Karen Trebilcock

It’s Monday morning and Mathew Korteweg is just back from an early morning physio appointment following Saturday’s rugby game.

However, it’s not only his body that’s hurting from Saturday. The number 10’s team, Clutha Steamers, lost its first game following 43 straight wins in the local country premiership competition.

He’s not ready to give up rugby just yet but milking, he admits, is not much fun with sore ribs.

He and wife Catherine are 30% sharemilkers for his parents Stephen and Rhonda with 550 cows on the banks of the Matau branch of the Clutha River at Kaitangata.

In April they won the people in primary sector merit award in the Otago 2019 Ballance Farm Environment Awards and although they have not followed Stephen and Rhonda’s success of winning the national title in the same competition, they are still pretty pleased.

“Mum and Dad won the supreme award in 2009 and my brother Blake and I were milking on the farm at the time and we had to go up to get the award because they were overseas on their winter break by then. It was quite something.”

‘The water came up the drains and half the farm was about a foot under water. We went from ad-lib spring grazing to the cows back in the herd homes on 15kg drymatter silage and palm kernel. It was like putting the brake and the hand brake on.’

Since then Blake sharemilked the farm while Mathew played rugby in France and then Western Australia where he met Catherine who was working in sports management.

Now Blake sharemilks another family operation near Hedgehope in Southland which gave Mathew and Catherine the opportunity to return home five years ago.

Just like his older brother, Mathew has been slowly increasing his sharemilking percentage from 20% and hopes to be 50:50 in a few years.

“It’s a good way to do it because you’ve got cash flow but not huge debt.”

It’s also kept the third generation on the farm – Mathew’s grandparents emigrated from The Netherlands in the 1950s never having milked cows. His grandmother is still alive, now in her 90s and living in Balclutha and is proud to have her grandson where she once lived.

However with the low payout, it’s still been tough and for the past two years Mathew and Catherine have also contract-milked a neighbouring farm of 520 cows.

The opportunity came out of the blue and they were recruiting staff in June.

“We could see it was a good balance for us because it was a guaranteed milk price against the fluctuating price of sharemilking,” Catherine says.

The extra cows stretched them but was also the challenge they needed at the time and they could achieve it without having to leave the home farm.

With the contract now finishing they have invested in a rental property in nearby Balcultha.

“We see that as a good way to diversify our business. The rental market in Balclutha is quite good at the moment and it spreads our risk,” Mathew says.

The home farm milked 630 cows when the payout was at $8 but Mathew and Catherine have been slowly reducing the number and believe at 550 they’re now at the farm’s “sweet spot”.

For the past two years they’ve been using overseas genetics through Semex after 40 years of mostly Premier Sires through LIC.

“With LIC the Datamate was just pinging all the time with inbreeding so we thought it’s time to go offshore.

“Give us a couple of more years and we’ll potentially be back using New Zealand genetics again.”

They AI for six weeks, using an LIC technician for the first half and Mathew finishing. Yearlings go to Jersey bulls.

“We used to do about 20% CIDRs and now I think we did 14 cows last year so our intervention is getting a lot less. “Six-week in-calf rate this season is 72% but the empty rate has crept up to 14% compared with 9.5% the season before.

“The vets are saying the whole area is not good, probably due to the weather at mating, so there’s not a lot you can do when it’s a bad year for everyone,” Catherine says.

In Otago’s November drenching the river was only half a metre from the top of the stop banks, although Mathew has seen it higher.

“The water came up the drains and half the farm was about a foot under water. We went from ad-lib spring grazing to the cows back in the herd homes on 15kg drymatter silage and palm kernel.

“It was like putting the brake and the hand brake on.”

But the herd homes stopped them damaging soils and although some of the farm had to be regrassed, they’ve had their best season so far – on track to do 250,000kg milksolids (MS) which is 10,000kg MS up on budget.

“The farm can be wet but it’s summer safe and we really take advantage of that.”

Catherine says they won’t push to get to the 250,000kg MS, seeing instead what the weather will do in the last days of May.

“The season is what it is. We work with it.”

Their Overseer figure is down at about 18, helped by having the two herd homes on farm where 300 cows spend the late autumn, winter and early spring.

