Behind the scenes at New Zealand’s top dairy farm – run by an ‘Irish’ couple

behind-the-scenes

In front of nearly 550 people at Auckland’s Sky City Convention Centre, Christopher and Siobhan O’Malley were recently were named the 2017 New Zealand Share Farmers of the Year.

The O’Malleys have strong connections with Ireland Siobhan’s maiden name was O’Rourke and Christopher is an O’Malley and his mother was an O’Connor.

Both come from Irish immigrant families, Siobhan’s family came over on the convict ships after the famine, so the family lost the links back to Ireland.

Christopher’s family immigrated in the more recent past and come from Firies, Co. Kerry, and he still has O’Connor relatives he can call on when he is in the country.

Siobhan and Christopher also came to Ireland on a working holiday in 2007, where they worked in an Irish tour company on power boats in Dublin Bay at the time and lived in Donaghmede, Dublin.

“We made some great friends during our time in Ireland, including our daughter’s godmother,” they both said when the spoke to FarmIreland.ie this week.

The O’Malleys clearly have a strong partnership on which to grow their business and to thrive on a challenge.

The O’Malleys, both aged 34 years, are 50pc sharemilking 515 cows on Graham Brookers 138ha farm in Ashburton.

Christopher’s grandfather and two of his uncles were dairy farmers and jokingly Sioban said this meant that Christopher tried to do anything BUT farming for a number of years.

“However, when Christopher’s brother was looking for staff when we got back to New Zealand from Ireland in 2009, he decided to give it a go and has never looked back,” she said.

Farm system

The O’Malley run a DairyNZ System 3. This means they are seasonal calving in spring (so calving 530 cows August-October) and have majority grass based feed.

“We add in a little bit of bought in supplement feed on the shoulders of the season when the grass growth isn’t keeping up with demand. The type of supplement we buy depends on what we can afford.

“Sometimes PKE, grain (barley, wheat), or grass silage.

“Generally we only use 500-700kgDM per cow supplement, depending on the weather for the year and the grass growth,” Siobhan said.

They also grow some fodder beet on farm to feed as autumn supplement and to transition the cows onto before they go to wintering on fodder beet.

“All our youngstock leave the farm for a graziers at weaned and return in calf heifers. Our herd winters on a different farm so no animals on our platform June-July,” she said.

Farm info?

Location: Lauriston, Mid-Canterbury, South Island, New Zealand
Farm size: 138 hectares
Herd size: 520 cows
Cow type: Kiwi Crossbred
Av yield: This season we produced 232,000 kgMS (2,608,000 litres) from our farming operation.
Milk Solids: 470kgMS per cow per annum
Parlour type: 54 bail rotary with automatic cup removers and auto teat sprayers
Staff no.: 2 staff plus Christopher (and Siobhan helps out with the kids in tow)
Share farming

Asking Siobhan how the share farming system works in New Zealand? She responded that “this is a complicated question”.

“In New Zealand we have a long history of sharefarming (sharemilking).

“It basically means that a younger farmer can take a percentage of the milk cheque and assume responsibility for paying for all the labour and machinery, motorbikes, fuel and the dairy shed costs.

“This can take lots of forms with countless variations in which costs are the sharefarmer’s and which the landowners.

“We are herd owning sharemilkers so we own all the cows and take responsibility for the labour, fuel, machinery, electricity, irrigation, urea, youngstock, breeding, grazing, and animal health. In return, we get half (50pc) of the milk cheque – that’s why it is sometimes called 50-50 sharemilking.

“This system allows younger farmers to build up their equity over time and grow their businesses until they can afford to buy their own farm and it also allows landowning farmers to step back from the day to day running, the hiring and compliance of staff, but still enjoy their asset and involvement as much as they want.

“The only thing is that generally to get a “promotion” to a greater share of the responsibility or larger herd numbers, you have to move farms to a new contract, so the life can be a bit unsettled.

“We have lived on six farms in eight years in four districts,” she said.

Milk Price

Siobhan highlighted that New Zealand has a very small domestic market and farmers are paid according to the global milk price as a commodity.

“We have zero government subsidies,” she noted.

“The past few years, the milk price has been well below cost of production. For 2014-15 the payout was 4.40/kgMS and for 2015-16 the payout was 3.90/kgMS.

“This season (2016-17) the payout is predicted to be 6.15/kgMS,” she said.

Siobhan explained that due to the way their payments are structured this means they typically get about half of the “milk price” inside the season that milk was produced, and the other half during the following winter (or not at all in the case of 2015).

“So although the milk price is much better for us this season, we are still waiting for most of it to hit the bank accounts so we can really feel the uplift on farm,” she said.

Irish workers

The O’Malleys have hired there fair share of Irish workers over the years. Siobhan noted that they always enjoy Irish workers.

“Possibly because of our time living in Ireland.

“Usually they are a bit overwhelmed by how many cows we milk over here in our average herd sizes, but they soon settle into the rhythm of it!

“And they have a great sense of humour so they are good to work alongside,” she said.

Key issues facing dairy farming in New Zealand

Siobhan noted that public perception of dairying in New Zealand is a key issue.

“The local media has a sustained campaign to label dairying bad for the environment, specifically for water quality, in spite of the massive spending and systems change happening on farm to mitigate the problem of nitrogen leaching into the groundwater.

“In the future, this nitrogen problem should be corrected due to farmers’ actions, however the urban public have been convinced that dairy cows are bad,” she said.

“Our challenge is to ensure we have a social licence to farm by showing the New Zealand public what good stewards of the land we are.

“The other issue young dairy farmers are facing is the long pathway to farm ownership – it is still achievable but takes some out of the box thinking and hard work.

“The risk is that corporations, or overseas buyers, are buying farms in New Zealand and keeping their prices rising ahead of what the younger generation, owner-operators can afford to buy,” she highlighted.

Despite this Siobhan says she would absolutely encourage others to get into dairy farming in New Zealand.

“We have had no family farm or family money. We started with nothing and through the past six years sharemilking we have grown our equity massively.

“We see farm ownership as the ultimate goal, but we need massive growth to get there.

“The dairy industry in New Zealand is an exciting field where information and training is almost always free and the chance to work hard and get somewhere still exists,” she said.
Source: Independent Ireland

Link: http://www.independent.ie/business/farming/dairy/behind-the-scenes-at-new-zealands-top-dairy-farm-run-by-an-irish-couple-35758752.html

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