An­drea Fox.

Nelson Mail - - LEISURE -

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.

PHO­TOS: AN­DREA FOX

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.

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