Creating a Space Where Dairying & The Environment Can Thrive

Open Country’s Environment and Sustainability Manager Caleb Higham works every day to find a balance between the worlds of dairy farming and the environment.

Caleb was born and bred on a dairy farm in the Waikato. He has a PhD in Environmental Science from Massey University, which he completed while working as an Environmental Change Specialist at DairyNZ.

When it comes to farming and the environment, Caleb knows his stuff. The opportunity to help create a space where both can flourish and prosper is what gets him out of bed every morning.

“I have a strong connection to the environment,” says Caleb. “I want to see it preserved, but I also have a passion for dairying and the agricultural industry. My aim is to find a balance between the two so they can thrive side-by-side.”

In January 2021, DairyNZ and AgResearch jointly released findings from a study that showed New Zealand dairy farmers have the world’s lowest on-farm carbon footprint. While Caleb says our industry should be proud of its achievements to date, we need to keep the momentum going. 

“As New Zealand’s second largest dairy processor, Open Country has a part to play. We are committed to working alongside our farmer suppliers to help them produce more from less. I feel privileged to be using my knowledge and expertise to help make that happen.”   

Connected to The Land

Caleb grew up on his parent’s 106-hectare dairy farm in Arohena in the South Waikato. He spent his childhood building huts in the farm’s 13 hectares of regenerating native bush and constructing dams in the local stream.

He now lives near Te Awamutu on a 4.5-hectare lifestyle block, in which he has a quarter share with friends. He spends his time between Open Country’s Waharoa manufacturing site and the company’s Auckland head office. When he’s not working, you can find him playing hockey, indoor netball or touch rugby in the summer months.

Caleb is an outdoor enthusiast by nature. While he’s always had a passion for science, he never wanted to be stuck in a lab. After completing his Master’s degree at Massey, he decided to pursue a PhD focused on water use, which he knew would offer him plenty of job opportunities in New Zealand and enable him to maintain a connection to the land.

Story Caleb Farm 1

Expertise in Water Use

Caleb’s doctoral study examined water use on 100 dairy farms across New Zealand, from Waikato to Manawatu and Canterbury.

“We looked at everything from how much water is required to run cow sheds to covering water footprints (the equivalent of a carbon footprint) and understanding how farmers across the country use their water resource,” says Caleb.

This work has given him a strong insight into one of the biggest issues facing New Zealand farmers, sustainably managing one of our most precious natural resources.

Caleb also spent time as a research technician at some of DairyNZ’s research farms, running trials focused on cow fertility and longevity in the herd.

Story Caleb Farm 3

Valuable Industry Experience

As Environmental Change Specialist at DairyNZ, Caleb focused on understanding the different policies being developed by Government and Regional Councils, interpreting the information, and sharing insights with farmers and his colleagues to help inform decision-making.

“When I started with Open Country, it appealed to me that the company was at the beginning of its journey,” says Caleb. “Here, there is an opportunity for me to use my specialist background and industry knowledge to help shape how we are going to best work alongside our suppliers to proactively respond to these regulations.”

As Government requirements, from Essential Freshwater legislation to the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act, come into play, Caleb says it can be a confusing and challenging time for farmers.

“The process for creating many of these new policies has seen the rules change a number of times. It can be hard to keep up with the rules and it can create confusion and uncertainty for farmers. At Open Country, we are committed to helping our suppliers on that journey and making it as stress-free as possible.”

When Caleb joined Open Country at the beginning of 2020, it was a chance for him to help farmers navigate a complex and often changing regulatory environment. It was also about giving farmers the tools and knowledge to succeed without incurring huge costs.

Delivering Value to Farmers

Caleb’s role at Open Country includes designing a new online platform for creating and implementing Farm Environment Plans (FEP) – a key tool for identifying on-farm environmental risks and developing an action plan to manage them.

Caleb has played a leadership role in facilitating farmer workshops and developing a pilot project to test drive the new FEP platform.

“It’s really exciting to be developing something innovative that will deliver real value to our farmer suppliers. The process is allowing us to see where the information gaps are and how we can best support them,” says Caleb.

There’s no doubt the FEP platform will provide Open Country, its suppliers and regulators with valuable data. However, Caleb’s vision for the tool goes beyond facts and figures.

Story Caleb Farm 2

“Our suppliers have great stories to tell about the work they are doing as stewards of the land and livestock.

“Building awareness of those stories and getting people to engage with them is one of the biggest challenges our industry faces. We are proud to be playing a part in demonstrating that a thriving dairy industry and a healthy environment do not have to be mutually exclusive.”