Sophie Cookson grew up in Auckland and although she loved animals, she never imagined she would become a dairy farmer.
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Sophie Cookson enjoys cow breeding and her love of animals led her to complete a Diploma in Veterinary Nursing through Otago Polytechnic (School of Veterinary Nursing).

When Sophie Cookson was a young girl growing up in Auckland City, she never dreamed she would become a dairy farmer; in fact, no one ever told her that it was an option.

“It never occurred to me that someone from the city could be a farmer,” Cookson says.

“Being an animal lover, a career in veterinary nursing was the closest thing I could find. I hope it’s different now, and urban children are raised to understand the importance of farming in New Zealand, and that they can be a part of that if they want to.”

Today, Cookson and husband Donovan Croot, with children Estelle, 7, Penelope, 5, and Thomas 3, are 50:50 sharemilkers of a 190-cow herd at Manutahi, South Taranaki. They farm 61ha as Clovalley Farms Ltd under the Taumaha Trust, owned by Neil and Helen Walker.

The farm is a “good little self-contained unit”, with plenty of support land in close proximity to the milking platform. They run a system 4-5 farm, which is new territory as sharemilkers, and have managed to push the herd to 118,481kg MS (620kgMS/cow). Their herd is in the top 1% nationally for BW & PW. The first herd test this season has seen the cows average 2.63, and the couple hope to peak a bit higher.

Despite the city upbringing, her love of animals has always been strong. She had a particular love of horses that her parents fostered by supporting her to attend riding school every Saturday. Her parents were also animal lovers: her mum bred Burmese cats her and her dad kept birds.

“It was like Christmas Day when there was a new litter of kittens, to see them and hold them,” she says.

“Mum showed them occasionally, too. It was because of the cats that I came to understand about bloodlines and pedigree, and I believe I developed a good eye. I have bred French bulldogs myself and have been part of Kennel Club and Puppy Social Club; this love for breeding sort of transferred to cows when I met Donovan.”

Dairying a natural fit for city girl with a love of animals 1
Sophie and husband Donovan Croot are 50:50 sharemilkers of a 190-cow herd at Manutahi, South Taranaki.

Croot had gone into farming at 22 when his uncle Colin Foley found him an opportunity as a dairy apprentice in Taranaki. He moved quickly through the ranks, herd managing a large corporate farm and working towards an agribusiness diploma by his fourth year in the industry.

After school, Cookson had completed a Certificate in Animal Clinical Care in Auckland before securing a job at Coastal Vets in Kaponga as a receptionist.

“They indicated that for the right person, it could lead into training in vet nursing,” Cookson says.

“Lead veterinarian Guy Oakley became like a father figure to me, and my role there set everything in motion.”

She completed a Diploma in Veterinary Nursing through Otago Polytechnic (School of Veterinary Nursing) while working as a vet nurse/receptionist for Coastal Vets.

During this time, Cookson and Croot were contract milking for Bruce and Honey Grindlay. The Grindlays allowed them to rear their surplus heifers on farm, which they then leased out, helping to grow their equity.

Cookson continued to work off farm as a vet nurse until she and Croot moved from contract milking to sharemilking.

“Being self-employed and on farm with the children was ideal,” she says.

“I was mostly calf rearing, and we made sure we had lower herd numbers to ensure the business/family balance was manageable and sustainable.”

In 2018 she trained as a DIY artificial inseminator with CRV, and after inseminating her herd for a few years went on to train with LIC. She was offered her own run as an apprentice due to her skillset.

“It’s something I can return to, but just doing our herd is enough for me at present, especially with our tailored breeding plan and also inseminating yearlings at the runoff,” she says.

Her love of animals and veterinary nursing skills meant she loved farming from the outset.

Her interest in pedigrees also came in handy; both she and Croot considered it a worthy investment to buy cows from established profile herds and then build on those bloodlines. In 2019 they bought 100-head of cattle from Jim and Sue Webster’s Waiau/Taramont Holstein Friesian herd, the former top BW and production herd in the country.

Dairying a natural fit for city girl with a love of animals 2
Sophie, on a hike with son Thomas, has a busy life juggling family, Calf Club and her job, so takes time out whenever she can to spend with family.

