Pahiatua farmer Stephanie Walker has found herself in a position most people would find enviable. But for her, it is a dilemma.
The 2017 Manawatu Dairy Trainee of the Year has been inundated with job offers for next season – in fact, she has had seven offers.
“It is awesome. I haven’t had to apply for a job since I won the title,” Walker says.
“But it has also created a bit of a problem. To be honest, it’s a tricky situation to be in really. They all sound really good which makes it hard to pick one.”
Her desire to continue expanding her knowledge of farming, and progressing her career in the industry, drives and motivates her.
She was a first-time entrant and entered to gain feedback on what she was doing. At the time of winning, she was a farm assistant on a Landcorp’s Motua farm at Foxton. As well as taking out the title, she won four of the five merit awards.
“I wanted to benchmark myself against other trainees and test myself.
“Getting feedback from the judges about what I am doing, how I am doing things and my goals for the future has been invaluable. The awards have also helped me meet a lot of industry people and build a network of mentors and advisors.”
Winning the title has been a great personal achievement for the 23-year-old.
“I have a lot more confidence in myself and the decisions I make.
“I feel more comfortable in setting goals and taking steps to achieve them.’
She says through the competition, she has broadened her knowledge and outlook and see there many opportunities up for grabs in the industry.
“I wanted to be a farm owner but I now realise there is more than one way to skin a cat.
“The competition has really opened my eyes to what paths are available
She says winning is confirmation that she is in the “right industry, on the right path and doings well.”
Her path in the dairy industry was not the career path she originally envisaged for herself. She had intended to train as a veterinarian because she enjoyed working with animals.
Growing up in Whakatane, she enjoyed horse-riding and competed in low-level show jumping. Other than her horse, she had no connection to the land or farming.
She got her first taste of dairy farming at the age of 13.
“I had a friend who was dairying. She would let me graze my horse in exchange for relief milking and calf rearing.
“The first time I helped milk, I got pooped on. I vowed never to milk again. I hated having to get up early – I still do until I see the sunrise.”
In 2012 she began her veterinary studies at Massey University but six months into the course, she had a change of heart.
“I didn’t really enjoy university and I couldn’t see myself spending the next five years studying.”
A few of my friends from the vet course decided to switch degrees and talked about doing agricultural science.
“Being a townie, I had never heard of agricultural science and so asked what it was.
“Then I did some research and realised how many different career paths were available through Ag science. Since I didn’t have any other ideas of what I wanted to do, I took it on.”
She decided to take a break and returned to Whakatane while she considered her options. In 2013 she did a stint leading tours to White Island.
She has since studied extramural and has just two papers left to complete her Ag Science degree.
In 2015, although she had vowed to “never milk again” after her first experience, she applied for a farm assistant’s role on a dairy farm at Matamata milking 450 cows.
“It was a big learning curve as I didn’t really know anything about dairy farming even though I had relief milked. I didn’t know how to drive a tractor or motorbike so it was a big step.
“It was only a six-month contract but I got the experience I needed.”
She spent the next 18 months on a Paeroa farm and enrolled in Level 3 Primary ITO course.
From there, she moved to the Manawatu to work on Landcorp’s 900-cow Motua farm.
“That was a great farm and my first experience with a large herd.
“I learnt a great deal and was able to fine-tune my skills.”
After winning the Dairy Trainee title, she was offered a new opportunity to go back to working with a smaller herd.
“I jumped at it as this was the direction I was wanting to take – I prefer to work with smaller herds.”
She moved to the Ballance farm this season as 2IC for sharemilker Steve Holdaway but the season has not gone to plan – far from it.
Two months in, the big wet hit. The average rainfall of about 1195 mm was exceeded.
“The season before had been really wet and pastures just didn’t recover – they really took a hammering.
“The goal was to be grass only but that couldn’t happen. It was really wet. From June to the end of September, we got 436mm.”
The wet conditions made it impossible to plant their usual turnips although they managed to get an 8ha crop of maize in.
