Friday, December 8, 2023

Facing her fears and challenges

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Waikato dairy farmer and Dairy Women’s Network regional leader Chelsea Smith is not afraid to take on new challenges that not only test her both mentally and physically but help in her leadership role. Samantha Tennent reports.
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Being flipped upside down in freezing cold water led Waikato dairy farmer Chelsea Smith to understand there is more to leadership than organising meetings and overseeing workloads.  

She is the operations manager on a 260-hectare farm at Honikiwi near Te Awamutu, Waikato, milking 800 cows and is also a Dairy Women’s Network regional leader. She was the recipient of a scholarship from the network of chartered accounting firms NZCA, which recently partnered with Dairy Women’s Network.  

The support included sending a network regional leader to join nine accountants on The Edge leadership programme with Outward Bound in the Marlborough Sounds last year. 

Smith raves about the opportunity.

“There’s a lot of things that you fear in life and that fear stops you from doing certain things. The course helped my comfort zone grow by pushing the fear out,” she says.

The course is a unique experience. The group spent six nights there in late July and early August then went home for three months before returning for another four nights in November. During the second trip they wrote a letter to themselves to be posted six months down the track, reminding them of their goals and what they learnt.

Smith almost missed the second trip because things were hectic on farm.

“I was under the pump mentally and physically after the first course as it was the busiest time of the year on-farm and I didn’t get a break till the second trip. I almost didn’t go.”

She took over managing a farm this season after the previous manager took time off for health reasons. And she had hired a new team the week before she was due to leave. It all felt a bit much but she made it work and knows it was the best thing for her.

She had left the first course motivated and with lofty goals. 

But they were too ambitious and were parked and forgotten about. 

The second course grounded her. She set realistic goals and expectations of herself and had more confidence.

On the course there were numerous activities that revealed everyone’s strengths and weaknesses. 

Smith had a fear of cold water and struggled with an activity in a kayak where they had to flip over and trust their partner would get them out of trouble if needed. It was a light-bulb moment. The activity showed her what happens when she lets fear take over, that she focused on her own feelings and forgot to pay attention to those around her.

It was the opposite during a high ropes activity that she enjoyed. She encouraged others and was looking out for other people, not just thinking about herself.

“When you’re put in situations where it’s sink or swim, you tend to default back to thinking about yourself.  

“But that’s when you need to take a step back and make sure everyone else is okay. That’s what leadership is about.”

She has learnt a lot about herself, her natural instincts and how to be a better leader. And these are all valuable skills to have in her regional leader role in the King Country with the network.  

The role entails event organising and liaising between stakeholders, particularly the local dairying community. She also put her hand up to help organise the network conference in May in Hamilton.

“Helping with conference has been a real eye-opener as well. It’s the first time I’ve been part of the committee and its interesting seeing what goes on behind the scenes,” she says.  

“We started planning in September last year because it takes time to get everything ready so it all runs smoothly.” 

She has a new appreciation for the costs of running an event and the value to attendees.

“You’re getting so much of out a conference compared to what you actually pay for. That’s the amazing thing about all these dairy industry bodies.  

“It costs a lot to get some of these people or speakers or information. If you were paying for it off your own back to hear some of these people it would be really expensive.”

She moved to live off-farm in Otorohanga this season, which has opened further opportunity in her network patch. 

There are two other regional leaders in King Country and they use each other’s strengths to engage with their community.

In between working on the farm alongside the team Chelsea has been helping organise the Dairy Women’s Network 2020 conference.

She had spent 18 months in the North Island but had been so focused on the farm she had not had a chance to build a support network. She considered moving back to Canterbury to be closer to her family but the van der Poels created a role that would give her more time to look after her own wellbeing. She could take a year off the front line and see how she felt after that.

She took two months off and had a real holiday. When she got back she stepped into an overseer role supporting the four dairy farms though it quickly changed when the operations manager of the Honikiwi farm became unwell and had to take some time off.

Fortunately, she was familiar with the farm and stepped in to cover but he ended up handing in his notice so she stayed on board as the Honikiwi operations manager. She is enjoying keeping the farm on track. 

It is 260 effective hectares and they are milking 800 cows this season. They sold the autumn calvers and are heading to be a solely spring calving system next season. The farm has rolling to moderate terrain and the cows walk long distances.  

“When I was managing that first season I found the staff didn’t get a break, the cows didn’t get a break and we didn’t get any maintenance done on farm. There wasn’t time for anything other than the day-to-day feeding and milking cows. It was constantly busy.

And because there are long walks and we get a lot more rainfall in the winter we were dealing with a lot of lame cows.”

She wanted to simplify the system and discussed with the van der Poels the benefits of having one farm as an autumn farm and allowing the others to have a break over the winter period. 

