Takeaways from David Norton’s Dairy Farm Visits


This past month, our Science Lead, emeritus Professor David Norton, led several farm visits across the country with Fonterra’s Sustainable Dairy Advisors (SDAs). These “walk and talk” sessions built on webinars that David and our ecologists gave to SDAs about native biodiversity. From these discussions, it is clear that SDAs are very interested in helping dairy farmers to manage biodiversity, but don’t always know where to start. Here are a few key takeaways that came from the sessions.

First, unlike sheep and beef farms, dairy farms don't tend to have large areas of intact native habitats, due to being mostly located in more developed, lowland areas. This means that dairy farms start in a different phase, where the focus is on biodiversity restoration, rather than protection of existing biodiversity. And when it comes to restoration, it’s important to understand what was historically in the landscape and which species thrive within the region, to guide planting choices. Seeking advice from an ecologist or local native plant nursery, or looking at regional planting guidelines can help identify the plants that are most appropriate for a specific farm. We have several planting guidelines in our resource collection, including one for irrigated pastures which recommends species to plant under pivots.

Restoration planting can be a win-win for biodiversity and animal welfare. Planting native shelterbelts provides shelter from the elements for stock as well as bringing more native plants onto the farm. While David acknowledges that natives grow more slowly than exotic species, a native shelterbelt is a good long-term investment. A range of species such as Pittosporum sp., broadleaf, tī kōuka/cabbage tree, and whauwhaupaku/five finger are all good contenders for inclusion in shelterbelts, but remember to choose plants that grow well in that region and site. Check out the resource collection on our website to find region-specific planting lists.

Another big topic that came up was managing waterways. Often, dairy farms are already taking action to reduce their impact on freshwater like managing grazing and fencing off waterways, to stay compliant with regulations. These actions also help to improve stream health, especially in terms of allowing rank grass to establish along waterways. Rank grass helps to prevent sediment and bacteria from entering the waterway. Planting along riparian margins will build on what’s already been accomplished by helping to restore habitat and providing shade to the water, which regulates temperature and improves biodiversity within the waterway. This riparian planting resource from Dairy NZ is a great place to start.

Fenced and planted waterway on a dairy farm. Courtesy of Living Water.

A final takeaway is that managing introduced species is important for getting the most out of biodiversity restoration. For example, possums have a significant impact on both native flora and fauna, as well as eating leaves, buds, berries, and nectar, which reduces food sources for native birds and lizards. Their selective browsing habits can cause canopy dieback and result in the loss of some species from bush remnants. They also eat pasture and can carry bovine Tb, which can have a negative impact on farm productivity. This means that taking action to control introduced species can improve both biodiversity and productivity on farm.‍

‍So what’s next for managing biodiversity on dairy farms? David thinks that the most important part is helping dairy farmers to get started. He recommends that SDAs have a few case study farms to share with farmers as examples of what can be done on farms within their region. The case studies can act as a template for farmers and inspire them by showing how embarking on biodiversity actions like planting and managing waterways can produce positive change for the farm and for native biodiversity. The other fundamental piece is forming a trusted relationship with farmers. If farmers have someone they feel they can talk with about managing biodiversity, this will help them plan and implement their biodiversity work.

An overall take-home message of David’s for the SDAs was to help their farmers understand what they have, decide on long-term goals for biodiversity, identify risks to achieving these (e.g. pests), undertake biodiversity management in a staged manner, and monitor what is being done (e.g. using photo-points).

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