When a young Chilean couple began farming in South Canterbury they had to draw a lot of pictures to bypass the language gap. Anne Lee reports.

The BrightSide was an apt place for Maka Morales and Miguel Ortiz to tell their story at the SIDE conference this year.

The couple are doggedly positive, even in the face of big challenges and have been willing to make enormous sacrifices so they can achieve their goals of building financial security.

The Chilean couple, now New Zealand residents, initially endured months of separation not only from one another but also from their young daughter, had to draw pictures to communicate onfarm because they spoke little English and worked enormous hours without complaining as they sought to build their skills.

They’re testament to what hard work and perseverance can achieve.

But they’re also a prime example of how important it is to have a plan and understand your own value as a farm manager.

Maka and Miguel are now in their third year as contract milkers in Southland and shared some hard-learned experience, passing on some sage advice with farm consultant Alex Hunter at the BrightSide session aimed at those starting out in the industry.

There’s no sugar-coating it – if you’re starting out from scratch and you want to progress and grow you must be prepared to work hard, Maka says. Along with the bright sunny days and laughs with the workmates there will be cold, wet days, grumpy cows and a few grumpy people but moving ahead is all in how you approach the tougher times.

‘Be positive, make a plan, look at the numbers and work hard.’

“We always had our eyes forward, looking towards our goals so when we had to get up at 2.30am every morning at one of our jobs we would wake up and say this is moving us forward to where we are working for ourselves.

“People say their dream is to own a farm but it’s not enough to dream, it’s about working for it,” she says.

Both are 34 years old and have been together since they were 15. They went to the same technical college Liceo Municipal Polivalente de Maria Pinto with Maka then working at the Santiago airport in biosecurity while Miguel worked on a 600-cow dairy farm at Curacavi between Santiago and the coast.

Miguel loves pasture
management and low-input systems. Pictures: Megan Graham

They knew they wanted to be masters of their own destiny and run their own business one day but couldn’t see how they could do that in Chile.

They had a young daughter Ignacia and wanted a secure future.

Maka knew there could be opportunities in NZ and in 2011 came out with a friend on a working holiday visa and ended up rearing calves in Waimate on an 1100-cow farm.

Almost four months later Miguel came too, leaving their daughter with Maka’s parents until they knew he too could find a job.

He helped on the farm for nothing for a few days and the farm owners could see he knew what he was doing with the cows and offered him a job.

They worked hard but it was a struggle for the farm’s manager trying to give instructions and he was frustrated.

“We would draw a lot of pictures,” Maka says.

The couple knew that to meet immigration rules and be able to bring Ignacia over they had to move up the ladder.

That meant a move to Oamaru the following year and while Miguel worked as a 2IC – still drawing a lot of pictures – Maka milked on his days off and reared calves.

But she also took on other part-time jobs too including picking up potatoes with a team of workers from Vanuatu.

“It was hard, very heavy work and I did cry a bit – but I told the boss I really wanted to work and he moved me into the packhouse,” Maka says.

On the dairy farm their employers helped them immensely in getting Ignacia to NZ, even paying some of the costs and after 11 months they were reunited with their daughter.

In 2014 they were ready to move on and up again and took on a job near Gore on a 1200-cow farm where Miguel was the 2IC with the potential to advance and Maka a dairy assistant and sole calf-rearer for 300 calves.

Staff turnover meant some long hours for the couple in the first season and in the second season an injury to the manager at calving meant Miguel took over his responsibilities.

Their work ethic and loyalty didn’t go unnoticed and the couple were formally made the managers after suggesting they share the job to help overcome language challenges.

Maka covered the tasks that needed good communication such as helping staff with immigration, communicating with contractors, vets and others along with other paperwork as well as helping on farm while Miguel ran the onfarm activities.

“It was tough and we had long hours but we were building up our skills on our CV,” Maka says.

Miguel’s English was improving and it was there they gained residency.

Through their daughter’s school friends, they met two Argentinean families also involved in dairying – Leo and Maricel Pekar and Martin and Dora Coronel.

“It was Leo and Martin who got us thinking when they asked us if we were going to work as hard as we were why weren’t we working for ourselves?”

The next year they applied for contract milking jobs and secured a job where Alex Hunter was the farm consultant.

He’d given them some advice previously and with his help they brokered their contract.

“We were worried we were too early with the move and didn’t have the money but they just said we’ll work the money part out later.

“They could see what we’d done on our CV and knew we had the skills – they wanted us and we wanted the job and so they lent us the money to get us through the first few months.

“We were very grateful and worked very hard so we could pay back the money in November.”

They milked 800 cows and by both working full time they only needed to employ two other fulltime people.

They exceeded their production target by 4000kg milksolids (MS) producing 338,000kg MS while keeping within the very limited budget of just 50 tonnes drymatter (DM) bought in feed which includes dried distillers grain (DDG) palm kernel (25%) and crushed barley (25%).

They were also within reproduction targets with an 8.8% empty rate after 12-weeks mating.

It was a steep learning curve for Maka taking on PAYE, and managing accounts, GST, and budgets but with some help from their Argentinean friends she mastered that side of running their own business.

Their second season was just as successful and with 20 more cows, a similar amount of bought-in supplement per cow and Miguel’s pasture management skills they were able to achieve 380,000kg MS.

Going into their third season with a proven track record and a good relationship with their farm owners they were able to negotiate that stock become part of their contract package. So 35 calves have been added to their remuneration each year in recognition of their skills and results.

“We can rear the calves here until December and then we will graze them off,” Miguel says.

“We have a five-year plan and a plan for every season out till 2023 at this stage – it’s how we want to build our business so that by 2023 we are in a position where we have enough equity to look at the next opportunity to grow further.

“We want to be sharemilking in a few years – we’ve been very honest with our farm owners, they know what we’re thinking and that’s a good thing for both of us,” Maka says.

Getting good advice so you can understand what’s possible is important, she says.

They worked hard for the first $100,000 over the years that they were building their skills but now they are able to use their equity to grow more equity and, based on the realistic planning they’ve done with Alex, they can see that growth can almost be exponential.

“Be positive, make a plan, look at the numbers and work hard,” is Maka’s advice.

The dairy industry is renowned for the availability of information and willingness of people to teach and share.

Miguel says he’s taken every opportunity to learn along the way with a big emphasis on managing pastures well.

His skills were recognised at this year’s Dairy Industry Awards when he was runner up in the Southland Otago sharefarmer of the year and won the Ravensdown pasture management award.

He loves low-input systems and the focus on managing round lengths, measuring and monitoring and being proactive rather than reactive.

“This is how we make money – it’s with grass,” Miguel says.

He’s a fastidious record keeper and keeps a paddock book detailing everything for each paddock including balage, urea, fertiliser, when cows graze, how many were in the paddock and pasture covers.

They also have a meeting record book where they write down everything from their monthly meetings with their farm owners.

They use technology too – Minda Land and Feed for pasture management and PaySauce for payroll.

Maka says they want their staff to have an enjoyable work environment and while they expect them to work hard they don’t expect them to put up with some of the conditions they’ve had to.

Their message to their staff is always be honest, have a good work ethic, be responsible and love what you do.

Have a plan and when you’ve built your skills, back yourself and your value as a manager so you can take the next step.

Get good advice and keep looking forward – the opportunities are there.