Lockdown down under on a New Zealand dairy farm

Sophie Ferris, a student in the Level 3 Advanced Technical Extended Diploma in Agriculture course at Greenmount Campus, CAFRE, joined the New Zealand Dairy Careers ‘Live, Learn and Earn Programme’ in 2019 and spent 12 months here in New Zealand. She has written of her time here in New Zealand and of the programme - we are really pleased to share her story…

I am in my final year of the Level 3 Advanced Technical Extended Diploma in Agriculture course at Greenmount Campus, CAFRE. During 2019/2020 I had the opportunity to undertake my work placement in South Island, New Zealand. CAFRE have a well-established partnership with a company called New Zealand Dairy Careers (NZDC) who manage this ‘Live, Learn and Earn in New Zealand Programme’.

I come from Jerrettpass, Co Down and live on a small dairy farm with 65 cows. I was delighted to get placed on a farm 12,500 miles away milking over ten times the number of cows.

On the 4th June 2019, eleven other students and myself travelled to Christchurch, New Zealand. We were met at the airport by NZDC staff and taken to Pinedale Lodge, Methven for induction training. The training lasted four days and we covered everything including health & safety, cooking, scrambler bike use, opening bank accounts and some students were even assisted to get cars bought and insured. We were given our first week’s grocery shop and were taken to our farms the following week.

My farm was a 750 cow herd in Mayfield, just outside Ashburton, owned by Harvey and Melanie Smith. My first observation when I arrived on the farm was that all the cows were out in the winter paddocks, dried off, and no cows were kept inside. The only shed on the farm was the dairy shed. The cows would be walked to this shed twice a day and milked through a 54 bale rotary parlour. The milking could be carried out by one person as it had a backing gate and automatic teat sprayer and automatic cup removers.

The next big difference I learned about was that the whole farm needed to be irrigated due to the hot summers – not something I was used to in Jerrettspass! The farm was 217 hectares (536 acres) of flat land which was irrigated by 3 pivots, 1 lateral irrigator and 54 hectares of k-lines. The summer temperature can reach highs of 35° to 40° Celsius and in winter lows of -10° Celsius.

The team on the farm consisted of the owners Harvey and Melanie, Nick, the farm manager, Zeke, the assistant manager, who came from Brazil, myself and one other farm worker, Kim from the Philippines. At first it was daunting to meet so many people from different backgrounds but we soon got to know each other and got on really well. Zeke was a qualified vet in Brazil and during my placement I was able to gain valuable skills from him to include foot trimming and mastitis treatment.

Over the winter period and into calving the working rota was six days on farm and two off. After calving until May the working rota was 10 days on and four days off, which left plenty of time to travel through the South island and explore the culture.

Milking started each day with cups on at 4am in the morning which meant cows were brought in from paddocks to the shed around 3.30am, depending on where the cows were grazing. Milking was finished up by 7.30am. Afternoon milking started at 1.30pm and milking was finished up and all cows put out onto new pasture and workers home by 5.00pm. The New Zealand farmers have certainly got the right attitude to work – life balance. They do work very hard but also take time to enjoy themselves.

All cows calved outside and calves where lifted by quad and trailer three times a day. During calving there were three batches of cows to manage: the dry cow batch, which were over 21 days to calf, the springer batch, which were due to calf within 21 days, and a heifer batch of about 150 heifers. The springer and heifer batches were both brought into the dairy shed every morning to be put through the automatic drafter, and any cows that had calved were all drafted out and put into the colostrum batch to be milked in the evening time. The colostrum was then tested from each cow and colostrum over 22% quality was kept for stomach tubing each new replacement heifer that was born. All other calves, which included bull calves and heifers that were not being used as replacements due to their genetics, were all fed antibiotic free milk for four days and then taken to slaughter.

Following calving the farm then prepared for the mating season which lasted 11 weeks. This was eight to nine weeks of AI followed by two to three weeks of using 10 Jersey sweeper bulls. During the mating season the AI company came every evening to inseminate cows. Heat patches and tail paint were used to detect heat and the rotary had a built in heat detection camera which worked in conjunction with the heat patches. This very simple system worked brilliantly as we had excellent results when the cows were scanned.

When the mating season was over there were three main batches of cows: High yielders, Low yielders, and antibiotic withheld cows. Cows were milk recorded four times a year and all high SCC cows were drafted out during every milking and milked at the end, before the antibiotic cows.

My highlight off farm would have to have been a visit to Queenstown for New Year’s Eve celebrations which was fantastic. While there we were jet boating, indoor sky diving and zip lining. I also visited Dunedin to watch a rugby match and stayed for the weekend. I went on boat trips in Akaroa, relaxed in hot springs in Tekapo and had numerous shopping trips to Christchurch. I really enjoyed exploring all parts of the south island.

Towards the end of my placement in March 2020 the whole country was put into a full lockdown due to Covid-19 for six weeks. During this time all farm staff were unable to leave the farm. The government took the pandemic really seriously and fines could be issued for leaving the farm. The whole farm was treated as one bubble, and I was able to socialise with the farm owner and his family and the other farm workers. We all respected the rules as the last thing we wanted was anyone going off sick with so much work to be done every day.

I was sad to say goodbye when I returned home in July 2020, delayed by a month, but it was great to be home to my own family (and cows).

I have made lifelong friends through this amazing experience and I know that this trip has widened my appreciation and understanding of dairy farming.

By Sophie Ferris, Agriculture student at CAFRE

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