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Dairy farming meets hunting in the Bay of Plenty

Words by Kate Taylor

27 June 2017

Dairy farming, hunting and family time go hand and hand for Bay of Plenty couple Pete Mannington and his partner Gill Barrow.

They live and farm in the Galatea district – a big flat valley nestled between the Kaingaroa Forest and Urerewa National Park.

"It's a good little community, just your usual small New Zealand farming district," says Pete.

The nearest township is Murupara, which he says is nice and central between Taupo, Rotorua and Whakatane.

The couple is joined on a regular basis by Pete's children – Hunter, 6, Tate, 4 and Kase, 2 - who live in Rotorua and spend every second weekend and the school holidays on the farm.

"They're pretty keen on life on the farm. They love the tractors and the motorbikes, especially Hunter, the oldest."

Gill has lived in New Zealand for five years – originally hailing from a sheep and cattle farm in Devon, England. She worked on a dairy farm in Reporoa and then Te Puke, where the couple met.

"Gill started working for our neighbour and now she's here on the farm. She has done her Ag ITO Level 4 certificate and I have Level 5 so we make a good team."

Gill was destined for a farming career with her UK farming upbringing.

“I still have my own sheep back in the UK – they’re the Llyne breed from Wales.  Dad looks after them and the lambs for me.”

She made the move to New Zealand with a dairy-farming friend in 2012. It was meant to be for one year but she loved it so much she’s still here. Gill worked in the Reporoa area for four years, working on multiple dairy farms.

“I have learnt so much from working with different people and learning different techniques in different sheds as well. I also joined Reporoa Young Farmers while I was there and met some great people.”

She says there’s more opportunity in the New Zealand dairy industry to get ahead.

“You can be your own boss here quicker than in the UK.”

Gill has been in Galatea for two years and met Pete about 18 months ago. She has milked 100 cows this season, mostly Friesian and crossbred, on the 65ha platform.

Pete's about to start his seventh season on the farm – his third as a 50/50 sharemilker. He's the third generation of his family to work on the property and is passionate about the land and its history.

"I took over the running of the farm from my dad, Robin Mannington, who still owns it. It was Grandad's ballot farm after the war then dad had it for 20 years. My grandparents broke it in and started milking cows on it – they had about 60 cows in those early days and had an old walk-through four-aside shed.”

Robin says he grew up on the farm after his father moved there as a returned serviceman in 1949 then he, in turn, took it over in 1980 when he was 26. “In those days younger farmers had access to the rural bank so it was easier to take over, although my father left some money in too.”

Production wise, Pete says they're on target to do over 50,000kg milk solids this season. 

"We carry all young stock on the farm all year round at the moment," he says.

"We're a bit of a self-sufficient operation. There's just me and Gill on the farm. It used to be just me, but Gill has taken over the daily milking giving me time to do some contract work.

The farm operates under feeding system 2.

Lucerne is grown as an extra supplement because the area is dry in summer and the farm doesn't have irrigation.

"Just under 30 per cent of the farm has lucerne. It is baled when it's not needed and gets me through. I have had drought years when I've had to buy in baleage when times are tight. We also use PK to guarantee production when it gets dry. They just keep things ticking over – PK and lucerne have proven to be quite a good mix in the summer."

He says the operation runs quite smoothly now, but irrigation is something that may be considered in the future.

"It's a big cost and we have to weigh up why we're doing it as well. We would have to run more cows just to balance the extra cost and then we'd have to upgrade the shed and other costs would escalate as well so it's not high on the agenda at the moment. There are other ways to improve what we're doing without putting large amounts of money into development."

One change that is happening to boost production this season is to graze young stock off the property and increase the cow numbers from 100 to 150, which will in turn increase their target milk solids to 70,000kg.

"We have 30 yearlings coming in and have 25 we're leasing off a mate for the season that we will look to buy at the end of the season if it works.

"It will supplement the income if we can milk a few more cows and draw a bigger wage. This opportunity to lease extra cows will give me a bigger milk cheque and in turn leave me with the cash at the end of the season to buy them. We'll soon find out if it works or not."

Pete says the farm has a sump with an irrigator for effluent dispersal but may look at getting a tanker to fill up with a couple of days storage that can follow the cows around the farm instead of only spreading on specific paddocks near the shed.

No sprays are used on the farm and very little nitrogen fertiliser is applied. Bennett's Fertiliser near Auckland delivers chicken manure by the truck and trailer load and Pete's father has been using Hatuma Lime's dicalcic for more than 20 years.

"We've found it's really good for the lucerne side of things," Pete says.

