A migrant from the Philippines who won the national Farm Manager of the Year title for 2021, nearly chucked it all in before landing his dream role.
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Christopher Vila is a believer in destiny.

The Ōhaupō dairy farmer believes it helped him in his journey climbing the industry progression ladder to farm management, as well as meeting his wife Jonah.

It also played a hand in him winning the Farm Manager of the Year title at the New Zealand Dairy Awards. He believes this because it almost all never happened.

He came extremely close to quitting the industry after being repeatedly rejected for manager jobs when he was looking to step up into that role in 2013.

“It’s hard. I had six years’ experience and it was very hard for me to find a good managerial job. I was lucky I found this one, otherwise I might be somewhere else,” Christopher says.

It was his wife who convinced him to try one last time and it was then that he got the job at the JA BE Turnwald Trust as their farm manager under sharemilker Mark Turnwald.

“I got this job and it was just destiny that I found it. I’ve never looked back and we’re really happy,” he says.

Entering the Dairy Industry Awards was a last-minute decision and he submitted his name in the Farm Manager of the Year contest on the last day, just a few short hours before the deadline expired.

“Basically, at 10pm I texted Mark and told my wife that I had entered,” he says.

“It made me realise as a migrant, I don’t see a lot of Filipino people doing it. The reputation for most Filipinos is they are good workers, they are capable, they are loyal and the dairy industry awards are a good place to widen your network and progress. Why is no one entering?”

That thought motivated him as he progressed through the awards process, firstly winning the Waikato Farm Manager of the Year title, then the national finals.

In hindsight, he wished he entered the Trainee category earlier in his career because of the progression opportunities the awards has given him.

Philippines-born, Christopher moved to NZ 13 years ago and became a citizen three years ago. Being an immigrant added another layer of complexity to dairy industry progression for him in what is already a difficult process.

“We don’t have any equity and we need to build it over time, which is the hardest way to do it,” he says.

The awards process has provided him a network and more access to mentors within the industry to give him guidance in the future.

Without that network, migrants find they have to progress through hard work, keeping their eyes and ears open and learning from what farm owners and managers do and the mistakes they made, he says.

He is then able to avoid making those same mistakes when given the opportunity as a manager.

Winning the national title made him a role model among other migrant dairy workers and he received lots of messages of support from that community over the course of the awards process.

It’s also given him a huge boost to his confidence and self-belief.

“Hopefully in the future, if I need to reapply for a job or look for an opportunity, they will recognise me,” he says.

A licenced veterinarian in his homeland, he worked for a large company and dealt mostly with pig farmers rather than cattle or sheep. He was attracted to the dairy industry because it was animal-related and suited his vet background.

He says it’s an industry where you get rewarded for working hard.

“Here, you have the opportunity to grow. That’s the beauty of it – you work hard and do your thing, and people see you and you get that opportunity to grow and that’s what has happened to me right now,” he says.

“You have a lot of options to progress in your career. It’s a good career, I reckon.”

Starting a dairy career from scratch had its challenges and successfully making that transition meant learning “the Kiwi way” of dairy farming, which is gaining a basic experience and skills of dairy farming in NZ.

It also took him time to adjust to NZ’s culture. Filipinos are naturally not very vocal or direct when it comes to expressing themselves, particularly in front of a manager.

“For us, it’s a bit daunting and it’s a bit disrespectful. Its cultural things, little things like that you need to adjust,” he says.

Earlier, when working as a 2IC and as an assistant, he had to learn how to communicate more without worrying about offending his boss.

He met Jonah after he had moved to NZ and are from the same province in the Philippines.

“I think destiny brought us together,” he says.

She was working for Waikato DHB but has stopped working for now, while she focuses on raising their three-year-old daughter Lily.

He started as a farm assistant in 2008 in Reporoa, working for two seasons before moving to a new job as a 2IC in Atiamuri, near Taupō and Tokoroa for another two seasons.

He then moved to another 2IC job on a System 5-6 farm in Ōhaupō, just south of Hamilton, where he worked for two seasons before getting his current job.

He is now in his eighth season in the role managing the farm for sharemilker Mark Turnwald.

As well as learning on the job and getting valuable experience, he has completed several Primary ITO courses on farm and effluent management to upskill himself. He also finished level 4 and is currently completing level 5 in human resource management.