“Then it turned unbelievably hot and the pastures basically shrivelled up.
“At the beginning of December, we made the decision to switch to once-a-day.”
At the time, demand for palm kernel rocketed causing a four-week delay in delivery.
“We usually keep the amount of palm kernel fed to a maximum 3kg/cow. But because of the lack of feed, we fed 6kgs/cow.
To get through they opened up their silage stack which saw them through to the beginning of January.
“We also culled about 30 older cows, sold 15, then prayed for rain.”
The weather conditions impacted greatly on grass quality but through good management, they have been able to keep on top of it.
“The aim is to graze at about 2500-2600kgDM and leave 1500-1600 residuals.
“If the herd leave too much residual feed, we put the drystock in to clean up. It is working really well.”
Pasture walks are done every couple of weeks. Data is entered into Minda Land and Feed to identify feed surpluses and deficits.
The herd is wintered on-farm so can be monitored before calving which begins on August 1 and they aim to keep 115 replacements and some bulls for mating and beef bulls.
“All up, we rear about 150 calves and only keep top heifers.”
The farm is part of the LIC Sire Proving Scheme and again, they select only the best bull calves to be put forward for consideration.
Calves are weaned at 80kg and move to the drystock area of the farm.
As cows calve they are tailpainted so non-cycling cows can be identified and the whole herd is metrichecked prior to mating.
Mating begins on October 28. AI is carried out for four weeks and they use the LIC premier sires team. This is followed by three weeks of short gestation then hereford and jersey bulls are run with the herd.
“Our three-week submission rate was 91 per cent and we achieved a 67 per cent non-return rate.”
Fifth generation jersey cows are inseminated get a friesian straw so they produce a lighter-framed crossbreed animal that suits the silt loam soil type. The rest get a jersey straw to maintain the jersey base in the herd.
Looking ahead, she hopes to progress through the industry to 50:50 sharemilking position by the time she is 32.
“The goal is to own about 300 cows by then so I can take that step up.
“I have started building equity to achieve that goal. Most of the prize money I won from the Dairy Industry Awards has been locked away in a savings account. I also save half of my wages every week which is quite easy to manage as I don’t have any commitments at present.”
She recently began buying calves to rear and sell and is planning to buy a house at the end of the year to increase her equity.
“My ultimate goal is to buy a block of land to graze my horse.
“I will certainly look at all opportunities that may come my way.
In the meantime, she is praying for a good rain/sunshine balance and a smooth run until the end of the season.
She is a member of the Marton Young Farmers club, involved with Federated Farmers and is also a member of the Dairy Environment Leaders Board – an active network of dairy farmers who promote sustainability at regional and national levels.
“It is a great role but challenging. There is a growing perception by townies that we all dairy farmers are dirty dairy farmers.
“But working in the industry has made me acutely aware of what is actually happening and what environmental work farmers are doing.
“I am happy to be the young voice on the board, be the voice for the next generation. I want to encourage more young people into the industry as well as making people aware of what goes on behind the farm gates.”
She will be moving at the end of the season as the current sharemilker on the farm is also moving off. She had the option to stay but decided a new challenge was on the cards.
“The owner, Murray Holdaway has been a wonderful mentor and so has Steve. I am really grateful for the great opportunity and the help they have given me so I will be sad to leave.”
She has worked her way through the job offers and decided on a 2IC position on a farm in the Manawatu as she wants to remain in the region for now.
“The plan is to spend a season learning about the farm and system, then move into a management position.
“Dairy farms and farmers are all different and have different ways of doing things. When I do eventually move into a management role, I hope to have enough experience so that I can take all the best thing from each to create my own system.”
Owner: Murray and Lynda Holdaway
Sharemilker: Steven Holdaway
2IC: Stephanie Walker
Location: Ballance, Pahiatua
Farm Size: 151ha effective, 40ha drystock, runoff 25ha
Cows: 440 kiwicross – jersey based
Production: 2016- 2017 158,000kgMS
Target: 2017-2018 141,000kgMS
By: SONITA CHANDAR