Jackie Harrigan

When Renee Howard finished her degree in agriscience she decided to get a job on a farm for experience because she kept missing out on industry jobs.

But the 24-year-old farm manager enjoyed it so much she decided onfarm was where she wanted to stay.

Now the winner of the Manawatu dairy manager award is a sole-charge farm manager and a home-owner, and is busy planning the next steps into farm ownership with husband Benjamin.

After learning the dairy ropes for three years with Andrew Hoggard at Kiwitea, briefly as farm assistant and then herd manager, she is now learning the vagaries of a split-calving winter-milking hill farm on the clay hills of Sanson, where the challenges are plenty and the systems markedly different.

Luckily her new boss, Andy Short lives just along the road and runs the 97-hectare support block that is farmed in conjunction with the milking platform.

“He is very supportive and happy to guide and help out – I am learning heaps.”

The cows are wintered on the support block, and most of the calves reared there. Renee rears 130 calves in the spring on the milking platform (including 20 for herself) and 70 in the autumn. But Andy taking Renee’s lower-producing cows that are drying themselves off on the support farm gives her a chance to build up feed for the next calving.

“Having no spring calvers in the herd by mid-April means a lot of chopping and changing around but it’s an efficient system and it gives me a good month to build up feed for the winter.”

The clay soils can get wet in winter, and need careful management, so she uses the bare turnip paddock as a sacrifice area but the upside of having hills means there is usually somewhere dry for the cows to sit.

Renee is very mindful of having happy contented cows – that’s what she really enjoys about farming, along with the challenge of getting the most out of her pastures and getting involved in the wider decisions around fertilisers and pastures.

She has 170 spring-calving cows starting on July 20 and 160 autumn-calvers starting on February 20. They all calve on the support farm under Andy’s watch and are trucked to the Sanson farm when they are out of colostrum.

The hills at Sanson are short and sharp and require active and vigilant pasture management to ensure they are controlled, as topping on the tractor is not an option. Accurately measuring drymatter is tricky so Renee is learning to base her decisions on leaf stage, grazing intervals and post-grazing residuals.

She can truck in a few dry cows from Andy’s support block if she needs to, to do some clean up, but she relishes the challenge of monitoring the pastures and ensuring she gets the cows to do the best they can.

The split-calving can work to her advantage too – allowing her to put cows on OAD while drying off and using them to eat out the paddocks.

Andy uses an all-natural mating policy to keep things simple so the bulls on the farm for mating can also be used as clean-up crew if needed.

Hereford Ezicalve yearling bulls are bought in each year so they don’t get too big for the Friesian and Friesian cross herd and while it’s new for Renee to have them all in the herd during mating, she says they are pretty well behaved.

“We have never had a problem with the Herefords, they are really quiet. And not having to pick cows for AI gives me more time to concentrate on the calves as well as make sure the bulls are managed well by rotating them and swapping them out.”

Producing beef calves for sale and buying in replacement heifers has the double effect of increasing stock sales income but also lifting BW.

“We contract replacements off a farm with well-bred cows, with 24 coming in this spring.”

If spring calvers miss getting in calf, they are milked in the calf rearing mob and given another shot in the autumn, which cuts wastage from the herd, Renee says.

While the cows have been producing 375-400kg milksolids (MS)/cow, not all of that has been for supply as lots of it goes into the calves. Before Renee arrived production in the vat was 94,000kg MS and she is on target to do 100,000kg MS this season through improvements to pasture management and cow health.

Lameness has been a problem, so she has a programme to work on the races to the shed.

Next season the target is 105,000kg MS.

Winning the livestock award and financial management awards in the DIA have been great for her self-confidence, which she says was lacking.

But what she lacks in confidence she makes up for in financial planning and financial management ability, judging by the fact she and Benjamin, a dairy service technician, have been home owners in Feilding for the past three years. After getting together a deposit and paying down the mortgage they have saved up and worked on renovating most of the house. While their friends joke they don’t have a life, the couple understand the importance and power of understanding and working on their financial position.

“If you don’t have a plan you are not going to get anywhere – when we started to get into understanding our finances and saving we found out that the little things you do can influence your future massively.”

The house forms part of their financial plan to move to Benjamin’s Bay of Plenty family farm within the next five years and work there and buy into the business as equity partners.

The couple have been working with the family for a couple of years to plan for succession and a seamless transition into ownership of the farming company.

Renee’s relief milker, Sharon Clarke, enables her to get a three-day weekend every second week, and she enjoys spending her time off with her husband, friends and family. Alongside house renovating, baking and decorating cakes provides a relaxing and creative outlet and she watches and plays sport – mainly cricket and soccer.

She is also a member of the Marton Young Farmers Club, Federated Farmers and the Dairy Women’s Network.


Naylor Lawrence and Associates Most Promising Entrant Award, Fonterra Dairy Management Award – Zoe Reichardt

Fitzherbert Rowe Employee Engagement Award – Christian Simons

Tailorednz Ltd Leadership Award, Hopkins Farming Group Feed Management Award, PrimaryITO Power Play Award – Paul Mercer

DeLaval Livestock Management Award, Westpac Personal Planning and Financial Management Award – Renee Howard