A midlife crisis and the desire for a new challenge were the catalysts for Nathan and Rosie Hughes’ switch to smaller herd dairy farming three years ago.
And the family is working to grow the business to support them all.
Groen is the second generation on the 65 ha, 225 cow farm, following her parents, Klaas and Annette, who bought it in 2000.
“Farming is all I ever grew up with and I enjoy the lifestyle, working from home. It has its challenges for sure. There are days when I think ‘Why am I doing this?’ But I enjoy the challenge. Every day and every season is different dairy farming and it is rewarding.”
One challenge is to work out how to increase the farm’s revenue to support all the family members plus an employee.
“The farm was a system 1, everything was made on the farm and it was self-contained with Mum and Dad working full-time,” says Groen.
“Then I came home and I had to be paid. Our days in milk were limited because we were so reliant on the weather, so we had to change our system.
“We put in a meal feeding system rather than a feedpad to add a bit more lifestyle as well as income. The family business is all we’ve got, so we need to look after where our livelihood comes from.
“I have always said I never want to go farming by myself, there is more to life than work. I want to be able to step away on my days off to find a balance and what works for the family.
“If we had put a feedpad in we would have had to employ a worker to run that. And then you’ve got your machinery and effluent system changes and you’ve got to grow maize or silage. It became too complicated for us so we decided to keep it simple.”
Adding in-shed feeding allowed the Groens to milk an extra 25 cows, which meant they could employ a worker as well.
“Last year we employed a milker, so Dad was out of the shed and the milker and I did the milking,” says Groen.
“Dad is still involved during the day to help out and do maintenance jobs, and he still milks when the worker and I have time off. It means he can keep an eye on things.
“Mum and Dad still want to be involved as they live on the farm as well, making sure I am doing it ok.”
Long term they plan to employ extra help over the first few months of the season during calving and mating.
“The plan is for Dad to have his last calving this season,” says Groen. “And I don’t want to have to do it by myself, so we need the financials and budget to support that.”
Groen appreciates the extra control she can have managing a smaller property.
“Smaller herds are easier to manage. On a bigger farm you’ve got a lot more area to keep an eye on management-wise. I couldn’t see myself farming more than 300 cows, because of the one-on-one animal side of things.
“Having it simpler, you don’t have the risk. If you have a bigger farm and you get your pasture management wrong it will really hit you. There is a bit of room for error on a smaller farm. Also, nobody works harder than someone who is self employed. Whatever I do is going to impact my future here.”
Groen also values getting off farm to learn at industry events – a valuable piece of advice handed down by her father.
“Dad said, ‘You are not going to come home and work on the farm unless you go to discussion groups and farming events’.
“It is one way to benchmark and it is how Mum and Dad started off. They didn’t really know too much about New Zealand and farming when they came out, so they progressed by networking and benchmarking themselves against other people. That is how you improve. That’s also why we have started using DairyBase.”
There are many events to choose from, but Groen has learned which are the most valuable for her. She gains a lot out of attending SMASH events.
“You have to pick and choose the events you go to, depending on the relevance to you and your system. SMASH events relate to me. There is no point in me going to an event for people with 1000 cows.
“Being involved with farmers who are also farming smaller systems is more relevant for me as they have the same sort of challenges.
“It has been valuable looking at the financials of farms similar to here. We are all in the same boat and it gives you the chance to bounce ideas off each other.”
The Groens are planning for a future where farming will be a very different proposition.
“It depends on what happens with the whole environmental thing,” says Groen. “Keeping up-to-date, and going to events like the SMASH ones is a bit of an eye opener. It’s important to keep ahead of the game, getting as much information as you can rather than all of a sudden something happening and you don’t know anything about it.
“At the moment we’re pushing the limit with the system we’ve got but are looking at the information from Overseer. What does that look like and what can we do to change?”
• Louise Hanlon is the executive secretary of Smaller Milk and Supply Herds (SMASH)