Day 6: Sheep, solar systems and shearing

The smell is distinctively different as we walk into the 60 a side double up Herringbone. The feeling of being watched is unavoidable with hundreds of eyes peering out of the bales and from the yard. It is a lot quieter than I expect, especially when a large mob is brought into the yard to join the rest of the milking herd. First stop on Day 6 is one of a two-farm Sheep Dairy operation supplying the Blue River Dairy company.


Oonagh Kilpatrick & Lauren Peterson at Blue River Sheep dairy. 

The Fresian-Dorset cross sheep average 2 litres of milk (a richer type of milk than cows) over their 100 day lactation and are currently averaging 1.4 litres. Milking starts at 5am until 11.30 and the sheep are milked twice a day during peak, with a second mob being milked once a day as their lactation drops. Flow meters record data including milk output, fat and protein and cell count, and colour coded electronic ear tags enable managers to differentiate individual sheep and their performance (lucky because they all look the same!).


The small set of cups milking out the ewe.

The sheep graze grass with a small amount of Molassess during milking. Lambing occurs three times a year and they have a 98% joining success rate. The management of pastures, multiple milking mobs and rearing lambs (either reared on milk feeders or left with mum but drafted off during milking) is shared amongst full time staff and seasonal staff. Many of the systems and management within this operation are new to the staff and under review, with the two herd managers being employed for only a month. It was unaminoius amongst both the staff and study tour participants that cows have more personality and sheep are harder work. However one participant may have been lying, jumping a fence later in the day to give a cuddle to a cast ewe (but I may just be jealous that I couldn’t get over the fence!).


A cast Lauren trying to get over the fence to save the ewe with Alistair Harris – sheep saviour, in the background celebrating. 


The scenery changes once again as green rolling hills began to reach out to the ocean. So too do the discussions on the bus. Participants’ different understanding of the groups that are formed within the Dairy Industry are debated. Robust discussions are important for our future; without discomfort and challenges change cannot be made.  And just like each participant and tour leader come from different backgrounds, our opinions differ too. We meet Graeme McKenzie, a Dairy Farmer and Federated Farmers representative in Southland. Over lunch Graeme discusses the challenges involved in NZ with facilitating change and meeting both members’ and the wider Dairy Community’s expectations. Like back home, it is hard to demonstrate and quantify the small wins and the work that goes behind the scenes influencing policy pro-actively. By giving Young Farmers a seat on the Executive to represent their cohort, the Federation is assisting Young Farmers to be leaders and change-makers. In conjunction with Dairy NZ a structured tiered training program also provides Young Farmers with skills and knowledge in areas including Governance, Media and Negotiation.


Janelle Fisher, Graeme McKenzie & Nick Minogue in Mathieson’s dairy.

Looking around the farms in New Zealand it wouldn’t be surprising if you thought the clean and green farms are a natural phenomenon. However, it requires Farmers to be proactive and work hard to address the legislative requirements and environmental guidelines being enforced by the local Provences. Tour participants have been shocked to hear that unlike the public support Dairy Farmers have received in recent months back home, the general perception in New Zealand is “dirty dairying”.  Hughie is one farmer leading the way and is trying to balance his personal and professional values, the best interest of the business , the succession for interested family members and the environment all at the same time. At a cost of $75,000 to install, a solar system on the roof of the Milking shed that sells back to the power company has paid itself off in under 3 years.


Alistair Harris & Evan Campbell at Mathieson’s dairy farm with the solar set up.

Eventually as the capacity for storage develops it is hoped the system will be able to generate and store enough power to be off grid. Hughie 600ha effective but a 330ha milking platform milking 870 cows and carrying 570 young stock. The business also runs sheep and rears dairy-beef cross calves. Hughie combines innovation and the basics to try to ensure all decisions are profitable but within regulations and best practice.  An underlining theme of the tour has been farming for profitability not production. It was agreed that the “downturns “ in both the NZ and Australian Dairy Industry has had the positive that farmers have improved their management practice by focusing on getting the basics right and have increased per cow performance.

The advancement of technologies also provides an opportunity to connect along the whole supply chain through the power in storytelling. There are applications enabling customers to scan their product in countries such as China and be given interactive information about the farms from which their produce has come from. Going one step further is the ability for these customers to have their own pictures printed on customised labels. Whilst large companies are capturing this value-adding opportunity, farmers ourselves are able to utilise mediums such as Social media to tell our story. Today Hughie’s farm business includes a Farm Stay. Whilst it is part of a larger diversification of the business, however the most important return is the intrinsic value from connecting with people.


The Tour Group with Graeme McKenzie at his Wintering Block.

Cloud covered the sun as we made our way to a Wintering block further towards the coast. Caps and sunglasses are exchanged with beanies and jackets as strong winds blow across the paddocks from the sand dunes and cliff face; so strong that the trees are on a permanent lean. The tour participants have been intrigued as to why the silage is spread out along the paddock fences rather than being stacked and stored. We found out why this was, and more.


2017 Tour Group at the World Shearing Championships: (left to right) Oonagh Kilpatrick, Janelle Fisher, Alistair Harris, Nick Minogue, Denise Jones, Evan Campbell, Tony Seymour, Ashlee Hammond & Lauren Peterson.

It was time to say goodbye and head back into Invercargill for the sold out International Shearing championships. There is no doubt that the shearers earned our admiration for the strength, endurance and skill that it requires to shear a sheep with blades. We can say that we’ve been to one, but may never make it back to one.

Lauren Peterson

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