New approach to effluent systems

By Rick Bayne

Western Australian dairy farmers will have new-look effluent systems — and a new attitude towards using them — if a four-year project has its way.

The project, DairyCare, aims to fund upgrades and change attitudes towards dairy effluent and is starting to make its mark.

Farmers can access funding through the Royalties for Regions’ regional estuaries initiative to co-invest in new or upgraded effluent systems. The project is a partnership between Western Dairy, Department of Water and catchment groups.

Daniel Parnell from Agsure Consulting is managing the project for Western Dairy and says current effluent systems are “a mixed bag”.

“We probably haven’t had the investment in dairy effluent systems that some places do and so some systems are okay while some are probably not ideal,” Mr Parnell said.

“Hopefully this project is an incentive to co-invest and there will be a better result at the end of it.”

In its first year DairyCare has reviewed about 25 farm effluent systems. Mr Parnell said that while farmers were well intended, there was room for improvement in developing more complete effluent systems.

“Generally water use efficiency is not too bad and there is reasonable solids separation with the use of traps,” he said.

“However, we’re probably not so good at having appropriate storage. A lot of effluent ponds were put in with good intentions but may not be appropriately lined or big enough.

“Generally herds have become bigger which means the ponds might be too small.”

Another identified weakness is farmers’ application systems.

“There are a few good ones but we need to have complete systems,” Mr Parnell said.

“We have partial systems with a trap and pond but not an effective application system for recycling those nutrients back on to the paddocks.”

Mr Parnell said part of the challenge was convincing farmers of the long-term value of re-using their effluent.

“A lot of farmers don’t see it as an investment; they see it as a black hole. It’s hard to measure the benefits of the investment and their time. Ideally we’d like effluent trials to demonstrate a business case to farmers.

“We’ve got to change the mindset to show how they can grow grass from it; it’s there and you wouldn’t let fertiliser sit in the shed or pour it down the creek; you tap into it and use it.

“It’s a lot of money to invest and farmers want to demonstrate a return.”

Mr Parnell said he was confident WA farmers could meet industry guidelines for effluent use.

About 10 farmers in the GeoCatch area are in line for upgrades this year and others in the Hardy and Leschenault catchments will look to improve their on-farm nutrient management over the coming years.

Mr Parnell said some farmers were already keen to go ahead with the work while others weren’t yet ready to make the co-investment.

“Hopefully the funding catches all those sitting on the fence,” he added. “As an industry we have to do the right thing.”

State Government funding for the project is designed to improve water quality. An independent Project Reference Group will assess applications to determine which farms receive funding support for upgrades.