Crossing the ditch for work

Anne Hughes

New Zealand farm employees are being targeted for their pasture management and intensive grazing expertise.

John Fegan says until recently, it has not been common for Australian sheep and beef farmers to recruit Kiwi staff.

Fegan is a recruitment specialist with Waikato-based Fegan and Co. After 23 years in the recruitment field, he has only started to recruit in NZ for the Australian sheep and beef industry in the past three.

Those looking to NZ to recruit staff are generally more intensive farmers, seeking staff with proven pasture management skills. Australian farm employers are also attracted by the attitude and ethics of New Zealanders, Fegan says.

He recently recruited a sheep manager for a large Western Australian sheep and cropping farm. WA typically attracts people with an interest in driving machinery, due to the predominance of cropping farms and the large numbers of people employed to drive big trucks and diggers in the mines.

Fegan says it is really hard to get specialist stock operators in Western Australia.

“My observation of New Zealand farmers is that they are sheep and beef farmers because they love working with animals,” Fegan says.

“It’s not just about being a job, it’s a real career path.”

The company was recently looking at an opportunity to recruit a stock manager within NZ for a half a million acre farm. The farm, in northern WA, has 800ha under irrigation and plans to increase the irrigated area to 1500ha, primarily for beef finishing.

The client wanted the position advertised exclusively within NZ.

Fegan says the ideal candidate would have centre pivot irrigation experience and someone with these skills would very likely have worked in Canterbury.

“A dairy farmer would have the right pasture management skills. Instead of converting grass to milk they’re converting grass to meat.

“They could also have heifer-grazing experience or even large-scale lamb finishing.”

New Zealanders are attracted to these opportunities across the ditch.

Fegan says the positions he advertised have been receiving up to 60 applicants.

A video he took of a sheep farm that was recruiting in NZ was viewed 150 times by people who followed the link from the job advertisement.

He says Australians recruiting in NZ tend to be more innovative farmers and better quality employers.

Apart from the opportunity to work for such employers, Australia offers a farming experience on a much larger scale, international experience, an overseas adventure and higher pay.

“Some have been there already and like the place and see it is an opportunity for adventure or career advancement.”

Aussie sheep and beef farms pay up to 15% more than in NZ, especially in WA where salaries have been pushed up by competitive pay in mining.

Dairy sector pay is about 10% more than in NZ.

While these employers seek specific skill sets from NZ, they do not necessarily want someone to farm exclusively the NZ way.

“You have to keep some of the components of Australian farming and infuse some of the New Zealand components.

“They’re looking to modify and improve their systems, not make wholesale changes.

“Take the best of what we do – pasture management – and the best out of what they do, which is hard feed.”

Fegan says hard feed is very cheap in Australia, where pastures can go from surplus to deficit very quickly, just as conditions can quickly go from dry to wet or vice versa

“They need a buffer to cope with that and reaction times tend to be a lot quicker.”

In the event of unseasonal rain – farmers have to react quickly, often with as few as 24 hours to decide whether or not to use the opportunity to sow a winter crop to be able to finish more lambs.

“They need to be able to critique what will and won’t work in a particular weather pattern.”

Australian employers looking to recruit in NZ are generally looking to fill more senior positions. Given the extra expense of hiring someone from outside Australia, more senior staff who are more likely to stay longer are preferred. It varies between individual employers, but they will usually cover a portion of the relocation costs.

The Australian dry stock farms Fegan has recruited for have been mixed cropping farms.

He says it is not easy to find staff with machinery experience and high-quality stockmanship.

“The key one they want is the stock experience.

“It would be nice to have a bit more exposure to the machinery, but it’s not critical. There’s very few who are good at both.”


Making the big step

Relocating over the ditch is a big step, but rewarding for the right person.

Derek and Kim Curwen say there are great career opportunities on Australian farms for staff willing to take responsibility and experience a new country.

The Curwens own Tooraweenah Pastoral Company and run the operation with their two sons, Reece and Guy, along with a full-time farm manager, mechanic, a senior farm hand and casual staff.

Tooraweenah encompasses just over 12,000 hectares on the southern coast of Western Australia, 60km from the town Albany which has a population of about 34,000.

They farm 15,000 Merino breeding ewes alongside a large cropping operation growing canola, wheat and barley.

Tooraweenah Pastoral Company farms 15,000 Merino breeding ewes alongside a large cropping operation on 12,000ha.

Derek is looking to step back from running the sheep operation and their sons are busy with other parts of the business, so the Curwens decided to hire a sheep manager.

Derek says it is hard to find good farm staff in Australia, especially since the mining boom has created strong competition for staff.

As farms have become larger with more consolidation, there are also fewer children of landowners to step into management roles.

They decided to recruit within New Zealand through Fegan and Co for the sheep manager role and a general hand, after being impressed by seasonal harvest workers from NZ.

Many of these workers were Lincoln University students and demonstrated good work ethics and sheep farming skills, Derek says.

Once Fegan had created a shortlist, the Curwens planned to interview the best candidates via Skype. If any of those applicants looked promising they would then need to visit the farm to meet the family and staff and see how the operation works.

“It’s a big step, but the wages are better in Australia and they’ll pick up a whole new set of skills,” Derek says.

“Our working culture is that we look after staff very well. It takes a year or two for people to settle down and make a life here. We want them to have a future here.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *