Stephen O'Keefe: Stephen Cullinan Scholarship New Zealand 2017

By Stephen O'Keefe, Kilmallock Macra

It’s hard to believe it’s almost six months since I flew over the snow-covered Southern Alps, unsure of what to expect upon my arrival in New Zealand. Our bus trip from the airport to Ashburton in South Canterbury was a bit of a jaw dropping experience, seeing large herds of cows been strip grazed through beet and kale, and sheep munching their way through turnips.

One of the big differences I noticed immediately was the lack of buildings on farms here. Most just have a milking shed along with a couple of lean-to calf houses for young calves. With cows out-wintered down here, there are huge time savings to be made during the year, it used take two hours a day to feed all the mobs of cows during the dry period. There is also the labour benefit of having no slurry to be spread or cubicles to be cleaned. But it meant having a mob of 400 cows in a grass paddock calving, was a slightly surreal experience.

I’m currently working on Kintore farm which is based in Carew, 18 miles south of Ashburton. There are 1500 sping calving, kiwi-cross cows split between two farms that are divided by a road. On the farm cows are milked through a 60 unit Waikato rotary. The parlour has automatic drafting, auto-teat sprayers and cluster removers along with a heat detection camera.

There are three full-time staff members working at Katoa along with a student for the calving period. Specialised calf-rearers are contracted in to feed calves from birth to weaning. A local person is also contracted to do the fertiliser and other tractor work using Kintore's machinery when required. During calving everyone was rostered onto a 6-1 roster, where you worked six days and had one off to recharge the batteries. Near the end of calving we resumed our normal roster of 7-2-7-3 where you work for seven days and get either two or three days off. 

A normal day starts at 4.15am with cups on at 4.45am and 1.45pm with two hours taken off for lunch between milking.  Most days we aim to be heading home by 4.30pm, while we take turns in shifting cows to a new break of grass in the evening if it’s required.

The farm is 212 hectares in size with 10 hectares sown with fodder beet. A few weeks after arrival there was huge rainfall causing severe flooding around Ashburton, however within 48 hours all traces had disappeared due to the highly permeable soil structure around Canterbury. One farmer described the land as, ‘having a foot of topsoil followed by stone to Africa around here’. Even placing standards into the ground for fencing can be an ordeal at times due to the stony texture of the soil.

On farm I couldn’t believe how hygienic the milking parlour is. The walls and rails are scrubbed by hand after each milking so it’s always clean inside. The farm motorbike is the best tool famers have down here, they use them for rounding up cows, grubbing thistles and even putting reels up while driving on them. The motorbike saves a lot of time as it helps get tasks done, like putting up reels, a lot faster.

The dairy industry here is heavily dependent on foreign labour, houses are built on remote farms for staff in order to make the industry attractive for people. There were 10 different nationalities working at Kintore this spring. I’ve learned a great deal about people management since I arrived here. The farm has a logo displayed on arrival saying, ‘Kintore Farm – Powered by People’. This has stuck with me because the idea behind the motto is that you need the right people on your team for it to be successful, be it farm workers, contractors, suppliers and advisors. Barbeques are a regular occurrence on farms down here, they help staff to bond and have a good yarn after a week’s work

Like many other young farmers I always contemplated coming to New Zealand to experience dairy farming down here but never set about it. I chanced applying for the Stephen Cullinan scholarship in May and was successful in getting offered a place on the trip.

It’s been a real eye-opening experience. In particular, I have witnessed how it is possible to manage a large scale dairy farm, which has developed a system so that everyone employed there has a decent quality of life with regular downtime in the evening along with rostered days off. 

Also having contact with New Zealand Dairy Careers on arrival has been a huge asset. They played a major role in organising top class farmers to mentor us. I think it’s vital for anyone thinking of pursuing a career in agriculture to get out and travel, be it to New Zealand or another country, or participate in an active discussion group. I think it’s a phenomenal way to learn about new technologies and ways of running simple, profitable systems of production.