Saturday, March 2, 2024

Journey from Cornwall to Gore only the beginning for dairying couple

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A young couple from Cornwall had no idea of the rollercoaster they were climbing aboard when they came to New Zealand to start their dairying careers just five years ago.
Ollie and Lauren Badcock are originally from Cornwall in the UK and came to New Zealand to start their dairy careers. Ollie, his mum Julie who is visiting from the UK, and Lauren watch Wilfred as he is let loose in the paddock with the herd for the first time.
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Sometimes it takes looking back to appreciate how far you’ve come and when a Southland farming couple did that, they realised just how many challenges they have navigated during their journey from Cornwall to farming in Gore.

Ollie and Lauren Badcock are variable order sharemilkers on a 280ha farm milking 850 Kiwicross cows. But when they first came to New Zealand to start their Kiwi dairying careers, they had no idea of the rollercoaster that was ahead of them. Looking back, the couple said they’re a bit in awe of what they’ve achieved in just five years.

“I remember saying to Ollie a year ago that I didn’t feel like we were getting anywhere. But looking back, when we came here, we had nothing. Now that we’ve built a business, we have assets and are actively striving towards our farm ownership dreams. Sometimes it’s good to look back to appreciate where you are now,” Lauren says.

Hailing from Cornwall in the UK, Ollie and Lauren came from different backgrounds. Ollie grew up on the land and knew from just 16 years of age that dairy farming was the career for him. On the other hand, Lauren was a townie through and through and had aspirations of becoming a top-notch lawyer after completing her law degree. But, tiring of the rat race, the couple decided they wanted to head in a different direction with their lives and found themselves heading to Australia on a money-making and travel adventure.

“I had a job at a solicitor, and Ollie was working on a dairy farm. We decided to head to Australia with the intention that Ollie would find a farming job and I’d work in town or something. The job we ended up getting was too far from town for me to work off the farm, so I started off as the nanny before stepping into the hands-on farming bit,” Lauren says.

This short jaunt down under was enough to give Lauren the farming bug too, and upon their return to Cornwall they found a contract milking job that suited them, and they started their farming career as a duo. Just five minutes from the beach on a dairy farm that produced its own ice cream, it was as good as farming gets for lifestyle.

Lauren and Ollie Badcock with their son Wilfred, 18 months, are variable order sharemilkers on a 280ha farm, milking 850 Kiwicross cows in Gore, Southland.

“We started to think really seriously about our careers in farming. Progression in the industry in the UK tends to be very within the family, and the opportunities for outsiders to progress are limited. We’d learnt a lot about Australian and New Zealand dairy industries and saw much more opportunity, so we decided we’d give dairying a go in New Zealand,” Ollie says.

The couple initially landed in the Waikato hoping to start their journey, but due to visa limitations they often didn’t get a look-in from prospective employers. Not wanting to give up on their ambitions, they opened themselves up to opportunities from around the country, including the South Island. 

“We applied for two jobs and ended up getting one purely because it was a long way out from town and no one really wanted it. It was a manager’s role in Clinton, and it ended up being a bit of a baptism by fire,” Ollie says.

Just a few weeks after the couple started the job Ollie had a quad bike accident which saw him shatter his tibia and fibula. He was airlifted to Dunedin Hospital and experienced a few complications that almost resulted in losing his leg. During this time, it was up to Lauren to keep things ticking along on the farm, surrounded by a bunch of people she’d just met, and with limited farming experience under her belt.

“One of the things we struggled with when we moved to our first farm was integrating into a very rural community. It was hard to meet people. We met the neighbours for the first time because of Ollie’s accident. The guy was on call with the local volunteer fire brigade,” Lauren says.

Ollie made a full recovery with the help of some metal to keep things together. The couple slowly started getting comfortable in their new farming life and gradually started to feel part of the rural community. 

“One thing we will say for rural communities is that when the chips are down, you can always count on everyone to help,” Lauren says.

The 280ha dairy platform is part of a 1600ha sheep station. It was converted to dairy 15 years ago and is run as a System 3. The 850-cow herd produces 360,000kgs MS.

