Dairying proves a baptism of fire for South African duo

Dairying proves a baptism of fire for South African duo

South African immigrants Nathan and Elri Levin are tracking dairy industry progression since Nathan started milking cows the morning after they touched down in Auckland 12 years ago.
The couple left established careers in Cape Town in the adventure sport and wine industries for Nathan to take up a farm assistant position on a 450 cow Matamata farm.
He gained his first New Zealand dairy industry experience the day after landing on their brother-in-law’s Morrinsville farm, where he worked for a few months before moving to Matamata. Nathan progressed to farm manager, then the couple took a contract milking position on a 650 cow farm in Tokoroa.
Their third year on the farm saw them named New Zealand Dairy Industry Awards Farm Managers of the Year for Central Plateau, and two years later they moved to their current farm, the then newly converted Tokoroa Downs for Ata Rangi Pastoral.
“We always wanted to get some big herd experience,” Nathan says. And starting out with more than 1500 cows, Tokoroa Downs was up there.
“For me, the basics are the basics and they stay the same,” Nathan says. “Everything takes a bit longer, but you have to have the basics right and everything else will fall into place.”
Tokoroa Downs was the fourth of five farms to be converted by Ata Rangi Pastoral, and one of the largest at 511ha. At 150m higher than sea level, with heavy soil types, Tokoroa Downs is generally a summer safe farm. The Levins arrived on farm for the beginning of production on June 1 2016.
“We weren’t involved with the conversion, but when we got here, they were still finishing races, fencing, connecting water troughs, and there was about 30ha of logging going on to convert forest into paddocks.
Now the conversion process is finished, we can see what works and what doesn’t, and what changes we can make that would suit the farm better.” Tokoroa Downs had been earmarked for all year calving, and started off that way.
“We changed that from the second year, and we have been spring calving since,” Nathan says. “It’s quite a wet farm in the winter, so it made winter milking really hard.
You need to be there doing it before you can really see whether it’s going to work. We knew it was
going to be wet, but not how wet it was going to be. For us and for our business, it didn’t make financial sense.”
Cow numbers came down to 1400 in the second season as the Levins adjusted numbers in conjunction with Ata Rangi Pastoral management to a spring calving system.
They also had to take into account the fertility of the new farm. “The actual grass growth is not the same as established farms,” Nathan says.
“With new farms, especially converted farms, it takes years for your soil fertility to increase. We had to be quite careful with our stocking rate.”
Next season, Tokoroa Downs will start the season with 1350 cows, and Nathan says cow numbers will remain at this level until he thinks the farm is really firing in terms of grass growth.

Dairying proves a baptism of fire for South African duo
The start of a new day at Tokoroa Downs, managed by former South African couple Nathan and Elri Levin.

“We don’t want to push high stocking rates,” he says. “The whole idea is to have system two or three running here.” He says both the Levins and Ata Rangi Pastoral don’t want a high input farm at all, and that’s the direction they were moving in to with winter milking.
The Levins are busy with their regrassing programme and alongside agronomists, have identified the paddocks which contain high performing grass species, and those that don’t. “Over time, we’ll get rid of the bad pasture and replace it with better grass.”

Dairying proves a baptism of fire for South African duo
Tokoroa Downs is the fourth of five farms to be converted by Ata Rangi Pastoral and, at 511 hectares milking around 1400 cows, one of the largest.

As per Ata Rangi Pastoral policy, the farm has ongoing substantial riparian planting on ineffective areas, a combination of native trees and pine trees.
Nathan says Ata Rangi Pastoral is a really great company to work for, and has supported the Levins right from the word go.
“It’s not a big corporate firm, and everybody on the higher levels is very open and easy to talk to. It’s a nice business to be a part of.”
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