Converting to organic farming has proved sustainable not only for the environment but also for the Vosper family of Matamata.
It’s among the reasons three generations of the family are still farming the land close to 100 years since brothers Cleave and Fred Vosper drove a herd of Jerseys north from Taranaki to settle at Matamata.
Cleave is the great-grandfather of John Vosper, who along with wife Liz Mackay and son Michael Vosper, run the farm known as Cleavedale, which supplies organic milk to Fonterra and also sells its milk under the brand name Jersey Girl Organics.
Cleave is the grandfather of brothers Ron and Maurice who along with their wives, Marcia and Beth, still live on the farm known as Cleavedale.
John has admiration for Cleave and Fred who made the long trek on horseback to bring the herd of Jerseys to Matamata. It was Cleave’s son Jack who took over the farm, followed by his sons Ron and Maurice. Today Michael represents the fifth generation of Vospers on the land.
A2 milk from herd
The farm, close to the urban boundary, is 80 hectares, with a 40-hectare support block at the foot of the Kaimai Ranges. All of the 240 cows in the herd have names and produce ‘A2’ milk which lacks a form of beta-casein proteins called A1. A2 beta-casein is easier to digest and is believed to cause less milk allergies.
“Many of our customers say our milk is the only cows’ milk they can drink.”
The farm began the conversion to organic production in 2003 and John says belonging to the Organic Dairy and Pastoral Group proved invaluable. “The group has members who are certified through different agencies and who use a range of different organic inputs so it was great to be able to talk to the farmers and find out what did and didn’t work for them.”
It was falling dairy prices which triggered the change in management but John says the benefits of farming organically go beyond financial. He firmly believes it is better for the cows, the soil, waterways, and the wider environment, plus the health of those working the land.
“I used to hate applying weed sprays because I always got headaches afterwards.”
Resurgent soil life
He also takes pleasure in the resurgence of life in the soil, including an increase in worm numbers. That soil biology has been augmented with the introduction of beetles from Dung Beetle Innovations. “We recently released dung beetles and I’m hoping the population will increase over time.”
John thinks funding to subsidise the cost of the beetles would encourage more farmers to introduce them, helping address issues of nutrients and pathogens getting into waterways. The actions of the beetles in burying dung increases soil nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus and may reduce leaching and volatilisation of nitrogen from animal manure.
Soil health is important to John for more than personal reasons. His ‘day job’ is as sustainable agriculture advisor for the Waikato Regional Council which includes helping farmers manage their land in ways which reduce nutrient and sediment leaching into surface and ground water.
“Some of the measures to mitigate issues require re-thinking farm design, including not building races alongside drains or having stream crossings with no barriers to run off. It can also mean understanding in which paddocks ephemeral streams might appear in heavy rain, and electric fencing the water course out, or if possible keeping stock off that area for a time.”
However, John acknowledges that reducing leaching and sediment getting into waterways has been extremely challenging in 2017, with exceptionally high rainfall from late summer and autumn, right through winter into spring.
Building soils which have increased capacity to cope with wet conditions is another management tool and John says while faming organically is one way of doing that, it’s not the only way.
A growing number of farmers are using what’s termed as ‘biological’ farming techniques which are a mix of organic and conventional farming practices, involving careful monitoring of crops, soils and inputs with a view to producing high-quality foods in a sustainable manner.
John says, in effect, it’s almost a return to the way in which his family once farmed. “We grow maize on our farm but of course can’t apply weed sprays so we grow it very much like my uncle in the Okoriore used to do decades ago.”
This involves ploughing the paddock – usually one used for effluent irrigation, leaving it fallow for three weeks to reduce pressure from pest such as slugs and cut worms, and then planting seed a little later in the season to ensure rapid growth. “We harvest about 19 tonne to the hectare which is not as much as conventional crops but we are happy with that yield.”
After harvest the maize paddocks are re-planted with a mix of pasture species including clovers, plantain and chicory, giving the cows a varied diet and also providing diversity of plants to support soil life.
To increase the financial sustainability of Cleavedale, the Vosper family has installed a small organic milk treatment and bottling factory next to the farm’s 20-bail rotary dairy. The milk is pasteurised, but not homogenised, so each bottle is topped by a layer of cream, ready to pour onto porridge, muesli or into coffee.
As well as supplying a number of outlets with Jersey Girl Organic milk, Mary, John and Liz sell the milk at farmers markets in Auckland, Hamilton, Cambridge and Tauranga.
“It’s quite demanding attending markets on a Saturday but it’s an invaluable opportunity to talk to our customers and understand what it is they want and learn of their concerns about where their food comes from and how it is produced.”
As a result of customers’ concerns around bobby calves, Cleavedale has introduced a Red Devon bull called Geoffrey to the herd in order to produce calves which can be reared for beef.
Jersey Girl Organics has also introduced glass bottles as well as plastic ones because customers said that’s what they would prefer.
To find out more about the Organic Dairy and Pastoral Group and its upcoming field days go to organicpastoral.co.nz
To find out more about Jersey Girl Organics go to jerseygirlorganics.co.nz