Kevin and wife Cherie had worked their way up the ranks of the New Zealand dairy industry when they got the opportunity to take the New Zealand system to the America.
“We felt that our competitive advantage over there was grass, and to be able to manage the grass. We're good grass farmers. We'd proved that in New Zealand,” says Kevin.
But growing grass year-round in America proved to be more of a challenge than they anticipated.
“What we found is we had picked a place that had minus ten-degree temperatures in the winter, and 35-degrees in the summer. Basically, that made us more resilient in what we were trying to do. It helped us plan better and come up with contingency plans. We were planning a lot."
“What I think we've learned out of it is that you can farm through adverse conditions. You’ve just got to have a plan, you've got to be prepared, and you've just got to stick with it and see it through,” he says.
The van der Poel family stayed stateside for about a decade and on their return to New Zealand five years ago, Kevin and Cherie purchased a farm at Ohaupo, just south of Hamilton.
“We've got 103 hectares here. When we purchased the farm we were fresh back from overseas. We looked at the farm and thought, how can we best use utilise this farm? How and what can we do with it," says Kevin.
The system five farm milks 380 mostly KiwiCross cows and under the van der Poel’s, production has lifted from 140,000 kilograms of Milk Solids per year to 210,000 kg/MS per year.
“We started off with 420 cows. We think we're getting better. We're trying to do more with less,” Kevin says.
“To be able to do that, our aim is to grow as much grass as we can. We try and pick species that are going to grow to the best of our ability with the soil type and with the conditions that we have. What we want to try and do is maximise our pasture growth,” explains Kevin.
“We enjoy having cows that perform really well. Half our cows are named because that’s what we enjoy doing. We just enjoy seeing happy cows I suppose.”
One of Kevin’s KPIs for the farm is to be able to harvest 15 tons of grass per hectare a year. That’s a tall order for a farm with plenty of variety geographically.
“Our farm is a little bit challenging because we’ve got a little bit of everything – we have a little bit of sand, a little bit pit, a little bit of ash. It’s flat in some places and rolling in others,” he says.
Using a tetraploid and a diploid has given Kevin the persistence and tonnage he needs.
“What we’ve found works really well for us is Maxsyn and Viscount. It gives us good quality and just seems to really work for us.”
One of the tools Kevin credits with helping him get more out of his grass is a feed pad.
“We were lucky the previous owners did have a feed pad here. We’ve been able to utilise that to keep our pastures in a good growing state year-round.”
Kevin is aware that to some farmers, the word ‘feed pad’ has bad connotations.
“The general consensus is that if you have a feed pad, all of a sudden, you're a bad grass farmer, and you use it for fixing things. We don't use it for fixing things. As long as we can maintain our discipline for the grasses, then it's an added bonus. I think that's where we make our big wins.
“We use the feed pad here to be able to manage our grass better. What I find with the feed pad is that we never and should never have a situation that we have to overgraze or under graze. We can always maintain our grazing levels” he says.
When it comes to making key decisions on farm, Kevin says the knowledge of his local TSR, Debbie Thomson, is key.
“She is quite instrumental in that she understands what our district needs. What works for us is that she understands our business and what we are trying to achieve so she can match product, grass seed, and other services that suits what we're trying to achieve here.
“If she doesn't have the answer, she knows where to go to get the answer, then comes back with a sound solution. It's a service that I think you can't do without,” says Kevin.
Three years ago Kevin and Cherie purchased a second farm up the road which is run by the couple’s son Hayden.
Kevin says Hayden enjoys the challenge of a high-producing herd and there is a healthy rivalry between the two farms.
“We’ve got to stay a step ahead of him. He’s actually doing really well.”
After travelling halfway around the world and back, Kevin is even more convinced that New Zealand’s competitive advantage lies in growing great grass that grows happy cows.
“It made me appreciate New Zealand coming back here, and how we could grow grass all year round. We felt grass was going to be a competitive advantage over in America and now we believe it is our competitive advantage back over here.”
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