Saturday, April 13, 2024

Farming in the city

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When New Zealanders think of Auckland few think of farming. But a young Karaka dairying couple are combining their love of the city with their passion for the land. Luke Chivers reports.
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It was Gypsy Day 2016.

Traditionally, it is the start of the dairying calendar when accounts are settled, stock is bought and sold or moved to a new farm and new careers are launched. 

At least that was what Chris and Sally Guy hoped when their sharemilking agreement on a well-nurtured and developed inland slice of rural New Zealand kicked in. The couple are 50:50 sharemilkers with his parents Allan and Wendy who own the 80ha Oakview Farm in South Auckland.

However, urban sprawl and skyrocketing land prices are throwing up challenges for the young couple.

Sally says one of the best things about farming at Karaka is the town’s proximity to central Auckland.

“We are only 35km to Auckland City.

“It’s really good for social events – you can pop into the city for the night and sometimes it can be only a 25-minute drive when there is little or no traffic.

“Plus, a lot of Chris’ family are within a 5km radius and we’re only about 20 minutes to Auckland Airport.”  

Being from Australia, that is crucial for Sally.

“It is important for us to be in close proximity to an international airport to allow my family to visit us whenever they want,” Sally says. 

The downside of being close to the urban sprawl is that it requires the couple to take even more care of the condition of their farm. 

“I guess with the spotlight on dairy you’re more aware of what you’re doing,” Chris says.

“Public perceptions are quite a key issue in the dairy industry so we try to do our best to not give the public anything. 

“We’ve got a lot of road frontage and about 30,000 cars go on that road every day.”

With such a large volume of traffic passing Chris makes extra effort to ensure he is maintaining health and safety to the highest standards – for himself, his animals and the sector.

“I always make sure I’m riding the quad responsibly and if the irrigator needs to go along the roadside I’ll only ever run it at night so it’s out of sight, out of mind,” he says.

“We’ve also put a lot of effort into pasture renovation on the farm in an attempt to harvest more grass. 

“We do not want a negative spotlight shone on the dairy industry. 

“It’s New Zealand’s number one export and important for this country and for everyone in it.”

“We put a large pump on because we wanted a canon irrigator, which gives us a 30-metre radius. 

“For a one-man operation it meant we’re covering a larger area and shifting the irrigator less. They’re also a lot easier and safer to tow behind a quad bike.” 

In recent years the Guys have removed the old hinge-style gates from the dairy shed and replaced them with pendulum gates. 

“This has created better cow flow. The new gates are easier for drafting and much safer.” 

They milk twice a day until mid-February and then shift to once-a-day milking.

“And that is basically to give myself and the cows a break,” Chris says.

There is good reason for that. Lame cows are a major issue for the farm.

“Blue stone races are a big reason why.

“Thankfully, it’s only a 1.2km walk to the furthest paddock so the cows aren’t walking too far from the shed. 

“However, we did a lot of work last year with a product called StockRock.

“It’s a softer rock product that creates a surface the cows love to walk on. It shortened walking times, which, in turn, means more time in the paddock for cows to eat and rest.”

Last season 30% of the herd got lame but that has reduced significantly thanks to the product.

He also measures his grass growth by regularly doing farm walks and this season has used LIC Space.

Over the past year they sent several grass samples to check the metabolic energy (ME) and protein levels to enable them to get a better understanding of what their cows are eating and what they are potentially lacking at different times of the season.  

“Our grass is constantly changing throughout the year and we wanted to get a better idea around this.

“We’ve had a real focus this season on trying to have quality feed down the throat. It seems to be going really well – our cows are producing well and looking to be in good condition for next calving. 

The couple always need to look and plan months ahead.

Because they feed a lot of bulk silage the focus this season has been on quality.

“Last year when we tested the silage it was only 10ME, which is basically glorified hay that will give you little milk response. When you have 160 tonnes of it you have no choice but to feed it out.

“Cutting 55ha of silage at once means it’s a real balancing act to try to get all of this area grazed and shut up at the same time. 

“We aim to shut up our paddocks for 30-40 days before harvest. In doing that, this year we produced quality silage of 11.7ME. The downside was we had less of it.”

By aiming for an early cut they got a later second cut, which tested 10ME and was put in a different stack to feed out last.

Chris has identified it is critical to feed his cows well post-calving, get the animals to peak high and hold the milk curve for as long as he can.  

“To do this in our system we need to feed supplement from calving through to balance date, which is typically mid September. We choose to carry on using it until the end of mating no matter what grass growth is.” 

He has also concentrated his efforts on mowing paddocks to try to keep on top of pasture quality.

“This season was unreal for spring growth so a lot of mowing was done.”

They grow a 9ha summer crop of chicory on the effluent blocks as insurance against the summer drought. 

“At certain times of the year we’re finding that the cows walk themselves toward the milking shed as they are keen to graze the chicory. 

“It means we’re saving manpower by not sitting behind them. Plus, it means the cows can walk at their own pace, which takes the pressure off them.”

Their goals include increasing the herd size, possibly moving to a larger job, paying off debt, building equity and eventually farm ownership.

But the Auckland region’s growth is making it difficult for the couple and their farming goals.

“We’d love to stay here and would love to expand but land prices just aren’t allowing for that.

“If we want to continue farming we need to change the way we do things here or accept that we can’t stay farming here and move somewhere else.

“While we are considering our options – including the diversification of our current situation – the reality is dairy farming is slowly getting phased out in this area as the urban sprawl continues to grow around us.

“To get those larger jobs you often need to go further south to Waikato or elsewhere in NZ. We’re open to that,” they say.

FARM FACTS

Owners: Wendy and Allan Guy

Sharemilkers: Chris and Sally Guy

Location: Karaka, South Auckland

Farm size: 80ha, 70ha effective

Cows: 200 Friesian, with some crossbred

Production: 2017-18: 69,000kg MS

Target 2018-19: 85,000kg MS

 

 

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