pointing out to them, they’re actually protecting the possum of the river. They’re protecting an introduced pest. Those trout, and I’ve been a trout fisherman since 1965, have eaten all the native fish. But that lobby is very cunning. They’re working on the clean state of the river but really they’re protecting their introduced pest.”


Campbell Chard

Campbell Chard is General Manager of BEL Group Dairy Farms overseeing seven properties in Central Hawke’s Bay carrying 7,500 cows. He has been involved in dairying all his life, having grown up in Taranaki on his family dairy farm.

“We’re really supportive of the dam. It’s a multi-generational exercise bringing benefits to Hawke’s Bay over the next 100 years. But we have to make it pay in the next 2-5-10-20 years. That’s the conundrum we’re working through; making sure the price the dam is built for is able to be paid for by the users of the water. It has to stack up economically, and environmentally.

As a dairy farm business we have nutrient budgets. We have to manage our effluent well. We’re policed quite heavily on the use of effluent areas by the Regional Council. They have a compliance team and we have to have a consent that allows us to apply effluent to land. We’re already operating within strong boundaries.

The Plains won’t all go into dairying. It will be a myriad of different land classes and farming types. Potentially it’s very exciting. I think the Regional Council’s got a strong community relationship. They listen well. There are good people running the business, and I think they’ll make sound decisions.
What dairy farmers understand well is that we can grow grass and put that grass in the vat as milk. And we don’t have to market it. Fonterra comes along and picks it up and it’s their job to get us the best price. We need to be running an economic business to be able to look after our environment, and we need to look after our environment to have an economic business. Hopefully we can marry those two together well.

If there was an influx of dairying we’re confident that with the rules currently in place, without even making changes, it will not affect water quality. We’re stringently policed by the Regional Council, and we have a transparent open relationship where in our business we invite them to come in and be heavily involved in educating our people. Our focus is running an economic business and looking after the environment.

There are only 80 to 100 dairy farmers in Hawke’s Bay whereas there are 1600 to 1800 in Taranaki and in the Waikato something like 3000. That sort of monoculture won’t happen here. It’s not practical.
I see there’s a strong swing toward environmental considerations, but if that’s too strong, too weighted against the productive economic arm that’s doing its best to look after the environment, then the region will be disadvantaged. So it’s a process of mapping people’s expectations in making sure the environment is protected, but at the same time giving consideration to the business owner’s economic interests. Those two must go hand in hand. If it’s too severely weighted, one way or the other, that’s when you have issues.

I’ve worked in the Waikato where the Regional Council has a dogmatic ‘we will tell you’ attitude, whereas here there’s a consultative approach with buy-in by all parties who want to be involved. They seem to be transparent, they’re considered in their options, and they have a good relationship with the farmers. It’s a great strength to have a Regional Council who consider what we have to say as being important. The Council has some big decisions to make but I think we’re in good hands.”


Phil King

Phil King began his farming career in 1961 on the family property on Plantation Road, which he retained when he leased and subsequently bought his own farm on the Ruataniwha Plains in 1973. In 2000, recognising the potential of dairying under irrigation, he set up an equity partnership and converted the family block. But he eventually sold up, releasing equity to assist his two sons onto their own farms. The family holdings now comprise over 2,600 hectares.

“This farm is 330 hectares. 50% is good silt country and 50% is light shingle; gravel country like the Gimblett Gravels with little benefit for farming, but it’s ideal for grapes. I approached a winery years ago, and they were interested, but they needed more water. My water consent is for 18,000 cubic metres per week, but I only use about 10,000. My allocation is 30 litres per second, 24/7. I have a 70 metre bore and I use a gun for irrigation.

Allocation is the figure the Regional Council work on. They say the water is all allocated, but it’s only utilised to approximately 35% to 40%. The water here might be all allocated in terms of statistical figures but it’s way under-utilised. Allocation means nothing. Utilisation is the key.

This summer I’ve cropped 70 hectares of peas, 40 hectares of barley, 18 hectares of squash, and 10 hectares of beans following the peas. Production from that 128 hectares is around 1250 tons of food. That’s what can be achieved with irrigation. Because it’s been a wet summer we’ve seen what we can do. But that’s not all. On top of that we wintered 1100 cattle on supplementary by-products and feed grown when the cash crops weren’t in the ground, as well as bailing 2000 medium squares of stock feed.

