The couple sharemilk on a 93ha dairy unit at Ngongataha on the northern bank of Lake Rotorua.
They recently began offering tourists a farm stay experience in one of the country’s tourism jewels, and offering a uniquely Kiwi holiday experience.
Sarah and Alistair are milking 260 cows on the property. The past runner ups’ of the Central Plateau Sharemilkers of the Year competition farm in one of the country’s most sensitive lake catchments, now in the process of having nutrient loss limits and standards set within it.
Given the role dairying plays in generating national income alongside tourism, and the part it can play in enhancing the tourism experience, Sarah is keen for more national involvement in addressing some of the tough issues dairy faces.
This includes managing our farms at a sustainable level, particularly in catchments like Rotorua, where the two industries sit so closely side-by-side.
Farm nutrient losses
The farm’s average nitrogen (N) loss was originally benchmarked at 35kg N/ha by farm modelling programme Overseer, though Sarah believes this may be adjusted to nearer 45kg N/ha under the latest version.
Either way the couple’s farm sits at the lower end of discharges for the lake area, with estimates that discharge allowances may fall somewhere between 54.6-72kg N/ha.
The Coatsworths pay particular attention to when they apply N, conscious of it leaching in high rainfall periods of April and July. They keep application at around 100kg N/ha/year.
This is also matched by the couple monitoring the farm’s clover levels and working hard to get clover well-established and preserved for its N fixing abilities. This has included boosting potash and phosphate levels with little-and-often applications to capture maximum growth with minimal run-off.
“The temptation after a dry period is always to put on some N when it rains, but we’ve found it’s better to wait a 10 days and let the clover release the nitrogen it has built up.”
Sarah likens much of their pasture focus to “old style” grass farming that made Kiwi dairy farms the envy of the world in past generations.
They avoid ripping up paddocks unless absolutely necessary, avoiding crops like turnips that can encourage N leaching.
Bought-in feed is still used on-farm, but Sarah focuses on ensuring what bought in feed matches the grass protein and starch levels, depending on the stage in the season.
“We have managed to lift production by 40 percent while maintaining our N loss level, it’s about getting your system efficient, rather than simply reducing cow numbers to hit a target.”
New to tourism
While still relatively new to the tourism sector, Sarah’s experience to date means she has already gained some valuable insights into what travellers to New Zealand are looking for.
“The biggest thing I am picking up on is that coming here is not just about the lake. It is learning about the way we live, what we do on the farm and how we look at life.”
She said a comment from a recent United States visitor highlighted something she had not considered before.
“She told me New Zealand was a very family-friendly place, people are happy to have children around while they work. I think dairying is very much about being family-friendly, and perhaps we need to remind more people we are not only farmers, we are families who look after the land.”
Generations of farmers
It is this “big picture” behind the dairying business Sarah believes deserves wider appreciation.
“We are second generation farmers, our children may be third generation. Farmers are not short-term thinkers and most have children they want to pass the land on to. We are taking a custodial view of the land, in a way similar to what iwi already appreciate – as an industry we should portray this.”
Sarah sees the future of New Zealand dairying lying with the ability of the country’s farmers to turn grass into high quality dairy products, and it is a story her tourist visitors are entranced by, and keen to purchase more of.
“It is that focus on quality, and environmental stewardship and maintaining this beautiful environment.”