Rick Burke and Jan Loney, Bay of Plenty
Rick Burke and Jan Loney have managed to turn around some serious environmental issues on their sheep and beef farm and it's now a pretty special place. Recently they've started thinking about the farm's impact on the climate and what they might be able to do about it.
In the late 1990s, Rick Burke and his family purchased a Bay of Plenty sheep and beef farm with serious environmental issues. After doing a farm environment plan and a heap of hard work, they've now vastly improved farm biodiversity and reduced freshwater pollution. But what's the impact been on greenhouse gas emissions, and has their bottom line suffered as a result? Let's find out.
Mum and Dad had a bach up the Coromandel Peninsula and we learned to surf back on our own longboard when I was about 10 or 12. Once you get out in the water and you can stand up and ride waves it's quite infectious and it takes your mind away from the farm and you have a different perspective on life.
'97, '98 I got approached by the regional council saying that our farm had some serious issues around sediment loss. It was destroying habitats for the fish and creating a nuisance with an abundance of sea lettuce. So I thought well we can make a difference.
The regional council regarded the stream health in terms of invertebrates and fish and sediment analysis as about a 2 out of 10. That was our scorecard, so it was seriously bad. The stock, the only water access was to the streams. It was all about freshwater back then in '97, '98. I was a young bloke, pretty fit and I thought well I've got a truckload of fencing to do and we bought a decent tractor and a post rammer and made a start, but it looked seriously daunting to us. And I, at one stage, thought have I done the right thing? Because it was... it seemed that hard.
We looked at the blank canvas and said, how are we going to understand the capability of the land and how can we optimise it going forward? So we did that assessment around slope and soils. We thought about redesigning the farm and breaking it into land management units. And some of this country on the hills across here were all being farmed and if you did the cost-benefit analysis on that land management unit, you were actually losing money. So, we thought well we’ll take that out. And that was a good place to put some pine trees in.
Where we were putting fertiliser and losing money because we're trying to keep weeds out and we had livestock management issues. We're better off taking that out of farming.
And then with the help of the regional council, we got a good water reticulation system in place. And we focused on subdivision and our farm systems around good rotational grazing practices. We saw a dramatic improvement as soon as we focused on our critical source areas and slowing down overland flow of nutrient and sediment and capturing it before it went into the stream. The MCI levels or invertebrate and fish scorecard went up significantly. So I mentioned earlier, we were about a 2 out of 10 now we're a 9, 10 out of 10 in places. So it's seriously good. But it's interesting you know, freshwater, biodiversity and knowing your numbers around greenhouse gases are all intrinsically linked because one leads into the other. So as soon as we started seeing the freshwater improve and the biodiversity coming back into the areas, which were completely devoid of it in the past, we thought, "Well, hey, I wonder what our carbon footprint's like?"
What it does is it means that we’ve... through those good systems we've got better soil health, we're growing high-quality feed and lots of it, and trying to keep that in the sweet spot. So we're growing higher volumes across less land area. So it's matching the right stock class to land class and then farming those animals to their genetic potential. So giving them happy lives and growing them as fast as we can, it has impact on our greenhouse gas footprint because the more efficient we become, we can reduce our numbers.
The sheep and beef industry has a seriously good story to tell because if you think about it where we were in the '90s because we've been under the pump a bit to improve profitability. We've improved our genetics, we've improved our farm systems and many farmers have done what we've done, taken out remnants of bush and put them into QEII and that sort of thing. So in relation to our methane and nitrous oxide, we've actually reduced them over time. And this farm in particular we’ve brought them right back and I'd encourage farmers to get out and know their numbers so that we can say with confidence that we've actually been... we haven't been heating up our farms, we've actually been cooling them down.
Rick, I think has decided I'm too old to train to do anything on the farm. I just said, "Probably you're right". But there are other things, there are other things you can do. I mean, every month I go through the bank statements, code them up, make sure that we're paid and I pay all the bills the 20th of the month. The bank, you know, I mean you're always looking at the bank manager’s wondering what's going on. And even though money's cheap at the moment, they're looking at farmers and going, "Hmm, what's happening?" You know, are you showing a profit, blah, blah. So we had our annual visit from the bank manager and he was very pleased with the way we're tracking. I think I'll be doing it for a few more years yet.
Knowing that when we took over this farm, we were having a detrimental effect on the harbour and its biodiversity, really struck a chord with me. So that really motivated me hard to do my land environmental plan and get started on this journey. So, now when I go for a surf, get out, I think back 20 years, I've made a significant improvement to the health of the water going into the harbour, which reflects on what happens outside of the harbour as well. So, that's been my driver. That's been my ‘why’. And if the farmers can understand their ‘why’, it really motivates them to do stuff.
I used to spend hours getting cattle out of with the dogs out of some of these dirty gullies here and now I don't have to do that. I've got a lot more time to go surfing and fishing.
Rick and Jan have shown that doing a farm environment plan can have benefits across the range of challenges being faced by farmers. The list of changes they've made is impressive and has had a huge impact on the environment.
They've divided the farm into different land management units and farmed those areas more efficiently. This meant fencing off less productive land, waterways, and sensitive areas.
