Owl Farm at St Peter's School Cambridge

October 2016

A demonstration dairy farm on school grounds is an opportunity for students and the public

Owl Farm is a St Peter’s School/Lincoln University demonstration dairy farm to showcase best practice to Waikato and Bay of Plenty dairy farmers.

St Peter’s is a co-ed year 7-13 school with a role of 1100 students, 400 of whom are boarders. Owl Farm has been owned and run by St Peter’s School for 80 years. It surrounds the grounds of the school, which is just on the Hamilton side of Cambridge. It has 150 effective ha and 440 cows.

Doug Dibley is an old boy of St Peter’s and a fifth generation dairy farmer from Rotorua, with a background in resource and environmental management from Canterbury University. He has previously worked for the Bay of Plenty Regional Council (funded by DairyNZ) in the Rotorua catchment as an environmental dairy liaison. He worked for Fonterra as a sustainable dairy advisor, then became an environmental programme leader for the national effluent management programme. From there he went to Opus, and then to St Peter’s.

John Fegan is an old boy of Lincoln University and runs a rural recruitment company based in Cambridge. He has children at St Peter’s.

John, a parent of students at St Peter’s, met former Lincoln University vice-chancellor Dr Andy West on the sideline of a rugby game in winter 2013. Both have sons in the same team. They dreamed up the idea of the farm at St Peter’s becoming a demonstration farm. John says: “I always felt our farm was under-utilised, and Andy wanted better outcomes for Lincoln in the North Island. I thought this farm could mimic the Lincoln University Dairy Farm and he thought it was a great idea.”

Straight away people liked the idea and a joint venture was established between Lincoln and the school. This has revitalised links with the school and the farm, and between the university and the school. “The teachers have grabbed the opportunity of being more involved in the whole farm. It’s a real natural synergy.”

Owl Farm has a farm manager, second in charge and a dairy assistant. The farm has one of the oldest rotary sheds in NZ, with 36 bails. The farm has a real mix of heavy and light soils, and is on the banks of the Waikato River. It is reasonably flat in terraces, showing how the river has moved through the landscape.

The farm system is 2-3. This current season it is system three, as about 20 to 30% of feed has been brought onto the farm. Next season the farm is being remodelled to reduce inputs and go back to more of a pasture based system in a move to become more financially viable.

There are four Focus Days a year, with around 200 people visiting each time and key topics up for discussion. “We are completely transparent, and put our information up on the website each week for farmers to see.

The field day in March 2016 included a farm update, a health and safety session about the new legislative framework, and discussion about in-calf rates, modelling the farm system approach, and the regrassing/pasture renewal programme of 15ha/year including under-sowing.

Owl Farm is not a model farm or a research farm, rather it is an average Waikato dairy farm, which has become a bit run down, but has exceptional ambitions. The idea is to apply proven research to the farm, and to demonstrate how it works. The goals are to be sustainable and profitable, and there are no fixed ideas about how this will happen.

The demonstration activities associated with the farm are funded through its partners. They approached seven sponsoring partners, many of which are the same as those of the Lincoln University Dairy Farm. “Not one of them turned us down. Everyone has come on board,” says John.

As soon as they had enough partners, they went searching for a demonstration manager, employing Doug Dibley, a former head boy of the school, who also has the environmental and dairying background necessary.

“We want to help Waikato farmers get relevant again, and get them at the front end of the industry.”

A major part of the programme is to ensure environmental responsibility with what happens on the farm.

The farm is in the midst of creating a constructed treatment wetland with the help of Opus (a farm partner) and the Waikato River Authority.

The purpose of the wetland is to intercept the shallow ground water and surface water runoff with its high nitrate content. Construction began at the end of March 2016.

School environmental prefects are involved in the project too and will help facilitate community planting days. Other students will be involved in collection and analysis of water quality samples.

The wetland will be fenced off and planted in native species.

Doug says when he spent his five years of high schooling at St Peter’s, not once did he cross over into the farm. It’s quite different now, as the farm is used for teaching a wide range of subjects.

“We are keen on encouraging young people into the industry. If we are to double the value of agricultural exports we will need another 50,000 young people coming into the industry. Historically there has been a real stigma around the dairy industry and farming. Farmers are now seriously educated people, with economic, vet, accounting, human resources skills for example. They have a wide range of supporting industries such as banking and fertiliser, so there is a huge amount of scope for people to be employed in the industry. We work really closely with the agriculture and horticulture students at the school, as well as geography, business, accounting, biology and chemistry classes.”

For example an “eco-blitz” in conjunction with Lincoln University surveyed the ecology of the wetland development planned by the farm.

Photography students will be encouraged to take images of dairying, which will be used to help change perceptions, Doug says.

“The rural urban divide is really big and we need to do as much as we can to close that.”

The school logo is an owl with two keys, so Owl Farm was the perfect name for the farm, indicating education and knowledge. “That’s what we are trying to achieve.”

There’s a cycleway from Hamilton out to the Avantidrome, which sits in the corner of the property, and which goes through the farm. Digital signboards are planned to help tell the 80,000 passing cyclists the story of what is happening on the dairy farm at different times of the year.

The stronger linkages between the school and the farm are already paying off, with nine students from last year heading down to Lincoln University for study this year. “It’s definitely had an impact already,” John says.

Owl Farm’s next open day is 15 October 2016