O'Neills lock into dairy

The winners of the Canterbury/North Otago New Zealand Dairy Industry Awards were announced on March 4. This week David Hill talks to sharemilker/equity farmer award winners Kevin and Sara O'Neill.

Culverden farms have finished first and second in the region's sharemilker/equity farmer award.

Kevin and Sara O'Neill took top honours, and James and Ceri Bourke finished second in the annual dairy industry awards, announced last month.

The O'Neills have only been farming for two and a-half years and were first-time entrants.

''We entered for personal development. It was something we heard was not a very likely outcome, winning first time up, so we are very chuffed,'' Mr O'Neill said.

Mr O'Neill made a name for himself on the rugby field. The giant 2.01m-tall lock spent three seasons each with the Crusaders and Chiefs and came off the bench for the All Blacks in their loss to the Springboks in Dunedin in 2008.

''I was in the All Blacks squad for a while, but my opportunities were cut short through injuries. I was very proud to get the one game, but it was very disappointing to lose.''

At the time, it was the All Blacks' first loss on home soil in 10 years.

Mr O'Neill finished his playing days with the Rebels in Melbourne in 2011 before going dairying.

The couple settled in Culverden, North Canterbury, when they were offered the opportunity by Mrs O'Neill's parents David and Fizz Rutherford to enter into an equity partnership with her brother and sister.

They now manage 1190 cows on a 340ha farm, which is part of a larger company milking 2900 cows.

''It was a massive opportunity, far too good to turn down. We were living overseas, but we came back and got stuck in,'' Mr O'Neill said.

Mr O'Neill grew up on a 300-cow farm in Thames Valley, before studying at Lincoln University. Mrs O'Neill grew on a sheep and beef farm, which has since been converted to dairying, before studying at Lincoln University and working as a valuer.

The O'Neills produced 523,000kg of milk solids last year with 1135 cows, at 465kg of milk solids per cow, and were on target to pass 589,000kg of milk solids this season, 500kg of milk solids per cow.

The couple have two children, daughter Georgie (2) and son Sam (1). Both already had rugby balls and gumboots, Mr O'Neill said.

''Georgie is pretty keen to come out and help Dad. ''I always had aspirations to go farming as well as rugby. It is a great environment to bring up kids and the opportunities in dairy farming are far greater at this point in time. But it is something we are not taking for granted.''

Mr O'Neill said he had been getting some tips from Oxford sharemilker and 2012 national winner Enda Hawe as he prepared to go for top honours.

The Bourkes were in their second season as equity sharemilkers on a 520ha farm at Culverden, with a 280ha milking platform and 240ha for winter grazing and run-off, milking 1150 cows.

The couple have three children and were second-time entrants in the awards.

Ashburton sharemilker Liam Kelly was third.