Teaching English in China helped broaden a young Australian’s horizons, leading to scholarship and a specialist role with Dairy NZ. By Elaine Fisher.

When Melburnian Odette Chauncy decided to give dairy farming in New Zealand a go, she didn’t ease herself into it gently. Instead, she got a job rearing calves on a Taranaki farm.

“I hadn’t grown up with cows, so the plan was to get a taste of the industry, so I threw myself into calving and had so much fun. I have such cool memories from that time and felt challenged in all the right ways,” Odette says. Today she works for DairyNZ based in the Waikato and is the recipient of the 2021 Colin Holmes Memorial Masters Research Scholarship. After a four-month stint on the Taranaki farm Odette returned to Australia in 2014, determined to become involved in the NZ dairy industry.

“I had fallen in love with cows, dairying and New Zealand and wanted to return.”

As a teenager, a career in dairying was never on her radar, Odette says. It was five months teaching English to students in China’s Yunnan province in 2011 as an 18-year-old with Lattitude Global Volunteering which completely changed her focus.

“As a teenager growing up you tend to be thinking more about your needs than others. I can’t quite explain what it was about being in China which changed my thinking, but it helped me see there was so much more to the world than I had previously realised. I knew I wanted to do more than I was.

“It felt to me that the food and fibre sector was so crucial to both now and the future and I saw how important it would continue to be as our world population grew.”

Although she spent her teenage years in Melbourne city, Odette was born in rural New South Wales on a broad-acre family-run farm.

“We farmed predominantly rice, wheat, oats and sheep and I grew up surrounded by family. I remember spending hours on the tractor and loved farm life.”

After returning from China Odette studied for a Bachelor of Business Marketing at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, but the lure of dairy farming in NZ was still there. “I kept telling people that I wanted to be a dairy farmer until one day my sister said – well why don’t you just do it? And I did.”

Undeterred by a Taranaki winter, lack of sleep and the hard work of calving, Odette returned to NZ in 2016 to a 1000-cow farm in one of the coldest places she could have chosen – Oamaru.

“The farm was on the coast, and I loved being near the sea.”

Her next job was on DairyNZ’s Scott research farm in the Waikato where she and Brendan Graham raised Hagrid, a 232kg calf which won a competition between two DairyNZ research farms to produce the heaviest calf as a fundraiser for IHC.

It was also while working for DairyNZ that Odette decided to further her education by undertaking a Master of Science – Animal Science, Massey University.

“I found out about the Colin Holmes Master Scholarship on the DairyNZ website and applied for it. I felt so privileged and fortunate to be awarded the scholarship and would strongly recommend others in the industry to apply for it or other scholarships.

“When you are younger these scholarships are probably not top of mind, but they are out there. The Colin Holmes Scholarship, co-funded by Dairy Trust Taranaki and DairyNZ has been amazing for me.

“It is about more than just money. I had so much support from the funders and the university and received lots of encouragement to try different things, go to different events and meet so many people. I have had the chance to work with experts in their field and ask them all of the questions I have.”

The research project Odette worked on involved the analyses of three farms broken down into five case-study herds in Taranaki, run by Dairy Trust Taranaki, that implement various management strategies for bobby calves. She researched and evaluated different opportunities for these calves through designed mating programmes, and identified the risks involved with different options. This included evaluating the impact to the farm system and quantifying the opportunity, calf-rearing resources, and demand for these to be delivered at national level when modelled on a typical NZ dairy farm.

She now has a role with DairyNZ as a solutions and development specialist working with farmer clients throughout the country, and with the wider DairyNZ team.

As to Odette’s long-term aspirations: “I have wanted to work in the food and fibre sector since my early 20s and I’m really enjoying my current role providing a service to help farmers with the day to day running of their farms.”