While Kieran McCahon didn’t win the FMG Young Farmer of the year competition, he scored with the crowd taking out the People’s Choice award. By Delwyn Dickey.

The call of the land that you grew up on and family ties to that area can be pretty strong.

After time spent setting himself up for a career in agricultural science and agribusiness management, testing himself as a finalist at the FMG Young Farmer of the year competition, and a couple of lockdowns, Kieran McCahon has decided the rugged landscape of Northland’s Pouto Peninsula is where his heart is.

The family farm rolling down to the wild west coast has a hold on him he doesn’t want to break.

It was a unique place to grow up, he says, a 750-hectare playground. With a beach that could have six-metre swells and then once a year be as flat as a lake.

But in spite of the magic of the place Kieran was aware it was a tough place for his parents Allister and Maree to farm at times.

“We were basically farming an ancient sandhill so was one of the first to get dry,” he says.

Farm management practices often reflected that.

They run 1000 cows on 400ha of the farm. They also ran dairy beef and raised their own bulls to go with the herd and sell a few store.

“The beef offers the ability to destock in summer,” Kieran says.

Heifers were milked once a day over mating and again from December onwards, which was always a strategy to manage pasture.

Managing pasture and concerns over persistence during the hotter months has also seen Dad Allister involved with Northland diversified forages group for many years.

This has seen them move away from ryegrass pasture. While they undersow annual ryegrass on a lot of the farm, ryegrass is no longer the primary component of a sward.

Cocksfoot and Persian clover now make up a much bigger portion of the mixes.

Other farm environment work saw Allister and Maree take out the Environment Award in Kaipara District’s 2020 Citizen & Environmental Awards.

Initially Kieran, the lad with the curious nature and analytical mind, decided civil engineering was for him. But an open day at the University of Auckland where he encountered a “three-way motorway” through the middle of the university and the realisation he would be based in the city for the rest of his days if he took that path, had him reassessing his plans.

With his older sister Nikita, having just started at Lincoln University he started looking at careers in agriculture outside of just being based on the farm.

Armed with a DairyNZ undergraduate scholarship, Kieran headed off to a future in agricultural science – his way to make a difference in the agricultural sector.

A masters in management majoring in agribusiness, again with support from DairyNZ, at Waikato University followed, with his thesis done at the Northern Agricultural Research Farm (NARF) near Dargaville writing up a trial they’d been running on farm systems over the previous three years.

With his masters under his belt Kieran settled in with DairyNZ’s Hamilton office.

When the first Covid-19 lockdown came around, he was able to work from home in Hamilton.

He started to think about his long-term future. The idea of doing a PhD in farm systems and the exciting directions this could lead – becoming a leading agricultural dairy farm systems scientist appealed to him.

But he also began to feel the tug of his rugged Kaipara home. The farm and family ties pulled on him. Whatever he did he decided his future was in Northland.

Though challenging at times, working from home during lockdown had shown Kieran he could still deliver in his role while working remotely. He asked to be transferred to DairyNZ’s Northland office and to work from th time as Kieran, having started out in the Young Farmers competition while living in Hamilton, won the regionals for the Waikato/ Bay of Plenty and went through to the finals.

Having been in the regional competitions a couple of times before, he felt he’d already learnt a lot about himself.

“I got a little bit flustered a couple of times and have a tendency of overthinking. This year with a lot more understanding of the contest, and of myself, managed to just come out on top of what was a pretty tight contest.”

While the finals competition turned out to be even tougher, it was one of the highlights of his life he says.

“It can be quite a cooking pot of pressure. There is a broad range of things that we get tested on. The modules are set up and designed to put you into experiences you haven’t necessarily had before. It tests you on how do you cope with something new.

“It’s good to see how you react under pressure, when, at the end of the day it’s a contest and not life-or-death.”

Though missing out on the top placings Kieran was the popular winner of the People’s Choice award giving him the unexpected opportunity to raise money for some charities he felt strongly about – Farmstrong, Rural Support Trust and Will

to Live. Having gone into lockdown last year needing a haircut Kieran came out with a mullet.

“I kept that mullet and decided to use the platform of Young Farmers to help raise funds for charity and got my grandfathers to cut my mullet off at the Grand Final.”

On stage in July, to accept his award, to his surprise the organisers had put the live Give-a-Little page up behind him on screen. The amount pledged steadily rose from $400 to nearly $4000 by the end of the night.

A couple of months later and Kieran had made the difficult decision to leave DairyNZ, though it may yet be temporary.

What his future looks like now is still panning out. He’s been learning the ropes on his parents’ farm.

“I have a lot to learn having come out of an academic background. I grew up onfarm, e Pouto farm. In February he settled in for a spell. But it was far from a relaxed but I’ve been away for a long time, so I’ve got a heck of a lot to learn onfarm. It’s about learning those skills.”

His long-term sights are now set on farm ownership, but whether that’s a direct hands-on role or a more diverse ownership structure he’s uncertain.

“For me it’s balancing having the hands-on role and actually putting things into practice for myself, but there’s also that long-term desire of contributing to the wider industry as a whole. Having some involvement off-farm in the future is still a goal,” he says.

Either way, his own farm systems skills are likely to come in for more use.

“Projections for Northland are it’s going to get drier so it’s a matter of building that risk contingency into farm systems – of having resilient systems.”

More systems are moving toward autumn calving.

“Mum and Dad did split calving for a long time but are June calving now, a compromise between spring and autumn calving.

“If spring calving you don’t get the days in milk if you get dumped by a drought. But if you’re autumn calving into a drought you’ve got to buy high protein feed for cows in early lactation so that’s expensive.”

And as he contemplates what his future will look like one thing holds strong – his future is about family and the land. What he grew up with he wants for his own children.