They vastly improved water reticulation and installed water troughs throughout the property.
They've lowered their stocking rate and use good rotational grazing practices. They're using less fertilizer, grow higher-quality feed, and finish higher-value stock faster.
Rick and Jan have also been busy planting trees, improving the farm's biodiversity as well as introducing production forestry, where it makes sense. But just what difference has this made to their greenhouse gas emissions? Since the late ‘90s, net greenhouse gas emissions have dropped by over 50% and profitability has doubled.
There's a lot at play here but reducing the amount of dry matter eaten and improving feed efficiency has helped, as has reducing the use of nitrogen fertiliser. They've also planted a large number of trees, which has helped provide a carbon offset and reduced net emissions across the farm.
Rick and Jan have shown that it's possible to meet both environmental and financial goals when you put a farm environment plan in place. And when new challenges like climate change need to be considered, their system is already set up well to respond.
You can find out more about measuring, managing, and reducing agricultural greenhouse gas emissions online.
About the farm
Pukekauri Farms is just south of Katikati against the Kaimai Ranges. The farm is 295ha, with 162ha in pasture as a beef, sheep and dairy grazing operation. The remainder has been retired and planted - some in exotic forestry (23ha) and the rest (110ha) in native trees, regenerating bush and wetlands.
The farm is predominantly loam ash soil and the terrain is mixed. Around 75% is flat to rolling hills and 25% is steep, and there are some major streams crossing the property. Annual rainfall is around 1,900mm and while the farm has generally been regarded as summer safe, three drought years in a row now have Rick and Jan looking closely at managing the farm for a changing climate and trying to build resilience into their systems.
Production has shifted in recent years from dairy grazing to beef, with the latter now contributing around 75% of farm income. Lamb finishing and wool accounts for 18% of income, with dairy grazing sitting at 8%.
The farm carries just over 3,000 stock units on average. Rick and Jan farm to the grass growth curve, wintering at 14.5 SU/ha, then increasing to 20 SU/ha during spring and summer as feed becomes available.
Rick and Jan have part owned and managed Pukekauri Farms since the early 1980s. Twenty years ago, when they were expanding the property, they found they had some major environmental issues.
Runoff from the farm was contributing to sediment pollution in the Tauranga Harbour as well as harming freshwater habitats. The only drinking access for stock was from waterways and the regional council had rated stream health as 2/10.
The job ahead looked huge and initially Rick wondered whether they'd done the right thing in taking the new property on. But he cares deeply about the harbour - surfing and fishing there regularly.
"As farmers, we have a duty to reduce any harmful impacts from livestock farming. As business people, we need to maintain our profitability. As kaitiaki, we need to look after our land and restore and maintain the bush, waterways and pastureland that we work," says Rick.
Several decades on, along with a farm environment plan and much hard work under their belts, Rick and Jan have vastly improved their freshwater and biodiversity outcomes.
"Our stream health rating has jumped to 9-10 out of 10 - as good as you can get," says Rick.
Their efforts have been recognised with several farm environment awards. More recently though, they've been thinking about a new challenge facing farmers - how agriculture impacts the climate.
In New Zealand, agriculture contributes nearly half our greenhouse gas emissions. The Government has legislation in place to put us on a path to a low emissions future, including targets to reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and 2050.
Rick was keen to understand how his existing actions might have helped reduce his farm's emissions and whether there might be more he and Jan could do in the future.
A farm planning approach
Developing and maintaining a farm environment plan has been at the heart of Rick and Jan's success, enabling them to unlock multiple opportunities on the farm to enhance both the environment and their profitability. And with climate change and greenhouse gas emissions now on their radar, this planning approach sets them up well to respond.
A farm environment plan (FEP) is a tool for identifying and managing on-farm environmental risks. It is unique to a property and recognises the local climate and soils, the type of farming operation and the goals and aspirations of the farmer and their family. It is maintained over time as a living document - evolving as risks and opportunities arise.
Beef + Lamb New Zealand has launched a new farm planning resource to replace and build on its existing Land and Environment Plans. Ensuring the sustainability and profitability of your farm business by adapting to climate change, understanding and managing greenhouse gas emissions, and protecting the health of your soils, freshwater and biodiversity is a core concept behind the resource.
Rick and Jan's farm planning journey began back in the 1990s when they got an adviser in to help them understand the capabilities of the land classes on their property and identify ways to better optimise them. A farm plan was drawn up that divided the property into different land management units so that each could be farmed to its potential, with sensitive or unproductive blocks retired. This saw a major refencing effort and the installation of a proper water reticulation system (over 100 troughs). Bridges were also constructed so that stock could stay out of waterways.
Exotic forestry was introduced in some of the unproductive blocks and Rick and Jan have also planted thousands of native trees and shrubs, helping restore bush and wetlands and protect streams and critical source areas. Eligible forestry (both exotic and native) has been registered with the Emissions Trading Scheme to create another revenue stream through carbon credits.
Retiring less productive land meant Rick and Jan could then concentrate their efforts on the productive blocks, managing them more intensively to deliver higher profits while staying within environmental limits.
