Resilience to bounce back from flood

Stewart trio Mark, Stacey and TJ in the free-stall barn helping with dairy production despite suffering pasture loss during floods last year in Mid Canterbury.

A free-stall barn, and the support of their community, has helped a Greenstreet dairy farming family sustain production despite the flow on effects suffered after the worst flooding event in 200 years.

Brothers TJ and Mark Stewart, along with Mark’s wife Stacey, have been using the barn this season to give damaged pasture on their Barwell Farm time to recover after being hit by the region’s flood disaster in late May last year.

The farm, with its 550-cow herd, sits between the north and south banks of the Ashburton River and had 14.5 hectares forever buried under riverbed rubble. There were also deep layers of silt, trees and stones on another 20 hectares of pasture around the dairy, which would take time to bring back into full production.

In total 50 hectares was impacted and 15km of fencing was wiped out.

The brothers parents, David and Maree, first invested in the imposing 140m x 75m barn back in 2013. It was a move that raised some eyebrows at the time, especially with a falling milk price.

The barn was now core for the Stewarts winter milk contracts and a move towards a 70 percent autumn-calving pattern for their herd.

This was the first season the younger Stewart generation had taken over the lease of the operation.

And despite setbacks with the flooding, and compounding feed shortages for many, Barwell Farm’s production was up 3.3 per cent year to date and the operation had managed to stay within its pre-flood feed budget.

Using the barn had given damaged pasture, out of grazing rotation, time to recover.

Autumn calvers that went through the flood were on target to produce more than 650kg MS (milk solids) per cow in 280 days. The winter contract was 600kg MS per day but production sat at 700kg MS per day all last winter, Stacey said.

Barwell Farm did not lose stock, but the milking herd spent 20 hours standing in the dairy yard without feed, water or milking after their owners were evacuated.

David and Maree’s home was flood damaged and before they were evacuated, the Stewarts rescued their dry cows up to their hocks in water by the time the family reached them. They were walked to nearby Glenalla and Snowfed Farms, owned by the Gilbert family, who gave the Stewarts free grazing for 180 cows.

There was also help from fellow dairy farmer Duncan Barr farm business consultant Cameron Burton and Angela Cushnie, from Federated Farmers.

The Stewarts, who have around $150,000 to $200,000 in flood-damage costs, said community support was critical in the aftermath, and the continuing solidarity remained a high point in the horrifying experience.

The events of the past had shown how much resilience they had, Stacey said, and the trio remained optimistic about the industry.

“When we took over the farm (it) was supposed to be our year,” she said.

“Then the floods came, and we instead started to think, maybe next year will be our year.

“But, no. Actually, we are now back to thinking this year can still be our year,’’ she said.