After recent heavy rain, Hamilton city fringe dairy farmer Colm Tierney had a visit from the police about his drainage.
To be accurate, one policeman. A neighbour. With questions about what he was doing about the watery aftermath.
The affable Tierney didn’t mind. It goes with the territory when you farm five minutes from Te Rapa, developing at a blistering pace on Hamilton’s northern skirts.
The Port of Auckland is building an inland hub on the back doorstep, New Zealand’s biggest retail precinct The Base is a short hop away, and all around, Waikato farmland is being carved up in the name of progress.
Colm (pronounced Colum) Tierney and his wife Gaynor are 50:50 sharemilkers. This is their ninth season farming right under the nose of the public, so clearly it doesn’t faze them. Their rolling picturesque Onion Rd workplace, a 167 hectare (effective) property owned by Colin and Jacky Dixon, is neat as a pin – and highly productive. They’re so relaxed about the urban vibe they’ve bought their own 67ha (effective) dairy farm not far away at Ngaruawahia at the foot of the Hakarimata Range, 10 minutes from The Base.
On Onion Rd, the couple are milking about 500 crossbred cows in two herds.
The breeding worth of the total 730 dairy females on their books is in the top 5 per cent of the industry, and in their time on this property they’ve lifted production from 176,000kg milksolids to 193,500kg last season.
Average annual production when they arrived was 140,000kg, but they benefited from the Dixons offering them an extra 16ha drystock block which took the milking platform to 167ha. The Tierneys grow 10ha of maize onfarm and send their heifer calves to grazing at Raglan until they’re two. They attribute their performance to a strong interest in pasture management and learning from wise older heads on their dairying journey.
‘‘I think we do well because we are surrounded by good people and good stock. I know it’s a cliche, but it’s true,’’ says London-born and Ireland-raised Gaynor, who landed in New Zealand 20 years ago on work experience as part of her agricultural science degree study at Aberystwyth University in Wales.
She met Colm, who came to New Zealand from Ireland as a two-year-old, at the then-Taranaki Research Station, which he was managing having gained a diploma in agriculture at Massey University. While Colm has a farming background - his father came to New Zealand to be one of LIC’s first herd testers and bought dairy farms in Taranaki and the Bay of Plenty – Gaynor was a city girl who grew up between London and Cork according to her engineer father’s work commitments.
Her parents, hoping their daughter would be a doctor or a lawyer, ‘‘nearly died’’ when she told them she was going be a farmer. ‘‘I’m a fidget. I love being outside and I love animals so it was the best combination.’’
A fidget, says her husband, can pack a lot into a day. Gaynor is a hands-on farmer – she helps on the farm most days, rears calves and does all the books - an agribusiness diploma tutor, has part-time roles with DairyNZ, and is Waikato Federated Farmers’ dairy vicechairperson. She and Colm also have five children aged 14 to nearly three.
The couple have a 50:50 sharemilker with 230 cows averaging 75,000kgMS on their Ngaruawahia farm, and employ a 2IC at Onion Rd. Every year they take work experience students from Gaynor’s old university.
Farm owner Colin Dixon says the couple aren’t just top operators, ‘‘they’re family’’.
The Tierneys have always bonded with their dairying bosses, hoovering up the knowledge inside older heads.
Their first job together after a
The luck of the Irish has nought to do with a Waikato sharemilking couple’s success. They’ve made their own luck, writes
stint working overseas was managing a 188ha, 540-cow farm at Gordonton for the Bird family. Instead of pay rises the couple negotiated a deal to rear 30 heifers a year in the last three of their five years with the Birds.
‘‘They are an amazing family, they gave us a really good start and great equity,’’ says Gaynor.
Colm, who won a farm manager of the year title during this time, says he was given free rein as manager.
The Birds have wide business interests and the Tierneys were keen pupils.
‘‘They were great mentors. If we look back, what helps build success is great mentoring,’’ says Gaynor. The Birds encouraged their young managers to go with them to dairy company meetings.
‘‘They really involved us although we were just working on the farm. It gave us a good perspective on the industry, and started a real passion around that side.’’
Come 2005 it was off to a sharemilking job at the Ohaupo farm of Ian and Noeline Hancock. The Tierneys bought the Hancocks’ high-BW crossbreed cows, developed from a mainly jersey herd. Ian Hancock was among the first farmers to start crossbreeding to better suit New Zealand conditions, says Colm.
‘‘We came from the Birds who ran a very grass-based system to Ian who was even more focused on pasture management, which was Colm’s passion anyway. To have a farm owner focused on that was hugely helpful,’’ says Gaynor. Within two years the couple had paid off the debt run up buying the Hancock herd.
Colm: ‘‘We did some really good production there with a little maize. You learned the skill of utilising every blade of grass before you bought in any feed.’’
Standing deep in lush clover at Onion Rd, he says there’s ‘‘nothing special’’ about his pasture management. ‘‘We just target residuals. Residuals are the key to keep quality grass and being proactive with feed budgeting to ensure you are the right rotation at certain times of the year’’.
In their last year at Ohaupo the couple farmed through the severe Waikato drought of 2007-08.
Next up they were offered jobs on big conversions at Tokoroa.
‘‘But we wanted to run grassbased farms on the good old, keepit-simple method. We decided not to go down the scale road,’’ says Gaynor.
The decision led them to Onion Rd, a property the Dixons converted from the old Affco bull farm. Lifting cow numbers here meant more debt, which the couple paid off within three seasons. With Dixon’s okay, they went shopping for their own farm, the only ones who turned out to the open day at their Ngaruawahia farm, which had been in the Little family for more than 100 years.
‘‘It’s a really nice little farm,’’ says Colm. ‘‘It has a narrow entrance but that opens out into a flat plain which goes all the way to the Waipa River.’’
Gaynor says some of her students tell her they’re facing ‘‘a huge brick wall’’ contemplating farm ownership.
‘‘They say how can we do that? I say it’s achievable; we’ve done it. But it’s all about having a clear vision.’’
At Onion Rd, production is up 5 per cent on last year, which the Tierneys attribute mostly to the Dixons last year covering the farm’s 90m by 18m stand-off pad. Colin Dixon says the shelter building itself cost $130,000 but all up it was a $200,000 investment, with he and the Tierneys doing the earthworks and other preparation themselves.
While the aim was to minimise pasture damage as well as avoid environmental debates with urban passersby, the benefits for livestock, particularly calves, have been significant.
Gaynor: ‘‘It’s taken a lot of stress off the cows, they’re happy sitting down. You go in there in the morning (to the shelter) and the (new) calves are running around huge because they’ve had so much milk.’’
Early season lameness has reduced and no cows have been lost this season.
The farm supplies Fonterra. One herd is on twice-a-day milking all season and the other, younger herd goes once-a-day after Christmas to help with the condition scores of cows.
Calving will start on July 19, a little later than in the past.
For three years the Tierneys have used good, but not top price, hereford bulls to follow up artificial breeding (AB), providing useful cashflow from the Frankton calf sales. This year the older cows all went to jersey AB. Friesian and crossbred bull-of-the-day premier sires are used across the rest. They’ve signed up for another three seasons at Onion Rd and aim to do 190,000kg a year as efficiently as they can, keeping costs at $1.50/kg.
Their next big decision will be whether to buy another farm. Meanwhile, the Tierneys are preparing for a two-month trip to Europe with their children. They have the Dixons’ blessing, and they’ll be back in time for calving.
Undaunted Hamilton city fringe dairy farmers Gaynor and Colm Tierney with daughter Poppy.
One benefit of dairy farming on Hamilton’s urban fringe is that a processing plant is your neighbour.