Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Kiwi clarity inspires import

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Being a foreigner in a strange land is no barrier to progression in the dairy industry for one young woman from England. Samantha Tennent reports.
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Nicola Blowey is the manager on 575-cow farm at Fairlie. 

She was also the 2019 national winner of the Dairy Trainee of the Year at the New Zealand Dairy Industry Awards.

She has found consistency and clarity across the NZ dairy sector compared to the diversity in Britain where farmers use grass in some way across their systems.

“Back home discussions don’t have the same clarity,” Blowey says.

“Some farmers might house their cows year-round, some only in summer and some have their cows out as much of the year as possible. There’s a lot of variation.”

She appreciates having focused, clear discussions about what different farms are doing.

Blowey is from Devon in southwest England. She grew up in a small rural village but her parents had left farming and owned the post office. She went to an all-girls school in the city but followed her parents’ footsteps and joined Young Farmers when she was 14.

“We had strong links to the rural community but we didn’t have a farm ourselves.”

In England, before deciding which school subjects to take, students do a week of work experience. She chose to spend it on a farm, which confirmed she wanted to study agriculture.

She graduated from Harper Adams University in Shropshire with an agricultural science degree and wanted to expand her knowledge. Harper Adams is a specialist provider of higher education for the agriculture.  It compares to Lincoln University in NZ.

“I really liked the idea of going to Harper Adams because almost everybody does a placement.  I knew I would get to go out on farm for a whole year.

“That was important to me as I didn’t have much experience so it was a big opportunity to spend 12 months on-farm.”

She completed two years of study then a year on-farm gaining practical experience. She describes the system as reasonably intensive compared to NZ.

“It was a conventional system for the United Kingdom.

“The cows would go outside in the summer but they were housed most of the time and they were fed quite a lot of supplement through the shed.”

The cows were doing just under 10,000 litres, milked twice a day on a total mixed ration system.

The placement was a paid position, which helps students fund their study.

After completing a year of practical experience on-farm she returned to university for her final year of study. Though she enjoyed farming in Britain she was also keen to learn more about pasture-based systems.

So she decided to cast her net further afield and secured a role with Matt and Vanessa Greenwood in Fairlie who contract milk for Leonie and Kieran Guiney.

Moving to NZ was exciting as she was keen to get immersed in pastoral farming and she had heard good things about the farm.

She began as a farm assistant in July 2016 and progressed to 2IC the following season and then assistant herd manager last season when she won the dairy trainee title.

She is now the farm manager for the Greenwoods who altered the farm structure to give her the chance to grow and take further responsibility.

“I’ve been really lucky,” she says.

“They wouldn’t necessarily have a farm manager on this farm but they were able to make it work for me and it frees up Matt to do other things, too.

 “It’s a win-win. They were willing to alter the structure so I was able to stay here and continue to learn from them and the Guineys but also achieve some of my career goals, too.”

There are strong links between the Guiney farms and the awards. The Guineys came second at national level in the share farmer section and the Greenwoods have done well at regional level.

“I knew before I came to NZ Matt and Vanessa had won the pasture performance award when they entered the Canterbury share farmer of the year a few years ago.”

Last year Will Green, who was managing the Guineys’ home farm at Springfield, entered the awards and Blowey supported him through the process.

“It was really exciting to see how well he did. He entered for the first time and came second.”

“It showed me the scope of the awards, the quality of the people entering, the networks you can make from attending and being a part of it all.”

When they changed the rules this year it allowed people on work visas to enter so she explored the option.

“This was my one and only opportunity.

“The awards have specific rules around the trainee section to ensure a fair competition.  

“It was the first and the last year I was allowed to enter the trainee category in lots of different ways so I felt like that was telling me I should definitely give it a go.”

She wanted to benchmark herself against others. She won the trainee category for the Canterbury region and the national final.

“Winning was amazing.

“It was a real boost to demonstrate I am on the right track.”

She took home three merit awards including the Federated Farmers Farming Knowledge Award, the DeLaval Communication and Engagement Award and best video presented by Streamliner.

The national finals week in Wellington included a study tour with the other regional winners with whom she has kept in touch through a group chat, which is handy for comparing notes and asking questions.

“The networking has been invaluable.

“I’ve met some very impressive people through the awards.”

She says the awards were an eye-opener, especially when talking to others farming in different parts of the country. There is a lot of variety as the different regions are in different stages of their season relative to their local climate.

“It’s one thing I didn’t anticipate but it’s been really cool.

“I had only seen farms in operation in Fairlie and I’ve found it crazy how different it is across the country.”

The Greenwood farm is 175 hectares of mostly rolling country, 550m above sea level. It is one of four dairy farms owned by the Guineys and one of two without irrigation. 

The soil is mostly Claremont and the farm is covered in a permanent ryegrass-clover mix.  They use nitrogen only to fill deficits, particularly in early spring and through summer when the weather permits. Some years it can be as little as 150kg of nitrogen a hectare but up to 280kg/ha in a challenging season.

“We want to match supply and demand as closely as possible to maintain quality.”

She says they don’t set production targets because they target profit rather than production.

“The general aim is to make as much milk as possible from grass so we can maximise profits. 

“The average is 160,000kg of milksolids, which is just over 1000kg MS/ha.”

The herd is predominantly fed grass. The aim is to be solely grass-based in spring and autumn and push the round longer in late summer. A maximum of 300kg DM of supplement a cow is fed each season.

The supplementary feed tends to be palm kernel but it comes down to availability and cost. If there is a genuine pasture surplus they will look at making silage and feed it first. 