They have focused on pasture improvement - introducing more clover and other species in with ryegrass (like plantain, chicory and raphno). They now grow less feed, but it's of a much higher quality.
Rick has altered his rotational grazing system to keep residual covers at their most productive length. Deferred grazing is an important practice used in the summer months, with 25% more growth achieved. Cover crops are also helping lift poorly performing paddocks.
The farm plan process enabled them to match stock class to land class, which when coupled with higher quality feed production, has lifted individual animal performance.
Fertiliser application has also been closely looked at. Rick and Jan work with their fertiliser supplier to ensure that it is only used exactly where and when it is needed.
Rick and Jan's greenhouse gas numbers
When Rick and Jan began making these changes in the 1990s, they were focused on freshwater and biodiversity issues and were not thinking about greenhouse gas emissions. Lately though, as they've become more aware of the future requirements on farmers around climate change, they wanted to see what impact their actions had had on their greenhouse gas numbers.
- Amount of dry matter eaten
- Protein level of the diet
- Amount of nitrogen fertiliser applied.
Finding out their farm's greenhouse gas emissions was the critical first step. There are several ways to do this - for more, see our 'Know your numbers' page.
In Rick and Jan's case, they enlisted the help of a farm adviser who worked with them to estimate their on-farm emissions. The adviser used the greenhouse gas component of OverseerFM and some spreadsheeting to calculate the farm's total and 'net' emissions. (Net emissions are total emissions minus the 'offset' (sequestration) achieved through farm forestry and other plantings).
Rick and Jan's greenhouse gas, nitrogen leaching and profitability performance from 1998-2021 is shown in the table below.
|N leaching (kg N/ha/yr)||21||19||15|
|Biological GHGs from the pastoral area (tonnes CO2-e/ha/yr)||5.4||4.9||5.2|
|Net emissions, taking forestry into account (tonnes CO2-e/ha/yr)||3.0||1.9||1.2|
|Total net emissions across the whole farm (tonnes CO2-e)||873||553||349|
|Economic Farm Surplus ($/ha)||$506||$969||$1,106|
You can see that they have reduced their net emissions by over 50% from 1998 to 2021, at the same time as doubling their profitability. Greenhouse gas emissions per hectare and in total across the whole farm have been decreasing, as have the nitrogen loss figures. The per hectare greenhouse gas emissions from the pastoral area increased in 2020/21 due to a higher stocking rate, but the whole farm greenhouse gas number decreased due to a lesser area in pasture.
The main things Rick and Jan have done to directly reduce on-farm emissions are:
- Reduce the amount of dry matter eaten
- Improve feed efficiency
- Finish livestock faster
- Reduce use of nitrogen fertiliser.
You can find out more about reducing on-farm emissions on our actions page.
Rick and Jan have also planted many trees, which has helped provide a carbon offset and reduce net emissions.
"Now when I go out for a surf, I think back over the past decades of hard work and can see we've really lessened our impact on the environment," says Rick.
"We can actually see the difference in the quality of water going into the Tauranga Harbour. That's my driver; that's been my 'why'. It's even better now that we know our efforts have helped the climate too."
For Rick and Jan, their farm plan has enabled them to redesign Pukekauri. They are now farming for the future - not only improving freshwater and biodiversity outcomes, but also - it turns out - making a big difference to their agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. And all while increasing their profitability.
With their greenhouse gas numbers in place and a clearer idea of how their farm management practices affect those numbers, Rick and Jan can now incorporate that information into their farm plan. This sets them up well for a future where all New Zealand farmers and growers will need to be measuring, managing and reporting their agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.
Working together: He Waka Eke Noa
By 2025, New Zealand's agricultural greenhouse gas emissions will be priced and all farmers and growers will need to know their annual on-farm greenhouse gas emissions and have a plan in place to manage them.
Work is underway in a partnership between the primary sector, Government and Māori known as 'He Waka Eke Noa' (translating to 'We're all in this together') to support farmers and growers to meet these climate change requirements.
New Zealand primary industry bodies spearheaded the partnership approach, seeking to be part of designing practical solutions to meeting climate change targets in a way that rewards efforts to reduce emissions and supports the industry's future success.
The He Waka Eke Noa milestones are:
- By the end of 2021, a quarter of New Zealand farms* know their annual total on-farm greenhouse gas emissions** and have a written plan in place to measure and manage them.
- By the end of 2022, 100% of farms know their annual total on-farm emissions.
- By the end of 2023, a system for farm level accounting and reporting of emissions has been piloted.
- By the end of 2024, 100% of farms have a written plan to measure and manage emissions.
- From January 2025, all farms in New Zealand are using the system for farm-level accounting and reporting of 2024 agricultural emissions at the farm level. This will include an appropriate pricing system.
* Being all farms over 80 hectares, or a dairy farm with a milk supply number, or a cattle feedlot as described in the freshwater policy.
** In practice this means a person responsible for farm management holds a documented annual total of on-farm greenhouse gas emissions, by methods and definitions accepted by the He Waka Eke Noa Steering Group.
For more on how to find out your farm's agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, and the 'methods and definitions' accepted by He Waka Eke Noa, see our Know your numbers page.