The herd homes are now 10 years old and are still working well with little maintenance needed.

The rest of the cows are wintered off nearby.

“We walk them down the road to another farmer where we basically buy the fodder beet off him,” Mathew says.

The young stock go to another farmer at Clinton after weaning and come back home as in-calf R2s.

It’s all necessary for a farm that’s protected by stop banks from the second-longest river in the country. The highest point of the farm is only a couple of metres above sea level.

Mathew says his dad’s passion is soil fertility and he regularly soil tests and makes the most of the effluent from the herd homes.

The dairy’s pond has sufficient storage but plans are in place to upgrade it to 100 days.

Effluent from the pond is sprayed on to the farm with a travelling irrigator with work continuing this year to increase the area and burying the lines with hydrants connecting the system.

“We make sure we’ve got quality infrastructure. We’ve got open drains on the sides of almost every paddock so we can’t have any effluent running across the ground.”

Mathew and Catherine were runners up in the Southland Otago sharefarmer competition in 2016 but didn’t feel they had the time to enter again with the extra work from the contract milking farm plus their new son Beau has been keeping them busy.

At two and a half, cows and tractor are among his favourite words and he spends his Saturdays between the rugby field and the netball courts where Catherine plays for the Clutha team.

Entering the Ballance Awards however, was do-able for the family.

“It was a really enjoyable experience,” Catherine says. “We sat around the table with a group of people who really loved farming and had lots of different ideas.”

They hadn’t known there was a people merit award in the competition but are chuffed their emphasis on looking after staff was recognised.

“It’s something we’ve really focused on and we really try to look after our staff as best we can,” Mathew says.

“Catherine and I have both been employed in different jobs so we know what it’s like being an employee and we’re competing here with the meat works and a lot of other jobs so we have to pay well and have good conditions to attract people. We’re just one more industry.”

“When we’re recruiting we’re looking at how the person will fit into our operation and how they will get on with the other staff,” Catherine says.

Rosters are set to suit staff members lives with their milk harvester, who doesn’t mind working weekends, working five and two with the two days off in the middle of the week.

Their 2IC works 11 and three with one day off one week, and two the next.

“We try to make sure no one works more than seven days at a stretch. We don’t want anyone getting too tired.”

Permanent staff are on salaries so even when milkings drop to 16 hours after Christmas, the pay stays the same.

“We try to be really open and honest about costs and income so they know what we’re facing and what they will face if they want to go sharemilking,” Mathew says.

“We start each day deciding who will do what. I don’t want people doing the things they don’t like doing because they won’t do them well then.

“But the jobs no one wants to do still get shared around because everyone knows we’re part of a team and someone has to do it.

“Some of our staff have started ITO courses and we try to keep them going but some people just don’t like book work.

“We keep all of our staff learning though, sending them to DairyNZ days and other things happening off-farm.

“We’ve got a closed farm Facebook page where we put stuff up so they can see what’s happening.”

The aim is to have staff with as much knowledge as they have so Mathew and Catherine can take a week off every now and then without worrying.

“The first two seasons here we really didn’t leave the farm and we realised that wasn’t healthy, that we can’t keep doing that.

“And if I have a really bad rugby injury, the wheels can’t fall off because of it.”

Mathew and Catherine have also followed Mathew’s father into Federated Farmers. Stephen was Otago president from 2013 until 2016 and now Mathew is the region’s dairy chairperson and Catherine is treasurer.

Catherine is also chair of the Cross Recreation Centre in Balclutha using her sports management background.

Their farm plans include more plantings and looking after some of the remnant trees left from when the farm was once covered in bush.

“The Ballance judges were really interested in the totaras. We’re going to fence them off now and really look after them,” Mathew says.


Leneva Farm

  • Location: Kaitangata near Balclutha, South Otago
  • Area: 175ha effective
  • Dairy: 50 bail rotary, automatic cup removers, drafting, in-shed feeding
  • Herd: 550 Friesian, Friesian crossbred, BW 65/45 PW 78/68
  • Production: 250,000kg MS 2018-2019 season
  • Wintering: 2 herd homes plus off farm