"The cows didn't suffer from any bloat. We can put them on there first thing in the morning and they don’t have any issues."

Salt licks are the only added extra.

"We're not far off being organic really but we're not registered. That would be something I would love to do in the future, but I would have to get someone to come and help me do it... help me figure out what to do and how to do it. Basically the only issue we have is mastitis and we're learning how to deal with that organically."

He says the move against sprays on the farm has been driven by his father but is something he supports.

"Dad doesn't like them because it's not good for the soils in the long run. When we put a new crop in, we plough it straight in after the heifers have chewed down as far as they can. We seem to get good results," he says.

"If we have healthy soils we have healthy stock."

Robin says he would like to see the farm certified organic in the future, but those decisions were now up to Pete.

“When I first took over it was pretty much conventional super phosphate like most farmers. Then one of the local fertiliser contractors brought in chook manure from somewhere and we started using it but we had a few problems in those days with too much moisture and it wouldn’t spread properly. Pete’s doing more of that now, especially with the Hatuma dicalcic, because it’s easier to spread now.

“We went towards elemental sulphur at Hatuma because we were trying to get an even fertiliser that would be useful across the year and into the next year.”

He says stopping the use of sprays on the farm started many years ago.

“When they first settled the farm back in the late 40s they put a lot of native grasses on. They suited the dry weather and will usually regenerate. There were a lot of guys spraying weed killers before cropping paddocks and they would have to plant the yarrow again. But we didn’t.

The Mangamutu Stream runs through the centre of the property which they have spent time fencing and are slowly replanting.

“We planted half in natives last winter and they're all growing nicely. We're slowly working on it.”

The environment around them is important as they're not very far from the Urerewa National Park. It's hunting that's top of the list for pastimes in the bush.

"I go hunting at least twice a week for both deer and pigs. It's good to get the meat but it's also about the fun of the chase. My father took me when I was a kid – I was hunting when I was six or seven years old. I was right into it."

“He’s a bit like me,” Robin adds.

“I used to be all about the hunting before I took the farm over. I was out in the bush possum hunting for a few years and Pete has grown up hunting in the bush too.”

Now Pete says he’s started early with his own children too.

"They're not up to walking up the big hills yet but we've done a fair bit of spotlighting. Hunter has been with me when I've shot a stag and a few pigs and rabbits too."

Gill loves the hunting too.

“I’ve grown up with fox hunting in the UK. Grandad was a hunt master. It’s a bit different to pig hunting in Galatea though,” she laughs.

“Especially the steep faces and the cliff edges where Pete goes and I’m stupid enough to follow.”

She’s training two young pig dogs at the moment – Bailey and Boss – and she’s looking forward to putting them to work.

Pete and Gill try to go hunting a couple of times a week with venison and pork going in their freezer or to friends and family’s freezers.

“I haven’t actually caught anything myself yet but Pete has taught me a lot since I’ve been here and I’m right there with him when he shoots them. It will be my turn soon enough.”

Gill says she loves the countryside in New Zealand and the rural lifestyle.

“I lived in town when I was at college in the UK and I couldn’t do it again. I love having BBQs in the summer with friends around, weekends at the beach or hunting. Even the farming isn’t as intense as the UK. All the cows are outside here so you don’t have to scrape out the sheds or check the feed all the time.”

Growing up on the farm was idyllic for Pete, although it also meant sacrifice by way of an hour and a half on the bus each way every day to go to Rotorua Boys' High School.

He admits to not being the best behaved of boys at that stage of his life and spent a lot of time surfing. A year in outback Australia changed his focus.

"I was a jackaroo on a big place at Nygnan in New South Wales. I was 19 at the time. I had seen an ad on this website called Outback International looking for farm workers. I rang up and they gave me a job. I flew to Sydney and caught the train all the way out to the nearest town. It was pretty lonely and isolated at first... I was living by myself... but then I got to know people and joined the local rugby team.”

Pete says the isolation meant being a jack of all trades on the station.

"Most of the things that needed doing on the farm were done by people living on the farm. Being so far out we had to do everything ourselves. The boss was a bit of an engineer and he taught me a lot. All the fences were made of steel because the ground was so hard."

He says they didn't just have big tractors.

"We had huge, huge tractors. A lot of the work was bush clearing with massive D8 bulldozers."

After Australia Pete worked for two years as a builder at Mount Maunganui and three years on a concrete pump truck before returning to work on the farm seven years ago when he was 23.

His time in Australia and before coming back to the farm taught him many skills which are invaluable to running his dairy operation and has also given him the ability to earn a supplementary income off farm, helping the couple achieve their long term goals.