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A volunteer adding value

Northland sharemilker Sheila Russell likes making a difference as a volunteer. Glenys Christian reports.

The adage that if you want to get a job done you should ask a busy person is certainly correct when it comes to Tomarata sharemilker, Sheila Russell.

Not only is she the co-convener for the lower Northland Dairy Womens’ Network (DWN), she’s also been chair of trustees for Tomarata School, attended by her two children George, 8 and Ellie, 6 since the start of the year.

“I’m a very good volunteer,” she says.

“I’m passionate about making a difference.”

She found a weekend governance course for new board chairs she recently attended was very useful, having only been on the board of trustees since the previous May. Her step up to the top job came when the previous chairperson’s children left for high school.

“We’re mainly new members and we have a lot to learn but I love it,” she says.

Before taking on this position she was involved in the Tomarata Playcentre for six years, becoming treasurer then president for the last two. She retains this connection through being financial adviser to 12 playcentres from Auckland north and recently seeing them through a change of accounting software.

And she’s also an enthusiast member of the Wellsford Camera Club.

‘This year we’ve used Belted Galloways over some of the heifers because they will make more money than bobby calves.’

Originally from the United Kingdom, she grew up in Carlisle, an area surrounded by dairy farms. But she’d had little connection with the industry.

She completed a degree in geography straight from school, then had various jobs.

“But it was when I was working as a business analyst in a large office in Bolton that I realised I couldn’t imagine spending the rest of my life doing this,” she says.

So she set off on her OE, coming to New Zealand in 1999, in part to catch up with two aunts who live in the South Island.

“I thought I’d like to come back,” she says.

Back in the UK she did a post-graduate course in education and teacher training in Lancaster.  She then lived in London teaching for three years before moving to New Zealand in 2005, where she found work in Thames, teaching social studies and geography for another three years.

During her time there she met husband-to-be Geoff, who is also English. He was farming in an equity partnership in the Karangahake Gorge after first finding an un-anticipated dairying position on the Hauraki Plains. They married in 2008 then moved north to Tomarata when the equity partnership bought a 115-hectare effective property there, milking 280 cows.

Sheila Russell on the Tomarata farm where she and husband, Geoff, sharemilk 440 cows.

They stayed in the partnership until 2014 when the farm sold to a neighbour and continued as sharemilkers.  Over the last three years they’ve grown in area, taking on a shared adjoining lease block and gaining a 100ha block of the owners’ neighbouring farm as part of the farm from June 2016. They’re now milking 440 cows on an effective 190ha and raise all young stock on the support land. Last year they also raised 30 beef calves to supplement their income.

“We will probably end up with a herd of around 480 cows and will graze the rising two-year-olds off the milking platform when we reach this level,” she says.

They employ two full-time staff who live onfarm.

Last season the herd, with a Breeding Worth of 65/41, Production Worth of 85/49 and 96% recorded ancestry produced 145,368kg of milksolids (MS), with the target for this season now firmly set at 155,000kg.

“The herd we started with in 2008 was Jersey but we have bred to KiwiCross using LIC Premier Sires for the last two seasons,” she says.

While Geoff is a trained AI technician and used to carry out the role onfarm the small difference in cost now doesn’t make it worthwhile, Sheila says. Mating runs from the last week of September for four to five weeks then bulls leased from their neighbour will go out. A range of breeds have been used such as Shorthorn, Simmental and Angus.

“And this year we’ve used Belted Galloways over some of the heifers because they will make more money than bobby calves,” she says.

Also for the first time this year they will have their 50 best heifers synchronised and mated at the same time in order to increase the herd’s BW as they add to cow numbers. Calving is from July 6, put back a week because of soggy conditions onfarm last year.

“It’s so wet here in mid-July and has been even wetter this year,” she says.

The calves are reared in calf sheds then transferred to a barn with a calfeteria and a paddock they can go out on to any time they like. They then move to a support block of 71ha, with all young stock coming back to the home farm every six weeks to be weighed.

The 36-aside herringbone had an in-dairy feeding system installed two years ago where they feed palm kernel, which is now being increasingly replaced by soya bean hull.

“We’ll see how it goes because we need to feed supplements to get over any drought,” Sheila says.

Last year’s maize silage is still in the stack ready for feed gaps this season and they also usually buy in about 30 big bales of hay. They’re growing 18 hectares of chicory this year, the third time the crop has gone in. Maize is also grown on six hectares.

It was a calf-rearing module held in Whangarei which first saw Sheila get involved with DWN and she was quickly asked whether she would take on a convener role locally as the organisation had no on the ground presence there. She and Pia Rockell became co-coveners and with Pia moving to Taranaki at the start of this season Carla Preston has now taken her place.

“It’s early days and we’re still trying to establish ourselves,” Sheila says.

“But we’ve had good attendance at events we’ve put on.”

That’s included 24 women drawn from a wide area from Tapora on the west coast through to Matakana in the south and Paparoa in the north, coming along to a calf-rearing workshop held recently.

“We’d like to have more as well as a social event post-calving,” she says.

They held a golf day in May and regular social gatherings are also being planned along with a first aid course.

Sheila’s attended national training sessions and DWN’s national conference over the last year which she said were “really inspiring and accessible”.

“They make you think about the contribution that dairying women are making and can make,” she says.

“There are lots of people in the same boat.”

Now after attending the school trustee governance course she’s become interested in what else she can do to further her community participation. She’s looking at the Agri-Women’s Development Trust Escalator course and says she would definitely like to take part in the Fonterra Governance Development Programme at some stage in the future.

“I’m finding my place in the industry because I decided I don’t want to be a teacher again,” she says.

“You get back what you put in, as with most things in life.”