After a few years of moving around through a range of dairy roles, Matt Snedden and his wife Kortne want to settle down as a contract milker. Glenys Christian reports.
Matt Snedden has come a long way since winning the Northland Dairy Trainee of the Year title back in 2014.
The 24-year-old moved south to Helensville to take up a farm manager role for two years and now is into his first year of a three-year contract-milking position on Narbey Farms.
He and wife Kortne have bought a house in Warkworth with his parents and the couple are also expecting their first child next April.
“I don’t do town or neighbours,” he says.
“I always knew I was going to go farming but the only way to move forward was to get into dairying.”
His parents, who live on his grandparents’ 160 hectare sheep and beef farm out of Warkworth, work off-farm as a midwife and an electrician.
“So I saw how hard that farming is unless you’re on a larger scale,” he says.
He left school at 16 and went north to Whangarei to complete a six-month Ruraltech course then in 2011 went to work on a family friend’s 400-cow farm out of Te Awamutu. But he had to take time off for a knee reconstruction after a sports injury at 13 caused multiple dislocations.
Moving north he found a position working for wages on Mark Keskic’s farm, milking 280 cows. Then the next season he went further north to Kerikeri to Mike Deal and Michelle Shepherd’s farm running a herd of 520 cows where he had his Dairy Industry Award victory.
The following season he stayed in the north managing Clive Walden’s farm in the Bay of Islands.
‘What I do affects my income a lot more now so I put a bit more pressure on myself and the farm’s the better for it.’
“We milked 650 cows once-a-day and there was also some bull beef run as well as young stock,” he says.
During this time he’d completed Primary ITO courses up to Level 4 and is in the process of embarking on Level 5.
An advertisement caught his eye when he was wondering what his next move in the dairy industry would be, which was placed by Helensville farmer, Scott Narbey, who happened to be holidaying in the north at that time.
They met up and the next step was for Matt to go south and have a look at the farm, where Scott and wife Sue milk 400 cows twice-a-day until drying off. The big advantage he saw was the dairy which had only been built three years previously.
“It was well set-up with a lot of technology and all the bugs had been ironed out as everyone learned the new systems,” he says.
Matt had used Protrack before but was enthusiastic about the amount of new technology now at his fingertips which includes automatic cup removers, Protrack drafting, automatic teat spraying, heat detection and in-dairy feeding.
“It’s just about everything you can have without a robot,” he says.
“Scott was willing to put the money up to make life easier.”
After moving every year he and Kortne, who had completed her secondary teacher training at Auckland’s AUT, were happy to put down roots and look to the medium to long term.
“The area appealed because I knew it,” he says.
“It was close to town and there were multiple schools where Kortne could get a job.”
Six months after they arrived she obtained a position teaching maths at Mahurangi College, Warkworth, which they’d both attended and where they met.
To start with Scott took Matt on in a manager’s role, which they thought would last for one year but they agreed at the end of that time another year was more appropriate than him moving straight into a contract milking role. Scott employed both Matt and full-timer, Robbie Travers, who was working towards retirement. But now as contract milker Matt supplies staff in the form of full-time worker, Rory Rogerson, who lives onfarm.
“We met through Primary ITO courses and Scott knew his old boss who was moving to Kerikeri so it wasn’t quite a poaching situation,” he says.
Kortne used to do relief milking but now a youngster living locally comes in at weekends and a 15-year-old is also employed to carry out weed spraying. Being only a kilometre or so away from Helensville as well as close to a number of other settlements on Auckland’s fringes means it’s a good area from which to attract a wide range of staff.
Rory does most of the milkings with Matt helping out three or four times a week depending on what other work he has on. He will spend a couple of days a month on the Narbey Farms’ runoff at South Head where Scott’s father, Murray, lives. This 95ha is used to run calves and young stock and is also where 21ha of maize is grown as well as grass silage being cut.
He also occasionally helps out on Sue’s parents’ beef block at Waitoki which now takes more of Scott’s time.
“We still see each other every day and we keep communication open,” Matt says.
“If you take an ‘I’m the boss’ attitude you’re just going to butt heads. It’s different having the owner living onfarm and it holds you to higher standards. You do things properly because it’s going to be seen if you don’t.
“What I do affects my income a lot more now so I put a bit more pressure on myself and the farm’s the better for it.”
He has no hesitation in saying feed management is his favourite part of the job and running a DairyNZ System 4 to 5 operation there’s no shortage of attention required.
“I enjoy balancing everything but not so much when I don’t get it right,” he says.
About 300 to 320 tonnes of palm kernel has been used every year with some going into the in-dairy feeding system and some used on the feedpad. That’s balanced out with maize with 3ha grown on the home farm to supplement that coming from the runoff. About 580t of grass silage is cut from 38ha.
Matt’s been carefully monitoring Fonterra’s fat evaluation index (FEI) scores.
“In spring it was pretty nasty and we got to a C,” he says.
“It’s just going to have to be managed. We will probably feed the same amount through the year but vary what we’re feeding at any one time.”
From September 1 next year there will be demerits for FEI levels from C to E which means milk can’t be used in some processing options because of customer requirements.
One answer for Matt is to vary the dried distillers grain (DDG) and palm kernel mix usually fed in the dairy, by using kibbled barley or soya bean pellets which could add more cost.
He’s also looking closely at the farm’s pasture renovation programme. Last autumn 15ha was sprayed out and an annual and plantain mix sown which the cows will graze through until summer. While the strike rate wasn’t so good in some areas he says the new pasture is now pulling its weight.
“The plantain’s come into its own in the last round,” he says.
“At first the cows turned up their noses at it because it’s a bit bitter but it’s a lot hardier than chicory.”
Matt and Kortne’s end goal is most definitely farm ownership but they fully expect getting there to take some twists and turns.
“It will depend on what doors open,” he says.
With their equity in the Warkworth house they could look at 50:50 sharemilking positions.
“But the pathways are different to those of 20 years ago,” he says.
“With more corporate farms there’s a lot more permanent employee positions.”
They also have the opportunity to take over grazing on both their parents’ properties with Kortne’s having a sheep and beef trading operation on their small farm at Hunua, south of Auckland. To that end they hope to start raising their own calves next season or the one after.
Off farm Matt loves outdoor pursuits. He was a keen bow hunter put now prefers the rifle when hunting deer on some local farms or in the Ureweras. He fishes the Kaipara Harbour or else launches his boat from Muriwai in to the Tasman. He goes spearfishing on the east coast, scoring several snapper of more than 20 pounds and “a couple of nice kingies”.
Asked why he feels more young people don’t want to get involved in careers in agriculture he’s quick to name the hard work involved.
“It’s not a job you can come to just to eat your lunch.”
And he’s keen to play his role in turning perceptions around when Narbey Farms hosts school groups a couple of times every year and takes part in Fonterra’s Open The Gates initiative.
“You have a take a long-term view.”