Words by Sheryl Haitana, photo by Emma McCarthy

The 2021 Waikato Share Farmers of the Year entered the dairy industry with minimum experience, but have achieved equity partnership in their 20s while also having four young children.
Reuben and Deb Connolly are 50/50 sharemilkers and 20% equity partners with Deb’s aunt and uncle, John and Fiona Worsnop.
Reuben’s childhood was spent on a sheep and beef farm in Otorohanga and he spent six years working as a block manager in the drystock industry after leaving school. Deb grew up on a dairy farm in Ohaupo and holds a Bachelor of Teaching (ECE) from Waikato University.
In 2013, they were given the opportunity to go 50/50 sharemilking for the Worsnops on a farm at Cambridge.
“They took a huge leap of faith and put their trust in us and we have tried to live up to this,” Deb says.
“It was a very steep learning curve, there were long hours, but we just got on and did it,” Reuben says.
They were able to get the money to go sharemilking with Reuben’s savings. Deb had won a scholarship for her degree so she came out of university with no debt. The couple were able to go to the bank and get approved for a loan.
Being sharemilkers in their first season, dairy farming was made possible by the support and sharing of knowledge in the dairy industry.
Their local DairyNZ discussion group was a huge help and farmers Janet and Richard Waswo were fantastic mentors and were hugely encouraging, they say.
Reuben, 29 and Deb, 28, have built their business up over the following eight years while having four daughters, Laura, 6, Vanessa, 4, Zoe, 3, and Isla, 1.
The couple say one of their strengths is they work well together.
“You have to support each other, it’s not always easy and you’ve got to have a good network of people around you,” Deb says.
Reuben’s father had a heart attack a few years ago and they talked to John and Fiona about selling the farm at Cambridge and buying in as equity partners on a bigger farm closer to the family farm.
“We wanted to be closer to Reuben’s father so we could help him, so we put a proposition to John and Fiona to go equity partners. ”
The land was cheaper in Otorohanga so they could get more land and milk more cows and it has worked out for all parties, Deb says.
“They could see the benefits and we made sure we are all on the same page and that it was fair to everyone.”
They lease the 320ha effectively off Reuben’s parents, which is a good support block for the dairy business.
“It was a win: win for everyone,” Deb says.

Breeding success

Woolly Farm Ltd north of Otorohanga, is a 110ha farm of mixed contour with some good flats, but challenging hills.
They milk 280 cows, which are mostly all wintered off on the runoff as the flats on the milking platform get quite wet in winter. During the milking season they are able to bring carryover cows down from the runoff to go behind the cows to keep good quality on the hill country.
The runoff allows them to run a closed herd which has become ever more important since Mycoplasma bovis.
They have 30 Hereford breeding cows which they use to breed bulls to tail off the end of mating.
They predominantly milk Friesian, and Friesian crossbreds cows, but have a few Jerseys, which they use to breed Jersey bulls to run over their heifers. They rear all the beef calves, including the Hereford and Friesian bulls as they try to minimise any bobby calves in their operation.
They turn a lot of their Friesian bulls into teasers which they use themselves and also sell.
They can also get more value out of their cull cows by sending them to the runoff and selling them at a better price when not everyone else is selling.
“Our dairy stock sales are almost double the average for the region in DairyBase, Deb says.
“One of the biggest advantages of the runoff is the fact that we can grow and care for our own replacement heifers and young stock. They always exceed targets and this is a real advantage for all parties, they have the best start possible coming into the herd.”
The hardest challenge for the pair since starting dairy farming has been the two low payouts – which was hard for dairy farmers around the country. The runoff has helped them diversify their income personally and also for the dairy business.
“Short-term we drastically cut our FWEs and long-term we changed our business strategy and diversified our income streams.
“This spreads and reduces our financial risks and allows us to take advantage of opportunities when they arise.”
They entered the Dairy Industry Awards last year after first encouraging their second in charge (2IC) Leah Connolly to enter in the Dairy Trainee category.
“We encouraged Leah to enter because we believe in her, and we learn a lot from her – she is a huge part of our operation,” Deb says.
“She was hesitant and said if she entered then we had to as well.”
Leah, who is Reuben’s cousin, came runner up in the Dairy Trainee category. Her twin sister Ruth is also dairy farming and won the Waikato Dairy Trainee this year (page 41).
Reuben and Deb were finalists last year and won the Federated Farmers Leadership merit award and it was Leah who encouraged them to have another go this year.
They learnt a lot from going through the award process last year. To get somebody from the outside to critique you and your business is so informative, the couple says.
“Entering last year was hugely helpful, both personally and professionally,” Reuben says.
“Entering the Share Farmer category last year meant we were able to closely examine our farming business and receive fantastic advice for our rounds of judging,” Deb says.
“It’s great to listen and learn from the critical feedback from professionals in the industry around areas we can improve and increase performance.”
Breeding is a big focus for their business, and Deb and Leah work closely together on breeding decisions, nominating all the cows to specific bulls.
They DNA tested the whole herd two years ago and ProTrack and Minda are two of their key tools.
Since buying their first herd, and then another herd when they moved to the bigger farm at Otorohanga they have been breeding toward better conformation and longevity.
They are really seeing their breeding gains coming through in their heifers now.
They were pleased to get a bull into the CRV catalogue this year, Connolly Car Shark. The bull calf was purchased from them in 2019 from a self-nominated dam and cow family and has since made the crossbred genomic team.
“We are really passionate about breeding, we like to know our cows,” Deb says.
“We were really excited to win the LIC Recording and Productivity Award.”
The couple won three other merit awards, including the Ecolab Farm Dairy Hygiene, Ravensdown Pasture Performance, and Westpac Business Performance awards.
The Connollys love farming because of the family lifestyle and their four young daughters also enjoy helping mum and dad on the farm.
“We have four little blonde girls who just love helping us on the farm. We want our children to love and respect the farm, the animals and the land just as much as we do.”
Future farming goals for Reuben and Deb include farm ownership. They would love to see the dairy farming and drystock industries unified.
“We’ve experienced both sides. There are many pressures facing all farming sectors and we believe we all need to stand together united.
“We strongly believe that New Zealand produces a high-quality product and we think the rest of New Zealand should be proud of all farmers.”
They have sold their current farm and are planning to lease it for one more season before they move on to their next opportunity.
They would be keen to find a new sharemilking position, lease or enter another equity partnership, they say.
“We want to stay around Otorohanga near the lease farm.”

Waikato Share Farmer Merit Awards:

DairyNZ Human Resources Award – Hillary and Rhudi Redelinghuys
Ecolab Farm Dairy Hygiene Award – Reuben and Deb Connolly
Federated Farmers Leadership Award – Denise Knop and Daniel Bradbury
Honda Farm Safety, Health & Biosecurity Award – Hillary and Rhudi Redelinghuys
LIC Recording and Productivity Award – Reuben and Deb Connolly
Meridian Farm Environment Award – Denise Knop and Daniel Bradbury
Ravensdown Pasture Performance Award – Reuben and Deb Connolly
Westpac Business Performance Award – Reuben and Deb Connolly