Dairying has opened up opportunities for a South African couple, writes Heather Chalmers.
South African couple Johan and Theona Blom have just celebrated 10 years in New Zealand in their bid to realise their farm ownership dream.
“The question was, ‘Where can we build our own future?’ New Zealand offered a unique opportunity via sharemilking to get to farm ownership and that was a huge attraction,” says Theona.
While they had access to family land in South Africa, it was too small to be economic and they did not have the capital to buy bigger.
Since arriving in New Zealand, the Bloms have worked their way up the dairy ladder from herd manager roles to sharemilker to an equity partnership in Central Canterbury milking 900 cows. “Everything you strive for does take a bit of effort.”
Dairying was new to both. In South Africa, Johan had worked as a dry stock farmer and pastoral consultant and Theona as a corporate accountant. “There was even a time earlier when we said we would never be dairy farmers.”
Starting in the North Island, they were quick to take up opportunities, moving from herd manager roles at Tokoroa and Cambridge, to three seasons as 50-50 sharemilkers at Reporoa. While sharemilking 275 cows at Ngakuru, near Rotorua in 2015, the Bloms won the Central Plateau share farmer of the year award, going on to be runners-up in the national competition.
Finding it difficult to get into bigger sharemilking roles in the North Island, the Bloms made the move south to Canterbury two years ago.
They are now equity partners in a Southern Pastures property, Kowhai Farm at Te Pirita, near Hororata, which on June 1 switched supply from Fonterra to Westland Milk Products.
Theona is also one of DairyNZ’s 15 climate change ambassadors, helping to spread the word about climate change mitigation opportunities amongst farmers.
“I want to make a difference in the community and share with other dairy farmers that it is possible to balance the social, ecological and financial aspects of dairy farming.”
Like many of her fellow dairy farmers, Theona says she is new to the climate change journey and doesn’t claim to be an expert on ways to mitigate emissions.
“Being relatively new to my role as a climate change ambassador, I am still getting up to speed on the technical aspects of climate change. What has been a significant relief, however, has been the realisation that much of the environmental work farmers up and down the country are doing right now is helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“While we are all waiting on a technological solution to really tackle methane emissions, the work we are already doing to improve water and soil quality is also making a difference to our emissions profile. This is reassuring.”
Starting on June 11 in Dunsandel, DairyNZ is holding a series of climate change workshops, giving farmers an opportunity to speak with some of New Zealand’s top climate change researchers.
The workshops are part of the Dairy Action for Climate Change, a commitment by the dairy sector to improve dairy farms’ environmental footprint, and to understand what the dairy sector can do to meet New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets.
“These workshops aren’t an opportunity to debate climate change. They are an opportunity to understand climate change and hear about what we can do to play our part,” says Theona.
“I’m excited to be a climate change ambassador. I see this as an opportunity, not only to contribute to the community, but to learn how to fine-tune the balance of our own farm.”
For the first two years the Bloms have been getting to know the farm and managing an increase in cow numbers from 750 to 900 as the 236 hectare property moved from a self-contained unit, to being used entirely as a milk platform, with the cows wintered away. The lift in herd size has required an upgrade of the effluent plant as well as replacement of the previous 40-aside herringbone with a 60-bale rotary.
The herd is now wintered on the next-door neighbour’s farm. “It was easy for us as it was only a matter of opening a neighbour’s gate. So we didn’t have to go on the road at all.”
The effluent application area on the farm has been increased from 15 per cent previously using a travelling irrigator, to 65 per cent now it can also be applied via centre pivot irrigators. The fully irrigated property sources water from the Central Plains Water irrigation scheme.
Not surprisingly given their former careers, Johan is passionate about pasture and does regular farm walks to evaluate pasture growth, while Theona is the number-cruncher, keeping meticulous records of the farm’s financial and productive performance.
The farm is predominately grass-based, with no palm kernel and some in-shed feeding of barley.
“For me it’s about being efficient in everything you do on farm,” says Theona.
“How can you know if you don’t measure.
“You need to record everything on farm as much as possible. When you capture data you can look at options, whether it relates to cow numbers, pasture, or staffing.
“We review processes on-farm on a regular basis.
“We have proved ourselves wrong many times on what we think we can remember. When you go back to the figures it gives you an accurate record.
“Then you know whether something is the most profitable option. It is each farmer’s responsibility to get those answers for their own farm. One size doesn’t fit all.”
Theona has a full-time job in the office, gathering information and considering different scenarios. This also reinforces to the team the importance of timely and accurate record keeping.
“We would like to build a business that will sustain through the seasons and an uncertain market.”
Having bedded in the farming operation to the increased herd numbers, the Bloms say the next phase is more native planting. “This farm is already well sheltered, but we want native planting along boundary fencelines and around the effluent pond.”
“As farmers we are managers of nature. Whatever we do it’s important that it is good practice.”
The Bloms say they have no regrets about moving to New Zealand. “I don’t look back. I am very happy here,” says Theona.