Adding even more complexity into the mix was their mob of reared calves. In their second season farming in New Zealand, they decided to rear some calves to build equity to reach their 50:50 sharemilking dreams. Due to the situation on the farm they were managing, they had to source alternative grazing, which they found about 20 minutes from the farm – but this brought logistical issues as well as extra costs to their business.

“We really wanted to get ahead but in hindsight probably made a rod for our own back but at the time we didn’t have residency at that point so it was really our only option to grow something for ourselves,” Ollie says.

Eighteen months ago, they welcomed their son Wilfred into the family, but amid covid, stepping into their first contract milking job and going into a spring where they were understaffed, it was another challenging time.

“We couldn’t get family into the country, so we really had to rely on our ‘village’ of friends and neighbours for support. Like Ollie’s accident, it was another one of those times where we felt pushed to our limits, but this time we knew people, which made it easier,” Lauren says.

Earlier this year saw a turning point for the couple, who had by then worked their way into a contract milking position. A 50:50 sharemilking position came up that the couple almost took, but for all the wrong reasons. 

“It didn’t really fit us in terms of our values. The efficiencies weren’t there, and it didn’t feel ‘right’. We would have hamstrung ourselves on the things that are important to us in a business and lifestyle. So we ended up selling our herd at a good price, which helped us into the variable order sharemilking job we took up in June.”

Selling the stock they had reared was a tough decision, especially from an equity point of view. However, they had hit a point where the herd either needed to be leased out or they needed somewhere to milk them. 

Their new farm, so far, suits them down to the ground, and they found that their values were well aligned with those of farm owners Andrew and Heather Tripp.

“They’ve been incredibly supportive of us and encourage us all the time. We genuinely feel like they want us to go far, which is really lovely to have that extra backing, particularly during those times when you’re lacking a bit of faith in yourself,” Lauren says.

The diverse farm team have daily toolbox meetings to discuss the upcoming day, and weekly sit-down meetings. From left, Prabath, Megan, Lauren, Ollie, seated, Matt, Wilfred and Boss the dog.

The 280ha dairy platform is part of a 1600ha sheep station, which brings many benefits. The System 3 farm is peak milking 850 cows and a short drive to the township of Gore and perfectly situated in the hills for good rain patterns in the summer to keep grass production near steady year-round.

The dairy platform portion of the farm was converted 15 years ago to a high standard, which means in terms of infrastructure, Ollie and Lauren hit the jackpot.

“The infrastructure is certainly one of the biggest strengths of the farm. We have excellent laneways, calving pads, and a 400-cow feed pad. It’s all been set up with elevation in mind. We do catch snow and frosts here. Having a good flood wash, greenwash, and the feed pad gives us extra ability to carry on feeding the cows when it’s miserable weather and not ruin the pasture,” Ollie says.

The wintering and feed set-up is a perk of the dairy platform being part of a sheep station. Silage is grown and bought in from the sheep station for winter supplement each year, and nothing is wintered on the milking platform. Everything is wintered on the sheep station.

“We winter half our cows on silage and the other half are wintered on crops. Young stock are grazed on the station from weaning through to calving as R2s. The sheep station is basically a big hill with quite fertile flats on either side, so it’s quite good. The sheep station and the dairy platform are very complementary systems,” Ollie says.

A big part of their plan to squeeze extra efficiency out of the farm is to use grass better, which rolls into their fertiliser plan and grazing policy. Rather than relying on bulk feed coming in, they’re trying to make the most of every kilogram of dry matter produced.

Progression in the dairy industry in the UK tends to be limited to family so Ollie and Lauren with son Wilfred came to New Zealand as they could see plenty of progression opportunities.

With no crops grown on the platform, it’s generally a grass-to-grass regrassing policy with 15% of the farm  regressed each year and priority given to the poorer performing paddocks. Given the age of the dairy platform, most pastures are fairly young, and from a fertiliser perspective, the focus tends to be on adding sulphur back into the soil.

Because of previous grass grub issues, most of the farm is sowed with diploid AR37 preventative grass grub endophyte. It’s a more expensive seed, but it grows grass for longer and is highly persistent.

