NZ Young Farmers member’s drive to improve dairying’s environmental footprint

Posted by on 18 July 2019 | Comments

A pair of fantails flit above Robert Barry’s head as he bends down to inspect a predator trap at the base of a totara tree.

The towering native is in a pristine bush block on a farm owned by the BEL Group near Waipukurau in central Hawke’s Bay.

The eight-hectare block is protected by a Queen Elizabeth II Trust covenant and is dotted with almost a dozen traps.

“We have quite an extensive trapping programme here,” said Robert, as he points to two dead rodents.

The canopy of the bush block is teeming with birds. The haunting call of a tui drowns out the faint chirp of the fantails.

This area is known to attract ferrets, stoats, weasels, rats, mice and occasionally possums, which prey on the birds and their eggs.

Robert is using a ground-breaking trap developed by NZ Autotraps. The trap resets and rebaits itself, improving the kill rate.

“The great thing about these traps is that they aren’t labour intensive and they kill a range of predator species,” said the Tikokino Young Farmers member.

The 27-year-old’s passion for the environment has won him several accolades and landed him a new job.

In February he was appointed the sustainability lead for the BEL Group, which farms 3700 hectares (effective).

The business was started by Robert’s mother Andrea and his late father Peter in the 1990s and now employs 70 full-time staff.

About 9000 cows are milked across nine dairy farms. The business owns or leases a further eight dairy support blocks.

Prior to taking on his new role Robert, was second-in-charge on one of the dairy farms.

“This job is a great fit for me. I’m really passionate about improving dairying’s environmental footprint,” said the father of two.

“I was always making suggestions to the BEL Group’s leadership team about ways we could improve our practices.”

Not being in the milking shed every day has given Robert the opportunity to start implementing his ideas.

The business overhauled its wintering practices this year, with the aim of reducing nitrate and sediment loss from crop paddocks.

“I think it’s something everyone can do,” he said.

“Being smart about where you plant your winter crops and how you feed them can lead to a big reduction in sediment runoff.”

“It can often be as simple as putting up a back fence or using a portable water trough to help reduce soil damage,” he said.

Grazing sections of crop growing near waterways or at the bottom of slopes last helps trap suspended contaminants.

About 50 of the business’ staff are involved with feeding out to cows and young stock over the winter and shifting crop fences.

Two full-time fencers have also been employed to fence off small ephemeral drains.

“Legally we don’t need to fence them off. But they’re areas that get wet and boggy in winter and if we reduce the number of cows walking through them, that can have a significant impact on water quality,” he said.

The majority of the farms sit in the Tukipo River catchment, which has poor water quality.

“The river doesn’t have the benefit of a large volume of fresh water flowing through it. It’s fed by springs on surrounding farmland,” he said.

“Anything we can do to keep livestock out of those springs will make a difference.”

Green-thumbed students at the local school are helping to grow native plants and trees for the newly-protected areas.

BEL Group chipped in $4000 to help the school extend its shade house, which can now produce 1000 riparian plants a year.

Robert is the chair of the Tukipo Catchment Care Group, which he founded in February 2018.

The farmer-led community group is focused on improving water quality, biodiversity, and their greenhouse gas footprint.

“This year through the group I have applied for and received $32,000 worth of funding from Fonterra to purchase water testing kits and to find potential wetland sites,” he said.

Robert and his wife Alison were finalists in the 2018 Balance Farm Environment Awards for East Coast winning the Predator Free 2050 and DairyNZ Sustainable Farming Award.

Earlier this month, he was elected to the NZ Young Farmers Board.

“I have been thinking about standing for the board for the last two years,” said Robert.

“To be elected and have the backing and support of my fellow members is an awesome feeling. I’m really happy.”

Nine people were vying for two positions in the hotly-contested election.

Robert saw joining the NZ Young Farmers Board as a unique opportunity for a young person to obtain governance experience.

“There aren’t many boards out there that have being under 31-years-old as a criteria, so it’s an amazing opportunity which I had to seize,” he said.

Robert has been elected to the NZ Young Farmers Board for a two-year term. His first board meeting is in August.