NEW ZEALAND - An English farming couple opted to move to New Zealand to seize their chance at farming in a country full of opportunity.
Market access into China has boosted the dairy sector as farmers have profiteered from liberal environmental restrictions combined with low-input, pasture based dairy farming systems.
This is why Robert and Rachel Morris opted to try their hand at milking cows on New Zealand's south island.
As discussed in part one, sheep farms are converting to dairy production. Part pulled by profit and pushed by the rising cost of farming in New Zealand, cows are replacing ewes on many holdings due to the rising demand for dairy foods around the world.
But while booming exports are luring people towards milking, increasing regulations mean some farmers are forced into it as farming becomes a more costly business.
Rob says that old-fashioned ‘border dyke’ or ‘flood’ irrigation is being phased out for more economical spray irrigation at the behest of the Environment Agency.
"If you don't have irrigation over here then you are fighting a losing battle,” says Rob.
“People are looking at installing more efficient spray irrigation systems costing thousands per hectare.
“Although the initial outlay is considerable, utilising the resources means grass growth is more predictable".
“What’s happening is a lot of farms are being forced to convert to expensive pipe schemes but only dairy farms can afford it.”
“We know an older farmer who sold up after he had been given a price of NZ$300,000 to switch to spraying for his 40 hectare plot.”
Huge costs also face operations opting for housed systems as typical winter grazing routines are shunned as bad for soil structure and water conservation.
With most farms block calving, major pressure is put on land growing forage crops for winter grazing.
“People joke that legislation will make New Zealand ‘a mini Europe’,” says Rachel, but stresses that
New Zealand has some catching up to do.
“Some people are building sheds, others are toying with the idea – we are trying to avoid it.”
The Move Inside
As well as suiting sustainable farming ideals, moving cows inside allows farmers to explore Holstein genetics to give the yields required for indoor production costs.
While the cost of production in New Zealand is rising, Rachel and Rob maintain dairying remains cheaper than the UK, which is why they are happy with yields of 5,300 litres per lactation per cow.
"To justify the cost of the sheds you must produce more."
“Production is relative to the size of your animals."
This is a far cry from the farm where Rob learnt his trade in North Yorkshire where 9,500 litres was seen as par.
But the Morris’s explain that it is the scale of the herd, along with low feed costs, which makes their system profitable.
“To justify the cost of the sheds you must produce more,” says Rachel. “Our cows get parlour cake from calving in August to Christmas, then palm kernel into the New Year but generally we rely on grass.”
For farmers building sheds this means investing in Holstein genetics. However, the farm’s concern is parlour cake at NZ$500 a ton and so Rob is consequently exploring Friesians for their forage conversion ability.
His overall plan is for bigger cows that produce more. The average weight of his cows is 480 kilos, whereas in the UK dairy cows top 650 kilos.
“Production is relative to the size of your animals,” explains Rob. “If we are going to be buying high protein feeds, you need high producing cows – you just don’t get enough out of Jerseys.”
But while New Zealand cows produce less, the processors are more helpful. Farmers are sent a payment offer in June forecasting what milk will be worth and farms can budget accordingly.
“This year we got a record payout forecast of NZ$7.90 and we knew we could budget for a certain amount of feed,” says Rob.
“However, if we had been given a $5 payout then we would have relied on grass and not bought as many concentrates in.”
And as for the cost of production back home, Rob says: “UK farmers claim it costs 32-33 pence to produce a litre but if it cost that much over here then few would bother milking cows.”
Work and Play
As for the social side, Rachel says she has no regrets about leaving home, adding that New Zealand is ‘an exciting place to be’.
Making friends has been easy and she is pleased with the state of the farm.
“I like the seasonal milking here as you do one job and then look forward to the next,” explains Rachel. “The farm is currently moving forward, although there are some things that you miss about home.”
In addition to missing family and friends, Rachel says that some home comforts are hard to replace.
“You cannot get pork pies out here – not good ones anyway. Other than that, New Zealand is very like England – only sunnier.”
One surprise has been the number of like-minded English people who have also moved to try their hand abroad.
Rachel adds: “Our contractors are a couple from Norfolk and our vet studied at Liverpool.”
What’s more, the Morris’s have taken on an English Agriventure student as a full time worker meaning another Brit is benefiting from New Zealand’s dairy boom.
- Size: 220 hectares
- System: Grass-based, block calving
- Herd: 800 cows
- Management: Two parlours - roughly 400 cows each
- Cow Breed: Kiwi Cross, Friesian, Jersey
- Breeding: A.I. + Sweeper Bull
- Supplying: Fonterra and Westland Milk Products
- Staff: Rob, Rachel, 3 full time workers and two seasonal relief milkers
Top image via Shutterstock