Pugging and pragmatism – Feds welcome winter grazing proposals but SAFE blasts continuance of “mud farming”

A government announcement on intensive winter grazing regulations  was denounced by the SAFE animal rights group in a statement headed Mud farming continues in the South Island.

Greenpeace struck a similar condemnatory note with a statement headed Backdown on winter grazing rules ‘delaying the inevitable’.  

Greenpeace said winter grazing churns paddocks to deep mud because intensive numbers of stock are confined to small feeding areas for longer than the soil and water can sustain. This mud washes into drains, streams and rivers, posing a risk to human health and the environment.

The Government proposals would change regulations initially designed to give effect to the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management. These changes include scrapping rules to prevent pugging damage from intensive winter grazing and instead recommending farmers take ‘reasonably practicable’ steps to reduce pugging.

Federated Farmers, on the other hand, headed their press statement Pragmatism finally prevails on winter grazing.

The Government’s press statement was much more in harmony with the feds’ statement than the two others.  It was headed Proposed intensive winter grazing regulations updates are more practical for farmers and began:

Proposed changes to intensive winter grazing regulations are being consulted on that will make them practical for farmers to comply with while ensuring improved environmental outcomes, Environment Minister David Parker and Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor announced today.

More contentiously, the introduction of intensive winter grazing practice regulations is proposed to be deferred for a further six months until 1 November next year.

 As the Agriculture and Environment Ministers explained, intensive winter grazing is a farming practice (a highly controversial one, actually) whereby livestock, such as cattle and sheep, are grazed on paddocks planted with fodder crops.

“When done poorly it can have serious negative effects on water quality and animal welfare.”

The images and video accompanying the SAFE statement suggest “serious negative effects” somewhat understates things.  They show sheep caked in mud, a mother cow licking her calf lying in the mud, another calf lying motionless in the mud, and cows struggling to walk in mud up to their knees, with no dry land or shelter.

Damien O’Connor said the Government has been working with industry representatives and regional councils this winter to roll out on-the-ground support to drive better practices to benefit freshwater quality and animal welfare.

“It’s important that what we develop is workable. That’s why we’re proposing amendments to manage the effects of pugging, get paddocks re-sown as soon as possible, and protect critical source areas.” 

Under the proposed changes, farmers would be required to re-sow grazed paddocks as soon as conditions allow, instead of by a set date. Specific requirements around the depth of pugging will be removed.

“We’ve been listening to farmers and earlier this year changed our proposed approach to low slope maps and I encourage farmers to have their say on practical ways to improve intensive winter grazing,” Damien O’Connor said. 

David Parker dived into the science of water flow down slopes.

“Under the proposal, farmers wanting to undertake intensive winter grazing on slopes over 10 degrees can do so with a certified freshwater farm plan that includes controls to prevent soil loss and mitigate the risks associated with a higher slope,” David Parker said. 

“Scientific evidence shows that with intensive winter grazing at 15 degrees, twice as much soil will be lost than if planted at 10 degrees. If mitigation can prevent soil loss that can be reflected in farm plans,” David Parker said. 

The Government has released the intensive winter grazing consultation documents and is seeking feedback from farmers and regional councils.

The Government is working alongside sector groups including farmers and eNGOs, to develop the integrated farm planning approach, with the aim of providing farmers and growers with a practical tool to meet requirements.

Improving freshwater health and management is part of the Government’s Essential Freshwater package.

Consultation runs for six weeks until 7 October 2021. The consultation document and online submission forms are available on the Ministry for the Environment’s website:

Federated Farmers environment spokesperson Chris Allen said farmers will be relieved that the government has accepted most of the Southland Advisory Group’s winter grazing recommendations and will now consult on proposed revised rules.

“Everyone wants strong protection for our waterways but from the day they came out Feds had said a number of aspects of the Essential Freshwaters winter grazing rules were simply unworkable,” Federated Farmers environment spokesperson Chris Allen said.


“We’ll take this as a win for common sense, and for consistent advocacy for pragmatism by Federated Farmers and others,” Chris said.

“We never give up hope that common sense will eventually prevail, especially when COVID makes it clear New Zealand’s prosperity to a large degree depends on our primary industries’ export earnings.”

Key changes recommended by the Southland Advisory Group included the deletion of pugging and replanting-date conditions and replacement with a requirement to protect critical source areas.

Where permitted activity conditions cannot be met, the group wanted an alternative pathway by way of a winter grazing module to be submitted to the farmer’s regional council, and subject to audit.

Greenpeace agriculture campaigner Christine Rose says the consultation  document shows that instead of facing up to the problem of too many cows, the Government is simply delaying the inevitable.

“The pugging and water pollution caused by intensive winter grazing are an obvious result of having too many cows on land that can’t support them,” says Rose.

“From nitrate contamination in drinking water to slimy, lifeless rivers, the effects of New Zealand’s six million dairy cows are plain to see. Fonterra itself has said we’ve reached ‘peak milk’.

“If the Government is serious about keeping land, water and communities healthy, the only option is to lower cow stocking rates and support farmers to move away from intensive dairying towards more diverse, regenerative and organic farming.”

The number of dairy cows has increased steeply in Southland in the past few decades. In 1990 there were around 38,000 cows. By 2019 there were 636,000 cows – a 1584% increase.

Rose says the New Zealand environment can’t carry that many dairy cows.

“When cows are kept on winter crops until the soil is bare, there is no vegetation to hold soil in place or suck up nitrogen-rich cow urine. The run-off then contaminates rivers and groundwater, leading to the high levels of nitrate contamination in drinking water that we’re seeing in parts of the country with intensive dairying.

“Nitrate contamination in drinking water has been linked to health effects from bowel cancer to premature births. By giving up on intensive winter grazing regulations, this Government is putting dairy profits above human health.”

Greenpeace is pressing the Government to phase out synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, lower cow stocking rates and invest in supporting farmers to transition to regenerative organic farming.

SAFE CEO Debra Ashton, drawing attention to the images and video in her press statement,  said it’s clear that animals are still suffering on muddy paddocks, and the Ministry for Primary Industries needs to improve its monitoring.

“This is mud farming, and every winter it’s the same story,” said Ashton.

“Simply put, winter grazing practices haven’t improved on a lot of farms and MPI are not doing enough to protect animals from suffering.”

New winter grazing regulations were meant to come into effect in May 2021, but earlier this year the Government deferred new regulations to 2022, allowing the sector to self-regulate in the interim.


Author: Bob Edlin

Editor of AgScience Magazine and Editor of the AgScience Blog