From homeland to Grasslands

Written by Kara Petrovic

New Zealand native succeeds through Midwest sharemilking agreement

Growing up on his family’s 320-cow dairy in New Zealand, Craig Zydenbos says he always knew he wanted to follow in his parents’ footsteps, but not necessarily on their operation. Instead, he had dreams of making it on his own. But with suitable land for farming scarce back home, his options were limited.

“Trying to think as a future businessman, I didn’t like the idea of two families living off the same income,” he says. “It wouldn’t be fair to my parents or myself. Instead of putting more eggs in one basket, it’s always been my goal to create more baskets to spread the wealth.”

After graduating from Lincoln University in New Zealand with a degree in agriculture in 2003, Zydenbos accepted a sharemilking job on a nearby 165-cow operation. As a sharemilker, Zydenbos oversaw the dairy as an independent contractor in return for a share of the farm’s income.

While the work suited him, Zydenbos says he yearned for more. While sitting on the beach one day with his parents, his father posed a unique question.

“He asked me if I wanted to come to America,” Zydenbos says. “To which I responded, ‘What do I have to lose?’”

A year later, they were visiting farms throughout the Midwest. Upon his return home, Zydenbos received one of the most important calls of his life in late 2007 from Gary Townshend, chief executive officer and a driving force behind the establishment of Grasslands Consultants LLC, which operates 12 grazing dairies throughout Missouri.

While most outside producers and entrepreneurs were skeptical to take a chance on the U.S. dairy industry, Zydenbos says that Townshend saw a way to help struggling producers by using New Zealand farming practices to help them maximize profit.

“He recognized my pasture-based production knowledge and offered me a sharemilker position in Missouri,” Zydenbos says.

Today, Zydenbos oversees Grasslands White Oak Five, a 300-acre seasonal grazing operation near Carthage, Mo., which markets its milk through Dairy Farmers of America.

Through a 50/50 sharemilking agreement, Zydenbos provides the machinery and 500-head Jersey herd needed for the operation, while the owner provides the land and milking facilities. Zydenbos also is responsible for the farm’s veterinary and electric bills. In addition, any purchased feed is split 50/50, but all cattle sales belong to Zydenbos.

“This arrangement has allowed me to start building up my assets and management skills,” Zydenbos says. “The set-up makes it a lot easier for a producer, who may not have a family farm to go back to, to enter the industry. I’d eventually like to build up our cow numbers and go off on our own, but until then, I’m just happy to be doing what I am.”

According to Zydenbos, sharemilking has been part of the New Zealand dairy farmer career path since the 19th century. His parents went through a similar agreement early in their relationship in an effort to build equity.

Throughout the last few years, DFA Field Representative Murray Lane says that Zydenbos has become an asset to producers in Jasper County.

“As a native of New Zealand, he’s living proof that grazing works,” Lane says. “Craig is doing great work, and producers around the area are taking notice. They stop by, ask questions, and Craig is always happy to assist them.”

Soon after arriving at the dairy, Zydenbos met his future wife, Kelsey, through her brother’s friend who worked on the farm. After learning that Kelsey had grown up on Robthom Holsteins farm, a fifth-generation dairy in Springfield, Mo., Zydenbos says he couldn’t imagine spending his life with anyone else.

In between attending classes at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, Mo., for marketing and entrepreneurship, Kelsey spends her free time working alongside Craig on the farm. “There’s nothing I’d rather be doing than working in the industry,” Kelsey says. “I’m so grateful that Craig and I share the same passion.”

The dairy consists of 31 9-acre paddocks, which the cows graze. Like many pasture-based producers, Zydenbos’ grazing platform varies between seasons. During the cool season, he uses BarOptima Fecue, but plants Red River Crabgrass when the weather warms. Crabgrass is followed by an annual rye.

According to Zydenbos, the herd’s grass-based diet keeps their consumption of grains down. Unlike a conventional dairy that feeds up to 25 pounds of grain per cow per day, his cows only eat 4 to 12 pounds of grain per day. And to minimize cost, he also dries the herd off in the fall, but resumes milking each spring.

“The weather is very different from where I come from,” he says. “In southwest Missouri, we can’t be true graziers, but I enjoy the lifestyle of seasonal farming. It’s always nice to get a break when it’s cold. Honestly, that’s probably the best part about it, because I’m not having to milk when it’s cold outside.”

The seasonal schedule also allows the Zydenboses sthe opportunity to visit family in New Zealand each Christmas.

“When we go home for holiday, it’s summer there,” Zydenbos laughs. “It’s always a nice getaway, and a nice change of pace than having to milk on Christmas. But going home also gives me the opportunity to see what’s working and what’s not on the farm.”

Zydenbos says the government’s role in the industry is a change for him; however, he’s quick to recognize that his native cooperative Fonterra, a leading milk processor and dairy exporter, didn’t find success right away.

“As a producer, I’ve lived and breathed the cooperative spectrum,” he says. “I think DFA is making good strides to become a more vertically integrated cooperative. It didn’t happen for Fonterra overnight and it won’t happen for us overnight, but the future is promising.”