Three generations of focus on supporting West Coast farmers
Three generations ago Nelson Cook's grandfather began dairying at Arahura, with a herd of 15 cows. Eight decades later and Nelson has a herd of more than 1300 cattle on his two farms – Totara and Griffin Creek.
It was dairy farming that helped to keep his grandfather's family afloat during the Great Depression in the 1930s. His grandfather, Chris Cook, moved to the West Coast from Australia and bought land for his wife and sons to farm, while he went to work in a gold mine.
Years later Nelson's parents, Ernie and Jean Cook, went straight into the family business and began farming on a property at Kowhitirangi. Nelson says the land his father had to work with was very poor.
"My mum and dad turned that land into one of the highest producing farms in the district and, when I was 20-years-old, I bought the farm from them and a short while after married Jan and we worked the farm together. That was the start of a lifetime commitment and my passion for farming," says Nelson.
Nelson, 78, has spent his life working on small and large farms but says he doesn't have a preference as long as his cows are well fed and well looked after. It's not only the cows that are essential to the dairy industry, it's also the people on the coast, and being part of the community has played a big part in the Cook family’s history.
Nelson's grandfather was a founding director of the Westland Co-operative Dairy Company and his father was a director of the company for 24 years. Meanwhile, Nelson represented the West Coast during his time as President of the New Zealand Holstein Friesian Association. Nelson held the position for 16 years.
"Becoming president of the Holstein Friesian Association wasn't something I set out to achieve, and I never dreamt that a farmer from the West Coast would be elected into such a position. My goal was to run one of the best Friesian herds in New Zealand," says Nelson.
"To get the knowledge and cattle I needed for artificial breeding, I had to interact with the top breeders and soon learnt they kept their bulls within a small circle and they weren’t accessible to everyone.”
The Holstein Friesian Association taught Nelson a lot about people and he made lifetime friends through this experience.
“It was a really special time to me. It also gave me a chance to speak to farmers from around New Zealand about what was going on in their world,” he says.
"The main thing I learned was that if you look after your animals first, then everything else falls into place. Well-fed animals produce more, and are healthier – 90 percent of an animals' production comes from feed not breed.”
And if you ask Nelson if he achieved running one of the best Friesian herds in New Zealand, he'll tell you that, in his opinion, he "got pretty close".
His keen interest in breeding even led him to import semen from overseas in the 1990s, including from America and Holland. However, while cows can look good, that doesn't mean they'll produce well, and he soon realised that imported cows struggled in the West Coast's environment.
"The cows didn't cope well, the cows ancestors had never walked for feed, and didn't have the heart and lung capacity to deal with cold and wet days. They'd been living in barns their whole lives," says Nelson. "They just couldn't compete with New Zealand cattle."
Nelson says the West Coast is a great place to farm dairy cows, and is one of the region's strengths.
"The Coast's growth patterns and seasons sit well with a cow's requirements. I think the West Coast will gain some more momentum again in the dairy industry,” he says.
Nelson still has plenty of momentum himself, he claims he's semi-retired, but you can find him on his Totara farm working most days, doing his part to keep dairying on the West Coast strong.