“In previous years, they had big chunks of the platform out due to grass grub, so while it’s an increased cost, the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term fails,” Ollie says.

Summertime residual targets are aimed at 2650 pre-grazing and 1500 post grazing with a focus on maintaining quality at all times. If grass is starting to get ahead, round length will be sped up, or paddocks dropped out for surplus if needed. To keep on top of this the team do weekly pasture walks on foot.

“I was once told that the best thing you can put on your farm is footprints, so we tend to do our farm walks on foot. Each staff member has a different part of the farm they measure. This is great for consistency and because we want all our staff to have these skills to assess grass quality and understand where stock needs to go next.”

They draw up whiteboards that cover grazing plans, residuals, work lists and everything else that needs to be communicated to the whole team to keep everything running smoothly. Every team member is involved in grazing planning and management, with the expectation that they can all track and monitor residuals and make tweaks to the rounds if necessary.

“For fertiliser, the bulky will come in and do 70-100ha as the first round of ammonia sulphate and humate. Once this first round is done, we will follow the cows for five to six applications with 30kg of nitrogen as urea to give the grass a kick of nitrogen.”

Lauren is in charge of all calf-rearing and is quite particular when it comes to the calves.

The Kiwicross herd has been bred for efficiency and their focus will be on efficiency in the 1:1 liveweight for milksolids produced. Currently, the herd is sitting at 90% efficiency with production while the farm is sitting at about 80%, but with some focus on using grass better, they’re confident they can squeeze a bit extra out of the system.

Planned start of calving kicked off on August 10. In previous years the herd has had some difficulties with down cows with substantial money and time going into trying to solve the issue. 

Calving 2021 saw the down cow trend going in a more positive direction, but this year with their springer policy and diet changes, they’ve only had to bag one cow so far this season out of the 400 that had calved at the time.

“It wasn’t about reinventing the wheel on a new farm, and we haven’t done anything drastic,” Ollie says. 

“We’ve tried to utilise the minerals better to ensure that each cow gets the correct amount. 

Previously minerals were spread on a self-feed silage stack, so it was hard to know how much each cow was getting. Now, we walk the cows through to the feedpad with the minerals. It’s a bit more accurate and allows us the opportunity to split off cows and calves in one movement, rather than chasing them around.”

The small change has been huge, and speaks to their philosophy when it comes to farming: to increase overall efficiencies.

“We want everything to be as efficient as possible, whether that’s grazed grass or staff management. If we can do an extra job on the way to getting the cows in, that tightens everything up,” Lauren says.

Lauren grew up as a townie and completed a law degree but after a stint in Australia where the farm was too far for her to work in town, she decided to help out and has been on farms ever since.

On the calf-rearing front, Lauren leads this part of the farm. With 250 heifers and 100 beefies lined up for rearing this year it’s a busy time. Luckily the calf-rearing sheds are set up perfectly with long bays that can accommodate 20 to a pen.

“I’m quite particular when it comes to calf rearing,” she says.

“I’ve been to a number of seminars that spoke on the importance of colostrum testing, so being quite a literal person, I went out and got everything I needed for that. It’s given us really great results over the years, so now every cow gets tested. Everything gets gold colostrum 22 on the refractometer and above.”

This year, the couple have been lucky enough to have another helper on the farm, Ollie’s mum, who’s in New Zealand for four months from the UK. 

“It’s been amazing having her here over calving to help with Wilfred. Being able to be rear the calves without a toddler in tow has been great. It also means I can focus completely on the calf rearing, plus that added support means I can get out on farm for other jobs when needed easily as well,” Lauren says. 

They are both AB technicians and passionate about making gains in breeding and genetics. The herd’s six-week in-calf rate sits around 76%, so the bar has been set quite high for them, but they are hoping that, with some tweaks, they can improve that and get the empty rate down from 11% closer to 9%.

The focus for this mating season will be on using sexed semen for four weeks on the top tail of the herd to get their replacement stock. This will be followed by six weeks of the bull, with mating kicking off November 2.

“The policy in the past has been mating the top 50% of heifers to AB, which we will still do. But it’s also about reducing bobbies and waste in the system,” Ollie says.

