Thanks to New Zealand’s much-envied farming career pathway, a young Scot is realising his dream, writes Andrea Fox.
When young Euan McLeod was bitten by the farming bug back home in Scotland he became a bricklayer.
Getting a trade seemed the only option to a teenager who jumped at chances to work weekends and school holidays on a farm but without family farm roots couldn’t see how to get ahead, recalls McLeod, Waikato 2017 dairy manager of the year.
He’s come 11,000 miles from the lochside village of Ardrishaig to scratch his farming itch and start down New Zealand’s yellow brick road to farm ownership.
McLeod, 35, is manager on the 122 hectare high-BW jersey herd farm of Murray and Janet Gibb at Taupiri. The system two operation peak milks 375 cows and production this season is tracking at around 142,000kg milksolids.
Defining himself as “pretty inexperienced”, McLeod was gobsmacked by his win in the regional industry awards after just four years farming. “I made a really poor speech. I was genuinely lost for words and I didn’t even thank Mikki.”
Mikki, short for Michaela, is Euan’s Kiwi wife from Hamilton. He’s beating himself up because he’s adamant the award really belongs to them both.
“It may be my name on the trophy and people say I won it but it’s been totally a team effort. From the minute we started, both of us have been doing it together.”
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The win included merit awards for livestock management and employee engagement.
The couple, who have two children under five and are expecting their third in June, met in Blenheim in 2010 while working on a vineyard. Euan had arrived in New Zealand shortly before on a working holiday and Mikki, who has a social science degree, was touring the South Island. They soon headed to Southland to work on two dairy farms with the same owner. Euan worked for a sharemilker and Mikki for a manager.
It was Euan’s first time on a dairy farm and “he absolutely loved it”, says Mikki. But she was keen to see Scotland and Euan’s work visa was due to expire, so the couple headed to the UK.
Two years later in 2013, and by now parents, they decided to go farming and return to New Zealand. A big attraction for Euan was the lifestyle.
“I absolutely love how much I get to see the kids. And I love farming, I always wanted to do it and in New Zealand with dairy farming there is a real clear pathway for progression. We decided to give it a go and get stuck in.”
Given a choice of climate he’d prefer Southland. “It’s a bit hot up here for my liking but Mikki’s family is here.”
Their first job was farm assistant on a Pirongia dairy farm. Then Euan became 2IC for two seasons on another Pirongia dairy farm, working for Malcolm and Jody Ellis. The 147ha, 480 cow system one property also ran a high BW jersey herd.
“I learned a huge amount there, the farm owners are huge fans of all-grass farming which was brilliant to learn about, and they were also really keen for people to progress” says Euan.
“Malcolm spent a lot of time going over what we were doing on the farm, why we were doing it and on things coming up. We learned a lot about cow and grass management but also Malcolm would tell you all about the financial things going on – how that impacted on the business.
“He gave us a really good education.”
Malcolm Ellis and Murray Gibb knew each other as top jersey breeders with connections through LIC, and it was Malcolm who put the McLeods in touch with their current employers when the time came to move up to more responsibility.
Murray Gibb’s Fonterra-supply farm is his “passion” say the couple and he works daily alongside them. The farm also employs a worker. Mikki has been relief milking every second weekend but concerns that a cow may kick her in the late stages of pregnancy has put a stop to that.
She has also been a regular volunteer for calf-rearing duties.
“I figure if we are going to be sharemilking in future I’m going to be rearing calves without any assistance so for the last few seasons I’ve tried to learn as much as possible.”
Mikki is two papers away from completing a graduate diploma in rural studies, focused on farm management and agribusiness.
The farm is system two because cows are fed meal in-shed. Murray Gibb isn’t a fan of palm kernel extract, says Euan, and neither is he.
He’s undaunted by the step up from 2IC to farm manager and having total responsibility for feed and pasture management.
“But the spring was challenging, we were waterlogged when we’re meant to be feeding them heaps. Because I’m inexperienced I beat myself up but it was great having Murray on farm every day because he could see I was doing everything I could. It was great to have him there.”
That wet spring and the feed challenge put a dent in production aspirations for this season and also impacted on mating success.
The farm’s six week in-calf rate was 59 per cent, says Euan, “well below where we want to be but up from last season, so we are doing something right”.
Calving will start on July 10.
About 120 heifers will be kept as replacements. Murray Gibb also retains bull calves for contract matings for genetics company clients.
From their first year farming, the McLeods have been trying to build equity.
That year they bought 20 heifer calves, selling them as in-calf heifers. They used the money two years ago to buy 50 10 day-old jersey bull calves from Malcolm and Jody Ellis.
“Malcolm let us use the sheds on his farm and Mikki reared them. We sold them in October just past and now we’ve bought 15 of Murray’s heifer calves,” says Euan.
The heifers are grazed with other young stock on the Gibb runoff.
Predicting a shortage of cows after the milk price slump, the couple also bought 110 in-calf heifers for $950 a head when the milk and cow price markets were weak.
They are leased to three different farmers.
Euan says Mikki’s diploma study has been helpful in planning how to get ahead.
“It’s been very useful in keeping track of this sort of thing and cashflow budgets. The bank’s seen them and been supportive and it’s put us in a good position so that we could go sharemilking – not next year but maybe the following year.
“This season with the farm walks I do, Mikki has made a template of growth rates. The ultimate goal is for us both to be working on-farm and when that time comes I’ll have more experience and a really good idea of the day-to-day stuff and Mikki will be across the business side of things.
“I really like the fact we are both trying to achieve the same goals.”
Mikki says it’s like “having one career” between them.
It was the couple’s first entry in the industry awards.
“We’ve done a lot of reading about the industry and anyone talking about the competition has said you learn a heap from it,” says Euan.
“I just wanted to get better. I’m very aware I’m pretty inexperienced and we want to get as good as we can.”
He reckons doing the basics well offsets his inexperience.
“Since I started managing I just do the basics but do a very good job of it. For example with mastitis I go to big lengths to prevent it rather than trying to get on top of it later.
“It’s really simple things like taking time to make sure cows are fully milked-out, and with teat spraying, making sure every bit is covered. That’s worked really well, the cell count this season is way down. You can see that something you’re doing is making a difference.
“With pasture management it’s about trying to maximise pasture utilisation. I’m not trying to gloss over the fact I haven’t got a lot of experience. I’m just saying I’ll do the dead simple things and do them well and that’s got to be a good starting point. Keeping the sheds really clean and paying attention to hygiene, keeping hands clean… really basic stuff. ”
The McLeods will be staying on the Gibb farm next season – but this time as contract milkers.
They plan two seasons contract milking before making the move to sharemilking.
The goal is at retirement to be able to spend time each year in Scotland and New Zealand, which hopefully farm ownership will fund.
Meanwhile Euan says “I love living here and I’m not desperate to get back to Scotland”. His parents come over to stay every year, arriving on New Year’s Day to escape the worst of a Scottish winter.
“I realise it’s a huge jump between 50:50 sharemilking and farm ownership but we can see that if you put the work and time in there are certainly benefits,” he says.
“This is fantastic lifestyle. I absolutely love my job. Every day you get up and you have information from the previous day’s (milk) pick up or some other target as the next challenge.
“There’s always something to work towards.”