Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Reluctant farmer sets standards

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Cameron Henderson grew up on a dairy farm in Waikato but early in his career he decided dairy farming wasn’t for him. Eight years ago he saw a new light in the industry and joined the gold rush of dairying in a new pocket of Canterbury. His journey to farm ownership has been somewhat of a roller-coaster ride but he has no regrets. Annette Scott joined him on-farm to hear his story.
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Cameron Henderson started his journey in the dairy industry working for Fonterra as a business analyst.

Growing up on the family dairy farm in Waikato he’d made the call early that he wasn’t keen on being a dairy farmer.

“As a kid I thought there’s got to be more to an agricultural career than wet, cold and mud. 

“That’s why I didn’t want to be a farmer and I’m not a big animal lover – that’s not what floats my boat.

“I went to university and did engineering and finance with plans to climb the corporate ladder. The family farm did give me a good learning ground.”

He didn’t stray too far from his family’s roots in dairy farming, starting out in the industry working in the corporate IT space with Fonterra.

But in 2009 the lure of the dairy gold rush in Canterbury got him thinking of life as a dairy farmer.

“Canterbury seemed the place to be, the land of opportunities with conversions all go in a new pocket of North Canterbury.

“My family had contacts with landowners down there and it all happened very quickly. 

“I finished up with Fonterra on a Friday and started on the Monday as a farm assistant with corporate farmers milking 1000 cows at Rakaia.”

He moved from there as a herd manager to take up a 2IC position on a dairy farm at Mayfield in Mid Canterbury and within 18 months of hitting the South Island bought his block of land at Oxford in North Canterbury in 2011.

With 190 hectares and a clean slate to play with Cameron, with the support of his family, set about converting to dairy.

“It was a clean slate conversion, no houses, no fencing, no water and a shoestring budget.”

The initial years were tough going but Cameron was determined he could make it work. 

The housing issue was solved with houses from red-zoned Christchurch land following the February 2011 earthquake.

The fencing happened, plans for water and irrigation were pursued then the windfall 2013-2014 milk price payout spike at $8.40/kg MS posed a new opportunity but not without unprecedented challenges.

“We bought the neighbour’s, adding another 48ha but then the drought set in and we didn’t initially get water. It was a struggle.

“Looking back it was optimistic planning but it’s not been all plain sailing.

“There’s been tough times, low payouts, drought years, staff issues – a real roller-coaster.

“It’s taken eight years and finally everything’s lining up to make this farm pay this year. It’s been a great start to the season so far.”

Last season the farm peaked at 700 cows producing 312,000kg milksolids. This season the herd is at 730 cows forecast to produce 340,000kg MS.

The farm operates under a low-cost, low-input system.

“We are pretty much a traditional Canterbury dairy farm system working to keep it as simple and as enjoyable as possible for good, cohesive teamwork.”

As the farm operations manager Cameron’s preferred space is in engineering and machinery rather than the day-to-day running of the herd.

“Does the farm need to be all dairy? Can we do other stuff?

“I’m keeping an eye on options such as sheep milking or goat milking and growing other crops.

“For me it’s about considering options for diversification to mitigate risk and increase sustainability and future proof business.”

Meantime, having committed himself and everything he’s done over the past eight years to developing a paying farm he thinks maybe it’s time for a new challenge.

“We borrowed a lot to do what we have done here as a family and I am fully committed personally, financially and socially to make it work. 

“Finally, it’s a paying a farm.

“So now maybe my next big thing is a wife and family.”

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