Dairy farmers don’t need to fear potential changes to freshwater management, but they do need to make sure they have a good understanding of what might happen, an expert says.

Rabobank Sustainable Farm Systems manager Blake Holgate, of Dunedin, spoke to conference-goers about adapting to a changing environment during day two of the South Island Dairy Event at Stadium Southland in Invercargill on Tuesday.

Holgate grew up on a South Otago farm, which he continues to help run with his family, and is a former environmental and public lawyer.

The world was entering an era where consumers, producers, and all those in between were demanding more from the food being produced and the way it was produced, he said.

“The new paradigm is we have to do it more responsibly.”

Since the Government introduced the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management, regional authorities have been tasked with considering water quality and quantity, and introducing rules which would protect New Zealand waterways.

Environment Southland released the proposed Water and Land 2020 and Beyond plan for public feedback earlier this month, with submissions to close on August 1.

Under the plan, farmers would be required to have a Farm Environmental Management Plan to move all farms to good management practices, and there were new rules around intensive winter grazing.

Holgate said that while potential new rules from all councils would bring considerable challenges for farmers in any region, they would also bring opportunities.

“The biggest challenge is particularly around nitrogen limits,” he said.

“If we get this wrong we could do some real damage to those sectors [individual farmers, farming sectors, and communities].”

The key for farmers was to find out what their regional council might be thinking, Holgate said.

“Turn up to the meetings, engage in the process. Those that turn up make the rules, so turn up.”

Holgate warned farmers against making knee-jerk reactions, spending money now on upgrades or changes to their farms which may not be needed.

When the new rules came in, farmers would either have to do nothing because they were already compliant, refine their system which may not have significant cost, reduce the intensity of their farming – for example by reducing the number of cows – or, at most, rebuild their system.

Because most regional councils in New Zealand had not yet introduced new rules, Holgate said it was impossible to know whether rules in each region would impact land values.

“There’s still far too much uncertainty.”

Farmers and industry experts did not know what councils would do, or how long it would take to implement rules.

“We don’t know the approach councils will take to enforcing some of those limits.”

Holgate said the other unknown was technology. Any new rules might not take affect for five to 10 years, and new technology may be available by the time farmers need to make changes.

While farmers waited to find out what their regional council decided, they needed to become experts on the data for their own farm, including their contaminant levels, nitrogen, and other nutrient levels.

It was important farmers had the data, information, and records to be able to identify any risks or issues they might have in future.

The South Island Dairy Event continues at Stadium Southland on Wednesday, the final day of the conference.