Stickability saw a young South African succeed in his early foray into dairy, and now he’s on track in New Zealand dairy management. By Anne Hardie.

Coenraad Groenewald’s introduction to dairying was at a large indoor dairy farm in the United Kingdom and he was so horrified by the smell he refused to leave his accommodation for a week.

Now he is dairy manager of Pamu Farms of New Zealand’s Bell Hill dairy unit on the West Coast which calves 930 cows and aims for 320,000kg milksolids each season.

This is his third season on the farm and it has been a big year. He was runner-up in the region’s dairy manager category of the Dairy Industry Awards as well as scooping the Fonterra dairy management merit award and in the same week gained residency.

Looking back, that first week on an English dairy farm is a distant memory, but without it he may never have ended up in NZ’s dairy industry. He was 20 at the time, wanting a working holiday overseas and he took up a job as a milk harvester on a farm milking 1600 cows three times a day.

“I absolutely hated it – and the smell was the worst. We lived in a converted shipping container on the farm and I refused to come out of the container in the first week. I asked them how I could get back to London and get on a plane home.

“Then I heard someone say: ‘that guy is never going to make a dairy worker and might as well go’. And it was the kick in the bum I needed. I ended up the longest immigrant employee on that farm.”

On the job, he worked in shifts, cleaning the rubber mats used as cows’ bedding one shift, then milking the next shift. He got into a pattern where he worked every day for six months before taking a month’s break to head back home to South Africa or go to Europe. Then it was back to the dairy farm for another six-month stint.

For the next overseas working experience, he applied for jobs on NZ dairy farms and spent three months on a farm near Ngatea.

“The first day was a disaster. The farm was humped and hollowed and when I walked over to the dairy shed on my first day I went up to my chest in water in the hollow. I had no idea.”

It was a short-term job and he had no ambition to build a career in the dairy industry, so it was back to South Africa where he spent the next 12 years in administration, covering asset management and inventory management for the public sector. But he was not happy with the direction South Africa was heading. In NZ, he was not judged on his ethnicity and in 2016 he swapped his administration career for a dairy assistant job near Balclutha.

It was good timing because a dairy assistant was still on NZ immigration’s short-term skilled worker list. He applied for a two-year visa and somehow was granted 60 months, on the condition his employer, job title and location remained the same for that period.

A little later when he submitted an application to immigration to see if he could move to a farm further north in Otago to progress his career, he was told he would lose four years of his visa. Then a job came up on the neighbouring Landcorp farm which meant it was still South Otago and had the same job title, so he was able to change jobs and keep his five-year visa.

Having gone through that process, immigration changed the rules and immigrants could change employers and location – but introduced set pay rates. Now immigrants need to have a farm manager title and meet the skill level classification, with a pay rate for each level.

Then the Government introduced a residency scheme that would enable 168,000 immigrants to become residents, but they had to be on the skilled shortage list and have the right job title. To gain residency, Coenraad needed to have three-years’ experience as farm manager, New Zealand Certificate in Agriculture level 4 qualifications and earn the right money.

It spurred him on and he became a NZ resident in March, along with his partner, Jonathan Stark. It was the same week he won the Fonterra Dairy Management Award and gained second place overall in the West Coast-Top of the South Dairy Industry Awards, making it a big week on his calendar.

“Residency is a massive weight off your shoulders. It feels like you are on borrowed time when you have a work visa. You could be the best 2IC, but not the drive or ability to go to the next level and are screwed when it comes to immigration.”

Now, the labour shortage has led to the rules being changed again to include 2ICs in the road to residency. When friends contemplating work in NZ ask about the rules, he says he no longer knows because there have been so many changes. Coenraad knows people who have opted to head to Australia because they have given up waiting for residency in NZ. He says the immigration process in NZ has become so complicated to work through online, that people are now using immigration lawyers to deal with residency.

Coenraad now has two years before he can apply for permanent residency, with no conditions on his visa apart from the one requirement to be in the country on March 24.

His next challenge is seeking to break production records on the farm with his team of three. It is one of five farms in Pamu’s Weka complex near Lake Brunner and when a 2IC job was offered to him three years ago, the region’s weather reputation nearly put both of them off. He thought their stay would be relatively short.

“Now I can’t see us living anywhere else in the country. Love the people – friendliest people we have met in New Zealand and you feel like a local. When it rains, it pours. But otherwise, the sun shines.”

Stepping up from the 2IC role to manager was a huge challenge because 2ICs seldom have experience around financial planning and budgets. He is also involved in setting up the farm plan which includes making decisions that affect the environmental outcomes of the business.

Presentation is high on his list and he says he might not have huge dairy management experience yet, but he is aiming at having the cleanest, tidiest farm on the block. Even his ute is immaculate and if the farm is expecting visitors, he mows the grass verge along the entire boundary of the farm.

One aspect he takes pride in, is retaining staff. He admits he takes a close look at prospective employees’ social media because it tells a lot about most people nowadays.

“Social media is the new norm of referencing – it’s your social footprint. When I look at people on Facebook, I look at what is in the background – their house, their section. We provide accommodation here so you want to know how they are going to treat it.”

It takes time, but Coenraad says you want to employ the right people, you want them to stay and that is the best way to find out about people now.

Whenever he has looked at jobs, he has done similar checks on employers. He also contacts past and present employees, if possible, to make sure all bases are covered.

“They’re welcome to check potential employees out and I want to check them out.”

Coenraad is dairy manager team leader for the 2023 Dairy Industry Awards West Coast-Top of the South and as part of that, learnt about managing social media.

“You have to be careful what you put out there and the young ones forget and so do the old ones.”

Looking ahead, Coenraad has his eyes set on stepping up through the ranks within Pamu’s structure, overseeing more than one dairy unit. Due to the scale of the corporate’s portfolio, he says there are numerous career opportunities. In the meantime, he is working on his Diploma of Agribusiness and mentoring other dairy managers entering the Dairy Industry Awards in the West Coast-Top of the South region.