Kate Robinson

Brian Vergeest and Sheryl Hamilton believe they have the dream sharemilking job.

The couple milk 1050 cows on one of Southern Pastures’ (SP) farms, Manako, near Tokoroa. The farm is run by a sharemilking business with a unique structure. It is owned 50% by Brian and Sheryl, and 50% by SP. The couple are directors of the company, together with SP’s executive chairman Prem Maan and executive director Graham Mourie.

Manako is the largest of 10 SP South Waikato farms in production terms. The land was converted from forestry to dairy in 2008 by Carter Holt Harvey (CHH).

Manako has a gentle to rolling contour. Anything greater than 23 degrees has been retired by SP to active native regeneration.

Brian Vergeest and Sheryl Hamilton believe they have the dream sharemilking job.

Brian and Sheryl left a sharemilking job in nearby Lichfield to go 50:50 with CHH. Five years later, SP bought the farm, which at the time was milking 850 cows.

“We’ve always wanted to have a farm and we treat Manako like our own,” says Brian. “We enjoy the quality relationships with our business partners, and staff on farm. It has been extremely rewarding to see the farm develop into its current state.”

Born in Tokoroa, Brian’s father worked at the Kinleith Mill for 40 years. His mother’s family were farming and Brian spent many school holidays onfarm.

Brian started his working life on wages and worked his way up. He and Sheryl met in 2002. They raised enough capital to go sharemilking by leasing a herd for two years on a previous sharemilking position.

“Sharemilking is getting tougher and it’s a dying breed,” Brian says. “There are many young farmers who are fortunate to secure a 50:50 job through their family’s farm. But if you don’t have that opportunity, it’s a tough road to come up with the capital needed.

‘It was an advantage being with SP because they were in a position to back us during tough times. It was all about communication and making sure we were all on the same page.’

“Sheryl and I have worked hard to get where we are and we value the opportunity we have with SP.

“Not only are Graham and Prem our business partners, they are our mentors. They are highly professional and have great attention to detail. We meet a few times a year to go through business and operating plans, and Graham calls once a month. His farming knowledge and experience has been an incredible asset to us.”

The unique business structure on Manako also enabled SP to support Brian and Sheryl through low payout seasons.

“It was an advantage being with SP because they were in a position to back us during tough times. It was all about communication and making sure we were all on the same page,” Brian says.

The two parties share equally the ownership of the cows, plant and machinery, which Brian says makes things straight forward and easy to manage.

Production has been consistently increasing since SP bought the farm, with a target of 500,000kg milksolids (MS) set for this season.

With pasture harvested about 13,300kg drymatter (DM)/ha, Manako has repeatedly grown the most pasture of all SP’s South Waikato farms. The farm’s residuals typically sit at 1550-1600.

“Thanks to its location and altitude, Manako is summer-strong and has reliable summer rainfall,” Brian says. “It is also the oldest converted farm so we see other SP farms catching up to us over time.

“Like many farmers, we had a pretty tough, wet spring. But good infrastructure, like the feed pad, and the work we did on the races with Stock Rock, has paid dividends.”

Brian and Sheryl take a lot of pride in their herd. The predominantly crossbred stock are quiet and the couple enjoy walking through them and observing their personalities.

It is not surprising then that their commitment to animal health and welfare is second-to-none.

Brian Vergeest and some of his team on Manako farm. Brian Vergeest, Anurag Sharma – dairy assistant, Gurpreet Singh – herd manager, Pardeep Sharma – herd manager, Shailendra Sharma – 2IC. 

“Looking after our cows is just part of what we do and it’s that way on all SP farms,” Brian says. “We think housing animals is unnatural. We like to provide an environment where cows are grass-fed and free-ranging so they can live a more natural life.

“We’re extremely proactive around animal welfare. Not just treating animals well but setting up a system that ensures every animal has an opportunity to have a long, happy life. We target 500kgMS per cow so we ensure our cows are well fed 365 days of the year in order to achieve that.”

Brian and Sheryl support SP’s policy to phase out the use of palm kernel.

“Our PKE use is half of what it was when SP bought the farm and we’re slowly phasing it out,” Brian says. “We also make our own grass silage and buy in maize silage.

“Our feed pad means we can get more efficient feeding and less wastage than we would in the paddock. Our cows only spend about 30 minutes to one hour each day on the feed pad. It’s a great tool to use in the spring when things get muddy.”

Manako is going through testing its herd for BVD and Johnes to help remove the risk of sickness.

“It’s the smartest money we can spend because it prevents our cows suffering and saves us money in the long run.”

For drying off, Brian and Sheryl teat seal all incoming heifers and are looking to teat seal all cows under 150,000 SCC. They use dry cow therapy on all their high SCC cows.

“We strip one quarter on each cow every milking throughout the season,” Brian says. “If they show any signs of infection, we orange dot them, check them again and spray them.

“We’re using a lot less antibiotics and have had great success with peppermint spray as a preventative measure. The key thing is getting on to it early.”

All SP farms are moving towards the therapeutic use of antibiotics and getting out of bulk treatment, like blanket dry cow therapy.

Over the last few seasons, Brian and Sheryl have been working on shortening their calving spread and improving their in-calf rate.

Brian and Sheryl do 11 weeks of AI – five weeks with replacement semen and six weeks with short gestation semen. They use CIDRs, with K Mars used for heat detection. Bulls are only used for their R2s.

“Having a good number of staff gives us the resources to do a longer AI,” Brian says. “Identifying bulling cows was my job, but I’m now giving our staff an opportunity to develop their skills. It’s hard to let go because it’s an important time of the year, but our staff have really stepped up and done a great job.

“Our early PD scan indicates a successful result for this season. Final rechecks will be done at the end of February and we’re feeling confident we’ll hit single figures.”

Brian and Sheryl value their staff and work hard on training and upskilling. As a result, staff turn-over is low. Brian’s 2IC, Shailendra Sharma, has been with them for eight years. Herd manager Pardeep Sharma has worked for Brian and Sheryl for seven years.

“We’ve got good team morale and I think they all enjoy working here,” Brian says. “They’re working in a safe, clean environment and they show a lot of pride in the farm and what they do.”

Brian and Sheryl have weekly meetings with their staff and they all attend AgITO courses. All staff on Manako are migrants from Fiji and India.

“We have two with permanent residency and one in the process. Sheryl has done a lot of work with visa applications, but it’s worth it because our staff are settled and happy.

“We carry out regular performance appraisals with each of them and talk about where we’re heading and what they want to achieve. It’s not all about us.”

Brian and Sheryl are enjoying what they are doing but appreciate that all good things will one day come to an end.

“We have an exit strategy and timing in place,” Brian says. “We both see ourselves involved in the AgriBusiness sector continuing our relationship with Southern Pastures.”

Key facts

Farm name: Manako

Land owners: Southern Pastures

Sharemilkers: Brian Vergeest and Sheryl Hamilton 25%, Southern Pastures 25%

Location: Tokoroa

No. cows: 1050

Effective ha: 358

Production: 500,000 kg MS target for 2018/19 season

FWE: $4.20/kg MS

Farm dairy: 54 bale rotary, ACRs, Protrack drafting system

Staff: 6 FTEs

System: 3-4

Supplement bought: 500 tonnes of palm kernel. 580t maize silage

Crops: 29ha winter crops (kale and turnips), 71ha grass silage

Pasture harvested per ha: 13,300kg DM

Fertiliser: N 200 units/ha capped