Mathew Pooley went fishing for a break before settling into  climbing the ladder of a dairy farming career. Anne Lee reports.

Bringing more young Maori into the dairy sector will entail the retelling of “some good strong stories” from Maori making their way in the industry, Mathew Pooley says.

A finalist in this year’s Ahuwhenua Young Maori Farmer of the year award, Mathew is a farm manager on Ngai Tahu’s 900-cow Maungatere farm.

It’s one of eight dairy farms, five support blocks and five beef finishing units on Ngai Tahu’s 6757-hectare Te Whenua Hou block at Eyrewell near Oxford in Canterbury.

“I’m building my story as I go but my Maori story really started when I came here to Ngai Tahu three years ago,” he says.

Mathew is Ngai Tahu with his Whakapapa going back through his mum to the Koukourarata marae at Port Levy on Banks Peninsula.

“I’ve always acknowledged my Maori side but haven’t actively done much about it. Coming here though has made me take it on board, it’s just part of what we do. I’ve learned so much already.”

Mathew says he’s particularly liked the way the cultural values are woven into the fabric of the farming operation.

Its vision statement also strikes a chord with him: Toitu te Marae o Tane, Toitu te Marae o Tangaroa, Toitu te Iwi – When land and water are sustained, the people will prosper.

“You can’t force these kinds of values on people but when you see it being lived out it becomes part of your day-to-day way of approaching things.”

He’s now actively working on helping others see opportunities and has started a Te Whenua Hou Young Farmers Club which is also open to others in the area.

“With so many young people here I thought it was a great way to build on the Manaakitanga – have a club where they feel really welcome and get that sense of belonging.

“We’ll do the things a Young Farmers Club normally does but we can hopefully go on a few trips to other Ngai Tahu farms, open their eyes to all the opportunities.”

Mathew had his first foray into dairy farming when he was just 15, working for two years for the Kerr brothers on a town milk supply farm at Lincoln, near where his father is farming.

He then set off on a bit of an adventure, long-line fishing out of American Samoa.

“It was pretty hard work all right. We’d set the lines (up to 30 nautical miles long) from 5.30am till 10am and then go back and pick them up at 5.30-ish at night and then work on through the night hauling them in.”

“Working on the boat was a great way to make money but there wasn’t really much of a life. I don’t mind hard work, but I do value having more of a life than just work.”

On a Christmas break home, he met up with the Kerrs and they offered him a job back on the dairy farm which he jumped at, making the conscious decision to make dairy farming his career of choice.

“I stayed there for another two years and learned a lot.”

He followed that with a year working on a larger-scale operation milking 1300 cows on Brendon and Gail Woods’ farm at Burnham before he saw advertisements for Ngai Tahu.

He saw the opportunity for more learning and a chance to progress at Te Whenua Hou and chose a job as senior dairy assistant there over positions on other farms in the region he was offered.

Although he’d been looking for and had been offered 2IC positions elsewhere he saw it as the smart thing to do to get on board with the Iwi-owned farms.

“As it turned out I was right because here I am and within three years I was managing.”

The 291ha farm he manages sports a 64-bail rotary farm dairy fitted with Protrack and automatic cup removers.

It’s irrigated using three pivots and supplement is limited to a small amount of barley, fed in the farm dairy, and silage made onfarm.

Palm kernel isn’t used on Ngai Tahu farms.

“Sustainability is a huge focus here. Everyone working here understands that and understands the goals and our input is also taken on board too.”

Mathew points to Ngai Tahu’s investment in the lysimeter station and its monitoring of wells installed at the top and bottom ends of the farm for water quality testing.

He’s also excited by the use of new forages onfarm to help reduce the potential for nitrate leaching.

Te Whenua Hou is part of the Forages for Reduced Nitrate Leaching research programme and is using fodder beet and plantain.

Although it’s still early days with plantain, Mathew says in paddocks where the percentage of plantain is high – up to 30% – it’s noticeable how well the cows milk off it.

“They love it too. It’s going to be really interesting seeing how it persists and working out if there are any differences in how we manage it.”

He’ll certainly pick up any differences quickly thanks to his close focus on pasture management and monitoring.

He plates the farm every week with his 2IC and at times when growth rates are more likely to be variable he’ll be out there more often.

In early May he was plating the farm twice a week.

“At the moment it’s really up and down and you just can’t afford to rely on what was happening days ago still happening six days later.

“It’d be pretty easy at the moment to go out six days after you’d plated the farm and find you haven’t got the grass you thought you’d have.

“You’ve got to be monitoring closely to keep your finger on the pulse.”

The technology available on Te Whenua Hou makes that easier with systems such as Regen Water monitoring on the computer at the farm dairy and on his cell phone via the app.

It allows him to manage irrigation so water is going on at the right times in the right amounts.

He’s found differences between two of the pivots on the farm in terms of response to water due to soil type variations and this season the installation of more soil moisture meters will allow him to be even more precise with his irrigation management.

He’s grabbed at any opportunities for learning and development both in practical farming skills through Primary ITO – he’s working on Level five – and in leadership with training provided through Ngai Tahu.

But Mathew isn’t all work.

He’s the captain of the Oxford division two rugby team, where he plays lock.

He’s also an avid adventure motorcycle rider, a sport that’s literally taken him off the beaten track overseas and within New Zealand.

He’s been to Vietnam and Fiji and is about to set off on a tour of Romania.

While he envisages cementing his skills as a farm manager over the short to medium term, Mathew says he could look to contract milking in the future but is also interested in operations manager roles too.

“There are a lot of opportunities in the industry. It’s a matter of really understanding them, looking at what’s going on with payout volatility and the pros and cons at the time.”