Will and Kirsten’s story
It is an often heard cry that progression through the dairy industry with farm ownership as the end goal is almost impossible nowadays without family support. However, young couple Will and Kirsten Rolton are on that very path, with the support of farmers like the owners of their current farm – Kees and Hannie Rombouts.
Will started out in the dairy industry in the UK, but became demoralized by the lack of a future there. He packed his bag and emigrated to New Zealand in 2010 after a friend recommended it as the place to go to progress his dairy career. “I had been through university and done everything and met brick walls and a stagnant industry,” says Will. “Within two months in New Zealand people were saying ‘Stick around and we will make sure you get a shot at a percent return or something’, so that was really exciting.”
Since then he has been steadily progressing through the industry, from initially working on a 3500 cow farm in the Maniototo (where he met Kirsten), to working for a sharemilker in Morrinsville, contract milking for three seasons, and finally buying his herd and gaining a sharemilking contract on the Rombouts’ farm, where he is now in his second season. “Those first two seasons in New Zealand I got a lot of freedom,” says Will. “I learnt the trade, learnt about pasture, breeding, and how it is done here, rather than in buildings.
“Contract milking was good but I wanted to go sharemilking. When you own your own cows you’ve got a bit more in the game. Kees had gone from wages to ownership so we thought we would tuck under his wing for a few years and see what we could pick up on the way from someone who has done it.”
Kees can see a lot of similarities between the Roltons’ career path and theirs, “We started like Will, coming into the country and not having parents with a farm or that help to get you started.”
Hannie points out that people may need to think outside the box to achieve their farm ownership dream, “These days I think you have to look at wider options, you might have to look at other investments or ways of making the next step between sharemilking and farm ownership. Maybe other land investments, or finding a financial partner to help you make that step into buying a farm.”
The Rombouts are happy to support young people as they progress through the industry; they have two smaller herd farms, both run by sharemilkers. “We really appreciate that we could get into farming and if I had been in Holland I would never have been able to get started,” says Kees. “I have had my chance, and as long as there is a good relationship and it works for both parties we are quite happy.”
Why a smaller herd?
Both the Rombouts and Roltons are firm believers in the value of smaller herd farms.
“Often smaller farms are a family unit,” says Hannie. “We had a couple with children apply for a job here who said they wanted a sharemilking job where the kids could come on the farm, which they couldn’t do where they were. It is easier for the kids to get involved as they get older on a smaller farm.”
“There is nothing wrong with a wages job, but when you are on wages you are only invested up to a point, and you are given your owner’s parameters to manage by. Whereas when you are contract or sharemilking you get more autonomy,” says Will. “You may not nail it for a couple of seasons, but you review and you get sharper. A $2000 cow dying is your loss, rather than a $50 bonus. You get better in your skill levels. If the smaller herd channel to herd or farm ownership closes there is going to be a loss of skills.
“On the bigger farms you have got to have key decision makers. One man can only go so far. You can miss a woody tongue cow and it is a week before someone has found her; it is not because she is showing anything, she has had a week to get thin. When you are sub-300 you can see every cow every day, a lot of that higher level attention comes through and your average picks up.
“We still have the time to pick up a few feet and trim them, even at the busy time of the year. When you are finishing your morning routine at 1 o’clock in the afternoon those small things don’t happen.”
“During the downturn we have survived when a lot of big operators would have gone out of business,” says Kirsten.
What have they gained from SMASH events?
Both the Rombouts and the Roltons are regular attendees at SMASH events.
“I went to a SMASH event at Karapiro and there were three big chunks of information presented that we were interested in,” says Will. “There’s your information in three hours, all done.
“After coming to that event we took a fresh look at our heifer rearing, and we gave once a day milking a go. On OAD our condition score has improved and our lifestyle in summer. I don’t think you lose production and you can feed the cows better.”
“We also changed our grazier,” says Kirsten. “Our grazier was very good but he didn’t want weaners. Our new grazier will take weaners and then graze them all the way through.”