Words by Jackie Harrigan, photo by Brad Hanson

Maintaining a low somatic cell count in the top 5% of the country for Fonterra helped win Leon McDonald the Fonterra Dairy Management merit award and take out the 2021 Hawkes Bay/Wairarapa Dairy Manager of the Year award. Leon has entered the Awards three times previously, was runner-up in the 2020 Hawkes Bay/Wairarapa Dairy Manager category and says the process gave him the chance to meet people in the industry outside of his usual circle.
“The most important benefit I have received is the boost to my confidence in not just my farming knowledge but also my ability to speak publicly.”
Leon is Assistant Manager/2IC on Barry and Carol McNeil’s 150ha, 450-cow Papatawa property north of Woodville.
“I love what I do. I love the animals, getting out on the farm and being surrounded by nature.”
“You can’t beat getting the cows in on a morning where the sun is rising behind the hill and the light is reflecting off the grass covered in dew.”
Leon and his wife Haylee have been working and living on the same Woodville property for the past three years and value the stability it brings for their two sons, Jackson, 5 and Brody, 3 who is autistic.
“We are keen to stay here as we are settled and we have good work conditions and great family support.” (Haylee’s parents live handy to Jackson’s school in Ashhurst.) However, in five years time they will look for different jobs in the area, and hope to be able to buy some land and rear calves for themselves in the meantime.

Employee engagement

Leon also won the employee engagement award, for his work with farm assistant Peter Skinner who is an apprentice under the Federated Farmers apprenticeship scheme.
Leon says it’s important to take time to talk Peter through the jobs and why they are doing them and to keep him up with what is going on on the farm.
“I think it’s good to take time to teach him rather than taking over his job if he does something wrong – it’s important to take time so he knows how to do it properly – 100% it would probably be faster to do it myself – but then how would he learn?”
“I also like to chat to him about what is going on in his life – to make sure he is eating properly and drinking lots of water in the busy calving period.”
He is also really proud of the dairy management award that he has won for the second year in a row. The main reason for winning it is that the herd has been grade free for as long as sharemilker Nick Bertram has been on the farm and Leon is very proud of their record.
“It’s all about monitoring everything – we have to keep an eye on the milk docket; check the somatic cell count (SCC) and bactoscan, check that the wash has been done consistently everytime and after each herd test (four times each year) we use the information to identify cows that need treating or monitoring.”
The team’s herd test results policy gives each cow three chances over her lifetime – if her SCC rises over 1 million three times, then she is culled.
The results at the end of the season also inform the drying off treatment the cows receive, Leon explained.
If the SCC is over 500,000 the cow gets a long acting dry cow therapy at dryoff, anything with a herd test result between 150,000 and 500,000 and that has had a case of mastitis that season or is over 7 years old gets normal dry cow therapy and everything gets teat sealed, including the heifers.
The attention to detail has meant the herd SCC averaged 94,019 for the 2018/19 season, in the top 9% for lowest SCC in the country for Fonterra suppliers and the team managed to lower it to average 85,527 for the 2019/20 season – putting them in the top 5% for lowest SCC.

Striving to be the best

Leon sets high targets for himself to ensure he is always growing and developing into the best farmer he can be.
“During times where I’m out for long hours, there are days that I don’t see my children,” he says.
“However, being able to give them the amazing opportunity to grow up on a farm and witness their love for it keeps me going. I’m lucky to have an amazing wife who runs a tight ship.”
The herd are milked twice a day (TAD) from calving in late July through to 20 January when they move to 16 hours milkings at 5am, 7pm and 11am which Leon says allows him more time off to spend with his children and help with the school and kindergarten runs. From March 31 the herd will move onto once a day (OAD) until dry off.
“My plan for the future is to ensure that I am in a position where I am happy and challenged and my family is settled and secure.”

Hawkes Bay/ Wairarapa Dairy Manager Merit Awards

Hawkes Bay/Wairarapa DIA Most Promising Entrant Award – Claire Douglas
AMR Group Ltd Employee Engagement Award – Leon McDonald
ADM.NZ Leadership Award – Damon Ashworth
Vet Services Feed Management Award – Claire Douglas
DeLaval Livestock Management Award – Claire Douglas
Fonterra Dairy Management Award – Leon McDonald
NZDIA Power Play Award – René ten Bolscher
Westpac Financial Management & Planning Award – René ten Bolscher