The 104ha farm milks 343 cows at peak and operates as a closed herd. It has a 30ha runoff block close by and a neighbouring 9ha block, which is used to winter the younger stock.

While the farm is blessed with highly fertile soils, it also bears the brunt of Waikato’s extreme weather. The region’s wet winters make it highly prone to pugging while conversely, it quickly dries out after Christmas.

Two seasons ago, when the entire region was in drought, the herd was still able to produce 440kg MS a cow following the feed target as well as possible.

The farm most years milks the cows twice-a-day, unless conditions dictate shifting to once-a-day in early autumn. He then dries off the cows in mid- to late-May.

He is acutely aware of the visibility of the farm to the public. Around 50,000 cars drive past the farm every day and being next to the main road heading south to Te Awamutu and north to Hamilton and surrounded by lots of lifestyle blocks.

“We need to do best farm practice at all times because you never know who is going to pop up, or look at you during calving, carrying calves. I’m very particular and strict on that. We’re not just doing it for this farm, we’re representing the whole industry,” he says.

He believes if people see farmers following best practice, then they have the perception that the rest of the industry is following that example.

“We need to do our best to represent our industry. That’s why it’s very challenging but it’s a good challenge because it brings out the best in you,” he says.

For Christopher that means being prepared as well as he can. Maintaining pasture quality through the spring is critical as it sets up the farm for summer.

“This farm has been here for 150 years and we have very fertile soil,” he says.

“It’s a peat farm and during spring it really grows so I need to be really on to it with grass quality.”

His spring rotation and pasture planning starts during calving. He has been setting out his spring rotation every year since he started managing the farm and is now at the stage where he only needs to adjust it to reflect the conditions of the season.

The farm uses LIC’s SPACE programme in combination with his own farm walks to assess pasture covers on the farm.

Balance date is usually September 9-15. Before that, his round length is around 90 days, reducing it as September closes in before setting it to 18-21 days after the first week of September.

The only regrassing that is carried out is on the sacrifice paddock, which has been regrassed over the past two seasons into Mohaka, a new AR37 tetraploid variety that has produced great results for him over the winter and spring.

If needed, he tops the pastures generally starting in October pre-grazing when the paddocks measure around 2900-3000kg dry matter a hectare.

“I believe in that because topping, based on my experience, increases the intake of the cows by about 20-30%,” he says.

If the paddock’s cover is over 3000kg DM and the quality of the grass is good, he cuts it for silage, producing about 60t of feed in the silage bunker. This along with the grass mowed from the runoff means he usually has plenty of extra feed if the summer turns dry.

“The basic policy here is to grow as much grass as you can in spring, especially in the last three years, because the summers have been very difficult. It’s been very dry,” he says.

Topping up the pasture is the in-shed feeding system in the 28-aside herringbone shed, which allows him to alter the feed composition if the herd needs more energy or condition. Over mating a combination of tapioca and soya bean hull is used to boost the herd’s condition.

The farm is run as a System 3.5-4 so is moderately intensive, growing 5-6ha of maize and cutting grass silage from the home block and runoffs to produce around 110t of maize silage and around 160t of grass silage.

They also grow 5-6ha of maize which is turned into silage, producing 110t of feed for this season. They also make grass silage when there is a pasture surplus, mowing 50-60t, as well as 80-100t cut from the two runoff blocks.

Grass and maize silage are fed straight out onto the paddocks in summer and autumn, with the maize silage spread out in small lumps.

Around 250-270t of palm kernel, tapioca, DDG (blended meal) and soya bean hull meal is also brought in and fed through the in-shed feed system over the course of the season in the farm’s herringbone shed.

The system has seen production average around 150,000kg MS, or 440kg MS per cow, over the past four years. Last season he surpassed all of his production targets and reached over 503kg MS/cow.

The other part of the equation for having highly-productive cows is making sure the herd is fed properly, utilising that feed as best as possible at the lowest possible cost.

The exception is the in-shed meal which is needed to ensure the cows get a balanced diet. This is one of their largest on-farm expenses.

“Aside from that, it’s all homegrown or its surplus from the runoffs,” he says.