The couple had met the Websters while they were sharemilking in Tikorangi.

“Our runoff neighboured their farm and we developed a relationship through the local discussion group and mutual love for cows and breeding,” she says.

“Jim took Donovan under his wing and shared his passion. When they eventually sold us the herd in 2019, we not only purchased an exceptional herd but we made great friends in the Websters and still continue to share our genetics (Taravalley) and family time together, often catching up for a good yarn and romp around the farms.

“We are forever grateful to them and consider them a part of our Clovalley Family.”

Cookson also cites Colin Foley as not only a great mentor for her and Croot, but an incredible support as well.

“Without him, we wouldn’t be here today, but he also continues to help out around the farm – even if it’s just checking a mob for us – and it means a lot,” she says.

“And Neil and Helen Walker have been so supportive; they are incredible.”

Now the kids are growing up a little, she has a little more time to look at what fulfils her off farm. This year she has taken on a new role as Calf Club NZ Organiser, after having been a Calf Club NZ volunteer judge in 2021.

“Estelle is really into it as well, and she was able to come along with me when I was a judge, which was brilliant.

“She absolutely loves meeting calves and new people, and to be able to foster that love and care with her, and celebrate other children as well, is very rewarding.”

As a Calf Club NZ organiser, Cookson has a varied role that includes talking to and helping applicants, screening potential judges, social media and facilitating judging schedules.

“Michelle [Burgess, Calf Club NZ Co-Founder] is great for steering me in the right direction.

“We are both passionate about Calf Club, and it’s fun for us. The three of us [Cookson, Burgess and Calf Club NZ Co-Founder Josh Herbes] are always throwing around ideas, so the event is always evolving. Michelle saw my passion as a volunteer judge, but it was a lovely surprise to be offered the role as organiser. It’s uplifting to be in that environment.”

Cookson is enjoying the role so much that Clovalley Farms has come on board as a silver sponsor of the annual event.

“We hope to share the passion of calf care and showing with children all over New Zealand,” she says.

Dairying a natural fit for city girl with a love of animals 3
Sophie, helping a down cow, is hands-on on the farm as well as juggling her job and Calf Club.

She also has a new role with Senztag for Cow Manager, as an After Sales Training Specialist. She and Croot use the technology on farm and, following a Cow Manager roadshow held on their farm, the company expressed their wish to have her on the team.

She says having worked in the dairy industry in both farming and professional roles, she hopes to see a real shift in the industry by the time her own children are grown.

“I would like to see a greater appreciation of farmers and feel that we are supported and that people see what we do.

“I would love to see a sense of pride in farming, and recognition for how much we do for the country and community, investing in cornerstones such as Milk for Schools, and Meat the Need.”

Cookson says there is a misconception that farmers make positive change only under duress.

“We do things like regenerative planting because we want to, not because we have to.

“We know how important it is to the sustainability of farming in the future.

“I’d also like to see farming become a lifestyle that is a lot healthier. The mental health challenges farmers face are tough. It is easy for farmers to isolate themselves because they are so exhausted, but we need to get back to doing things together as a community.”

She is also a Peaceful Parenting Instructor, teaching people how to parent without conflict, which she hopes will increase the resilience of children as adults.

Cookson says she and Croot have some exciting goals for the future.

“We just bought our first bit of land from our incredible farm owners and are building our dream home nearby. We are excited for the future,” she says.

“Our plan is to stay here and continue to farm and deepen our roots within our community, encouraging our children and others to succeed. Donovan has recently taken on a role as a tutor for Dairy Training Ltd and enjoys sharing his knowledge with others. We hope our roles outside of farming will help give us other perspectives and changes outside of our farming endeavours.”

Having worked so hard to keep their business moving forward, they are finally able to take a breath and take stock of how far they have come – and what the future might look like.

“Farm ownership is possible, but you need to be creative and adaptable,” Cookson says.

“If you stay true to your values you can use them as your compass. We are good kaitiaki of this land; that is a strong ethos for Clovalley. We are breeding cows to be more efficient converters of feed and produce less nitrogen, and we are 100% dedicated to that. Our philosophy is feed, breed, and succeed.”

Bega’s Better Farms Program supports eligible dairy farmers’ by offering up to $1.1 million worth of financial grants each year.

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