Transforming a ‘nasty little wet farm’ into an award winner


When you talk to Matamata dairy farmers Rod and Sandra McKinnon about environmental sustainability it’s easy to understand why the couple won the 2017/18 Waikato Ballance Farm Environment Awards.

When Rod and Sandra McKinnon bought a 44-hectare farm near Matamata in 1992 some people thought they were crazy.

The Mangawhea Stream runs through Rod and Sandra’s farm

‘I remember someone describing it as a ‘nasty little wet farm’, but it had a stream and some native bush and we could see the potential”, says Sandra.

Fast forward 26 years and following some serious hard work and expansion the farm (now 194-hectares, milking 400 cows on 155-hectares effective) is an award winner, with Rod and Sandra taking out the supreme title at the 2017/18 Waikato Ballance Farm Environmental Awards.

Rod says as the size of their farm increased so did their efforts to care for the environment and farm sustainably.

“Sustainability is a word that is bandied around a lot, but it actually means something,” says Rod. “We’ve always wanted to have an aesthetically pleasing farm and that goes hand and hand with looking after and improving the environment.”

Rod was a founding member of the Piako River Catchment Forum and says protecting water quality was one of the things he and Sandra thought about when developing their environmental plan. “Getting involved with the forum was a great way of giving back to the community. We get a lot of joy from the Mangawhea Stream and we want future generations to be able to enjoy the local waterways too.”

The stream banks have been extensively planted to prevent erosion and filter sediment and nutrients

The couple also enjoy the biodiversity and wildlife that their environmental work has attracted. “Creating the wetlands was a big part of that”, says Rod. “Now when we’re down in that part of the farm it looks great and the bird song is all around so that gives us a real feeling of satisfaction.”

As you get older and wiser you’re more aware of what you’re leaving behind so, like lots of other farmers, we’ve become far more conscious of what was happening around us in terms of the environment and we’re proud to be setting some sort of example.

Rod McKinnon, Matamata dairy farmer

Wetlands and ponds provide a habitat for aquatic and bird life

Planning has played an important part in the couple’s environmental work and in 2015 they wrote their own farm environment plan, outlining a series of objectives to focus on. “It had been 20 odd years in the making, doing the right thing by the land. We just formalised it”, says Rod. “The work we’ve done since we bought the farm has really added up and it’s about taking that first step. If you don’t start the journey then you don’t get anywhere.”

The plan led to the creation of wetlands, ponds, tree planting for shade and erosion control and more extensive riparian planting along the Mangawhea Stream, which runs through the property and feeds into the Piako River.

Innovation has played a role in the environmental initiatives too and Rod and Sandra are big believers in making the most of the technology now available to farmers.

“If you don’t monitor or measure it, you can’t manage it”, Rod says when talking about the electronic technology the couple have installed for effluent and water.

The farm’s boundaries, drains, waterways and wetlands are all geo-fenced and the irrigation system works via GPS too.

“The irrigator shuts off automatically if it gets too close to a drain or the stream”, says Rod. “I can monitor it on my phone and by testing the effluent regularly, I can tell exactly how much nitrogen and other nutrients are going onto the land with every pass of the irrigator.”