Ollie grew up on the land in Cornwall and knew from an early age he wanted to go dairy farming. Ollie heads off with his dog Boss, to get the herd in for milking

“We want to utilise the genetics coming through in the heifer and get more consistency coming through by using the sexed semen. By tailing with beef bulls, we’re using Herefords; we hope to get some premiums there too.”

For selecting sires, they keep things simple, looking for good stature, average-sized animals that will achieve their 1:1 ratio goals for liveweight to milksolids. One of the things they pride themselves on is their bull management. They have a day team and a night team of bulls who don’t leave the paddock.

“They don’t go in the laneways with the cows. We do this so they’re not expending energy by fighting or walking further than they need to. It helps keep the cows calmer on the lanes as well. It’s really just basic stock management skills,” Ollie says.

Animal health-wise, they approach this the same as everything else on farm – if they don’t measure it, they can’t manage it. The core of their animal health programme is ensuring cows are well fed, sitting at an appropriate body condition score for the time of year, and that they never have to chase big jumps in liveweight gain.

“We body-condition score each month, this just makes it easier to make tweaks to their diets if we notice a bit of slippage in weight. We’d rather deal with issues early,” he says.

They use apps like the DairyNZ foot-trimming app to keep track of which cows have been trimmed and what type of lameness is popping up.

“You often forget that you’ve dealt with 20 whiteline lesions, so if you look at that data, you can start investigating causes and problem-solve it. With animal health as a whole, for us, it’s really about good stockmanship, which doesn’t have to be complicated.”

They work with the shepherds on the sheep station and hold monthly meetings with the farm owner and all the staff across the two farms to ensure everyone is across what’s happening in the farm business. It helps ensure that the two farms are running efficiently and cohesively.

“The farm owners want everyone involved in those monthly meetings as much as possible. 

They have a solid vision and set of values regarding how they run their business and it cultivates a lovely little community out here,” Ollie says.

With eight families living on the station, they’ve decided to set up a station market garden for everyone, with extras being offered to locals via an honest box at the end of the road. They’re also planning some off-farm social events for everyone to further the team culture and bond.

Ollie and Lauren Badcock are focusing on the future – growing more equity is top of the list to set themselves up for a 50:50 sharemilking position within the next few years.

For their dairy platform team, it’s been an exercise in upskilling for them as their team is the biggest they’ve ever had with five full-time staff over spring and 3.5 FTE the rest of the year.

Team experience and focus is varied, from one staff member who is very animal-focused to another who’s never had to look too closely at pasture management practices.

“We’ve done a lot of work to upskill ourselves because we knew this would be a pain point, so to speak. We’ve also been fortunate to have wonderful mentors, neighbours and others in the industry to lean on for advice and support when it comes to managing a team,” Lauren says.

This year, they participated in the DairyNZ mark and measure course, which gave them some useful tips on growing the team’s capabilities and their own by being more strategic. They’ve also been introduced to the FarmTune programme, formally called the LEAN management programme, which got them thinking more critically about how they run things and where they can pick up efficiencies.

The team have daily toolbox meetings to discuss the upcoming day, and weekly sit-down meetings with an agenda that includes the opportunity for the team to give feedback to them on how they can improve.

“Because we have such a diverse team in terms of ethnicity and experience, it’s important to make sure everyone feels heard and valued. We want to give everyone the opportunity to come away from their time with us with a well-rounded skillset and the confidence to go into their next opportunity,” Lauren says.

While they are only in their formative months on their new farm, they are focusing on the future. 

Growing more equity is top of the list to set themselves up for a 50:50 sharemilking position within the next few years.

They say they’ve taken valuable knowledge and experience from each of their Kiwi dairying jobs, and, having entered into the industry fairly naïvely, are better off for it.

“In looking back at the past five years and thinking about our measure of success, it’s really in celebrating the small wins and realising how far we have come. It’s celebrating fewer down cows this year, letting calves out for the first time, and enjoying family time on and off farm. Our end goal of farm ownership will be where we set it, but we are enjoying the journey to get there.”

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