“Now we can focus on feed and days in milk and we have fewer passenger cows as it gives us options for culling,” she says.

In her short time in Waikato she has discovered every season is very different.

“That’s why people either love or hate farming in Waikato. When I turned up three years ago they said we only get six weeks dry guaranteed but we are way past that this season,” she laughs.

“Every season is so variable. And with the changes with palm kernel and feed has changed the way we think about farming as well.

“A lot of us want a less intensive system and not have to rely on bought-in feed as much.”

The lower stocking rate has allowed them to harvest enough feed in spring and early summer to feed out during the dry spell. She targets feeding a tonne per cow with most made from maize and palm kernel or another feed in the shoulders.

The farm has a support block where they grow the maize, planting 40ha every year then planting an annual pasture. The herd grazes on the support block for 30 days during winter before returning to the platform to get ready for calving. The young stock are grazed on the support block too. The other farms use another support block at Te Kuiti.

On the platform they grow small amounts of chicory, usually to feed the autumn calvers. They have 10ha this year but it has not been enough to make a difference, she says. They have grazed it three times since October.

“We lost opportunity not having those paddocks in pasture. We could have taken three or four cuts off it before the summer dry.

“If we keep our stocking rate low and stay at a System 3 to 4 I don’t see a benefit of crops. For regrassing we could look at under sowing or direct drilling or putting in hybrids to get a couple more years out of the grass.”

The chicory gives them an eight-year turn around on the pastures.

“I think the ryegrasses last a lot longer than that and it’s a waste of money when you aren’t building up the establishment.”

Next season they will calve 960 and peak milk just over 900 cows. The farm targets 340,000kg MS, averaging 420kg MS/cow. When they were milking 1100 cows they were getting 380kg MS with a higher input of supplement.   

Calving starts July 20 in Waikato, whereas in Canterbury it was always around August 6. They keep about 200 replacements each year, rear them on-farm and send them to the support block in December. The herd is DNA tested which gives them certainty of which they are breeding and keeping.

They do a big collection of cows and calves in the morning and depending on the day they will head out one or two more times to collect any more calves that have been born to make sure they get their early feed of colostrum.

Their six-week in-calf rate this year is 75%, which will go a long way to helping them condense their calving now they are heading to a spring calving system.

The basis of the herd is Friesian but they are trying to bring the size down with Kiwicross. They are aiming to breed a smaller, more efficient cow that leaves a smaller footprint. Mating starts on October 10 and they do five and a half weeks of AI followed by four weeks with the bulls. They tail off with a week of short gestation semen to finish on Christmas Eve.

“That’s one thing I love about Waikato, it’s nice to get Christmas off,” she says.

“In Canterbury they do AI until January 10.”

The shed is a 60-bale Waikato rotary that was built nearly 10 years ago with all the gizmos and gadgets, making milking a breeze.

“You can smash out 800 cows by yourself and it’s quite enjoyable and not too stressful,” she says.

On-farm she leaves the manager to organise the day-to-day team and milking rosters but will head to the milking shed at least two or three times during the week to let someone have an extra sleep in and keep an eye on what is happening.

She is always looking at ways to make the farm attractive to good staff. The farm is close to Otorohonga and Te Awamutu but they seem to have trouble attracting the right people.  And she knows when you have large cow numbers you need a good team because you cannot do it on your own.

She says they are lucky and have a great team on the farm. Irwin Conwell is the manager and Gene, his son, is the herd manager. And she acquired farm assistant Cameron McArthur from a couple she met through the NZ Dairy Industry Awards. 

The fourth team member is Alan Takitimu who has worked for the van der Poels for more than a decade. He is the go-to who knows how to fix a lot of the problems like water leaks and electrical blips.

“The team gel well. It was a bit tricky getting everything sorted when I was going on my second course but we got through and I really appreciate the dynamic we have.”

“I think my sanity has been saved by living off farm and getting involved in different things outside of the farm too,” she says.

As well as DWN, she helps organise the local Dairy Industry Awards. She won the manager of the year title during her first season in Waikato. She enjoys giving back to the dairying community and likes to be involved in off-farm activities.

“If it’s dairy related, I don’t feel guilty for taking time out.”

It has been a journey but her open mind and clear communication pathways with her farm owners have allowed her to continue growing in her roles on and off farm and get the right support when needed.

She is a little nervous to receive the letter she wrote herself in November but is working hard to keep on track for her goals and knows the opportunity with Outward Bound has set her up with good skills and knowledge to handle anything thrown her way.

Farm facts:

Farm owners: Jim and Sue van der Poel

Operations manager: Chelsea Smith

Location: Honikiwi, Waikato

Farm size:  260ha

Cows: 800 now, 900 next season

Production 2018-19: 371,720kg MS

Target production: 2019-20 320,000kg MS 

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