This is a dairy cow on a farm in North Canterbury. Every bone in her body is visible through her dull coat. On the body condition scale that I would use for horses, she is extremely emaciated - a walking skeleton. Her udder is massively swollen so she has recently had a calf. She looks depressed. None of the small herd she is in even glance in our direction - which is unusual for cows as they are normally very curious.
Even by the low standards of modern, large scale and intensive dairying, this poor creature is seriously below par.
The dairy farms I cycled past this morning are uniformly ugly. To facilitate the irrigators, the fields have few or no trees for shade or shelter for stock. There are kilometres of electric fencing, huge silage pits, mountains of old car tyres, rivers of discarded plastic wrapping and large agricultural machines that carve up any soft ground they travel on. The working areas of the farms look completely industrial.
Little groups of calves huddle together for warmth and comfort. Their mothers are lost in the big herds standing in lush green grass. Most of the cows that I can see have reduced skeletal muscle and little or no body fat, huge udders and depressed demeanour.
I know that most of the energy dairy cows ingest from the sugar rich grass they eat goes into filling their unnaturally large udders. I know that their udders are too low-slung to be suckled easily by calves even if the cows were allowed to feed their offspring. I know that instead of the all-day suckling of a calf, the dairy cow’s udder may be emptied just once a day to reduce costs so, by the time she is due to be milked, her udder is vast and distended, uncomfortable and unwieldy. I also know that the way these cows are selectively bred and fed results in a shortened life span and a myriad of metabolic and musculo-skeletal problems.
We started our ride in Rangiora and cycled along the Rakihuri trail towards Waikuku. The trail - a formed walking and cycling track - runs along the river bank from Rangiora until it gets to a point where it rejoins the road along the top of the stop bank. There have always been gates at various points on the stop bank to control the use of them by 4-wheel drivers and trail bikers.
A new, large gate with a Private Property sign on it now blocks the stop bank road at a point about 3kms above the SH1 road bridge. Another gate with the same sign has been put in near the road bridge. As the Ashley-Rakihuri Regional Park has been developed by the regional and local authorities, there have been issues with pockets of private land i.e. where old farm boundaries extend into parts of the river bed that are now enclosed by the stop banks. The current owners of this land have created access routes up over the stop bank to the wide riparian strip on which they graze cows. They have installed a number of other gates to shut off the stop bank road while they move stock. The Private Property signs are very recent. Walkers and bike riders are permitted to squeeze past the end of the gate but have to negotiate any gates across the stop bank that have been left closed by farm workers. They’d also be well advised to avoid touching the electric fence.
The stop banks protect the farmland; without them the land would flood whenever the river is in spate. They were built by with public funds and are maintained at public expense. I’ll lay odds that the person who has put up the Private Property signs does not maintain that section of the stop banks at his own expense. In fact it's likely he didn't even pay for the gates and the signs.
The land alongside the river is wetland. Like all of Canterbury’s braided rivers, the margins are criss-crossed by numerous streams and springs. There was an article in the local press a couple of years ago about one of these streams that was fenced and planted in natives by a farmer who has since sold his farm to a huge dairy concern. At the time the article was written that stream ran clear and supported fish, but it is an anomaly and other waterways are not so lucky. Even when streams are fenced and have the natural filtration of native plantings along the banks, intensive dairying’s large-scale use of artificial fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides and anthelmintics will cause harm to both the land and river ecosystems.
The Rakahuri runs out into a vitally important estuary which falls outside of the scope of the Ashley Rakahuri Regional Park management. The estuary is a “valuable ecological hotspot and any management decisions made for the park further upstream may have flow on impacts on the estuary environment further downstream that should be considered. The Ashley Estuary provides internationally significant habitat for migratory birds like the Bar-tailed Godwit, as well as providing autumn and winter habitat and feeding grounds for several threatened braided river bird species. The Estuary is also an important habitat for many native fish species. Inanga (whitebait), eels, Koaro, flounder, common smelt, torrent fish and bullies are all known to spend part of their lifecycle in the Ashley Estuary. The freshwater-saltwater transition zones of many of the small tributaries feeding in to the Ashley Estuary provide important Inanga spawning habitat.”
And this is the river whose floodplain is now covered in large dairy cattle farms and on whose banks just a few kilometres upstream a dairy farmer runs large numbers of cows.
In a sensible country all the land within the stop banks would be acquired by the State and control of it vested in the regional and district councils for the protection of the river and its wildlife - and for use by the public who fund it all.
This is not currently a sensible country and it desperately needs to be.