A new era for King Country organic dairy farm

Nick Collins (sharemilker) and Max Varney (owner), at Glencoe Farm in Pio Pio, in the King Country. Photo: Catherine Fry.

When Nick and Jo Collins took over their Pio dairy farm in 2004, they had intended to farm using organic and regenerative principles, but weren’t planning to obtain certification immediately. Seventeen years on, the now fully certified organic farm has changed hands, the new owner being Max Varney, who was previously the Collins’s farm worker, and is completely likeminded in his farming beliefs.

Nick, Jo and Max have a unique working dynamic, that suits them both well, supporting Max in his first years as an owner, and supporting the partnership.

“I bought the farm from Nick and Jo, then employed them as 50/50 sharemilkers, and they employ me as their labourer,” says Max.

“We originally chose the farm because we knew its history and owners. It had good Mairoa ash soils, good natural water supply, and excellent infrastructure,” says Nick.

The farm was converted to dairy seven years prior and the Collins’s focus from day one was to build diversity in the form of pasture species selection and trees selected for fodder value, maximising year round pasture growth and building resilience through adverse weather conditions.

Six months into ownership, Fonterra announced their organic conversion incentives, and the six-year contract was too good to turn down.

Journey to organic certification

The farm is treated as one large riparian strip encouraging a deep root zone, plant diversity, maintaining a dense sword of pasture to maximise photosynthesis and soil microbial activity, but minimising soil disturbance.

Pasture diversity is a major factor, and the pasture has been oversown with a diverse mix including species such as clovers, chicories, plantains, cocksfoot and brome grasses.

“Today the pasture is well established, with fewer weeds, deeper root systems with an abundance of worms and a healthy soil ecosystem. We minimise damage by oversowing or direct drilling,” says Max.

Twenty hectares of the diverse pasture is cut for silage. Summer crop mixes of brassicas, sunflowers and chicory, plus winter crop mixes of oats, peas and grasses, are grown for variation in the cows’ diets. 500 organically certified, large rounds or squares are still bought in each year, as all cows are wintered on farm. 100 bales are kept as a buffer in the event of a tough season

“Tree planting has been a part of our farming philosophy and planting began on a limited budget from day one, establishing both shelter belts and riparian planting,” says Nick.

Apart from the shelter/shade and foraging benefits, trees support nutrient transfer, carbon sequestration, and provide habitats for insects and birds. A beekeeper has hives on the farm.

After seventeen years, over 20,000 trees have been planted, lining the waterways, paddocks and races in an aesthetically pleasing way. Elders, poplars, random fruit trees, fodder willow, flax, and pittosporum and coprosma, are among the species that can be found.

“Moving forward, we’re going to keep persisting with native planting, despite some previous setbacks with certain species, and I’d like to plant walnut trees and further fruit trees,” says Max.

During summer, fodder willow is cut daily for the calves and fed out in the paddocks. All stock browse on shelter belts year round, adding further diversity and nutrition to the diet.

The farm today

220 cows are milked on a milking platform of 110 ha with the focus being on per cow performance, reducing costs through improved animal health, and adding value via the organic milk premium. Cows are milked once a day from early January to add resilience to the system by allowing a 40 plus day rotation through the summer, which suits diverse pastures.

“In the future we are looking to add red breeds into the existing kiwi cross bred herd, to maximise heterosis, longevity, and feed conversion efficiency, while minimising nitrate and methane loss,” says Nick.

To further future proof the system, Max has invested in a two million litre effluent pond to irrigate 35 hectares using a Yardmaster pump and Torpedo travelling irrigator.

Initially the Mairoa ash soils lacked calcium and magnesium, so an Abron solid fert mix has been applied in spring and autumn. More recently, mostly trace minerals are applied, along with organically certified liquid fertiliser containing probiotics, seaweed, fish and humates.

The next big venture for the partnership is for Nick and Jo to purchase a support block to transition to organic certification, adding further resilience to the farm system, and giving more control and flexibility around young stock grazing and stored feed supply.

Both Nick and Max wholeheartedly agree that the farm is a constant work in progress, and has only got where it is today due to learning through experience, involvement in active discussion groups, and learning from other organic farmers who have paved the way before them, often with no premium for their product.

“Organics and regen ag are nothing new, but with increased knowledge of the benefits of farming a productive eco system, plus a growing global demand for certified product, the future is exciting,” says Max.


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