Time to move on after dairy farming on untested terrain in northern Southland

The van der Bijl family at Broad Acres, near Mossburn.

The van der Bijl family at Broad Acres, near Mossburn.

The van der Bijls were told they would never milk cows on their northern Southland property.

After almost 20 years at their Mossburn farm, they have more than proved their detractors wrong.

Philip van der Bijl moved to New Zealand from the Netherlands in 1962 as an assisted migrant. He worked on wages for five years, and after meeting his wife Denise, the two went 50:50 sharemilking in Warkworth and had four children.

The van der Bijl's Broad Acres dairy farm near Mossburn.

The van der Bijl's Broad Acres dairy farm near Mossburn.

The pair bought their first farm in north Auckland then slowly moved down to Reporoa, near Taupo, and bought a farm there and were joined by John Lang, who had married their daughter Yvonne.

Farming family goes from wheat to dairy after 142 years on a Southland farm
Poo is powering a Southland dairy farm shed
Welcome to the Hotel van der Bijl

By 1997, the family was looking for a new adventure, and the next year they found a sheep farm near Mossburn.

Despite being told the farm would do for wintering cows but not for milking them, the family and their bank took the risk and began the conversion process on the 642 hectare property, Philip says.

Philip saw the farm's potential even though when they first visited it was covered in snow.

"People had set ideas about where to where you should milk cows … We thought that if you could winter cows [on the farm] then you could milk them."

Their son Chris and his wife Trish stayed in Reporoa to run the farm there, while Yvonne and John joined Philip and Denise in Mossburn. They named their business Broad Acres Farms. The Reporoa farm has a six bale, drop-side herringbone cow shed.

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Previous owners had ploughed the tussock and browntop and put in better pasture. For the next year Philip flew between the two farms every fortnight to keep up with the conversion's progress.

They built an 80 bale rotary cowshed, along with two new houses. Philip and Denise drove 22 hours to their new home in Southland on May 18, 1999, while Yvonne and John followed 10 days later. They officially took over on June 1 that year.

Philip says they were the first ones in the South Island to build an 80 bale rotary, which was officially opened by Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt.

During their first season milking they calved 1000 cows, which increased to 1400 by March 2000. They produced 430,000 kilograms of milk solids in the first season, proving the naysayers who said they could never milk a cow there wrong.

The family's main objectives when it comes to farming are to earn enough income to have a comfortable lifestyle, to enjoy what they are doing most of the time, and to try and do everything only once, as they are perfectionists.

Since moving down to Southland the family has more than doubled the size of the farm to 1333ha. They have steadily increased its production, milking about 1600 cows and producing 646,575kg.

"Over the years we have been fortunate that there was more land available around us and we grew the farm over the next five years," Philip says. Aside from the family, seven full-time staff are employed on the farm.

The farm is about 90 per cent flat, with the rest moderate to steep hill country.

Its mainly stoney soils are prone to drying in the summer months, but they also have clay soils, which get wet and pug easily. Philip says they need to be handled with real care during the wetter months of the year.

After about 10 years on the farm, the family decided wintering on the property would be better with a purpose-built wintering barn. In 2012 the first barn was built and three years later they added a second one.

The family winters about 1700 dairy cows, to milk 1600 of them, which is about the maximum able to sleep in the shed.

"We tend to get about three per cent that don't settle to the barns for whatever reason so they have to suck it up and go outside," John says.

The change in wintering systems has been a highlight for Philip, and has given the family better control of their pasture management during winter months.

The farm is self-contained, with about 400 heifer calves, and 400 two-year-old heifers. They also rear about 375 bull calves on contract, which leave the farm at five months old, and about 120 bulls are kept for breeding until they are two years old.

Calving begins on August 6.

Cows are inseminated for seven weeks with friesian semen, then their own friesian bulls are put out.

"We inseminate longer than normal due to the wet weather, in the hope of saving our bulls from getting sore feet," Philip says.

Jersey bulls are run with the heifers for easy calving.

The family converted the property's old woolshed into a calving shed, with heifer calves raised on colostrum and then whole milk, with access to fresh meal and water.

After almost 20 years in Southland, the family has put the Southland Broad Acres Farm on the market. The farm, including seven homes, is for sale with Country&Co for $38 million, with the optional add-on of the stock.

While they aren't sure what's next for them, Denise says they will definitely be heading back to the North Island to be closer to their extended family.

During his time in Southland Philip has served on the Fonterra Shareholders' Council and the family has been involved heavily in the dairy industry. They have also joined in the Mossburn community in a social capacity.

"When we came out here there was a big thing about sheep and beef farmers and dairy farmers hating each other and it wasn't true. I don't think there was any differences between them," Philip says.

He says they were welcomed to the area with "open arms". And while they have loved farming in the area and developing a successful large-scale dairy platform, it's time for a new adventure.

"After nearly 20 years it's time to go back home," Yvonne says.

 - Stuff

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