Farming in NZ far cry from back home in India

Ashburton contract milker Jaspreet Singh wants to build on a strong start by buying another house...
Ashburton contract milker Jaspreet Singh wants to build on a strong start by buying another house and then picking up a sharemilking job, towards his end goal of owning a dairy farm one day. PHOTOS: TIM CRONSHAW
A Canterbury dairy manager has come a long way since tending a few cows for his family in India, Tim Cronshaw writes.

Dairy manager Jaspreet Singh used to help his family look after eight to 10 cows, never thinking one day he would be responsible for a 1400-plus cow herd near Mid Canterbury’s Ashburton.

Working in 40°C heat in his home country of India was a far cry from modern dairy farming in his new home.

He comes from a farming family whose main income earner is cropping cotton, rice and wheat with milking the small herd a self-contained business.

"I have a farming background back home with my father having some land and we also keep some cows by the home, which mainly just fills up the household needs and anything extra we just sell. It’s mainly a crop farm and we grow cotton."

Helping with the day-to-day work with his father and brother helped him come up to speed with farm life here.

After finishing school at 19 he came to New Zealand in 2012 to study a business management course and worked at a liquor store and kiwifruit farms in his spare time.

Friends working at Leeston dairy farms backed him for his first start in a dairy assistant role at a 1500-cow property.

The green irrigated pastures with a modern milking plant and the sheer size of the herd were an eye-opener.

Mr Singh still recalls looking on with amazement at the intelligence of the quick-learning cow herd.

"That was a pretty big surprise when I saw for the first time how many cows there were because that was a big step up for me. We aren’t used to that many cows and the first time I saw them I was impressed by how they trained so easily. We train the young cows and after the first couple of days they learn pretty quickly on how to go milking and how to get out of the road quickly. My first impression was how much common sense they had and how they adapted to the training and their life."

With only a one-year visa, he looked to extend this to three years so he could progress in the industry.

"I was lucky to have a job at that time and was looking for any job that could give me a three-year visa. I got that job as an assistant and never thought I would be farming for this long, but next year I got a herd manager job and got a farming pathway."

He spent two and a-half years at Rakaia Island, shifting to become second in charge (2IC) in Ashburton with 2000 cows before moving to Purata as 2IC in 2017.

This steady progression accelerated when he moved to Grasslands for his first manager role and he stayed there for four years before moving again to his current position at an Ashburton farm.

For the past two seasons he has been navigating the milk production for a 1415-cow herd as the farm manager.

Next season another big challenge lies ahead, as he is in negotiations to start contract milking at the farm.

This would take him out of his comfort zone, make him keep learning and get him closer to a big dream, he said.

"I have been managing the 1415 cows at the farm, so next year I will go contract milking, mainly because my ultimate goal is to buy a farm in New Zealand. That’s a good thing about New Zealand farming, that you can start pretty green with no experience and train to buy a farm. So the next step is to go contract milking and I’ve had good support from my employers, Farmright, and they are helping me achieve my pathway. That will be the right step because I already know how things work, how the cows farm and the dairy shed plus the pasture and everything, so it won’t be as hard as if I moved to another farm."

The step up includes looking after and paying staff wages in exchange for a cut in the milk earnings.

Canterbury/North Otago’s Dairy Manager of the Year Jaspreet Singh (centre) describes his first...
Canterbury/North Otago’s Dairy Manager of the Year Jaspreet Singh (centre) describes his first impressions arriving at a 1500-cow farm compared with his experiences in India.
As farm manager, he is in charge of six full-time staff and keeping them fully occupied. The staff roll swells by another two calf rearers in spring.

He is responsible for maximising grass potential and converting grass to milk as efficiently as possible at the property owned by NZSF Canterbury Farms.

The weekly routine includes managing the pasture, feed and stock as well as the effluent and fertiliser and ensuring shed maintenance and milk quality are up to standard.

Record keeping and administration come under his brief and he is also in charge of the farm’s environmental oversight and setting financial and feed budgets.

It is a big job and Mr Singh keeps on top of it by making sure his team members are on the same page.

Developing staff is close to his heart and good for business.

"I’ve always worked on big farms — historically on 1500-cow farms for a couple of years — and that’s actually helped me with managing the staff. With a big staff there’s experience between them and I have some that are experienced and inexperienced. One thing we have done pretty well is training and getting the staff effective for us. I try to make the staff fully trained and those staff that are, I let them train other staff. So we supply a lot of internal and external training so they know exactly what they have to do and that really helps."

He does not just pay lip service himself to training either, and has completed many qualifications in production management as well as courses in milk quality, effluent and irrigation.

The fully irrigated milk platform is on 382 hectares with seven centre pivots and a fixed grid on corners.

At the peak of milking the 1415 cows go through an 80-bale rotary shed with in-shed feeding, based on a planned start for calving on July 29.

As a System 2 farm, much of the feed is home-grown, topped up by 300 tonnes of grain brought in and 100 tonnes of grass silage at 400kg of dry matter a cow.

