It has taken two months to repair kilometres of damaged fences on Helen Cummings’ flood-ravaged dairy farm in Southland.
The flat, 106-hectare property at Wyndham was submerged by floodwaters when the Mataura River burst its banks in early February.
“We’ve been here 12 years and I’ve never seen a flood that bad. Almost 80 per cent of the farm went under water,” recalls Helen.
The swirling floodwaters swept away 150 grass silage bales, damaged fences and lanes, wrecked crops and left paddocks strewn with debris.
Helen and her full-time employee Cherie McMullan have spent “five to six hours” most days since the flood cleaning up paddocks.
“We have 42 paddocks. We’ve had to pick up sticks, rubbish and clear massive branches and entire trees from 36 of them,” she said.
About 300 new posts, 50 strainer posts and 7.5 kilometres of new wire have been needed to repair fences and ensure they are stock proof again.
“It’s been a hard slog and it was a great feeling to finish fixing the last damaged fence this week,” said Helen.
Helen lives on the dairy farm with her husband Jock, who has a full-time job in Gore. She milks a herd of 235 predominately Holstein Friesian cows, under the stud name Mayalan Holsteins.
Helen praised the way neighbours and the Southland community worked together in the days following the disaster.
“We had 23 friends and family turn up on the Saturday following the flood to help with the clean-up and 26 people on the Sunday. It was truly humbling,” she said.
“Plus, there were several members of the Farmy Army – a volunteer group organised by Federated Farmers – and a team from the Gore A&P Society, where Jock is president.”
“Extra silage was also given to us to help us get through while we didn’t have much grass for the cows to eat,” she said.
It’s likely the effects of the flood will be felt into next season.
The flood destroyed three hectares of crop, which would have been used to feed half the herd during Southland’s icy winter.
“Bits of the crop have regrown. We’ve undersown it with rape, which is another brassica. So, we will have feed, but the tonnage per hectare will be down significantly.”
“We’ve had to keep the in-calf heifers out at grazing longer instead of bringing them home.”
Helen usually milks the herd twice-a-day from calving through until late May. But the flood forced her to switch to once-a-day milking.
The low-input farm targets annual production of 430-440 kilograms of milksolids (kgMS) per cow.
“We had a wet winter and spring, followed by the flood, which has meant milk production is behind on previous seasons,” she said.
Helen will soon add governance of New Zealand’s largest dairy breed society to her busy schedule.
The long-time member of the Southland branch of Holstein Friesian NZ is set to join the association’s nine-member national board.
It’s an opportunity the passionate Holstein Friesian breeder is looking forward to tackling.
“I was asked to be nominated as the board member for the Otago/Southland region, so I thought I’d give it a go,” she said.
Helen and Jock have been members of Holstein Friesian NZ for almost 20 years.
“I became secretary of the Southland branch two months after we joined. I took over as president about six or seven years ago,” she said.
“Joining the national board will be an opportunity for me to grow my own skills and learn more about key aspects of the association.”
Helen believes there are significant advantages to milking Friesians.
“There are big production benefits with using Holstein Friesian bulls over your herd,” she said.
“The top-ranking Holstein Friesian sires produce almost 40 per cent more milksolids than their Jersey counterparts from the same feed.”
Helen said there’s also a strong market for Friesian bull calves and surplus heifers.
Helen and Jock have three adult children. Darren and Clint farm in Southland and Kate is studying at Lincoln University.