The economic benefits of effective environmental management on farms have been highlighted at the Primary Industry Forum in Wellington.
One of the speakers, Guy Salmon of the Ecologic Foundation - an environment research and consultancy organisation - says better nutrient management was one of the opportunities identified by the Land and Water Forum for increasing productivity and profits.
Mr Salmon says hundreds of millions of dollars worth of nutrients flow out to sea from the Waikato and other rivers in dairying regions each year.
"If we can get more careful use made of nutrients and of bought-in feed on to all these properties so that less of it gets into the waterways and less of it is wasted, we will not only benefit the environment we will also improve the viability of farm businesses by cutting out unnecessary cost and wastage which is occurring at the moment.
"A number of the business consultants that have been looking more closely at how to do that have discovered, particularly in Waikato, that a key to do this is to improve the profitability of the farm by taking off some of the animals or reducing the total volume produced. It makes for a more profitable farm."
Mr Salmon says the environmental movement was initially sceptical about the dairy industry clean streams accord, but were pleasantly surprised at the outcome with significant improvements in waterways protection.
Federated Farmers national dairy chair Willy Leferink says the industry has moved on from there, with an updated water accord announced earlier this year.
He says Dairy NZ will be also be launching a refreshed sustainable dairying strategy in July.
Mr Leferink says working in a co-operative way with the wider community is essential to farmers dealing successfully with environmental issues. He says the Mackenzie Country agreement unveiled this week is an example of that.
Computer programme criticised
However, the forum has also heard criticism of the main nutrient management tool available to farmers.
Overseer is a computer programme that calculates the nutrient flows on farms and helps farmers to manage potential environmental risks from run-off and leaching into waterways and greenhouse gas emissions.
It was developed initially for use on pastoral farms, but is now being applied to cropping farms as well.
Some regional councils are now specifying the use of Overseer as a regulatory tool. But Landcorp chief executive Chris Kelly says it is being applied in ways that were never intended.
"In my opinion, we don't have the science right yet for measuring what harm or good we are doing. We're using the only current blunt instrument we have available - which is Overseer - and we're having some scary decisions made about that. I suspect not what was meant to be done."
Mr Kelly says there needs to be more research into the use of Overseer. Landcorp, the Primary Industries Ministry and the Environment Ministry are looking to start the ball rolling with a joint policy appointment.