It is 3.15am on a calm spring morning as Dannevirke dairy farmer Tania Cresswell slides on her gumboots and heads outside.
The 29-year-old manages her parents’ 55-hectare dairy farm at Papatawa, milking 160 predominately Holstein Friesian cows.
Tania jumps onto a two-wheeler motorbike, giving it a kick-start. The engine roars to life, piercing the pre-dawn silence.
It is not long before the farm’s 14-aside milking shed starts to fill with cows gently jostling for position and eager to be milked.
“An easy-going temperament is one of the main traits I strive for in a cow. I work alone a lot of the time, so having a docile animal is crucial,” she said.
“Plus, I also give the cows a mineral drench in the milking shed, things like magnesium and iodine, and quiet cows are easier to drench.”
During milking Tania zig-zags her way down the pit, changing clusters and identifying cows to draft for artificial insemination.
“At this time of the year it’s a daily race against the clock to get my farm jobs done and be on the road by 7.15am,” she said.
Tania works as an artificial insemination (AI) technician with genetics company LIC, a seasonal position she has held for 10 years.
“I did my training with LIC in 2011. After a month working as an apprentice, I was given my own AI run,” said Tania.
The job sees Tania driving between up to 12 local dairy farms each day, inseminating cows on heat.
“It’s a really rewarding job. The aspect I enjoy the most is getting out and talking to other farmers,” said Tania.
“Mating is one of the busiest times of the year and people can often get stuck in their farm bubbles for long periods.”
“If the grass isn’t growing and feed is in short supply, it’s nice to be able to let farmers know others in the district are in a similar situation,” she said.
The biggest farm on Tania’s run milks about 700 cows.
“When they synchronise a large number of cows to come on heat together, I have to inseminate 120 cows in one visit,” she said.
“It can take up to two hours.”
LIC revealed Tania has inseminated 25,611 cows since she started as an AI technician. That is roughly 2,561 inseminations a year.
It is usually 11am at the earliest before Tania returns home. After a quick bite to eat, she heads back out on the farm.
Tania is the third generation of her family to farm the property, which has 10 hectares of flats, the remainder of the land is hilly.
“We tend to say we have mountain cows rather than just plain dairy cows,” laughed Tania.
It was bought by her grandparents Bob and Gladys Cresswell in 1950. She is now managing it for her parents Keith and Gayle.
The farm produced 52,000 kilograms of milksolids (kgMS) in the 2019-20 season, which was about 10,000 kgMS less than normal. The farm’s best production has been 65,000 kgMS.
“The prolonged drought had a big impact on grass growth and milk production last season,” she said.
Tania had to dry off, or stop milking the cows, on 6 May 2020, three weeks earlier than usual.
“I ended up switching to once-a-day milking at the start of March, which isn’t something we have done before,” she said.
“The farm was the driest it’s been in living memory. Going once-a-day helped the cows hold some of their condition.”
Milk production on the property usually averages 380-400 kgMS per cow.
“We don’t do any summer cropping. We rely on pasture and feed out grass silage harvested from a nearby 60-hectare runoff,” she said.
Cows have access to up to two kilograms a day each of palm kernel (PKE) and molasses during the spring. It is fed in trailers.
The farm sits 170-220 metres above sea level, meaning calving does not start until 5 August.
The herd is wintered on a neighbouring 42-hectare block, which was purchased in 2009.
The farm sources its genetics from LIC’s premier sires Holstein Friesian bull team during mating.
“Fairmont Mint-Edition, San Ray FM Beamer-ET S2F and Morrows Super Hero-ET S2F have all left some really good daughters for us,” she said.
The Cresswell’s even had one of their own bulls, 2011-born Whariti EO Hillbury S3F, make the LIC bull team.
He sired 2,188 daughters in 664 herds.
“He was the great grandson of 2000-born cow, Heidi, who was the second calf I had as a pet as a child,” she said.
Heidi, who was unregistered, lived until she was 18 and had nine daughters. Tania is still milking some of her descendants.
“We like a sound, reliable cow that can handle the hills and gets in calf every year,” said Tania.
“You know those cows who reach the age of 10 or 12 and they’ve just got on with the job and not had any issues.”
Tania even used sexed semen last spring for two ageing pets who had only ever produced one daughter each.
“One’s 12 and the other is 13. They were mated to sexed San Ray FM Beamer-ET S2F and Hallville FM Presley S3F. Fingers crossed for two heifers this spring,” she said.
Tania has been a member of Holstein Friesian NZ since 2012 and is an active member of the association’s Hawke’s Bay Branch.
“We have little get-togethers every couple of months. We’ll often visit the herd of another branch member,” she said.
“It’s great to just talk about cows for a few hours. I really enjoy it.”
There are countless benefits of farming Holstein Friesians, including that they produce more milksolids than any other breed and are more valuable.
“It’s great that there’s a strong market for surplus Holstein Friesian cows, in-calf heifers and bull calves,” she said.
“We usually rear about 20 bull calves and sell them after they’re weaned. That pays for the milk powder to rear all our calves, including the replacement heifers.”
Talking cows and genetics is not Tania’s only hobby.
The thrill seeker can often be found in the front seat of a rally car hurtling down a gravel road at speeds of more than 200 kilometres an hour.
She is a co-driver for Ashburton drystock farmer Wayne Muckle in the New Zealand Rally Championship.
“We used to have a hill climb on the public road that goes past our support block. I’d go and watch, and thought it looked fun,” she said.
“One year I got to go for a ride in one of the cars and as they say, the rest is history.”
Tania plays a crucial role, acting as a navigator and an extra set of eyes for Wayne.
“I organise where we have to be for each rally. I’ll also go over the course, analyse video footage and check our pace notes,” she said.
“I’ll read those while we’re racing. I’ll tell Wayne what’s ahead, where to go and make sure he listens.”
The car is a Mitsubishi Evo 3, which is fitted with a roll cage and other safety features, and can reach speeds of up to 230 kilometres an hour.
“We crashed last year and ended up upside down over a bank. That’s why I prefer to stick to being a co-driver. It’s a cheap way to enjoy the sport. I don’t have to pay for the car, or the repair bill,” she laughed.
This year the pair was due to compete in the NZ Rally Championship in category one with a new Mitsubishi Evo 10, the same category as Ben Hunt and Hayden Paddon.
But the championship was shelved due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Owners Keith and Gayle Cresswell. Managed by Tania Cresswell
Location Dannevirke, central Hawke’s Bay
Farm size 55 hectares (total effective area 144 ha across three blocks, fully self-contained)
Cows 160 cows
Production 52,000 kgMS 2019-20 season
Stud name Whariti Holsteins