Peter O’Connor knew he wanted a career in dairy farming so when he finished his university studies, he jumped right in and his quick rise up the career ladder has been recognised with his naming as top dairy trainee in the 2022 Dairy Industry Awards.
Brought up on the West Coast, O’Connor is a third-generation dairy farmer and his father and uncle farm near Westport. Another uncle, Damien, a former dairy farmer too, is Minister of Agriculture.
O’Connor boarded at St Bede’s College in Christchurch, working on the family farm in the school holidays and went straight on to Lincoln University.
“I thought, ‘Well if I don’t go to university out of school I’ll never get there. If I have a gap year I’ll end up driving tractors or dairy farming somewhere else so I went straight to Lincoln University,” O’Connor says.
Although he was a top student, he always wanted an outdoor, hands-on job and was never attracted to corporate-type roles.
“In high school I liked maths and physics, so that kind steered me towards thinking about engineering. However, I went to an engineering open day for school-leavers at one of the firms in Christchurch and I realised if I did that I’d be sitting at a desk and that didn’t really spin my wheels, so I thought, ‘Oh well, off to Lincoln I go’,” he says.
When he finished university, graduating with First Class Honours, O’Connor spent a summer working for a silage contracting business co-owned by well-known large-scale Canterbury dairy farmers Leighton and Michelle Pye.
“I was talking to Leighton one day and he goes, ‘What are you doing after the season finishes?’, and I said I was going to go dairy farming. ‘Oh really’, he said, ‘One of my contract milkers is actually looking for a 2IC’,” he explains.
“I’d sort of had a 2IC role in my head. I didn’t want to be holding myself back for a season while I got the experience, I wanted to take a bit of a dive into the deep end I suppose.”
The opportunity soon came with an interview with contract milker Steven Ketter.
“I think Leighton must have given me a good reference and Steve offered me the 2IC job which worked out really well, so after the contracting season finished at the end of April, I had a month of milking and drying the cows off and whatnot and got into it,” he says.
“I’m happy to admit I was light on practical experience in some aspects, like springtime with calving cows. I’d always been around it but hadn’t really done it myself. I had a lot to learn there, just what to do when things go wrong with down cows and calving difficulties and what the best way to fix them is.”
He learnt fast about dairy farming Canterbury-style and its differences to farming on the West Coast.
“I tell people I came to Canterbury to learn how to make milk because production here per hectare is probably at least three times more than what we do on my home farm,” he says.
“People have said farming in Canterbury is more of a science and farming on the West Coast is more of an art. In Canterbury you can turn the water on and have a very good idea of how much grass you’ll grow, but there’s a lot of unknowns over there on the coast.”
The 242ha, 900-cow Mayfield property, owned by the Pyes, is a high-input, highly productive operation, producing 499kg MS/cow, and just under 1850kg MS/ha this season. To help achieve that the cows are each fed 600kg of imported feed – palm kernel and grain – in the shed, as well as bought in silage.
“Whatever system you run, you’ve still got to make use of your grass so we make use of ours as much as we can, make sure we’re hitting residuals and we’ll adjust what we’re feeding to make sure that’s the priority. As the season’s gone on, that’s become more and more my responsibility,” he says.
O’Connor says he’s always asking questions and must have learnt fast because after one season Ketter offered him a significant step up the career ladder.
“I learnt a lot and I’ve still got a lot to learn, but I guess he thinks I’ve learnt enough that I can manage a farm,” he says.
Next season O’Connor is stepping up to a manager’s role, working for Ketter who has taken on a 400-cow 50:50 sharemilkers job about half an hour up the road in addition to his contract milking position.
He had expected to stay in his 2IC role for another season but has embraced the opportunity to take on a manager’s job, which he reckons shows his belief that dairy farming offered enormous opportunities is well-founded.
“I still think there is a stigma, or a looking down on dairy farmers in New Zealand, but there’s so much opportunity. I loved driving tractors (back home and in the university holidays) but I didn’t see the future in them.
“There’s lots of opportunity to buy stock or get into your own business, whether it be contract milking or something like that, you start working for yourself, whereas if you’re driving tractors, then you’ve got to go and find all the work for yourself and have a tractor and a tractor is a depreciating asset, whereas stock are appreciating,” he says.
O’Connor’s not sure what his next career move will be after managing but he’s confident opportunities will arise.
“I don’t want to say I’ll definitely go contract milking after that or whatever because there might be opportunities for something else, like an equity partnership, a small sharemilking opportunity or an opportunity to buy into something,” he says.
“I’ve got an open mind on what my next step might be but I want to get to farm ownership, and to do that you have to build your equity and to build your equity you have to take risk and keep moving up.”
And he’s unsure whether he’ll stay in Canterbury long-term or move back over the hill to the West Coast.
“I don’t have the answer to that yet. I do quite like farming in Canterbury, it’s very calculated, you know what you’re going to get, and a lot less rain. I like to think I will go home, but whether I actually get there or not might be another story,” he says.
This article first appeared in the July 2022 issue of Dairy Farmer.