Naveen Thakur is 2IC milking 950 cows on one of the Trinity Lands farms in South Waikato and he is madly in love with the animals and the lifestyle. His partner Rimpy Kundu, also from India, works alongside him.
Growing up in Chandigarh in the northern state of Punjab in India, he comes from a family that has minor roots in agriculture but not to the scale of NZ farms. Arriving in NZ in 2015, he hadn’t given farming a thought.
“I originally came to New Zealand as a student to study IT in Canterbury and while working in various fast food places I met a dairy farmer through the local Indian community,” Naveen says.
“I started spending my days off visiting him on the farm and fell in love with the lifestyle.
“I guess I had that little bit in my blood already but back home we were involved in cropping mostly, and most dairying is two or three cows just to feed the family sort of thing, where here it’s such a different system.
“It was also very labour intensive because it is illegal to hunt in India so we were up throughout the night checking on crops to save them from wild animals, but the returns were low as well so it wasn’t a sustainable lifestyle and I knew I wanted to find something better.”
NZ was not his first choice. Originally he wanted to go to Australia where his friends were but he failed to secure a visa so looked to NZ because it was close by. He was more concerned with getting out of India than he was about his destination.
“I didn’t know anyone in New Zealand so I did a bit of research and at that time Christchurch was affected by the earthquake and they were trying to develop that part of the country.
“I didn’t have any physical contact with New Zealand but Google was telling me about the job opportunities because people were migrating out of Christchurch so I decided that’s where I would go.
“Working was my thing, I didn’t want to waste time while I was studying so I figured I’d go to Christchurch and get a job easily.”
After his first night at the bus stop, he went into the local Countdown and spoke to an Indian guy. He explained he was new to the country, which was obvious by his two suitcases and backpack, and asked about finding accommodation. By sheer luck, the guy he spoke with had a vacancy in his flat ready for Naveen to move into.
After a couple of years in Christchurch, he moved to the North Island and worked in retail in Taupō but he had an itch to get into farming. He asked around friends how to find dairy farming jobs and was pointed to the Farm Source website. It was a gamble, being an immigrant without a dairying background, but he decided it would either be the best or worst decision he could make so he gave it a shot.
“I applied for some roles and had an interview with a large farm who were peak milking 1100 cows in Napier.
“I was frank and told them I had no New Zealand dairying experience but I was willing to learn and they gave me a chance so I moved over to Hawke’s Bay.”
He quickly realised how fast things moved and he was hungry to learn as much as he could. But he got frustrated as he felt they were not giving him the opportunities to absorb as much as he could.
“Looking back, I do understand you can’t give the brand new guy the important responsibilities but I think as a manager you should be able to pick up someone’s attitude quickly and if they are keen, help them learn.
“It’s a balance, though, trying to fit teaching in during the busy periods, but those are the only times some of those things happen, things like dealing with lameness can be anytime but you don’t get to calve a breach calf after calving is over and mastitis is mostly happening early in the season.
“I think managers need to guide their people and harness eagerness if they’ve got it.”
In those early days, he would head to milking during his days off. He knew he had a lot to learn and wanted to catch up as quickly as he could. He did not want to be responsible for holding the team up due to his inexperience.
He moved around a few different roles, but when he was applying for an updated visa he discovered he needed to find an opportunity to progress his career, as the visa was only available for people who were in positions such as herd manager, 2IC or manager.
“I wasn’t confident I was ready to be a manager yet, I had more confidence in finding a 2IC role so was looking for something around that level.”
There were a lot of immigrants who got into farming around the same time as Naveen. It was a popular option as it was relatively easy to get a visa. And he did experience a few challenges being an immigrant and relatively new to the sector.
“I remember I was texting a guy about a position I applied for one day and he asked what nationality I was. When I said Indian he said they didn’t have a role for me.
“It was rough but I didn’t take it personally, I don’t know what the story behind it was, they might have had a bad experience, so I just kept looking.”
He found a position on a Trinity Lands farm at Tokoroa, which employed him as a herd manager initially for Avoli Group of Farms. They had an arrangement with Naveen giving him a chance to see if he was ready to be a 2IC and if they were happy they would step him up. And that was what happened – when the current 2IC left they offered him the opportunity to progress.
He enjoys being based in Tokoroa and has immersed himself in the local community, with many friends nearby, and plays cricket for the local team through summer. He also met his partner, Rimpy Kundu, who now lives and works on the farm too.
Their families were neighbours back in the same hometown in India but they did not know each other. Naveen was friends with her brothers and knew her family but she had not heard of him. They also studied through the same college in New Zealand, in different parts of the country. But it was a chance text from her brothers that connected them. Once he learnt she was in NZ he tracked her down.
“She was based in Whanganui at the time, working in town, but I got her to come to visit and spend some time on the farm and she decided it looked pretty cool, especially working with animals.
“I told her working with animals is way easier than working with humans,” he laughs.
She would visit on her days off but Naveen would still be working so she would tag along to milkings and the odd farm job. She had no experience with farming and never thought she would be up for it herself, knowing she felt funny at the sight of blood and thought cows were intimidating.
After losing her job in town, she moved to the farm and asked if she could start helping out. The pet cows lured her in first, proving they were easier to deal with than she thought, and it did not take her long to develop some useful skills.
“I didn’t have issues like I thought I would but mostly because Naveen was on my back,” Rimpy says.
“And that helped a lot because he was always there to fix it if I made a mistake.”
Now she is running the calf sheds, rearing all of the replacements and dealing with the bobby calves on her own.
“She’s an important part of the team and I’m happy she’s enjoying farming as much as I am,” Naveen says.
She had moved to NZ with the intention of gaining some life experience, continuing her studies and eventually heading back to India. A family member had been in NZ and shown her videos and photos of the scenery.
