Work, life, balance – Lisa Groen

Isn’t it ironic that one of my previous blog’s headlines says, “There’s more to life than the back end of a cow”. Then here’s me milking 900 cows TAD for my milking job right now. Funny how sometimes things work out. But I feel ten years younger with less stress, more sleep ins and more days off!

I have taken up a drive-in milking position just down the road milking 900 cows TAD on my own through a 54-bale rotary with automatic cup removers. I have time off whenever I want (the boss is happy to just have me milk whenever I can). I am on $39.15 per hour (gross) so $30 an hour in the hand. I roughly do 7-8 hours a day. During calving and mating I was working a lot. So, December and January I had every Friday, Saturday and Sunday off. This meant I could make the most of summer, using my jet ski, enjoying socialising with friends, being able to kick back and chill at home. I did work ten days over Christmas and New Year so the 2IC on farm could have a good break too.

I also do jobs like: replacing rubberware, cleaning and doing the rubbish around the shed. I don’t have to do the plant or vat washes, just milk and put the cups on the jetters after each milking. It’s so nice that as soon as I get into the ute I SWITCH OFF. Being able to have time off during the day in between milkings is just amazing. It doesn’t bother me that I’m just cupping cows. It’s nice to just focus on one job and not all the other things that need doing after milking, like the grazing management decisions and putting up fences, needing to ring the vet for something, organising the fertiliser map for the truck driver, the paperwork, that water leak needs fixing down the farm and goodness knows how many other things. I’m sure you all know! Just focusing on milking is fine for me. This isn’t my forever job but it is a nice change from full time farming. I can milk how I like and choose how fast or slow to have the platform. I draft mastitis, lame or sick cows myself. I know how my boss wants things done so just happy with that. Imagine if milk companies paid an extra $1 kg MS for dairy farmers to have 1-2 days off a week (obviously somehow prove that), goodness that would improve everyone’s mental health and wellbeing! Would make industry more attractive that’s for sure. Be able to afford part time relief work for people too.

Fonterra’s scare mongering at the start of the season and slim pickings with the advance rate

It wasn’t ideal to have two payout drops during the start of the season. Everyone’s half panicking and re-doing budgets etc. That’s the challenge of being a dairy farmer. We never know what the payout will be and also what Mother Nature will throw at us. There’s only so much cost cutting you can do before it actually affects the farming system. Dad and I had the discussion about what we would do if we were still running the farm. Dad said NOTHING. Don’t change what works well and stick to your KPIs for your farm. The first six months on farm is important and sets you up for the last six months of the season. We always did everything the same and re-evaluated things in December and see what payout is then. Still need to do the production to get paid and feed the cows well. With 5 GDT results on the rise, the payout has come up, with unfortunately the last GDT one being a negative. I still think it’ll be an $8+ payout by the end of the season (I’m just a positive person). DairyNZ estimates that dairy operating expenses in 2022/23 amounted to $8.16 per kg MS. So, Fonterra’s advance rates are still slim pickings, what’s coming in each month $$$ is still flying out each month too. Reading through two of the DairyNZ business case studies from the Waikato region regarding updated mid-season budgets in January, they are both saying operating expenses are going to be higher than budgeted at the start of the season. Cashflow is “TIGHT” out there. Just bloody glad the grass is still green!

Forward thinking with the system change on farm and hosting a discussion group

Balance day was quite late this season having a 2–3-week pinch. With the system change “we” (farm owner and sharemilker) knew we had to be proactive and think of what we could do NOW to benefit us later on in the predicted El Nino summer. The farming system is now a 3 so it means less in-shed feed and more grass intake for the cows. Meaning less silage being made on farm than previously. (Dad and I would make two 75T silage stacks and this season it’s likely we could only make one stack). So, with that in mind, we had a look at buying in silage bales while still relatively cheap and not having bidding wars on Trademe come February or not being able to source any because everyone else wants them at the same time! We landed 220 bales at $105 delivered in October. With being more reliant on pasture we have been following the cows with nitrogen regularly, giving us consistent growth rates and being able to do 5 cuts of silage. We thought we better grow as much grass as we can before the predicted “BIG DRY” because it wasn’t that long ago when we last had a drought and there’s nothing worse than not being able to feed your cows.

At the discussion group in November we focused on transitioning from owner operator to sharemilker, what we looked for in an incoming sharemilker, the system change from system 5 to 3 and dove into the DairyBase report from the previous season.

