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Keeping the dream alive on a dairying rollercoaster

Keeping the dream alive on a dairying rollercoaster
Adam and Nicole Gerritsen with children Isla and Leo.

Sometimes in life we take a few steps back before moving forward and while mistakes get made along the journey, the end prize makes it all worthwhile.Stepping up to a 940-cow sharemilking job in Centre Bush, near the Southland township of Winton is the latest step in Adam and Nicole Gerritsen’s farming journey, and along with their young family, their greatest prize so far.

From a farming background in Cambridge, Adam’s real step into dairy farming happened when he was working for RD1 – now Farm Source — not long after leaving school.Always up for a chat with customers, he was initially offered a weekend relief-milking job, later becoming a full time herd manager’s job.

“From there I probably made the best move of my career,” says Adam. “Nicole and I took a ‘couples’ manager’s job between Matamata and Cambridge. “We ended up taking quite a pay cut to get that job – but careerwise it was our best move in terms of learning and experience.”

Two years later, in 2012, Adam and Nicole went to Southland helping Adam’s family convert a sheep and beef farm to dairy.After conversion and working on the farm for a year Adam and Nicole made the hard decision to take a manager’s job in Winton looking after 600 cows in the 2013/2014 season.

“The following season that turned into a contract milker’s job giving us our first big opportunity for self employment and 3G Dairies Ltd was born.”A lower order sharemilker’s job with 700 cows the following year coincided with the collapse of the dairy payout, which plummeted to $3.80.“That move wasn’t a good idea financially.

It was pretty hard waking up every morning knowing that you were going to work to make no money, but to survive and keep the bank manager away. “You have to go to bed with the dream. I love animals. I love cows. I love watching calves join the herd. Sometimes you have to think about other things to get through and believe it’s all part of the journey.We learned a lot and it was another step forward in terms of progression.”

And that is precisely the positive attitude that has defined Adam and Nicole’s career as they progressed through dairy farming.At the end of that first season as low order share milkers Adam and Nicole took their first 50:50 job with 650 cows on another Winton farm.

Keeping the dream alive on a dairying rollercoaster

A fresh dump of snow adds to the many challenges of Adam and Nicole’s new 940-cow sharemilking job in Centre Bush.; Cow welfare and comfort was a major driver for the installation of rubber matting in Paul Henton’s covered feed pad in Tapanui.

“At the time people probably thought I was a bit crazy buying all the cows when the payout was still low, but I saw it as an opportunity. We put our herd together for $1200 a head – they’re worth $1600 – $1800 now.”

While Nicole normally had responsibility for calf rearing, the couple’s first child, Isla, was just two weeks old when they started their first 50:50 contract – adding to the daily challenge.

At the start of the 2019 season Adam and Nicole took their next big jump to their current farm milking 940 cows for Dairy Farms NZ – with new baby son, Leo, in tow.With three staff, and jumping straight into calving and a very poor spring period featuring one large dump of snow and lots of challenging weather, it has been a bigger challenge than Adam anticipated.

“Calving down 650 cows there could be 20-25 calves a day but with 940 it’s more like 30-40 and it’s relentless. But when you come to a really good job like this that you really love, the sense of achievement makes you love it even more. If you love something so much you try to make it work no matter what.”

Regardless of the roller coaster journey, every job that Adam and Nicole have taken has been positive progression.With young Isla and Leo, the challenge is balancing the never-ending demands of life on the farm with the growing needs of family.Looking towards the future, family will play an increasingly important part in Adam and Nicole’s decision-making. “Our kids are the driving force behind whatever we do,” says Nicole.

DairyNZ is encouraging farmers to check they meet new minimum standards included in an amended Dairy Cattle Code of Welfare. The code has been recently amended by the Ministry for Primary Industries and the changes took effect from 31 October 2019.Many of the changes relate to requirements in off-paddock facilities.

Around 40% of farms use off paddock facilities and these are mostly used to feed cows when grass growth is limited. There are a range of off-paddock facilities being used in New Zealand including barns, feed pads and stand-off pads. These facilities can provide environmental and animal health benefits.

For farmers with off-paddock facilities:

• where cows are wintered on hard surfaces (like stones or concrete) with no soft lying area, a compressible surface (like rubber) needs to be available for cows to lie on

• calving cows on hard surfaces like concrete or stones must have a dry, non-slip covering such as straw or rubber matting. The amount of effluent build-up on the surface must also be managed.

• calving cows in off-paddock facilities must have enough space to separate themselves from the herd

• wood chip pad facilities with no roof must have drainage that minimises ponding, to provide enough comfortable space for cows to lie down

• where concrete feed pads are used in wet weather and cows are kept on feed pads for most of the day for several days, some access to drier paddocks must be provided every day. As an alternative, farmers can also use rubber matting if the feed pad is used regularly to reduce pugging.

“The new minimum standards are designed to allow cows to express natural behaviours, such as lying comfortably, in all types of environments,” says Helen Thoday, animal care team leader at DairyNZ.

“Cows find surfaces with moisture levels higher than about 75% uncomfortable to lie down on. In a paddock, that level is about when you will see water in your gum boot prints,” she says. DairyNZ will be working with farmers who winter cows on crop paddocks to find on-farm solutions to meet this requirement.

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