North Otago dairy farmers Lyndon and Jane Strang like a good project.
Their 290-hectare family farm boarders the Kakanui River, just outside of Oamaru and every summer carloads of people arrive trying to access a big swimming hole near the bottom of their farm.
Brush, gorse bushes and blackberry had taken over the 50-metre-wide fenced berm between the farm and the river and public access had all but been blocked.
“We wanted to open it up and create a walkway along the entire length,” says Jane.
So, with the help of funding from Otago Regional Council’s Eco Fund and the Ministry of Primary Industry’s, Jobs for Nature Fund, they have.
“We knew we wanted to restore and plant it out but with a 50-metre buffer it would have taken us years, so we called up the Otago Regional Council and got in touch with the local water care group and they were all really supportive,” says Jane.
The council’s Eco Fund kick-started the project with $12,000, allowing them to buy plants and hire a digger which a neighbour worked on for a week clearing the gorse. Then they called in the local school kids from Five Forks School to help plant 2,500 plants.
Since then, they have been granted a further $18,000 from MPI’s Jobs for Nature fund to complete the entire length of the project, creating a walkway alongside the river, and allowing public access along the full length. They will complete the project’s planting this spring.
“It’s really satisfying to go down and see what’s there now. Anyone can come out and access the river at any point,” says Jane who has driven the project.
The couple have been on the farm for 15 years after they moved in 2006, leaving behind their corporate jobs in Christchurch.
“We wanted to bring our children up in a small rural town like we had grown up in,” says Jane.
At that stage Jane’s parents Murray and Lynne Isbister were talking about converting the farm at Five Forks, which had been a run-off for their dairy farm at Papakaio. Jane and Lyndon’s eldest son Ben was one, and their youngest, Finn, was two-months-old. They started out working for Murray and Lynne and quickly moved to lower order sharemilking, then 50:50, before purchasing the farm within five years.
Jane says they started out with a very small herd made up of Murray’s favourite Holstein Friesians.
“We bought a few pedigree cows that were carry overs and we grew the herd organically milking all year round,” says Lyndon.
For the former logistics specialist who had also spent time in the navy it was a steep learning curve.
“I came in completely green. I started this thing called the “dairy diary”, it was all my farming stuff ups for the week, which I would email to all my friends” says Lyndon.
“Murray had been farming his whole life. I was learning the practical side from him and then going away and doing an Agricultural ITO course for the theory.”
Fifteen years later Lyndon says he is now focused on giving back to the community and helping other new farmers find their feet.
The couple milk off 150 hectares of the 290-hectare farm and use the remainder of the land as support. Lyndon says they run a fully self-contained operation which protected them during the Mycoplasma Bovis outbreak.
“It makes it interesting because we control all aspects of the business. We have full control over our costs, and except for some locally grown barley we grow all our own supplements and graze our young stock and winter our cows.”
The couple are now spring calving and dry off over winter. They average about 485 kgMS per cow, but are aiming for 500 kgMS per cow this season. They milk 420 cows but will increase that to 460 for next season, says Lyndon.
They focus heavily on fertility within their herd and the transition of their heifers into the milking shed.
Jane says Murray had been a breeder for 50 years and they are proud to carry it on. She selects the bulls and does all the AI for the herd every season.
“With every calf born we want it to have value, so, for that to happen, we want to choose the best genetics we can,” says Jane.
The herd was founded from the Ronnoco and Riverbrae studs in the early 1970s and Jane says they use mainly CRV genetics.
Among their best producers are Muritai Firenze Wynsor daughters, with three featuring in their top 10 high producers.
Another line of high producers are daughters of CRV Delta Ireland, one of his daughters has recorded 735 kgMS in 250 days. Ardgowan Dunstan Heidi, a four-year-old has produced 662 kgMS in 250 days. Her dam Ardgowan Ireland Harriet produced 543 kgMS in 202 days and the grand dam, a Broomfield Daunt Kraka-ET daughter, 617 kgMS in 248 days. All three generations are still in the herd.
The couple don’t produce any bobby calves, instead using Hereford bulls after five weeks of AI. They sell any four-day-old bulls for calf rearing or raise them to 100kgs themselves.
“Because we have a Friesian herd the beef buyers like it because they know they get a decent sized animal. It does mean we have a lot of calves knocking around in August though but we’re lucky to have the space to be able to do that,” says Lyndon.
He says the couple’s passion and focus is on having a sustainable farming practice for generations.
That is why the couple have also become so involved in the discussion around water quality and the political side of farming, says Lyndon.
“We can see dairy farming has a great future but there are a few things that need to be fixed and we’re happy to go out there and poke our heads above the parapet and say we’ll have a go at some of these things.”
He says the couples’ previous corporate careers have helped in that respect. Alongside Lyndon’s former career in logistics Jane was a sales manager.
Lyndon was previously the dairy chairman of North Otago Federated Farmers. Using that experience he helped resurrect the North Otago Sustainable Land Management Group (NOSLAM). The group was initially established in the 1980s and 90s after droughts hit the region and soil erosion was dire.
Back then the group helped bring irrigation to North Otago and 20 years later Lyndon says the group was reformed to address water quality issues.
The group are planting about 1,000 plants annually. It is also a great way to connect farmers with the public and other stakeholders.
“Sometimes we fall into trap of thinking were doing it all alone, but it is also about connecting with others in the catchment,” says Lyndon.
On their own farm he says they have never been big users of nitrogen and have kept a lower stocking rate, and built up their per cow production. They soil test each paddock before applying any fertilisers and have also experimented with different pastures including plantain which had worked well for them.
They have also taken on sharemilkers, Craig and Amy Kingan, and the couple say they are keen to help them on the pathway to farm ownership.
“It’s how we’ve been able to move into a lot of the volunteer work we’ve been doing. We’re trying to set ourselves up for a strong future, the whole community and North Otago,” says Jane.
Never ones to sit back however they also have another new project in the pipeline after buying into a sphagnum moss business on the West Coast 12 months ago.
“We like a project, and we like to learn new things, it’s a natural product that’s sustainably harvested and exported and it compliments what we do on farm nicely,” says Jane.
The moss is used for growing plants and has great water holding properties. They have bought into 400 acres of wetland where the moss is harvested and then dried and packaged at their processing factory. The company, called Besgrow, has export markets in the US, Europe and Australia.
“It’s just like farming but a little bit different. We like it because it keeps giving us a new challenge,” jokes