For us when it came to looking for a sharemilker, we wanted:

  • A young couple, first time 50/50 sharemilker who would buy the cows off us.
  • Two people milking in the shed till the end of mating at least.
  • Being on the same page when it came to how the farm was going to be run and having a solid business plan.
  • No off farm jobs (time & energy focused on THIS JOB ONLY).

What my parents have said is that they could see the younger version of themselves when they went sharemilking, which they see in Brook and Molly. They are GO GETTERS! One of the things my parents did was a “drive by” (our sharemilkers know this already). They went and visited the house / farm Brook and Molly were on previously just to make sure the place was clean and tidy with no dogs/cats running around and any other animals. Because we are providing a brand-new house and small section. We don’t have extra land area for other people’s animals. Having a CLEAR understanding and VISION for both parties is KEY. We have had excellent communication with our sharemilkers from the first time we met them and this is continuing now.

One slight surprise from 2022/2023 DairyBase was the fertiliser cost had basically doubled compared to the last two seasons. We also knew that our farm working expenses were going to be higher due to upgrades on farm, more meal per cow was fed due to weather conditions, getting ready to put sharemilker on and preparing a new house build. Our farm working expenses for last season came to $7.31 per kg MS. Giving us a profit per ha of $1,332.

Guns N Roses – November rain

Those thunderstorms and heavy downpours started to make it look like last summer and I thought…… here we go again…. (eye roll). It was COLD in November too! We took a pasture sample and a silage stack sample to get tested (on the 20th November) to see the quality of both feeds to use that information when deciding meal blends and also handy information for the industry awards.

Silage: DM 44.7%, crude protein 21.1%, ME 10.9%

Pasture: DM 19.7%, crude protein 15.2%, ME 11.6%

Dad’s still the maintenance man helping out on farm, lending Brook a hand to get jobs done quicker. Improvements on farm continue to happen with an AB race put in, upgrade of the sump effluent stirrer, 6 new water troughs and from an old wheelbarrow frame Dad’s fitted on the pump that transfers the pond water to the effluent sump and installed a bigger petrol tank. It’s been nice for me to still help out on farm a few times (helping mow silage on my days off, helping with covering the silage stack and helping Dad). I have enjoyed being able to help two of my friends with milkings and herd testing. I just LOVE the FLEXIBILITY of being able to CHOOSE what work I take on.

El “not happening at all” Nino

Supplements EVERYWHERE! Silage stacks, silage bales, summer crops and maize growing three times the fencepost height in some places! Safe to say we could all probably have a six week dry spell to get through all this feed (a good problem to have and these supplements can be carried into next season). Maybe we might get a dry autumn? Yes, it’s been hot but so good to enjoy the sunny weather while the grass is green. Monthly rainfall totals and growth rates:

Rainfall (mm) Pasture growth rate (kg DM/ha)
September 108 70
October 86 77
November 74 81
December 142 85
January 64 64
February 43 46


Sharemilkers’ report

This season we know we are working for farm owners who have been here 23 seasons, so we are being flexible in adapting to new ideas, information and consistently learning. We did our budget on a $7 payout. A new thing we are doing this season is learning to enjoy things off farm. Getting out there meeting new people and having hobbies off farm is a great way to switch off from the day-to-day running of the farm.

Current situation

  • Empty rate is 11% from 11 weeks’ mating.
  • In-shed feeding rate maintains at 4 kg (all season PKE blends) and 6 kg grass silage. Opened stack on 16th
  • Round length 30 days and still pre-topping paddocks when necessary to maintain quality and increase pasture utilisation.
  • Production currently at 1.3 – 1.35 kg MS per cow daily.
  • STD 85,453 kg MS (as at 10th March), 100,000 kg MS target is on track.

Plan going forward for the last three months of the season

  • Preparing budgets for next season, much easier this time round as we have the data from this season to go on.
  • Herd test in the next couple of weeks to determine who to use DCT on, culling decisions, select cows on when to dry off and have milk quality consult with vets to assess how the season has gone.
  • 39 in-calf heifers coming home 1st May which we are purchasing from the owners.
  • Continue milking TAD using the grass silage we have on hand to milk as long as possible.

We wish Brook and Molly all the best as they are finalists in the Waikato Dairy Industry Awards for Share farmer of the Year!

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