The figure on the board (for linking into the new water proposal) has been suggested at $9,500 per hectare. If that’s the figure they’re going to charge me, it will cost $3m. Then I’ll have to spend another half million on infrastructure. I doubt my bank would let me do that. It would over-capitalise the farm. I’m better staying how I am now with my little gun, using my 30 litres strategically, instead of investing $3.5m. If they put the price too high, then they’ll force people to go into dairying.

I wouldn’t be able to grow squash or beans without irrigation, so all those crops that need irrigation will be grown down here if the proposal goes ahead, and the McCains and Watties of this world will be down here big time.

We have to manage crops very carefully in terms of what we produce and make sure we don’t over supply. It’s important to know that you don’t have to milk cows to make a viable business here. Dairying uses a lot more water than I use in my cropping and wintering business. So you have to have a system for charging for the water that is volumetric based.

The whole point of the exercise is to create enough water for us to irrigate The Plains, and to create enough flow to keep the river in better health, although I don’t think the river now is much different from its natural situation. I think a lot of the concerns about the Tukituki are mis-aligned. I’ve lived on the river all my life and the river dynamics haven’t changed in all that time. And from a fishing point of view it’s a healthy river. It’s one of the best fisheries in the country.”


Rosie Butler & Rodger Tynan

Rosie Butler & Rodger Tynan established LIME ROCK Wines on limestone hills overlooking the Rautaniwha Plains in 2000. Rosie grew up on the family farm next door. Her experience as a wine maker includes five years with Montana in Gisborne, and with Petaluma in the Adelaide hills. Rodger’s expertise is in ecology, with a Master’s degree, and 15 years of monitoring the grazing impact on vegetation in the Australian outback.

“A lot of people regard water consents as money in the bank. Dairying uses staggering amounts of water. How’s the water allocation going to work? If it’s user pays then those who use the most water should pay for it. Vineyards are very efficient users of water.

There’s a lot of soil out there suitable for vineyards. Frost is the main issue. That’s why we’re on the hills. Years ago Montana was putting in vineyards around Tikokino, but farmers on the Council complained they wouldn’t be able to use 24D to control thistles. Vines are very sensitive to hormonal sprays up to 20k away. We had a case in Hawke’s Bay last year. It wipes out your leaves that year, and that stunts the growth the next year, and it can affect your vines for two or three years.

On the Ruataniwha Plains there are a lot of different soil types and once they’re identified and mapped you can look at nutrient balances and budgets and determine how those soils will hold nutrients. Looking at ecological processes is important. You can’t really replace soil. Once you’ve buggered it, that’s it.

In collaboration with the universities, Massey and Lincoln, they could develop grasses suitable for the Plains that maximise efficiencies. With dairying you want a grass that provides the maximum sugar and protein for the cows, and the most efficient use of water.

The other thing to consider is soil mycorrhizal; the fungi under the root systems, which draw the sugars and extends the root systems. Well-managed, they can increase root systems up to seven times. You help achieve this by not digging the soil. Every time you plough you disrupt the structure of the soil, and you create a plough pan, so when it rains the water just goes in so far, and sits there. You don’t need to plough. Here they plough and harrow, and with a decent wind on a hot day you see the fines of that soil drifting away. In Australia you don’t see ploughing anymore.

The major issue with dairying is the amount of animals. Perhaps there should be a charge per head. Hoof impact should be considered too. On particular soil types, like silt and clay, compaction can be considerable where animals congregate, destroying the soil integrity.

If we’re talking user pays, then where you’ve got big herds trampling and defecating there’s substantial impact. Who pays for that greater nutrient run-off washed into the ground water?
Instead of monoculture crops they should scatter them with clusters of natives and flowering plants which host beneficial insects. Farmers are starting to think this way now, and the young ones coming out of Lincoln have learned the green technologies. You want a bit of chaos out there.

We’re part of Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand, which provides an environmental best practice model. And the dairy guys should be doing this, not through Fonterra, but independently. The standards and the stewardship might include how they shift cattle around, what grasses they use, irrigation methods, nutrient budgets, and how they handle all these different factors, and how they impact on the soil and the water. Hopefully dairy farmers can see the sustainable approach as a positive. It’s better for the environment and being sustainable is a marketing advantage.

I’d like to see a biking trail from Peka Peka and continuing along the old river bed, along the existing stop banks, or following the railway line, through the Plains and up to the dam. There’s huge opportunity for tourism. It’s a matter of getting people enthused. And the community should be involved in the project. Retired people and the schools could be growing the seedlings and helping with planting out.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.