Three Bay of Plenty siblings and their partners are on a journey to transform their three farms to organic, thus creating a more sustainable and healthy future for their businesses and their families. Sheryl Brown reports. Photos by Troy Baker.
Looking after their environment and creating healthy soils and healthy food is the goal for siblings Shane, Shanon and Tina Armstrong. Along with their partners, Alice, Hayden Power, and Briede, the couples are focused long-term on the legacy they will leave behind for their children.
The light bulb moment to go organic farming came to Shane Armstrong when he read ‘Folks, This Ain’t Normal’ by Joel Salatin.
The book’s message about growing simple, clean, sustainable food inspired Shane to read other books that all amounted to going organic farming.
“It just showed me that we are doing things wrong, that we could be doing it better,” he says.
“We need to work with nature, not against it.”
‘They were all extremely stressed, we wanted to get off that treadmill of constantly battling. Simplifying makes sense to us – there is less work involved.’
Shane encouraged his wife Alice, a general practitioner, and his siblings and their other halves to read the book and since then the group have been researching organic dairy farming.
In the last few years the couples have attended Bill Quinn’s Organic Ag discussion group, visited organic farms, and Shane and Hayden flew to Australia to listen to Joel Salatin speak. Their research has resulted in all of them signing a contract to be organic milk suppliers with Fonterra from 2021. A researched and carefully considered move, it hasn’t been an overnight decision, Shane says.
The new reality they are facing as the next generation of NZ dairy farmers is farming with increasing environmental regulations.
Policies to improve water quality and reduce methane emissions could likely impact stock numbers, fertiliser choices, and land use.
Transitioning to organic farming is something the couples believe will offer a more sustainable future for their business and hopefully their children can continue to farm the land in years to come.
Stress was also a major factor in the decision for the three couples to go organic farming and establish a simpler dairy farming operation.
All three men were drowning from overly complicated dairy farm operations, Tina says. The men were all former electricians before heading back to their family farms to go dairy farming. Employing staff and the pressure of weather, payout and looking after animals can be intense and they are already enjoying the decision to drop cow numbers and go back to a lower-input system.
“They were all extremely stressed, we wanted to get off that treadmill of constantly battling,” she says.
“Simplifying makes sense to us – there is less work involved.”
Shane, 37, and Alice, 40, own 28ha and lease the rest of the Armstrong family farm at Opotiki.
Shane transitioned to milking once-a-day for the 2018/19 season and pulled back from a DairyNZ System 2 to a System 1.
Production has dropped from 150,000kg milksolids (MS) to 128,000kg MS, having dropped cow numbers from 470 to 380.
It’s an adjustment and a change in mindset to focus on profit and longevity of their farming career rather than production, he says.
Shane and Alice are planting a 3ha organic avocado orchard this spring to add further diversity to their business. They have also built their own worm farm and are making their own vermicast.
Shane says his top five costs include fertiliser, interest, staff, LIC payments and bought-in supplement.
“If you can eliminate or control these costs you’re better off.”
Shanon, 29, and Briede, 31, who grew up on a dairy farm, are lower-order sharemilking on the second family farm near Matata.
Shanon and Briede have switched herds and dropped numbers in the last year. They were milking 340 Jersey cows, but are now milking 290 Kiwicross. Their production has gone from 95,000kg MS to 99,000 in a DairyNZ System 2 operation.
“We needed a higher-producing cow because we wanted to drop cow numbers,” Shanon says.
Tina, 33, and Hayden Power, 36, own a third and lease the rest of Hayden’s family farm at Awakeri.
The couple were initially milking 500 cows producing 192,000 MS on a DairyNZ System 3 operation. They have pulled back to 460 cows and produced 174,000kg MS in 2017/18 and in 2018/19 milked 400 peak on a System 2 and produced 145,000kg MS.
Their future budgets are designed around getting that production back to 150,000kg MS with 370 cows going forward on the organic system.
Protecting family farms for the future
Shane is the third generation to run the Armstrong dairy farm at Opotiki, having returned to take over from his parents Shirley and Roger. Shirley is still involved doing the accounts for both the family trust dairy farms. Roger passed away three years ago after suffering from a degenerative nerve disease.
Roger’s illness certainly made the family more aware of their diet and use of chemicals in their lives. It has been a catalyst for the family to look closer at organic farming and eating organic food.
The biggest argument against farming organically or eating organically is people can’t afford to.
“But can you afford not to?” Tina asks.
“In NZ who doesn’t know someone who has had cancer? It’s getting quite scary?”
Dairy farmers will argue organic farming is unprofitable compared to ‘conventional’ farming, – the view being that the farmer will have to drop cow numbers, grow less feed, drop milk production and consequently their profit margin and will be in a worse place financially.
For Tina and Hayden, the numbers show the opposite to be true.
The couple bought a third of Hayden’s parents’ 146ha dairy farm last year, along with the herd and machinery, with 100% lending from the bank and his parents as guarantors.
Their budgets showed that in five years they would owe more money to the bank than they did at the outset if they stuck to their conventional high stocking rate, DairyNZ system 3 farming practices.
Alternatively, going organic, based on a $8.50/kg MS milk price, they could have paid their debt off within nine years.
Even without the premium, at a milk price of $6/kg MS they would still be better off, Tina says.
