Features

Women in Ag: Sue Pembridge

Decades of dedication to creating an award-winning herd have come to an end as dairy farmer Sue Pembridge sells her herd and retires

Sue Pembridge has hung up her milking apron for the final time after more than 40 years dairy farming in New Zealand.

The active septuagenarian has sold her 77-hectare farm at Atiamuri near Rotorua and her beloved herd of 200 Holstein Friesian cows.

Sue and her late husband Dick were passionate advocates of the breed, producing bulls for genetics companies LIC and CRV Ambreed.

“Holstein Friesians have given me an immeasurable amount of pleasure,” says Sue choking back tears.

“It was a sad day for me when I had to make my mind rule my heart. I didn’t want to sell at all, but I have to be mindful of my age.

“I’ve had a marvellous run with my health, so I’ve been extremely lucky. I milked twice-a-day until the end,” she says.

Early beginnings

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Sue with her beloved Holstein Friesians

Sue, Dick, and their young son Gordon fled the arid plains of Kenya in 1977, arriving in New Zealand for a safer life.

“The situation in Kenya had become extremely volatile since Independence in 1963,” recalls Sue.

“The security situation was deteriorating and accessing good education was becoming difficult. We wanted a more secure future, so we emigrated.”

The couple, who had a mixed farm in Kenya, settled in the Bay of Plenty. They took a job for wages on a dairy farm.

In 1978, they bought their first farm in New Zealand at Ngakuru, near Rotorua, as a going concern.

“It wasn’t a big farm, or very flash, but it gave us a start. The land was marginal in terms of contour. There were a lot of hills,” says Sue.

The property came with a herd of Ayrshires. The couple paid $150 per mixed age cow and $110 per in-calf heifer.

“We never bought a straw of Ayrshire semen. We switched to Holstein Friesians almost immediately,” she says.

The Pembridges also bought 22 yearling heifers, which formed the nucleus of their Holstein Friesian herd and their stud Uhuru Holsteins.

“I can trace the pedigree of my favourite cow of all time SRD Uhuru Calypso Bounty EX4 back to a specific heifer from that group,” says Sue.

Bounty was a tremendous type, production, and breeding cow and was named the inaugural Valden Cow of the Year in 2000. She went on to win the coveted trophy again in 2001 and 2004.

The heifers originated from two farms; one was Taikura Holsteins, which was owned by Ted and Helen McDonald.

“They had 12 surplus heifers for sale, so we took a gamble and bought them,” says Sue.

“I can still remember the names and ear tag numbers of each of those heifers.”

A breeding legacy

Sue milked 200 cows at Atiamuri

Breeding Holstein Friesians led to many lasting friendships, including with Peter and Margaret Twyman of Rahiri Holsteins. It was a well-known stud of that era.

Peter encouraged Sue and Dick to join Holstein Friesian NZ and commence registering their animals.

“Back in those days, the SR principles were available to begin the process of breeding full pedigree animals,” says Sue.

“So, Peter came over and with his help I selected my first seven SRA cows and they were the foundation of my pedigree herd.”

Under the SR principles, a registered grade cow was an SRA animal, with her descendants moving through SRB, SRC and SRD. The fifth generation of the family would become a full pedigree calf.

“I loved all aspects of breeding. I got really hooked on it all,” says Sue.

The Pembridges had their heifers and cows scored for traits other than production (TOP) and classified annually.

Sue can still vividly recall the first cow she bred, which classified excellent in 1993.

“Her name was SRB Uhuru Star Eclipse EX and she was sired by a bull called Scottish Sovereign Star,” she says.

“Having her classify excellent gave me immense pleasure. Gordon Stewart was the classifier.”

Uhuru cows such as Uhuru Mtoto Mouse VG89, Uhuru Shottle Beau VG85 and Uhuru Jatz Moonbeam EX all shone in the showring.

One of Sue’s pleasures was entering local shows in Rotorua, Putaruru, and Galatea and national photo competitions.

In 2004, the Pembridges moved to a farm with gently rolling contour in Atiamuri, where Sue farmed until the end of May 2020.

The farm’s feed pad was used to feed the cows bought in maize silage and a palm kernel blend. Production averaged 503 kilogrammes of milksolids (kgMS) per cow in the 2018–19 season.

The cows were milked through a 20-aside herringbone shed, with the help of second-in-charge Anthony Dyson, who spent the last three seasons on the farm.

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Uhuru Calypso Bounty EX4 was named Valden Cow of the Year three times

Breeding cows with type, production and longevity was always a focus.

“We placed a lot of emphasis on udder quality and general conformation. We never compromised on udder traits and tried to breed open framed, capacious cows,” says Sue.

Over the years, the Pembridges used more and more North American genetics, always “shopping around” for the best bulls.

“I don’t believe any one genetics company has all the best bulls,” says Sue.

Scottish Sovereign Star, who was born in 1972, was one of Sue’s favourite early bulls. “His progeny were all beautiful cows”.

They also had good results using Wainui Star Critic, Kauri Ridge Sheik Calypso, Gillette Windbrook, Picston Shottle PI-ET and more recently Fairmont Mint-Edition.

“We had a lot of lovely Calypso cows, including SRD Uhuru Calypso Bounty EX4,” says Sue.
Uhuru Holsteins had a regular embryo transfer programme to help fast-track genetic gain in the herd.

“We imported a few embryos from North America and Holland. We also flushed Bounty as well,” she says.

“She was a hard cow to get a result from, but we managed to get embryos out of her for a contract to South Africa.”

One of her sons, Uhuru Pald Billionaire, who was sired by Valden Curious Paladium, was bought by CRV Ambreed.

SRD Uhuru Gerris Acrobat was also bought by CRV Ambreed, and SRD Uhuru Gerris Atom Ant was purchased by LIC.

“I wound down our embryo transfer programme because my age was always nagging in the back of my mind,” says Sue.

“I was of the belief that if we were flushing cows, then I’d want to be around to milk the offspring.”

Sue’s life’s work is now helping a Rangiora dairy farmer rebuild his life after losing his herd in the Mycoplasma bovis cull.

“He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” says Sue.

“It was always my wish to keep the milking herd together, rather than having a dispersal sale. He bought the mixed age cows, in-calf heifers, and all the young stock.

“The new wave of compliance and uncertainty has taken some of the fun out of farming for me and helped make my decision.”

One of the requirements of the sale was that all Sue’s cows had to be blood tested to confirm they were free of Mycoplasma bovis.

Sue’s relieved her girls remained together and were not split up.

A fresh focus

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Sue has been a dairy farmer since she arrived from Kenya with her family in 1977

Sue has not given up farming altogether. She has bought a 4.5-hectare lifestyle block in Matamata.

“To make the transition easier, I’ve kept nine old girls, which I’ve brought with me to Matamata,” says Sue.

“I also have my granddaughter’s 10-year-old Speckled Park-cross cow, who was a calf club animal. She was a perfect shed cow, she tried extremely hard to be a dairy cow for eight years, but failed,” she laughs.

Several of the cows are in-calf, but Sue’s adamant she “won’t be sitting on a three-legged stool” to milk them.

Over time Sue found herself surrounded by younger people, who she attributes to her youthful energy.

“Seventy-four is just an irritating number. I don’t know what being 74 years old should feel like. I might look 74, but I certainly don’t feel it,” she laughs. 

“I feel privileged to have had a Holstein Friesian herd and my love for the breed led me to make some lasting friendships.

“I hope all fellow breeders can derive as much pleasure out of Holstein Friesians as I did over the years.”  

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