Not many people would move nearly 8,000 miles away to work on a dairy farm.
But this past year, Nathan and Harlee Thorpe left friends and family behind in southwest Missouri when they moved to New Zealand for Grasslands Group, a rotational grazing dairy with operations in Missouri and New Zealand.
“We were presented the opportunity in July,” Nathan says, “and needed to make a decision by December. We decided in two weeks that we would go.”
According to Nathan, it was the easiest decision he and Harlee ever made. He says they realized the opportunity would increase their knowledge of the dairy industry by seeing the other side of the business in New Zealand.
“How could you pass that up?” Harlee asks.
Grasslands has sent several people to New Zealand over the past nine years, says Gareth van der Heyden, chief executive of Grasslands Consultants.
“We encourage it if they want to go,” Gareth says. “It provides opportunities and life experience, and it allows knowledge sharing between Missouri and New Zealand. We focus on people, pride and performance.”
The pasture-based dairy is a still-evolving system, Nathan says. He wanted to see what information he could bring back to help the dairies in Missouri.
“There is a lot of support for the New Zealand dairy industry,” Nathan points out.
Nathan adds that there were dairy industry discussions and seminars which helped support the growth of his knowledge.
While in New Zealand, Nathan managed a Grasslands dairy farm and supervised three employees. On his first day, he was provided with a budget to run the farm.
Nathan did a great job managing both the budget and day-to-day operations, Gareth says.
“I learned a lot more about finance,” Nathan says. “I was held accountable for all the money I spent. I was basically training to run my own business. I thought I knew dairy farming, but I saw I had a lot to learn. “I was also in charge of making sure the cows were taken care of and my people were safe, learning and growing,” Nathan explains. “The farm manager does it all — feeding, calving, milking, everything.”
In a grassfed dairy, Nathan says one of the benefits of his year in New Zealand was learning about pasture management.
“It was one of my biggest challenges,” Nathan explains. “Pasture management is a science to be profitable. My pasture management knowledge probably doubled.”
Gareth says the company has 11,000 acres in Missouri and milks 6,500 cows. In New Zealand, the company has approximately 7,000 cows milked through eight facilities.
“In New Zealand, I was managing a larger-sized herd,” Nathan explains.
In the Missouri, Grasslands milks through 11 facilities. Five of these are “sharemilked” dairies. The other six are managed farms. Sharemilking allows an individual to provide the cattle, equipment and labor for the dairy while Grasslands provides the land and facilities. Income and costs are shared approximately 50-50.
“We have imported knowledge from New Zealand and combined that with knowledge learned from local Missouri farmers and universities,” Gareth says. “We have based our Missouri system on the New Zealand pasture-based system, and we have adapted it to the Missouri environment.”
Nathan explains the climate in New Zealand is mild compared to southwest Missouri’s harsher weather, adding challenges to adapting the system.
“The system is still evolving in Missouri,” Nathan says. “New Zealand has had more time to figure it out.
“It’s easier to plan in New Zealand,” Nathan continues. “We can’t do that here. You make a plan but you have to be prepared to change it the next day.”
Gareth explains that cattle produce 9,500 pounds per cow per year. Gareth points out profitability is a key focus and turning grass into milk at the lowest cost per unit of production is central to high profit under their system.
“We grow and utilize as much grass as possible,” Gareth explains. “The biggest contributor to farm profit in a pastoral system is the amount of grass grown and grass consumed per acre. We have a target of 70 percent grass in the cow’s diet. In New Zealand, they’re on 90 percent grass and 10 percent supplement.”
To optimize pasture growth and quality, they use fertilizer and closely monitor grazing levels, Gareth says. They are adding pivot irrigation systems to reduce dry weather risk and grow more grass.
“We use no native grasses,” Gareth explains. “We have had a conversion process where we generally do two years of Roundup Ready corn and then plant primarily perennial ryegrass and fescue. A small portion will be planted with turnips and cereal crops to fill feed holes during the year.”
In the seasonal pasture-based system, the cows are outside 365 days per year, Gareth adds. All cows calve February through April so the grass supply is matched to feed demand and lactation. On average, the cows are dry for 50 days per year.
The cattle are artificially inseminated to bulls with grazing genetics. Jersey or Jersey-cross clean-up bulls are later put in with the cows for eight weeks.
Nathan was not the only one working on the dairy and learning about the New Zealand dairy industry.
His wife Harlee reared calves at the farm Nathan managed.
“She was going to school for nursing and knew nothing about dairy farming,” Nathan says.
“It was a substantial change for her to go around the world for dairy farming. She had never milked cows or raised calves.
“She raised 230 calves which had to be fed twice a day,” he adds.
Harlee says she enjoyed it because it allowed the couple to work together.
“I did some relief milking when they were short staffed or needed an extra hand,” Harlee says. “Ours was one of the first farms to wean calves and I only lost four.”
Nathan says it was a weight off his shoulders to be able to rely on her.
“It was good for our marriage,” Nathan says. “It was a hard decision to come back.”
Although it was a tough decision, the Thorpes are back in the U.S. Nathan is managing a Grasslands dairy farm near Granby, Mo., and Harlee plans to raise more calves, help milk, and eventually return to nursing school.
In the future, Nathan and Harlee plan to try contract milking for a couple seasons and then sharemilk with Grasslands or go out on their own.
“To go to New Zealand and see guys who started where we did who now own multiple farms helped us to see potential in the dairy industry,” Nathan says. “It opened our eyes.”
Attracting and retaining high-quality people, like Nathan and Harlee, and providing them with similar development opportunities is a key focus for Grasslands, Gareth says.