Olin Greenan tells Matt O’Keeffe about recent developments in the farming environment in New Zealand – and about an exciting new venture that will see the Greenans relocate to a 220-hectare farm in the Waikato region on the North Island.
Olin and Anna Greenan and their children were joined in New Zealand by Olin’s parents over the Christmas period. The work had eased considerably on the dairy farm and it was an opportunity to take a little time off. The previous six months were, as Olin described them, “strange times.” In Olin’s previous report, he explained that New Zealand had just come out of one of the wettest periods on record, with all of the attendant hardships to be endured on a livestock farm as a consequence. Since then, however, the weather had completed a full U-turn with drought conditions setting in and persisting, resulting in no rainfall at all during November and December. “High temperatures and no moisture meant that grass growth came to a halt. It was a case of summer arriving six weeks early and the pasture cover just disappeared,” Olin said. When Olin spoke to IFM in mid-January, the drought had broken, with 70ml of rain falling in the previous week – more than had fallen in the entirety of the previous three months.
Extreme measures for extreme conditions
A number of farmers had taken drastic action because of the drought, especially along the Taranaki coastal region, as Olin explained: “With no grass growing and feed budgets blown for the entire year, some farmers resorted to drying off their herds. I would have to question the logic of that approach, given that there is a fair bit of the production season still left and a dry cow has to be fed at least maintenance. By feeding a little more, she is contributing to the bottom line and there was a reasonable expectation that the drought could break at some stage.”Like all other New Zealand dairy farms, production is down and feed costs are up considerably on the Greenan farm: “Milk production is well back on last year and is also running behind on a month-by-month comparison. We have pretty well written off the season in terms of making a reasonable profit but there is still an opportunity, with the recent rain, to claw back some of the lost production.”
From mud to dust
For the first time since they arrived on the farm, no silage was made by the Greenans this year: “The drought meant that there has been continuous relentless pressure on man and beast since the start of the milking season. We literally went from mud to dust in a short period. No bales were made on this farm and there are no surpluses on any farms, as far as I can see. Baled silage is making inflated prices, running up to the equivalent of €50-60 per bale. The only other viable supplementary feed option has been palm kernel (PK). Fonterra brought in a voluntary 3kg limit on PK feeding to cows, but it is hard to see what the alternative is when extreme weather, of whatever kind, results in poor grass growth and low utilisation levels. It also makes it difficult to set long-term stocking rates that allow for extreme wet or dry periods.”
The big news
The big news for Olin, Anna and their family is that negotiations have concluded successfully on a new share-milking arrangement that will see them move back down the North Island to the Waikato region. The new farm, about 20 miles from Hamilton, can support up to 650 cows, and brings Olin back to the area where he first cut his teeth in New Zealand dairy farming. The 220-hectare property has two milking sheds and, while this complicates the operation somewhat, it nevertheless provides Olin with the kind of scale he is ready to take on: “In an ideal set-up, the milking parlour would be in the centre of the farm but this was originally a two-family operation so that’s how the two sheds came into being. The great thing is that it allows us to expand and there is a good, basic farm infrastructure in place to allow us to optimise milk production from grass.” The property is described as a ‘peaty’ farm that can suffer from dry summers. Olin reckons that with his compact calving herd there is potential to drive milk solids up from the historical production performance of the new farm. The grass swards are good as there was a policy of growing maize silage on the farm so the swards were kept fresh with a regular rotation.
The cattle drive
Like most other similar units in the region, there is little wintering or supplementary feeding infrastructure on the new farm and it will be interesting to see how this works out in the longer term, given the increasing emphasis being placed by the New Zealand government on environmental and animal welfare protections. The Monaghan man is well set up to take on the bigger property. He requires only another 150 cows to be fully stocked when he moves in on June 1, ‘Gypsy Day’ – traditionally so-called as it is the day when sharemilkers shift between properties. There will be quite a massive operation for the move, about one and a half hours ‘down the road’, to the Waikato. Ten double-decker trailers, each carrying 40 cows, will be engaged and the cost will be kept down by the fact that the new property is a relatively short distance away by some New Zealand standards. It will all happen over a period of 72 hours. All owned machinery on the current farm will also be moved during the tight changeover time frame. From a family viewpoint, the new farm is well situated within easy reach of schools and shops, as well as medical and other essential family services.
An opportune time to move
The extended wait to secure the preferred option in a new sharemilking contract has been worthwhile. A confluence of events in New Zealand dairying has meant that there are a number of properties up for sale or lease with a consequent larger-than-normal number of cows available for purchase: “It’s a buyer’s market at the moment, which suits our circumstances. It means that we can be up and running at full capacity from the start of next season. Our aim is to dry off the herd in good condition so that we can realise the potential of the new operation as quickly as possible.”