Supplementary feed is usually added from late January when the grass slows to build a bank of grass ahead of them and hold the quality for autumn and spring. They push the round out earlier than other farms in the area.

The palm kernel is fed in troughs in the paddock in late summer, which also means the risk of pasture damage is significantly reduced.

The cows spring calve, starting August 5. This season they pulled their calving date forward five days.

“We always thought balance date was October 10 but we were finding it was coming a little earlier each year so we moved forward to match the two irrigated farms.”

Unfortunately, Blowey and the team are struggling to keep up with demand. The herd got in-calf well last season and they are calving at a faster rate than usual. This combined with reduced pasture growth from lower temperatures means they are having to juggle the feed.

“We’ve put a bit of pressure on ourselves this year. We are a bit tight for grass.

“We are having to put a bit of silage into the dry cows to reduce demand until the growth comes.”

During the peak of calving they do a pick-up of new calves after the morning milking though they will check on the springer mob several times during the day. New-born calves are fed fresh gold colostrum.

They aim to keep about 110 replacements but do rear every heifer born so any excess can be sold to one of the other Guiney farms if they are short or want more.

They aim to wean calves at 100kg and once they reach target they are sent to the run-off from December 1 onwards.

Calves from all four Guiney farms are run together on the block and Blowey will usually get her own calves back as in-calf heifers.

Mating starts on October 27 with the new calving date. Blowey is responsible for most of the heat detection but is fortunate Matt can relieve her for days off.  

AI runs for four weeks and they tail with Jersey bulls for a total of 10 weeks mating.

“We didn’t do anything differently to help the cows last season despite pulling the calving start date earlier but they got in-calf really well.”

Pre-mating heats are recorded and any cows that have not cycled in the four weeks leading into mating are run with Hereford bulls. No intervention is used but the herd is Metrichecked before mating.

The heifers from all four dairy farms are run with the bulls and mated a week ahead of the herd.

The herd is body condition scored four times through the season by an independent scorer. Blowey speaks highly of her and her objective eye from the volume of condition scores she does daily.

Body condition scores are used at specific times throughout the season to split cows into mobs.

At pre-mating the team tries to keep the lighter cows closer to the shed so they can be treated slightly better and not have to walk as far.

“We expect the lighter mob to be mostly made up of the heifers.  

“Having them in their own mob allows us to bring them to the shed first and we try keep them closer and treat them better. It also reduces competition.

“Depending on their condition we can put them on once a day too if we need to.”

Drying off is staggered based on the body condition scoring and pregnancy testing in February.

“The scores help us decide which cows need to dry off early and which should go on OAD.”

Two herd tests are done each season with the second to target dry cow therapy. A final body condition score is taken at drying off to form the winter mobs. The cows are wintered on kale on a nearby support block.

Blowey has two farm assistants, both new to the dairy sector.

She and the team keep up with research and recommendations. They always review their practices and make plans based on supporting information.

Since emigrating to NZ she has completed Biz Start and Biz Grow through DairyNZ. She is also interested in doing the Agribusiness Diploma through Primary ITO but needs residence to be eligible.

Her Harper Adams degree has served her well but she wants to focus on the numbers and business side next to push her forward.

Because of visa restrictions she cannot move beyond farm manager till she has residence.

“It’s a lovely place to live and the dairy industry is really strong. It has a lot going for it in lots of different ways.

“Because it’s such a big part of the economy it means we have a significant impact in the country and that’s really nice to be able to pay back to the community here as a whole.

Blowey joined the Mackenzie District Young Farmers Club and has been secretary for two years. She is also Aorangi region secretary.

“Our club is strong. We go on farm tours and trips together regularly, as well as the monthly meetings.”

The club recently held a ball to raise awareness of mental health in the community. It snowed the night before the event, which created a few challenges, but it was successful with 300 people attending.

Money raised was donated to the Will to Live charity and the local Lions club. The club wants to hold more events to support wellbeing initiatives for their rural community.

She describes Fairlie as a diverse area. It has a range of dairy farms, arable farms and drystock farms. It draws people from the Mackenzie Basin too.

“I think Young Farmers is really important for that in this area.

“In the UK, Young Farmers has a stronger focus on the competitions and getting all club members involved to learn new skills and grow confidence.”

She sees NZ Young Farmers more focused on making social connections.

“A massive success of Young Farmers in NZ is bringing people together, bringing people off the farm and helping them make connections in the community.

“Farmstrong’s research showed people who are members of Young Farmers are less likely to report issues with mental health that significantly affect their lives.”

To help build social connections across the Guiney farms they also field a touch team for the local tournament in summer. Between the farm team and her Young Farmers club team she plays her fair share of games. She also helps fill spots in the local netball tournament too.

Every winter she has gone home to spend time with her family. She says it helps her remain focused when she is here.

She aspires to own a herd but wants to ensure she creates a profitable, sustainable business. Her ideal would be to be involved in several dairy businesses to create progression opportunities for other young people.

“I want to help others achieve their goals and, hopefully, I will be able to attract and work alongside keen, positive and focused people.

“Being part of an industry that fulfills so many key roles for society is very special and it is the relevance of agriculture to every one of us that is so rewarding.

“The range of knowledge and skills you build working in the industry and the variety of jobs we do and situations we face each season is really exciting.”

Fact box:

Owners: Kieran and Leonie Guiney

Contract milkers: Matt and Vanessa Greenwood 

Farm manager: Nicola Blowey

Location: Fairlie, Canterbury

Farm Size: 175ha 

Cows: 575 Kiwicross 

Production: No targets set but averages 160,000kg MS

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