Wednesday, April 24, 2024

From boats to boots

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A South Island farmer found a love for farming on the seas of the Caribbean. Now she’s juggling a new farm, a toddler and her annual AI run. And the key to it all? Looking after yourself.
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A farmer’s life is always busy, but when you add in looking after the family and a sideline business as an artificial breeding (AB) technician, with a run that is spread out over many kilometres, it can become a balancing act.

For Tasman farmer Abbi Ayre, that is what she has to contend with this season but says that her job as an AB tech complements her life as a farmer well, and while it will be a challenge with more balls to juggle, she’s looking forward to it.

“At the end of the day, it all comes down to if you’re doing something you’re passionate about, you make it work,’ Abbi says.

Abbi and husband Frikke are 50:50 sharemilking at Murchison, milking 650 cows out of a 1270-cow herd milked over two farms.

This season things are a bit different from others with a new farm to get to know and a new team, with one-year-old daughter Freya in tow, she will rely on her seven years of AB experience to help her navigate it, although she nearly missed out on a run.

“For a while, it looked like I might not get an AB run this season as there aren’t many around here. Luckily I managed to grab a small run of six farms, as well as our own two,” she says. 

“It’s small and the average herd size is around 300, with our own being the largest. I’m looking forward to meeting the farmers and getting stuck in and finding my groove with it while juggling mum life and the farm.”

Her interest in artificial breeding and inseminating began early in her farming career, so took a leap of faith and became trained.

“I kind of wanted to do it as soon as I started dairy farming, I guess. I couldn’t really tell you what drew me to it, to be honest,” she says.

“I wanted to make a bit of extra money and it’s a great skill to have. The knowledge you accumulate is invaluable as are the connections with other farmers.”

AB technician training kicks off with an intensive two-week course at the freezing works, to work on live animals and learn all the practical skills of the trade. After that, you become an apprentice for a season, working with a senior technician.

“You get to do all the inseminating yourself and the senior tech is there to help guide you and teach you more about the job. If your results are successful, you then get to service a group of farms on your own,” she explains.

She completed her apprentice run in Southland and spent the following years doing runs in Culverden, Duntroon and Ashburton, where she and Frikkie were farming.

Now working for CRV Ambreed, she has seven seasons under her belt. She is responsible for semen storage, handling and insemination. It’s crucial for good success rates that everything is stored, handled and noted down correctly.

“Your success rate can easily be determined by what head space you are in on the day, so it’s important to be able to leave home at home so you can focus on the task at hand. It’s as important as having good technique,” she says.

It’s a different life from the one she had planned.

She grew up on a small block near Wanaka so while not a stranger to being around animals, she admits farming wasn’t really on her radar until she left high school, although she did do a few agriculture papers at school.

“I grew up on a lifestyle block and during school I worked babysitting and tailing for a farm that was near us, so I wasn’t a stranger to the land,” she says.

Living not too far from the lake, she grew up with boats and the family spent many days out on the water. Her dream at high school was to work on a superyacht.

“When we were kids my parents actually took us on boat trips to Tonga to explore all the islands, which was incredible so my love for boating started young,” she says.

Throughout her school years, she sailed competitively and once she finished school she was keen to pursue her superyacht dreams and landed a stint working on a yacht travelling from the Caribbean to Tonga to deliver a 50-foot sailboat.

“I’d spent some time on a sheep and beef farm for a few months then went on this yacht trip,” she says.

“During that trip on the yacht, I realised how processed some of the food was and I didn’t want to be fuelling my body with that. After that trip, I decided I wanted to know a bit more about where my food came from.”

After the yacht trip I worked at Waipori Station for three months and loved working outside and not in an office.”

She then decided she wanted to study towards a Bachelor of Agriculture at Lincoln University but before heading off to study, she thought working the summer on a dairy farm could be a good way to earn some extra money and kick-start her career in the primary sector.

She landed a job on a 900-cow farm in Dunsandel. A few weeks in and she fell in love with the land and the cows.

“I didn’t end up going to Lincoln,” she says.

“I loved working on the farm so much that I couldn’t picture doing anything else. I don’t have any regrets about not going to study. I’ve since got a Diploma in Agribusiness though, to learn some new skills essential to helping grow our business on-farm.”

Towards the end of her time at her first farm, she met her now-husband Frikke, who worked on the farm next door. It wasn’t long before the pair started working together, and they’ve been working their way up the ladder together since.

This season they have gone into business with close friends to take on the 50:50 sharemilking job just outside of Murchison, milking 1270 cows across two farms.

The Ayres milk 640 cows on one farm under a split milking system, with 300 on whole-season once-a-day. It’s been an incredible opportunity for the couple to take a step up the ladder and have a lifestyle change that better suits their new family.

Previously, they were contract milking on a 1200-cow farm in Culverden. They had plans of continuing that for a few years before making some lifestyle changes and looking for a once-a-day opportunity.

“It was just through a series of events and conversations with our friends and this job popping up at the right time. Pooling our resources has meant we’ve all been able to take this step up the ladder that we couldn’t have done on our own,” she says.

She has always looked after the administration side of the business, as well as the calf rearing, which will be wrapping up just before the AB season kicks into gear.

“It’s not for everyone, but I really enjoy it. I’m still out on-farm as often as I can be. Freya loves the farm,” she says.

“Our 2IC’s wife and my parents will help take care of Freya during the AB season, which is amazing and takes the pressure off a bit.

“While it’s only six weeks of the year, it’s full-on, but I’m hoping that a smaller run compared to what I’m used to will help with juggling everything and ease the pressure.”

In the lead up to the AB season kicking off, she will do the rounds of the farms on her run. This gives her the chance to meet the farmers and go through the details of their mating plans. From there, it’s all about being organised.

“I’ll be making sure to stock up on snacks, getting enough sleep and being as organised as I can. My days will be many early starts and making sure I’m focused on the job at hand. I really enjoy getting out on farms and seeing what other people are doing with their breeding,” she says.

“One thing a friend told me pretty early on was that you’re not just an AI tech, you sort of become a bit of a counsellor or support person for farmers and that’s definitely true. Many farmers don’t see a lot of people outside their team for weeks on end, so having a friendly face to chat to can be really nice for them.”

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