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Posted January 2002

“I must say it was the hardest I’ve ever worked for free, but somehow I really didn’t mind. I knew that the knowledge I gained was priceless.”

Those are the words of Mike Tomandl who recently completed a dairy farm internship in New Zealand. He and fellow intern Joe Heimerl went to New Zealand in July and August 2001. Prior to the trip, Tomandl and Heimerl completed their coursework in the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy Farmers through the UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems and the Farm and Industry Short Course.

The interns came home with an appreciation of the advantages of the dairy industry at home. “Most farmers in New Zealand could only wish that they had the amount of money to work with that we do,” says Heimerl.

Tomandl and Heimerl worked on two farms on the North Island of New Zealand. They each spent eight weeks on farms and spent one week touring the country. Support for the internships was provided by the Babcock Institute for International Dairy Research and Development.

“I encourage all of the students to take advantage of farm internships,” says Dick Cates, Coordinator of the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy Farmers. “These internships provide valuable hands-on experience and help interns decide what they want-—and don’t want—-to try on their own farms.”

“These students were unique for the school in that they are the first ‘second generation’ grass-based dairy farmers in the program,” says Cates. “That put them in a great position to really put their New Zealand experience in perspective.”

Working internships on two farms provided a good basis for comparison. Heimerl says, “”The difference between the two (farms) has been a very eye opening experience that I will be basing many of my future decisions on.”” He was able to observe differences that are helping him define a management style he would like to develop.

The interns saw some farming practices that were unlike what they see in the U.S. Tomandl was shocked to see the cows coming off a wet field that was more mud than grass. “When it is very wet, cows are often ‘stood off ‘a pasture at night and fed stored feed to save the pastures,” Tomandl reports. “When 75 percent of your land is on an incline, cows can do a lot of damage.”

Heimerl was struck by the importance New Zealand farmers put on their lanes. The muddy New Zealand winters in that area make good lanes a necessity. “They do not ever run cattle on unimproved lanes or put temporary lanes across paddocks,” notes Heimerl.

Both interns were amazed at the calf care (or lack of it) and the resulting healthy, robust calves. Calves are born out on pasture, and put in a shed 12 to 24 hours later. Farmers in New Zealand feed them colostrum for two months, then put them on pasture. Tomandl says, “Newborn (calves) were maybe licked by the mother, but they were probably exposed to rain shortly thereafter so they were seldom dry when they reached their shelter.”

“The calf sheds are drafty and overcrowded, with bedding only changed every other year.” With all this said, you would think these calves were in bad shape, but to my surprise just the opposite was happening … they had a quality in their young stock that you don’t always see here,” Tomandl observes. “They were very hardy and had a desire to live, which can’t always be said about American calves.”

Heimerl observed that combining low-cost New Zealand techniques with higher U.S. milk prices could be a “sweet green (grass and money) combination for putting the profit back in this great business we call dairy farming.”

Tomandl liked the attitude of his host farmers. “If there is one thing we should all remember, it is this: keep it simple,” he says. “Dairy farming is only as hard as you make it.”

The Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy Farmers provides training in grass-based dairy farming. Students can complete the 17-week Farm and Industry Short Course, or complete the Grass-Based Dairy Seminar on its own. This seminar is taught by a team of leading grass farmers, agency staff, and university and extension faculty. Distance education is available for the Grass-Based Dairy Seminar. Internships are optional and are typically completed on Wisconsin grass-based dairy farms. For more information on the School, contact Coordinator Dick Cates at (608) 588-2836 or e-mail rlcates@mhtc.net

The UW-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems conducts research and outreach on sustainable agricultural and food systems. For more information, call 608-262-5200.