Four years ago Ben Haley put a note up on a Timaru supermarket notice board looking for work as hours at his builder’s labourer job wound down. Large scale sharemilker John O’Connell saw the advert on his way to squash one evening and decided to give the then 20-year-old a go.

It turned out to be a great decision for both. Ben is now 2IC on John and Michelle O’Connell’s 1200-cow sharemilking job near Ashburton and was this year’s runner up to the national dairy trainee of the year title in the New Zealand Dairy Industry Awards.

The 24-year-old won the Canterbury/North Otago title and says the chance to rub shoulders with other award winners at the national competition was a highlight.

“We were all from slightly different walks of life but shared a common interest in dairy farming. They were a great group of people and the experience was really worthwhile. I was rapt to get runner up.”

Before his chance foray into dairy farming Ben had tried his hand at numerous jobs but they all had one thing in common – they were based outdoors. Although he’s a Kiwi through and through, he spent several of his school years in Australia and started his working life there too.

He’s worked as a fencing contractor, a labourer, worked on a ski field and spent 14-months working on a cattle station near Alice Springs.

“It was half a million acres but up there that’s not considered really big.”

On a trip back to New Zealand he met his now fiancée Olivia Bain and the heart strings pulled him back permanently.

Ben says he hasn’t looked back since he took the job with the O’Connells which initially was on a smaller, 750-cow job near Temuka. That farm was owned by the New Zealand Rural Property Trust and its parent company Rural Equities and when the couple took on a larger job on a new conversion for the same group Ben went with them.

This season he’s made the step up to 2IC and is aiming to be a farm manager within four years.

“The opportunities are huge really in dairying. There’s so much room to move if you want to build a career.

“I’m really fortunate here with John that I do have these opportunities. There’s still a lot for me to learn and the position I’m in now I can learn a lot of the skills I’ll need to get into more of a management position.”

Ben’s already completed level three Primary ITO and is starting on level four.

As well as learning new skills he’s also working on honing his expertise in the areas he has responsibility for now.

“It’s about getting better and more skilled at what I’m doing.”

He now has two staff he’s responsible for although he says there’s a team approach without too much focus on hierarchy.

John and Michelle are fantastic examples of what’s possible, Ben says, with the couple now owning a 400-cow farm near Mayfield – where they have a manager – as well as operating the 1200-cow sharemilking job.

“John’s really open – he’s been an absolute role model.”

Ben says he and John think similarly and John’s encouraged Ben to take up all the training opportunities he can.

Being able to work on a quality conversion too had been an advantage.

The NZ Rural Property Trust had invested in infrastructure and technology to support sustainability such as variable-rate irrigation on pivot irrigators and an effluent system that allowed valuable nutrients to be spread through the pivot irrigation at a low rate.

A lot of effort has also gone into planting natives around the boundaries and now internally within the farm.

The milking platform totals close to 300 hectares with the farm also including up to 80ha of support land where milking supplement and some winter crop is grown.

Ben says the aim is to feed cows as much high quality pasture as possible with supplement coming in the form of barley fed in the 60-bail rotary farm dairy which is fitted with Protrack and automatic cup removers.

They also feed whole crop silage, grown as part of the cropping rotation on the support area. This season’s budget is for 510,000kg milksolids (MS) using about 400kg drymatter (DM)/cow of supplement.

As the milking season gets underway Ben’s feeling positive about the challenges and opportunities ahead, relishing the best outdoor-based career he’s come across yet.