On the pastures about 16 tonnes of dry matter is grown per hectare and silage is made when there is surplus cover.

After treatment, effluent goes through the centre pivots over 110ha.

The herd is wintered off-farm for 65 days on fodder beet and straw.

One the farm’s strong points is that it is fully irrigated under a scheme always with water when needed and a back-up pond of storage water. A simple farm system with good infrastructure is to his liking, as are its high fertility soils.

Being so close to Ashburton is an asset, as the team can get away for shopping or entertainment and families have easy access to schools. Plenty of staff accommodation means everyone has their own base.

Challenges he must navigate include long walks because of the farm layout.

"The long walk was a big challenge and we probably have one of the longer walks of one hour for the cows. So I have to make sure the cows can walk this distance and for the young cows I make sure they walk the longest, but any older cows, cows historically with lameness or those who walk slow, I try to make sure they stay close to the shed. They take so much time for staff sometimes so just doing this helps. With a big team we make sure everyone is on the same page and go over this in shed meetings to get on top of this and we’ve got good technology we use to keep recording and make sure the staff keep communicating with the rest of the team."

Maintaining grass quality in large paddocks is another challenge and without a mower he needs to make sure paddock residuals are met all times after they have been grazed.

On a fully irrigated farm maintaining pasture quality could be difficult, so they used a couple of tools, he said.

"We hit pre-grazing and post-grazing targets so we are not leaving any grass behind, plus the staff know what pre-grazing and post-grazing we are getting because on a farm like this it’s not a single-person job. I’m not available to check every time so, again, staff training makes a big difference to make sure we are going in the right direction and meeting those targets every time."

This commitment to dairying won him the Canterbury-North Otago Dairy Manager of the Year title at the Dairy Industry Awards. Next month he will attend the national finals.

Canterbury-North Otago Dairy Trainee of the Year Monique Radford and Dairy Manager of the Year...
Canterbury-North Otago Dairy Trainee of the Year Monique Radford and Dairy Manager of the Year Jaspreet Singh at a field day celebrating regional winners in Southbridge.
The judges liked what they saw when they visited, praising him in particular for his high biosecurity and health and safety record and management decisions for the farm’s financial performance as well as running a "well-oiled" milking shed.

He finished third in the same category in 2021, winning three merit awards as a farm manager when he was on the Canterbury Grasslands 196ha, 730-cow property.

Mr Singh said he entered the awards again to push himself and try to make a name for himself.

He had a lot of good support around him and the awards helped increase this with like-minded dairy people, he said.

His advice for young dairying people considering entering future awards was to show the good and the bad and let the judges know how negatives could be turned to positives.

He said newcomers should back themselves as the benefits outweighed the effort of entering.

"I would say show the judges everything. Before I thought I would only show things you want to show them. This year I showed everything we have on the farm."

That included telling them about his herd, milk, pasture production and financial results as well as walking through the milk shed and talking about their system.

"That’s not always showing them the good things. Last year I had 21% empty [in the herd after mating] and how I came to develop that to 13-14% this year and I showed them what I did and I didn’t hide that and was very honest. I showed them everything, even the bad things. Tell them how you got through it, that’s the most important thing for the judges."

He said they made big improvements over the past year.

"Last year was my first season on that farm and on any farm when you take over in your first year you get things left over from the previous season plus the weather last year was not that good with not a good winter or good spring and that makes a big difference. We also had new guys here, but this year we started focusing on the drying-off condition earlier in autumn to make sure they are meeting the target and then we had a good winter with good weather too so we had enough grass in spring."

They doubled down on identifying non-cycling cows and putting them on once-a-day milking to get good weight on them so they could get in heat.

They were "really proud" when this paid off with their six-week in-calf rates improving from 62% last year to 75%, Mr Singh said.

To maintain staff morale, they offer staff flu vaccinations and health checks, make sure rosters are fair and if staff start early they finish early.

After Christmas when the work pressure eases off, he offers one or two-month breaks as many of their staff are migrants or from overseas and want to see the country or return home.

Staff are also rewarded with a bonus if the farm makes milk-quality targets.

Off the farm, he relaxes playing cricket for an Ashburton club and takes short holidays.

He married Ravneet Kaur in 2020, and they have bought a house in Rolleston which has been rented out. The plan is to buy a second house over the next three years and they’ve also sent money back to India to pay off debt and so his father can lease more land.

They had already built a house in India in 2016.

With both of them working on farms, they’re managing to save 60% to 70% of their incomes to achieve their wish list.

"The short-term goal is to start a family and the medium goal is buying another house and then look for a 50:50 [sharemilking position]. Someone asked me how success looked and success for us is if we are happy and the cows are happy and if you’re family is happy — that’s how we measure success."

He has returned home a few times and his parents have visited him here — also blown away by the scale of modern dairying, efficiency of irrigated farming and how farmers here look after the environment.

Another trip lies in the waiting — it will be the first time he and his wife visit his home in north India — either next year or the year after that.