Pioneering Southland dairy couple’s journey to farm in New Zealand
From milking 40 cows in Holland to 4000 cows in Southland, New Zealand – Abe and Anita De Wolde’s dairy farming journey and their story, like that of so many immigrant couples, is both inspirational and breathtaking. In 1991, Abe and Anita were farming in the northeast of Holland near the city of Meppel.
Milking 40 cows, the farm was a 23.5 hectare property that had been in the family since 1492. Abe says that while very small by New Zealand standards, in 1991 it was considered an averagesized farm by Dutch standards.
“We knew the city was going to expand into our farm at some stage and we would lose it, so that made our decision to move a bit easier.”
Selecting New Zealand as their preferred adopted home of choice the couple made a two-week trek to the North Island to get a feel for the country.
“We liked what we saw but we were pregnant at the time with our son so decided to have the baby in Holland before emigrating.”
Arriving in New Zealand in the winter of 1991, the couple with their young children hired a campervan, touring the South Island with the idea that if they didn’t like it they would head to the North Island.
The ‘master plan’ was that when they found a place they liked they would buy a newspaper and check out the classifieds.
Hitting Southland in the height of winter, very wet, lots of mud and sheep they decided that was not the best place. By contrast, the weather was more favourable in Ashburton so they took a job on a dairy farm there, learning about cows the ‘kiwi way’.
“In the first week of employment I managed to flood out the dairy shed. It was set up with border dyke irrigation. I set it up the wrong way round and the whole shed became flooded. So that was a bit of a rocky start. So yes, it was different but we’re quick learners.”
After 18 months the couple decided it was time to buy their own slice of kiwi paradise and ironically found a 240ha sheep and beef farm in the Heddon Bush area of Southland, 18 kilometres from Winton.
Before converting the farm, the couple consulted an adviser who delivered the news that the farm was dry and unsuitable for dairy.
“Well, we had already bought the farm so decided to try 350 cows on it, milking them through a 36-bale rotary shed. Luckily the adviser was wrong and within four years we were milking 970 cows.”
Abe says that over time through dairy farming the topsoil was built up with more organic matter, which improved the moisture-holding capacity of the soil. “People just didn’t know what the possibilities were. Like there were no dairy cows in the area before us.”
Immigrants arrive in a new land far from home by choice. Free from conventions and social structures they are free to explore and do things that others say cannot be done. They are highly motivated to do and be the best they can.
“The early years for us were really tough and it’s been a beefy journey. At one stage we were getting the cows in at 2.30 in the morning because we were milking 970 cows through a 36-bale rotary shed. The payout was low and we couldn’t afford to build a second shed.”
Through that hard work, reinvestment and with the benefit of capital gains, over the 27 years that Abe and Anita have farmed in New Zealand they have grown their holding to include five dairy farms, known as Woldwide 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 – all limited liability companies – one dairy support farm known as Woldwide Farms Ltd and a runoff called Woldwide Run off Ltd.
“Our whole philosophy behind farming is stewardship of the land, the people, the animals, everything – that’s our driver.
“For our people we want to help them learn, grow and prosper. We try to blend the best farming practices from around the world – including New Zealand.”
New Zealand pasture management and the use of Dutch dairy cow genetics is a key to success along with the use of technology.
“On farms 3 and 5 we use CowManager to monitor cow behavior through electronic ear tags. We can see what cows are on heat, what cows are sick, their ear temperature, what they’re doing – how much time she spends chewing her cud, eating and lying down.”
Freestall barns for wintering have been built in farms 1, 2 and 3 and there is a strong intention to build barns on the remaining dairy platforms.
Production is running at 580kgMS per cow with the ultimate goal of breeding 600kg cows that will produce 660kgMS per lactation under a pasturebased system with moderate supplements.
While farms 1, 2 and 4 have contract milkers, farms 3 & 5 are operated under a Teal Management structure.
Developed some three years ago by renowned business coach and facilitator, Frederic Laloux, and outlined in his book Reinventing Organisations, a Teal Organisation is typified by a very flat management structure where the team members are encouraged to make decisions. “As a result you get a very agile organisation,” says Abe.
“Decisions don’t need to be run past a head office which is effectively removed from the work place – the person on the ground is empowered to make the decisions.
Having that authority and autonomy is also very motivating for the people. Decisions are not only made faster but there is more creativity as well.”
Abe says that the teams have responded very well to Teal, meeting the same KPI’s as Woldwide’s other dairy farms which include; Heifers lost in the first lactation, animals lost before peak milking, six week in-calf rate and pasture utilisation per hectare.
“The Teal structure for us is still quite aspirational – I still have some involvement in the farms and provide a bit of guidance – but it is very satisfying seeing it take shape and work.”
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