There are Jills of all trades, and then there is Rachel Usmar.
The Matamata farmer’s long list of on-and off-farm vocations underlines a passion for wanting to try everything.
She balances calf rearing, dairy farming, maintaining a native tree nursery, working as an AB technician during mating and as a hairdresser, has established a beef stud, and is actively involved in the Dairy Women’s Network.
Critical to being able to achieve all this is forging good relationships with farmers and rural professionals around the district.
She believes those connections are earned through trust and her work ethic, saying she would not be where she is today without these people, and they are also ready to help her out if called upon.
“Everyone still supports me to this day and that’s so cool.
“I’m pretty lucky in terms of the people that are helping me. They’re all friends helping me.”
Usmar grew up on a farm with most of her extended family working in the rural sector.
After leaving school at 16, she worked as hairdresser for 16 years before buying a property and becoming a calf rearer, rearing spring and autumn calves.
“I did a few things in between but never felt fully satisfied just being a hairdresser. I always felt like I had a bigger purpose in life,” she says.
She bought a 4ha block near Matamata where this year she is rearing 100 calves, which are mostly Friesian bulls but also include a small number of Speckle Park X and Jersey heifers.
At peak, around 450-500 calves are reared from four to seven days old, to 100-110kg.
The reduced number this year is so she can devote more time to her dairy farm, which is a five-minute drive away.
She sources the calves from local farmer contacts developed over the years. Upon arrival, the calves are in pens according to their age and are fed a mix of calf milk replacer with a probiotic, hay, meal and water.
That feed mix continues as they get older and are shifted to a nearby outside paddock to transition onto grass. When they reach 85kg, the calves are weaned off milk and onto pasture.
Usmar also keeps a close eye out for signs of animal health issues; any that show signs of sickness are separated.
The calves are sold onsite to finishers who take the calves through to a killable weight.
Fonterra’s new rules around ensuring all non-replacement calves have a value stream has prompted Usmar to aim for a zero-bobby policy on the dairy farm, where those calves are brought back to the rearing property.
“That’s a goal of mine with my herd. I want to try and have it so 100% of the calves are reared.”
Her plan is targeted AB for her replacements using sexed semen on the more crossbred and Jersey cows and an Angus bull from her stud for the more Friesian-looking cows to boost their value to finishers.
She is also into her ninth season as an AB technician for LIC and along the way – including this season – has trained five apprentices.
“I would feel like I would be missing out if I stopped because I’ve had the same ‘run’ for all of those years and they’re like family.”
These regular clients have also helped her foster relationships in the local farming community.
Over the past two seasons, Usmar has also run a native tree nursery, aiming in part to get plants into schools to educate children about the industry.
“I ended up taking some dirt and some seeds into town and showing these kids how to propagate mānuka seeds. We then went out onto a farm and planted them out onto a waterway.”
Last year the nursery grew about 10,000 seedlings and is contracted to grow 5000 this season for a riparian development project.
The idea of establishing a native nursery to grow plants for dairy farmers for riparian planting came after Usmar was helping her uncle with some fencing on his farm at Miranda on the Hauraki Plains and needed a large amount of plants.
A friend who owns a nursery helped her get going and she grew enough to help him out. Any extras were sold to farmers.
The seedlings mostly grow themselves apart from weed control, with most of the labour occurring when the plants arrive and she has to transfer them into their own pots.
Last year she stocked 10,000 native seedlings and this year has steadily increased that amount as demand increases.
Those seedlings will start arriving at the end of August and Usmar aims to have the potting completed by the end of November.
She also keeps hairdressing with a group of loyal clients coming to her salon built on the end of the calf-rearing farm’s implement shed.
“I usually do my hairdressing clients after milking or at night or during the weekends.”
It started with her purchasing some in-calf Angus heifers from local studs last year with these cattle due to calve shortly.
Once she has built the numbers, she wants to use these Angus genetics in her dairy herd to mate the non-replacement cows and raise the Angus-cross calves for hopefully an improved return as well as selling any of the Angus bull calves to beef breeders.
A major supporter of her endeavours has been husband Jared, who works as a ground-spread fertiliser truck operator, contracted to a local ground-spreading business.
Her latest venture is beef breeding, having created Mangawhea Angus – named after a nearby waterway.
Asked how she manages these tasks, she laughs: “You could say time management is one of my strengths. I wake up in the morning and I say, ‘I’ve got this and this to get done and what’s the most efficient way of getting it done?’”
Three seasons ago, she worked as a farm assistant on a nearby farm milking 200 cows. She contract milked 230 last season on a different farm before farming herself on a leasing arrangement on another farm for this season.
That farm is a 65ha property on rolling hills that milks 200 cows.
The dairy farm operates as a typical spring-calving, medium-intensity system using pasture first along with an in-shed feeding system to ensure the herd gets mineral supplements. Grass silage and baleage are used as supplementary feeds.
Usmar has one staff member, Cole Mitchell, who is helping her out over calving until the end of August before returning to his job as an LIC AB technician.
She has arranged for another person to help her on the farm through mating in late September, while she is also working for LIC.
Usmar credits the Dairy Women’s Network with playing a big role in helping her over the years.
She has been a DWN member for four years, having joined to meet other like-minded women. Over the course of that time she realised the business and leadership opportunities that existed within the organisation.
“I never realised those opportunities: personal growth and business growth and the people you meet, it comes back to those relationships again from the people that I’ve met.”
She is a committee member for the 2023 Brighter Braver Bolder conference and a member of DWN’s Te Awamutu Business Group.
This June, she has taken over as DWN’s Waikato regional hub leader, helping DWN regional leaders in the region on their own leadership journeys and helping them run events.
It caps off an impressive year for Usmar, who was named Regional Leader of the Year for 2023 at the organisation’s annual conference in Invercargill earlier this year.
Usmar said she felt humbled winning the award, finding it hard to believe that her everyday actions inspired others.
“I just do it because I love it,” she says.
Looking ahead, Usmar says her next big goal is farm ownership, with a tentative goal to achieve that in the next five years.
She says she does want to continue being an AB technician because she enjoys getting off the farm and interacting with other farmers.
Where that leaves her other businesses is something she will assess when the time comes, but they will be hard to give up simply because of the joy they give her.
“I love calves, and that’s why I still do them.”
This article first appeared in the September edition of our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.