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Limited wanderlust in North Canterbury

When people in the dairy industry refer to “Gypsy Day”, they aren’t talking about people of Romany descent.

They are referring to the minority ethnic group’s migrant nature, and applying it to the dairy industry. Because the Queen’s Birthday long weekend was anything but a chance to kick back for many of the country’s dairy farmers and truck drivers.

It was the industry’s annual Moving Day – nicknamed Gypsy Day.

Officially, between May 31 and June 1 is when all sharemilkers and contract milkers – looking to scale the industry ladder towards farm ownership – move their cows to new farms to start the new season.

Some cows are trucked. Other herds are walked along the road, depending on the distances between properties.

And, moving herds of upwards of 500 cows, including all the farm equipment that goes with them, entire households and families is no mean feat. Realistically, the shift is about so much more than two days.

It’s a massive mission.

“Moving Week is a key part of the life of the dairy sector,” Federated Farmers national dairy chair, Chris Lewis told DairyNZ. This is how we enable people to progress their careers and their businesses,”

“It might sound strange to our friends living in the city, that we all move our families and stock around at the same time, but it’s actually a tightly planned and executed operation.

 “And it must happen now, because we are all linked in together to follow the seasonal nature of farming, Mother Nature waits for no-one, and in July we have new calves coming.”

Holding the line

This year Federated Farmers North Canterbury president Cam Henderson reported that Gypsy Day had been pretty quiet for the Waimakariri region. Cam milks 700 cows just south of Oxford, at Summit Farm.

“Waimakariri tends to have more owner-operated farms than other districts, so we had less herds on the move,” Cam said. “There was still movement of junior staff, but not as much with the contract milkers and sharemilkers,” he said.

“And, I feel most contract and share milkers are now taking a long-term approach to their contracts instead of moving regularly. Our contract milker is starting his fifth season with us, for example.  

“There is also a strong sense of community in this district – so ,when dairy farmers move, they prefer to stay local, and that continues to build community spirit.

“Also, the farming systems are so complex now, that there is considerable risk in moving to a new farm.

“I get the feeling that sharemilkers and contract milkers are wary of having to re-learn how a new farm operates. That includes its infrastructure, consented limits and climate. So, I think that’s why we’re finding more are choosing to stick with what they know.”

COVID-19 handled

DairyNZ reported that COVID-safe protocols were already part of the farms’ existing safety requirements for the weekend. Farmers didn’t have to submit a formal plan for Gypsy Day.

However, they were expected to complete paperwork that could be produced if requested by WorkSafe and/or MPI.

It was a vital weekend for the country’s dairy industry, which contributes over $18 billion dollars a year to New Zealand’s exports and employs around 46,000 people in rural communities.

Managing the dry

With regard to North Canterbury’s dry season, Cam acknowledged it, but added that most dairy farmers were coping, and they were grateful to be working.

“We have felt the drought, but not quite as bad as in the past,” Cam said. “There are a few who had to re-drill bores because they were drying up.

He said Summit Farm had recorded 120mls of rain since December 1.

“The weather stayed warm for a long time, which was helpful for those that could irrigate because we were able to continue growing feed. For those that caught a little bit more rain, they’ve been able to have some late season growth.

“The biggest challenge – I think – will be further north for the dryland sheep and beef guys in the Hurunui District.

“Those guys have had to use a lot of supplementary feed just to get to winter. Without a mild winter and some pasture growth spring could be very difficult. They just didn’t get any autumn rain this year.”

Tougher in the Hawke’s Bay

He said sourcing feed had been hampered by challenges for other areas throughout the country.

“Everyone else seems to have used up their supplementary feed as well. In the past, we could source feed from South Canterbury, Southland, or the North Island.

“Everyone seems to have their own issues this year. There’s just not the feed around.

“But everyone realises that as bad as the situation that we’re in, it’s not as bad as what it’s been in the past, and it’s certainly no-where near as bad as the Hawke’s Bay, and what they’re dealing with up there.

“And, there are other sectors doing it very tough because of COVID-19.

“We’re still working, still trading, and we’re still in business.”

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