Leaving school at a ripe old age of 16, I headed off to start my dairy farming journey. Having no prior dairy experience, everything was new, scary and exciting all at once. I can still remember walking in to a cowshed for my first time, seeing my soon-to-be new boss putting the cups on the cows and thinking, "That looks scary." By day’s end, I was hooked. I’d always been an outside kid growing up—eeling, chasing trout, cooking up a feed of fresh crayfish from the streams about the Manawatu Gorge, shooting rabbits and possums, building huts, etc. I would sit in school gazing out the windows at the Ruahine and Tararua Ranges, just itching to get out on the land. So, when the offer of a job on a farm in Ashhurst came up with the Chapman family on Fitzherbert East Road, there was no stopping me. It was so close, I could push bike to from my home. Little did I know, but the farm land I peddled past as a kid became my family’s home years later.
The Chapman family farm was a pedigree Holstein-Friesian stud farm. I would help get cows ready for the local AMP show or annual on-farm sale. I was ambitious, driven to climb the ladder, and was once told "the good guys always move on." In those days, climbing the dairy ladder was quite a bit easier, depending on your drive. I was learning a lot about livestock, like learning to read a cow’s behaviour to tell whether it’s content or not, reading the early warning signs of a cow’s health issues in the future and how to mitigate them. I must have driven the Chapman family mad with all my questions, but I just loved it. In hindsight, I was learning what it was to be a farmer.
At 19, this wannabe dairy farmer met the girl of his dreams. Jenny was a country girl brought up on her parents’ deer and bull farm. She understood hard work and, let’s face it, I needed a teammate. This girl is every farmer’s dream. She has a real eye for animals and helps in the cowshed any chance she gets.
After nearly six years on the Chapmans farm, I was off to Tararua for my first management position. I learned heaps about farming, beginning to incorporate these new ideas into my methods. The motto “Watch what the cows do,” played over and over in my head, but I was still too low on the ladder. Looking back now, this job is what ignited my passion to take the next step up the dairy ladder: 50/50 share-milking. In share-milking, a dairy farm owner allows an aspiring young farmer like me to buy a herd of cows, farm them on his land and, in return, receive half of the milk payment. To take this step, I needed to marry a certain young lady. Jenny was now working at a chemist shop in Palmerston north full time and would regularly drive 40 minutes to see me on the farm in Tararua, when time allowed. So, after a nervous conversation with her dad, Jenny and I were married in 1998 and moved to Linton for a 50/50 position we had been fighting to win. We brought a herd of cows from a retiring couple in Eketahuna and we were off on a new adventure.
The farm was, for lack of a better word, "experienced." Many share-milkers over the years had used it as a stepping stone. The house rained on the inside and the rats had eaten through the floor boards before we returned from our honeymoon, but that didn’t dissuade us from our calling. We had a lot more control of the farm inputs and started to experiment with certain fertilizers, animal health products, etc. Working from dark until dark every day, trying to take Sundays between milkings off, and living off Jenny’s wages from her job in town, we struggled through the first season. Although the farm owners were extremely happy with what we had achieved, we weren't ones to sit still, and our cows weren't as happy as we wanted them. A visit to my elderly sheep-farming neighbour left me with the real encouraging words I didn't even know I needed. He said, "The trouble with you young fellas is you spend all your best years on someone else's place. You aim for your own. I see you out there day after day putting in so much passion to someone else's farm.” That was it!!! The fire was lit, and the new goals set.
Knowing we would need significantly more income, I approached another neighbor who had 270 cows and offered to run his farm as well. After some lengthy discussions, we were offered a 25 percent share-milking position—we would run the farm, milk the farmer’s cows, pay for some expenses e.g. cowshed power, motor bike, detergents, etc. in exchange for 25 percent of the milk payment. This was a real eye opener time for me. It involved farming with a lot more conventional type practices—large quantities of urea (nitrogen fertilizer) were used, minerals were added through the water lines to the cows drinking troughs, and the vet was a regular on the farm for animal health issues. That little voice kept saying, “Watch the cows.” I started to notice the cows didn't like the taste of the grass we were offering. They would walk into the paddock and sniff at the grass as if to say, ''Do I really have to eat this?” This jogged my memory of previous farms and situations, and I too was growing grass the cows weren’t overly keen on. The penny dropped ... The cows can’t be sold anything, unlike us humans who get sucked into things we don't really need. The cows only have their instincts to rely on, and the cow health issues I’d experienced were all linked to the same thing over my years in the dairy game.... DIET!!!
In 2003 we purchased the farm, nestled under the Tararua ranges and Manawatu Gorge reserve. Still needing to be share-milking the other farms to make ends meet, we moved to the farm in 2004. After some of the Manawatu's worst flooding in history, a huge amount of damage needed our full attention. Out of the disaster came a truly amazing amount of learning and opportunity. As we offered to help the worst affected farms in the Pohangina Valley, a farmer took us up on the offer to milk some of his top genetic cows.
We had no idea that this would lead to his exit from dairy farming and his offer for us to purchase his entire herd. Now blessed with a herd of over 30 years of breeding, we had an amazing head start on the cows we wanted on farm. We believed a Kiwi cross cow would give us the best milk. The farm offered a beautiful landscape with creeks and gullies, steep faces to peat flats. We made the decision very quickly to sweeten up the previously conventionally-run farm and ordered our first fertilizer, consisting of 250 ton of lime. We hoped to encourage as much biology as possible in the soil after noticing very little. With obvious signs of cow manure still sitting in the paddocks 3-4 weeks after the cows had grazed, I knew we had to do all we could to encourage microorganisms, worms and life back into the soils. We sweetened the pastures until the cows were content. It was also at this time we were introduced to the Probitas soil conditioning system, introducing silica, trace elements, minerals, lime, and liquid fish, to create the amazing pastures that we have today.
Every year offers different challenges, different weather and different scenarios. We believe the work we’ve done, and continue to do, in strengthening the biology of the farm gives us the absolute best quality milk and, most importantly, HAPPY COWS.
HEALTHY SOIL - HEALTHY COWS - HEALTHY MILK
Daniel & Jenny Sproull