Keeping the cows in good nick

Rob Mitchell talks to an Iowan working with New Zealand graziers on the welfare of the heifers they take on.

Sarah Dirks ??? DairyNZ Developer in Animal Productivity team
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Sarah Dirks ??? DairyNZ Developer in Animal Productivity team

Immigration. It's a hot topic at the moment.

The questions ebb and flow with the tide of humanity moving around the globe: Who are these people? Where are they from? What are they contributing to our country?

Agriculture may be seen as part of the muscle-memory of this nation but sometimes it also needs support from others to help with the heavy lifting.

Sarah Dirks visiting a bay in the Abel Tasman National Park.

Sarah Dirks visiting a bay in the Abel Tasman National Park.

DairyNZ's Sarah Dirks was born in Iowa in the United States but she now calls New Zealand home. Her journey to this country and the contribution she makes to its dairy industry was set by two important moments in her life.

The first came when she was eight.

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"I grew up on a farm in Iowa – cropping, beef and pigs – so if you've seen the movies, the green house, the red barn and the white picket fence, that's it," she says.

One of the cows on the farm was having a difficult birth.

"She had prolapsed; it happens sometimes with cows, when the cervix is dilated and the uterus lacks muscle tone the uterus can accidently slip out."

The vet was called and Sarah watched in awe as he worked with her father to help the distressed cow and put the uterus back in place.

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"He said 'Isn't it amazing that in a few weeks her uterus will be small enough to fit into a coffee cup'," says Sarah. "I thought, that's absolutely incredible, how biology functions like that, so that was the beginning for me."

A beginning given support and impetus by a strong work ethic.

Sarah and her four brothers all worked on the farm. And they worked hard.

"I remember when I was about seven thinking my friends were lazy because they didn't work eight-hour days. We took on a lot of responsibilities as young kids."

Those responsibilities included being home-schooled. It was one of the things that helped develop an independent and "self-directed" woman.

"Because I had three younger brothers and they were six, nine, and 13 years younger than me, mum was busy with them, so she would give me the book and say, 'Learn this by the end of the year', which was probably why I started volunteering at our public library when I was 12 and ran the summer reading programme."

That independence and hard work probably helped when Sarah's home-schooling ended and she moved five hours away to Ames and Iowa State University, where she studied towards a degree in dairy science, animal science and, eventually, international agriculture, with a minor in agronomy.

However, it was a move much further away that would set her on another path, one that would eventually lead to a dairying career on the other side of the world.

"I went to Turkey during my spring break to visit friends who were studying there. So while everyone else went to Florida and Alabama to the beach I went to Turkey," she says.

"It was my first overseas experience and I remember being on the train looking at the fields, and I think they were melon fields, and I desperately wanted to know about how those farmers farmed, and how it was different and the different kind of soils they had."

A conversation with a friend turned that interest into an academic pursuit when she added international agriculture to her degree. Study trips to Denmark and Uruguay followed.

"I just loved those experiences of learning about different farms and farm systems in a different cultural context."

As Sarah neared her final year of university, she and other students were encouraged to be "grown-ups" by preparing CVs and writing covering letters for jobs. It had to be a real job and she found one in New Zealand where people could work on a dairy farm for a year. She also contacted several job placement agencies.

"At that time farming was on the skills shortage list for immigration so I looked into my different options and I got a job working as a herd manager in Canterbury."

She was 22 and thought it would be like "England, with a bus that goes to all the little rural villages", but otherwise she was ready for the challenge.

"To be fair, probably growing up rural, home-schooled with four brothers did set me up for being able to handle the isolation of working on a farm in New Zealand."

She grew to love it, despite the hard work, and marvelled at the efficiency of the Kiwi farmer and the standards of animal care, especially when compared with dairy farming in the States during the odd trip home.

"I wanted to work in a system I really believed in and particularly after I'd been to New Zealand, going back to the States and seeing more and more flaws in how they farm and farmer attitudes, New Zealand farmers are world-leading on so many levels and I desperately wanted to return.

"Plus it's more sustainable for the cows; they live longer with a more productive life in the New Zealand system than they do in the United States and they have fewer animal health issues."

Animal welfare is an important part of Sarah's current role, as a developer in DairyNZ's animal productivity team that works to translate the science and regulations around stock management and welfare and create farmer-friendly tools, resources and information.

One of Sarah's important projects has focused on building capability in contract graziers – dry stock farmers or dairy support specialist farmers who take someone else's dairy heifers and feed them on their land, generally returning them at about two years old, when they are ready to have their first calf.

The Heifer Grazing Project was supported by the Transforming the Dairy Value Chain (TDVC) Primary Growth Partnership programme, a seven-year, $170 million innovation investment led by commercial partners, including DairyNZ and Fonterra, and partnered by the Ministry for Primary Industries. The programme aims to enable the creation of new dairy products, increase on-farm productivity, reduce environmental impacts, and improve agricultural education.

"It's something like $2 billion worth of dairy assets being managed by those farmers," says Sarah. "What they do really matters. They're quite influential around stock care, environmental impact and land use - they're crucial for the primary industry."

With the help of the TDVC programme, "we did a series of focus groups around using heifer liveweight data and workshops with farmers and contract graziers on what they thought industry-good could look like, growing the heifers to target and how we could get there.

"We built a suite of resources around contract grazing relationships and calculator tools to give farmers guidance on deciding on contracts and prices, decision-making on what kind of stock to run on their land."

That connection with the outdoors doesn't stop at work. "I like to be out in my garden or going for hikes or kayaking."

"Iowa is the flattest state in America so sometimes when I'm in the mountains here I think, 'oh my goodness, I really have travelled beyond my wildest dreams'."

That's one of the reasons she's happy to call this country home, which is great news for a dairy industry benefiting from her ongoing contribution.

 - Stuff

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