Not Your Typical Dairy Farmers

It’s fair to say the Olivers are not typical dairy farmers. Their backyard is home to 93 egg-laying ducks. They’ve befriended bees and run a dozen hives. They spend time and money protecting on-farm long-tailed bats. And they make time to milk 180 cows.

Greg and Katrina are Open Country suppliers. Their farm, nestled between Hamilton and Matamata, is small and oddly sized – 100 hectares that is two paddocks wide from road front to final fence. Katrina explains how she and Greg came to own this unique strip of land.

“I was raised on this farm – it’s been in our family for 100 years – but I left it to start a career in landscaping. I was qualified and self-employed, which is how I met Greg. We were doing a landscaping job together, and we hit it off.

“Our journey back to farming happened through my parents. Being fourth generation dairy farmers, they were keen to keep the land in family hands, but at the time, they’d leased their farm out. When those folk moved on, mum and dad invited Greg to work on the farm so he could come to grips with the operation. That’s when we bought in.”

Katrina’s parents had been with Fonterra up until the time of leasing the farm. The new people, however, couldn’t afford Fonterra’s share options, so opted to go with Open Country to make it work. As it turned out, this was perfect for the Olivers.

“When Greg and I were ready to buy, we were in the same financial boat as the previous people – unable to afford Fonterra’s shares. So it made sense for us to keep everything with Open Country. We’re so glad we did. Now we have a stake in the land!”

Doing Things Differently

Steep and narrow, the farm’s lack of scale has forced the Olivers to run things differently. In terms of labour, the operation can only sustain one fulltime worker, which is Greg.

Another strategy born of necessity is the grazing of younger animals on the steeper slopes rather than sending them out to graziers. Greg explains.

“The usual approach is to pay graziers to raise the young ones until they’re ready to calve. But we decided to make full use of our land. Some of the remote parts of the farm are steep and unsuitable for full-grown animals, but there’s plenty of grass on the slopes for the teenagers. We keep them there until they’re up for calving.”

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Upsides & Downsides Of Being Small

The Olivers know there are less margins in a small operation, and animal health is a good example of this. The average New Zealand herd size is 300 cows. If 30 animals go down sick, that’s 10 percent of that standard herd. For Greg and Katrina, 30 animals is a 17% hit. Big difference. Which is why Greg is more mindful of animal health than the average farmer.

“Here’s where our size can work in our favour. Because I’m the only one dealing with a small herd, I know each cow in detail. Cows are creatures of habit, so I can easily spot when one of the girls is acting out of character. Maybe she’s standing back while the others are aggressively positioning themselves for feed. Or she’s not in her usual milking spot. On a bigger farm, farmers probably spot things later when cows are struggling. On our small operation, I can get onto a health issue before it escalates into an expensive problem.”

It’s More Than Just Cows

Given the size of their farm, the Olivers could be forgiven for maximising every square inch, including the seven hectares of native bush. But Katrina and Greg have chosen to go the other way. They’ve placed a covenant on those seven hectares, permanently protecting the native trees from future development. Why? To save the bats.

“Greg and I were thrilled to discover long-tailed bats living in that patch of bush. It’s their home. We’re all about working in with Nature when we can, so we decided to help these little guys out.

“Aside from keeping the trees intact, we began planting more native species in those seven hectares. As we’ve done that, we’ve seen a kind of regeneration going on. Native birds are returning, like wood pigeons and bellbirds. Tuis are always a good sign. We’ve even had kākā show up, which was unexpected!”

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With A Little Help From My Friends

All farms struggle at times, but the Olivers have noticed that certain challenges hit harder when you’re a low-scale operation. Like issues of compliance. Greg explains.

“When you’re small, it’s not easy to absorb extra costs. There’s just less fat in the system. What makes it harder is when new compliance and regulations keep coming – new rules spring up like weeds.

“One thing that’s helped a lot is getting together with local farmers to share ideas. Our Open Country milk manager organised these gatherings. It was a pilot group, and the whole point of it was to figure out how to execute the farm environment plan effectively.

“The pilot group was brilliant. We’d visit each other’s farms and could literally see what others had done to mitigate the problems. We’d ask questions and share ideas – someone was bound to see a smarter more efficient way to do things.

“Open Country even organised for someone from Environment Waikato to come out and clarify things. It’s fair to say things got a bit tense at times. Farmers will push back if things don’t add up. But in end, we really felt we were on the same page. Very, very helpful.”

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And Finally, Bees…

A story about the Olivers wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t end on a quirky note. Aside from cows, bats and ducks, their farm is home to 12 hives of bees. For Katrina, their inclusion is entirely strategic.

“Over the last few years, Greg and I have become amateur apiarists. We only have a dozen hives, but our intention is to expand on that. Bees are so good for the environment, even for dairy farming. These little guys increase the growth of clover which helps fix nitrogen in pastures and develops organic matter in the soil.

“I’ve also been experimenting with our fuzzy friends in the garden. When I’m growing vegetables, I’ll place some of the hives nearby to see the pollination effect. Same thing with our strawberry patch. My gosh! We’ve never had better strawberries or Zucchinis!”