Goal setting, fairly ruthless cutting of ‘nice to haves’ from spending, and seizing chances to reach out to professionals and those who have ‘been-there, done that’ have seen a couple from the UK build a herd of 650 cows and start a top sharemilking role.
Back in 2013, Tom and Ruth Jeyes had marked their seventh year dairy farming on a 38ha lease farm in Staffordshire, England. The lease was up for renewal, and Ruth said they made a decision that seemed “completely crazy” to some of their family members and friends. It wouldn’t be their last.
They’d never even visited New Zealand on holiday but decided to give notice on the tenancy and move across the world with their two children in the hope of continuing their dairy farming career.
“We thought ‘if we don’t do it now, we’ll never do it,” Ruth says. “My thinking is that visiting on holiday first was no advantage. Everywhere is nice on holiday because you don’t have to worry about work, where the kids might go to school and so on. If we came on holiday, of course we’d love it.”
They’d learnt about about New Zealand farming systems from LIC-run UK discussion groups, research NZ online and that was enough.
“We sent our CVs to a recruitment company [in NZ] and got a reply within 24 hours saying ‘can you come out next week?’.”
Well, not quite. They had to give a year’s notice on the lease farm for a start, sell their cows and get a work visa.
Nevertheless, in April 2014 Tom, Ruth, Thomas (now 16) and Annabel (now 14) arrived in Tirau in the Waikato with $10,000 in the bank for Tom to start work as an assistant herd manager for a contract milker.
They’d googled Tirau back in the UK and pretty much found a lot of images of tin dogs and shepherds, but Ruth says they came to love the place.
“New Zealand felt like home from the moment we landed.
“Tirau is close enough to Tauranga for the beaches, and you’ve got Taupo and Rotorua down the road a bit. Coming from running a lease farm with no days off to having every other weekend off, and 24 days holiday a year, we kind of thought ‘what are we going to do with this time?’.”
By June that year Ruth had started work as a calf rearer and part-time farm assistant.
Three other early decisions were to kick-start their career progression. At the suggestion of a family friend they linked up with Tokoroa couple Nick and Bec Simmonds, who became mentors and a great source of advice and encouragement. The Simmonds had come over to New Zealand more than a decade earlier and had just purchased their first farm.
“They told us ‘you won’t believe the opportunities over here if you work hard’,” Ruth recalls.
One of their suggestions was that Ruth enrol for Primary ITO Level 5 Agribusiness training. She also got involved with the Dairy Women’s Network and their mantra of goal setting and ‘know where you’re heading and plan how to get there” resonated with the Jeyes.
“I still have my vision board up on a wall,” Ruth says.
The goal was to work their way up to sharemilking. They started saving and planning for a contract milking job.
Tom was promoted to farm manager in June 2015, the same month the couple travelled to the South Island to meet another mentor, Tom Heneghan. Ruth said his advice, and other tips they gleaned from Federated Farmers meetings and their bank manager, strengthened their resolve to be as prepared as possible for a contract milking opportunity.
And it came in October 2015. The contract milker on the farm where they were working wanted to head south at the end of the season. The role was theirs, with a June 2016 start.
Thanks for forward planning and determination, the Jeyes were ready. They’d been putting Ruth’s wages straight into savings and by buying second-handed equipment – “there are always bargains to be had,” Ruth says – they were able to take on the 735 cow contract milking role with an overdraft, but no additional borrowing.
In September that year they purchased their first stock in New Zealand – 60 AB heifer calves – and bought 65 more four months later.
Ruth’s ITO course qualified her for a couple of free sessions with a business advisor and while he didn’t know that much about dairy farming “it was a useful opportunity to talk things through with someone from outside the business”. Getting alongside a bank manager who was “on the same wavelength as us, an enthusiast for owning stock”, also helped focus their planning.
“In February 2017 we made the slightly crazy decision to try and go sharemilking with our heifers and grow them instead of selling them. Everyone wants to take on sharemilkers who have lots of heifers, right??! But we thought we’d give it a shot.”
By now it was 2018, they’d purchased 70 more heifer calves, had sent out CVs, networked and “saved, saved and saved some more” and had a detailed budget and business plan for the bank thanks to ITO business planning module.
In March that year the Jeyes signed up for a 300 cow sharemilking job near Ngatea on the Hauraki Plains for Noel and Annette Fox, purchasing cows with bank finance confirmed. In the second year they upped numbers to 330.
There have been some very dry seasons and the drought in December 2019 was really tough.
The couple said Federated Farmers, and particularly elected leader Ben Moore in the Waikato, were “pretty amazing.
“We knew Ben from our Tirau days and he found silage and feed from other areas.
“Thankfully, we were able to move some cows off to lease in December to a trusted friend who had grass instead of culling to reduce pressure on farm, and still retain ownership of the cows.”
Throughout 2020 the Jeyes explored new sharemilking opportunities and had six interviews, but decided none of them were quite right.
Then in August last year they heard through their stock agent about a sharemilking role for David, Wendy and Jack Fagan. After an interview with Sir David – yes, the five times world shearing champion – they took up his job offer.
They (were) are able to finance and stock the new 650 cow job through rearing extra heifers, and leasing out stock to trusted friends and contacts, so in the end they only needed to purchase 200 additional cows.
The Jeyes are loving the Kiwi way of life, and our way of farming. Thomas, who now works with his parents on their sharemilking job, and Annabel enjoying showing their jersey cows and youngstock (their herd name is Manor Jerseys), and those show trips tend to become the family holidays. At Dairy Event 2022 Thomas won Jersey NZ’s Junior (members under 30) Judging competition – his first time entering. They were both in the ribbons with their stock at Dairy Event.
Unlike in the UK, where feeding out and other tasks were pretty much round the clock, here their afternoons – after they went once a day milking in January – are relatively free and they’re often at the beach.
Looking back, Ruth acknowledges part of their success may be down to being in the right place at the right time.
“But we’ve also worked hard to make sure we’ve got a good reputation and I think you’ve got to be determined, and to have a forward plan, to create those opportunities for yourself.”