Dropping stock numbers and bought-in supplement and the eventual savings in fertiliser and animal health costs means their farm working expenses will drop significantly to about $2.50/kg MS, ensuring any milk price will result in a profit.
“You can’t rely on that premium, it has to work on a normal payout. The premium should be a bonus,” Hayden says.
Hayden’s biggest fear with going organic is controlling mastitis as they have had issues with it in the past. But they hope with healthier cows under a less-stressful operation they can reduce mastitis cases.
Antibiotic resistance and the use of antibiotics to treat mastitis is also going to be a challenge for dairy farmers anyway, so having a healthier preventative system makes sense to him.
Tina, a chemical engineer, swore she would never put another set of cups on a cow when she left home for university.
However, after meeting and travelling with Hayden, the couple decided to return to work on Hayden’s family dairy farm at Awakeri.
The farm operation was complicated, with a high stocking rate, multiple mobs to feed out to and staff worries.
When the milk price slumped to $3.90/kg MS Hayden and Tina got a professional fertiliser recommendation to put phosphorus on despite their phosphorus levels being above optimum.
The couple were trying to cut farm costs at every possible point and this recommendation made them research their own fertiliser programme.
This point coincided with them reading the book recommended by Shane and it opened their eyes to other possibilities.
A big part of their plans is planting thousands of trees on their farms which will one day provide shelter and forage for their herds.
“Back in the day pasture was only 20% of the cows’ diet, and the rest was plants and trees,” Hayden says.
The couples are planting 5000 trees this year on their farms, a mixture of poplars, willows, and natives. Tina and Hayden have had a planting plan designed that could potentially see 30% of their farm planted in trees.
The trees will be fenced off and when they are big enough will become part of the cows’ diets – as vertical fodder.
The trees will create more biodiversity on their land and help to create a better environment.
The couples have all been planting diverse pastures and are getting used to managing longer residuals.
“We’ve been trained that anything over 1500 residual is waste but that’s litter on the ground to feed the biology,” Hayden says.
“Some people think the diverse pastures look like weeds, but they look like rocket fuel to us now,” Tina says.
“Our cows go into those paddocks and their litres go up.”
The secret to growing more productive pastures is getting more healthy and productive soils, Hayden says.
“As a farmer I didn’t know enough about soil. As farmers we learn about pastures and how to manage them, and not enough about the soil,” Hayden says.
Shane and Alice have planted several paddocks half in conventional ryegrass and clover mix and half with a diverse mix of 20+ species. The cows always go for the diverse pastures first, Alice says.
“My medical training is science-based and I went into this wanting it to be science-based,” Alice says.
However, there is not a lot of scientific research on diverse pastures in NZ dairy farms, she says. Most of NZ’s pasture research has been based only on ryegrass and clover, and in recent years, plantain.
The group know they are going to face challenges and will have to figure it out as they go along.
One of their biggest challenges is planting their paddocks into diverse species while trying to have minimal soil damage.
They want to use minimal tillage to preserve the topsoil, but also don’t want to spray paddocks out.
Under-sowing the diverse species among ryegrass and clover paddocks doesn’t work because the ryegrass swamps some of the slower-establishing species.
“There is always going to be challenges, but hopefully we are building more resilience into our systems,” Shane says. “We’ll let you know.”
One argument they hear from dairy farmers about going organic is weed control and having an ‘untidy’ farm. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
“I would rather have a race with a few weeds along the sides and have healthier soil and pastures,” Tina says.
Having healthy soils, clean waterways and low emissions is important to ensure that the next generation can enjoy living on the land.
“We want an environment for our kids to farm in the future,” Tina says.
For dairy farmers, finger-pointing at other industries or the urban population that don’t have a green environmental footprint, is not the answer, Hayden says.
Dairy farmers have an opportunity to make a difference because they own a lot of the land in NZ.
“We are landowners and we control a lot of land in NZ, we have to do our bit to help out.”
Tina and Hayden have invested in chickens to add diversity to their business. It’s also a good way to spread manure, with the chickens following the cows around the farm.
However, hawks have taken 50 of their 90 chickens so Tina has recently bought a Maremma Sheepdog puppy which she is planning on training to bond and protect the chickens from the hawks.
Shanon and Shane both send their young stock to graze on Hoot Gibson’s property at Opotiki, who grazed Roger’s young stock for years.
When Hoot heard the family was going organic he decided he would go organic as well to carry on being their grazier – as long as Shane helped him out with the paperwork.
It helps to have the support of their grazier.
Tina and Hayden have a runoff for their young stock, and winter their cows on a council lease block near Thornton.
Lessees: Shane and Alice Armstrong (own 28ha)
Area: 190ha (170ha effective)
Cows: 380 peak Kiwicross
2018/19 production: 128,000kg MS
Farm dairy: 44-Bail rotary, ACR, auto drafting, teat spraying
Lower order sharemilker: Shanon and Briede Armstrong
Area: 103ha (100ha effective)
Cows: 290 Kiwicross
2018/19 production: 99,000kg MS
Farm Dairy: 31-aside herringbone, ACR, auto teat spraying
Lessees/33% owners: Hayden Power and Tina Armstrong
Area: 146ha (128ha effective)
Cows: 410 peak Holstein Friesians
2018/19 production: 145,000kg MS
Farm Dairy: 44-aside herringbone, ACRs
• The NZ Dairy Exporter will follow up in 2021 to see how the families are doing in their first season supplying organic milk.