But when she arrived she decided she wanted to stay, and now that being connected to Naveen and the farm has sealed the deal, she knows this is where she wants to be. And they have their first “child”, a German Shepherd called Astaad who loves farm life too.
The two of them are working for Scott and Charlotte Jones, who sharemilk the Trinity Lands farm. They peak milk 950 spring calving cows and target 526 kilograms of milksolids per cow, which equates to 500,000kg MS for the season.
They operate a System 4, which depends on the weather and how the season unfolds to determine how much the feed changes. Feeding is a big passion for Naveen, who enjoys making sure the animals are well fed and preventing health issues.
“Managing feed is my thing, I really enjoy it.”
But he likes to keep it simple and knows the value of pasture and says it is the cheapest form of feed, so managing it is a priority.
They save their grass for after calving. The cows are kept on the farm over winter and fed breaks of swedes with hay and palm kernel if they need a bit extra.
“We grow around 25 to 30 hectares of swedes every year,” he says.
“I like swedes as it’s a low-protein feed and we don’t seem to have many problems with milk fever.
“We will give them the odd break of pasture if they need a bit more fibre or to manage the pasture, but they are mostly on swedes till they calve.”
Heifers are bought home in June and fed kale as they grow 7-8ha. It takes a couple of days to transition them onto the kale so they are topped up with palm kernel or small breaks of grass for a few days then they stay on the kale till they calve.
They also grow around 10ha of fodder beet that they start feeding early in lactation. The crop paddocks are determined by pasture performance. The farm was converted from forestry so there are plenty of opportunities to continue to develop the pasture. There are still stump piles in some of the paddocks so they have been chipping away at removing the piles as the paddocks are used for crops.
To mitigate the summer dry, they also have chicory on the farm. Naveen likes how they can maintain production off it and they aim to put it in the effluent-irrigated paddocks. If winter is wet like it has been this season, their effluent pond can store a lot, which is ready to be irrigated onto the chicory when it gets drier.
Before calving the herd is split according to calving dates, with the early calvers kept close to the shed and the late calvers going to the paddocks further away. Calving kicks off around July 25 and when they are getting into the thick of it they start transitioning the herd to pasture, particularly to make sure the cows are getting enough calcium and magnesium.
Calves are collected up to four times a day when the weather is bad, but otherwise twice a day. Calves are identified with a necklace in the paddock and Naveen likes that they collect calves regularly.
“Once the calf is removed the cow can relax a bit and eat properly, she doesn’t have to keep looking over at the calf, that’s my opinion anyway.”
The calf sheds open up to the paddocks and the calves are kept there until they are weaned and move to the support block at 100-130kg. They target around 230 replacements but have kept 250 heifer calves this season.
Hereford bull calves and the good-looking red Hereford heifers are reared and kept within the business, grazing at the support block owned by the Joneses.
Mating starts in the middle of October. They identify the best cows based on their performance and indices and mate them to a mix of daughter-proven Friesian and Kiwicross semen as they are targeting the F11-type cow. Cows they do not want to keep any replacements from are mated to Hereford semen.
“We are focused on a crossbreed herd. I like the small size, crossbreed cows that don’t eat heaps of feed but have high production, and I think the less feed an animal needs to maintain its body condition, the better,” he says.
At around week eight of mating, anything left to get in calf is mated to short-gestation beef semen.
Having plenty of replacements this season means they will be able to cull lower-producing cows and any with udder issues or other things they do not want to keep in the herd.
Naveen is across the farm business as much as he can. There are no doubts about his passion for farming. He loves working with animals and he thrives on learning.
“I really enjoy farming because it’s not easy or hard, not every day is the same.
“Sometimes you get easy days and some days when the weather isn’t flash and you’re dealing with calving cows and everything else that is going on, but that’s what it is and I like being challenged.”
He enjoys working in the bad weather, which he sees as another challenge to deal with and finds it rewarding combating the challenges farming throws at him.
His ambition is to own his own herd one day but he is in no hurry to climb the ranks. And some days he wishes he got into farming sooner, so he would have progressed further in his career by now but he has no regrets and knows this is the lifestyle for him long term.
He has come a long way from when he first arrived. He has completed Level 3 through Primary ITO and is keen to follow in his boss’s footsteps and partake in a workshop from DPS.
“I’ve seen Scott’s folders and there’s some great learning in there, I think it would be really beneficial to do the course myself too.”
“My next goal will be to find a 200- to 300-cow farm where I can be in sole charge so I can experience everything throughout the season, starting from the feed to calving and milking the cows, and everything in between.
“I will make my own decisions and that would give me the extra boost to build my confidence that I can be a contract milker and sharemilking in the future.”
He appreciates the support he has in his current role but also knows it will be the support that holds him back eventually.
“Having Scott is great, he’s working on the farm too and I know whenever there is an issue I can give him a call.
“I will try to fix things myself first but if I don’t make progress I call him and I think in the future I will need to be in a position where I don’t have that lifeline to lean on because you only push to a certain extent before reaching out.”
He knows if he is by himself he will have no option but to resolve issues himself, which will give his confidence a boost as well as the experience to know what decisions to make. Plus he will have Rimpy for support.
He is conscious of taking incremental steps and not going too fast and ending up crashing backwards.
“I am not in a rush, I want to focus on one stage at a time and grow as I learn.
“Farming is my thing, it’s the only thing I can do now, I love learning and it will never end, I will keep learning right till the last day I am farming.”
Owners: Trinity Lands
Sharemilkers: Scott and Charlotte Jones
2IC: Naveen Thakur
Location: Tokoroa, South Waikato
Farm size: 350 effective hectares
Herd size: 950 cows at peak
Production 2021-2022: 500,270kgMS,
Production target 2022-2023: 500,000kgMS