A Catlins couple tell Rob Tipa their ‘leap of faith’ into dairying has turned out for the best.
When the Hartvigsen family bought a sheep and beef farm in the Owaka Valley nearly 15 years ago, they saw it as a stepping stone towards a bigger property.
Then when a neighbouring sheep farm came up for sale 10 years ago, they went to see their bank manager to see if they could buy it.
“He said yes, but we would have to milk cows,” Cody and Nicola Hartvigsen say.
It was a huge leap of faith because the pair had not milked cows before, but it was also the push they needed to switch from sheep and beef farming, which was struggling at the time, to dairying.
The couple merged two 160ha sheep and beef farms into a 320ha dairy unit, now known as Valley Dairy Farms, with a 60ha run-off to graze all stock on-farm through the winter.
“Things happened so fast we didn’t have time to think about it. We just got in and did it,” Cody says.
They had to re-fence both farms, build a new cowshed in the centre and create lanes, so they had builders, fencers and earth-moving contractors all on site at the same time.
They had a clearing sale of capital stock, tailed, fattened and sent all lambs to the works and then cut silage to keep enough feed in front of them for the next three years.
Fortunately, the pair went into their dairy conversion with five equity partners – two accountants, a lawyer, a veterinarian and a sheep and beef farmer. They have since bought out one of the partners.
“It’s a great combination,” Nicola says. “We’ve been extremely lucky having the team we’ve got.”
The expertise of their partners in dairying was particularly helpful, especially in securing milking cows at a time when prices for stock nationally were rising steadily.
On the advice of their accountant, they held off until the milk price dropped and secured a herd of dairy heifers from the North Island at a good price.
The Hartvigsens didn’t expect to build such a strong attachment to their cows or their land, but their investment in their stock and property, protecting its biodiversity, and the lifestyle and landscapes of living in the Owaka Valley has them hooked.
Cody says they expected to set up the dairy unit, run it for four or five years, then move back into sheep and beef farming.
“But I can’t see that ever happening,” he says. “No way would we go back to sheep and beef.”
“I think we’ve had more good years than bad,” Nicola adds. “We had one really tough year but by then we’d paid off a bit of debt.”
“We’ve also got three kids (daughters Olivia,11, Maia, 9, and Indi, 5) at school so we don’t want to move in a hurry for their sake,” she says.
Their efforts balancing the development of a large dairy farm from scratch while enhancing and protecting its biodiversity in a sensitive catchment was rewarded in the Otago Ballance Farm Environment Awards in Wanaka recently.
The couple won the Dairy New Zealand Sustainability and Stewardship Award and the Otago Regional Council Quality Water Management Award, two prestigious awards that recognised their strong environmental focus.
Cody says the awards were particularly satisfying because it was an acknowledgement of a team effort by everyone involved, including their equity partners, current staff and former workers who had helped with the farm conversion.
The award judges commended the couple for their hard work and the financial security of the partnership, which allowed the business to grow.
They said the pair made good use of external advice, were pro-active with decision-making and had the ability to adapt and be flexible.
They also noted their strong environmental focus, fencing off waterways, riparian planting, efficient effluent storage and nutrient management programmes.
From their background sheep and beef farming on intensive land on the Southland plains, Cody maintains that farming is all about feeding stock well – regardless of the stock class – and feeding the farm.
“We came from really good land at Rakahouka, but we could fatten our lambs faster here than we could at Rakahouka because there’s a lot more sunshine and the ground is a lot drier,” he says.
“We had to adapt quickly to dairy farming because, with equity partners in the business, we had to perform.”
Valley Dairy Farms is currently milking 730 cows, down from its peak four years ago when the farm produced 320,000kg/MS off 840 cows, but with the benefits of self-sufficiency of wintering all cows on farm on 20ha of swedes and 16ha of second-crop fodder beet.
They have wintered young stock off the farm in the past but intend to keep most of their animals on-farm in future. They have a 60ha runoff block and make their own balage.
The Hartvigsens are happy with current production of 400kg/MS per cow or 1100kg/MS per hectare, which is above average for the rolling topography of their property, and see some scope for improvement.
Hereford bulls are used after AI and their bull calves are always well sought after by beef finishers, who are regular buyers.
Effluent is managed through a 120-day storage pond with a weeping wall to filter out solids. Liquids are spread over a large part of the farm through a K-line system but Cody is looking at the possibility of using a specialised tanker with a stirrer to spread effluent to the far corners of the farm.
Soil tests of monitor paddocks are done annually and a full paddock soil test is done over the whole farm every two or three years. The managers are selective in the strategic placement of fertiliser only where it is needed, which offers a saving in costs.
The Owaka River runs through the centre of the farm. When they fenced off the riverbank and streams, they noticed a build-up of sediment.
“As soon as we fenced the river off, it grew weeds. The banks got a lot higher and the creeks got a lot narrower,” Cody says.
He has seen trout spawning in the river and has also spotted native fish.
They found native koura (freshwater crayfish) in ponds on the farm and have caught some and transferred them into new ponds.
Pukerau Nursery has produced a riparian planting plan for the farm, with up to 600 native trees and shrubs planted each year.
“Riparian planting is something we will probably be doing forever,” Cody says. “It is expensive, the trees are slow-growing and we’re not really seeing much there yet, but it’s good for the biodiversity side of things and it looks nice.”
The Hartvigsens and their staff of four full-time employees enjoy the variety planting gives them from stock work or milking, so they have transplanted a lot of natives from pockets of native bush on the farm.
They like to hire young staff and support them through their industry training courses. They say they have been lucky finding good reliable workers and have a second-in-charge who has been with them for five years.
While the pair still see dairying as a business first, they are looking forward to a bit more time to enjoy the lifestyle of living amidst the picturesque landscapes of the Catlins.