His feed target is at least 21kg/DM a day per cow – whether it be from pasture or pasture-supplemented with silage or in-shed feed – and those supplementary feed levels fluctuate and change according to the season and the needs of the cow.

The farm was historically the site of a large kahikatea plantation and part of the farm’s environmental plan is to preserve four of the farm’s remaining kahikatea stands.

He makes sure that none of the farm’s effluent is irrigated out on areas near drains. The farm is also home to a small lake that dries out over summer but fills up again in winter. It is fully fenced off and Christopher, with Mark’s backing, has sought advice from the Waipa and Waikato District Councils on what is the best solution to preserve and improve it.

“We want to revive it and all year round it is supposed to have water in it,” he says.

The farm is also soil tested every year, with the results dictating how much fertiliser is applied.

The runoff blocks are utilised over winter with the replacement cattle farmed on it and are joined by around 75 (or 20-22%) of the herd’s later calving cows.

The remaining 240 cows are wintered on the home farm. The reduced herd helps grow grass cover in preparation for calving, as well as stopping pugging.

The farm contains no standoff or feedpads, so he sets aside around 1.5ha of the farm’s lowest-performing paddocks to be sacrificed. These are used during times of prolonged wet weather. These paddocks are then planted into maize in spring and then rotated back to pasture.

Calving begins on August 1. This season, the herd had a 75% six-week in calf rate and a 10% empty rate. He says that disappointed him after achieving 8% the previous season.

“For me, it’s not calving that is most stressful, it’s mating. It stresses me out because mating drives the whole year. A good mating result means a good year for the whole season,” he says.

This season he had five weeks of pre-mating, with all of the mated cows going to CIDRS during that first week.

“Then it’s just getting on with it, knowing your cows and checking every now and then and putting the work in,” he says.

The crossbred herd sits in the top 5% of the country for breeding worth and 30th in the nation for production worth.

The top 200 cows in the herd are mated using LIC’s Custom mate plus semen, allowing for the best progeny, based on production, fertility, animal health and capacity breeding criteria.

Herd tests are also carried out four times a year and the results of those tests help form those top 200 cows. Eight of the cows are also contract mated, with those contracts evenly split between LIC and CRV.

“Breeding is one of the biggest expenditures of the farm because we believe that’s where you need to start to achieve peak performance,” he says.

They also use Hereford bulls following the six weeks of AI, running these cattle for five to six weeks with the herd.

Including Christopher, the farm has two-and-a-half staff, with Turnwald living on-farm and working when required. The other staff member is a full-time assistant manager role.

He is the first non-family member of the Turnwalds to manage their farm, a sign of the respect and trust the family has placed in him.

He has input to the farm’s expenditure when it comes to farm maintenance, although larger financial decisions remain with Mark.

Payout is a big influence on expenditure and during previous lower payout years, the farm’s in-shed feed systems changed to a lower-cost blend to reduce costs.

Mark says he is an amazing employee.

“Christopher’s first-rate animal health and mating skills had resulted in improved calving and a production increase of 30,000kg MS,” Mark says.

Earlier on, Mark says he mentored Christopher into the management role.

“Now he just tells me what he’s doing, runs ideas past me and we have a chat about it. Generally he’s on the money and we just leave it at that.”

Farm ownership is the ultimate dream for Christopher and he has recently taken another step towards that after the Turnwalds invited him to have a closer role in the sharemilking business. This will help in getting a foothold in building up his equity and maybe sharemilking after five years.

The relationship between the two families is now very close, with the Vilas joining the Turnwalds for Christmas and other family events.

“The great thing about Mark is that he respects the boundaries of what I like and what my system is. The farm owners treat us as part of the family,” Christopher says.

Farm Facts:

Owners: JA BE Turnwald Family Trust

Sharemilker: Mark Turnwald

Manager: Christopher Vila

Location: Ōhaupō, Waikato

Farm size: 104ha, 30ha runoff block and a 9ha block

Cows: 343 cows at peak, Crossbreed

Production: 2020-21: 172,000kg MS

Production target: 2021-22: 165,000kg MS

Aurora Dairies, one of the largest milk producers in the country, has added Gray Wigg Gault’s Clydebank Aggregation in Victoria’s Gippsland region to its expanding portfolio for around $20 million.

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