The dairy sector is big business in Aotearoa New Zealand. The first refrigerated exports began in 1882 with a 98-day journey to ship milk and butter to England. Dairy and transport technologies have grown enormously since then and so have our exports. In 2019, New Zealand was the main exporter of milk and milk products worldwide!
Research and development has helped make the New Zealand dairy industry a world leader. The sector uses these skills to make dairy farming more sustainable. DairyNZ is an industry organisation that represents and supports all New Zealand dairy farmers. It is involved in a wide range of programmes including education and extension, research and policy development.
Collaboration and partnership
DairyNZ bridges the research and the farming sectors, collaborating with scientists and farmers to ask questions and find answers to practical and environmental needs. As the dairy sector looks to the future, DairyNZ is turning to new technology and new ways of working to solve challenges associated with climate change.
The Hub has teamed up with DairyNZ to feature innovative research projects aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with dairy farming. Nearly half of New Zealand’s greenhouse gases come from agriculture – primarily from methane and nitrous oxide.
Ruminant digestion and methane emissions
Methane is produced by ruminant animals and emitted mostly as burps. Ruminants are mammals with specialised digestive systems that use fermentation processes to obtain nutrients from plant material. This process is explained in the article Ruminant digestion. The interactive Ruminant digestion explores the individual features of this specially adapted digestive system, with detailed text and images.
Agricultural soils and nitrous oxide emissions
Agricultural soils are the main source of nitrous oxide emissions in New Zealand. Understanding the nitrogen cycle is an important part of dairy farming – balancing nitrogen inputs with outputs is crucial for ensuring peak production and environmental protection. The nitrogen cycle and dairy farming interactive features a simplified nitrogen cycle with components that focus on the nitrogen interactions related to dairy farming.
Plantain – from weed to plant of scientific interest
Tying the resources together is plantain – a common weed in urban lawns but bred to be a valuable food source for grazing animals. New Zealand is one of the few places in the world where cows can graze on pastures year round. Pastures are more than grassy areas – they are managed ecosystems that often contain a diversity of species. Find out about a few of New Zealand’s common pasture plant species.
The plantain research story has multiple facets. Plantain cultivars were first introduced to provide a boost to summer feed at a time when conventional pasture grasses struggle to grow. As scientists looked more closely at plantain’s properties, they noticed it reduces nitrogen concentrations in urine patches. This has positive implications for water quality. Early results show that plantain may also help with reducing methane and nitrous oxide emissions, but there are lots of questions that need to be answered. Fortunately, the primary sector has launched co-ordinated collaborative initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – outlined in the primary sector and climate change.
Using dairy farming and climate change research as a context for learning
Agricultural science and the primary production sector provide rich contexts for learning. Key science concepts include interacting systems, climate change, nutrient cycling and life processes. The nature of science also features strongly. Plantain research highlights the tentative, collaborative and practical aspects of science investigations. It also shows the strong links between science and society. Innovative practices within the dairy sector are driven by the need to protect the environment and produce high-value food products. Dairy farming and climate change – a context for learning provides curriculum links, te ao Māori perspectives and an interactive planning pathway to help teachers get started.
Take up the challenge
Although we cannot get students into the milking shed, we can offer them activities to stimulate and deepen learning. Explore a cow’s digestive system is an interactive approach to identifying the main parts of a ruminant digestive system, with the option to dive deeper into function descriptions. Take the learning outdoors to observe pasture plant composition and measure pasture mass. If there isn’t any pasture handy, the school field is still a good place to practise the scientific protocols. Dairy farming – key terms provides an explanation of science terms and concepts encountered during the activities.
The Hub features other DairyNZ research on robotic milking.
Explore other resurces on dairy farming in our Pinterest board.
Visit the DairyNZ website to find out about the work it does in:
- education – school farm visits, classroom kits, media, careers and more
- research – environmental issues including nitrogen loss and greenhouse gas emissions reduction
- regional projects – working with farmers to be both sustainable and profitable.
This resource has been produced with the support of DairyNZ.