Natalie is a ruminant nutritionist, which she explains, is “like a dietitian for cows, sheep and deer”. The company that she works for in the Bay of Plenty, specialises in feed formulation. The majority of its customers are dairy farmers.
“While grass is full of nutrients, it is still a living thing. So the levels and types of nutrients can vary. When that doesn’t match with what the cows need in their diets, we aim to balance that up”.
It is similar to how body builders have more protein to strengthen muscles, and marathon runners need more slow burning energy. Farmers requirements are fairly bespoke as they each have a different set up in terms of the number of cows, area of land, and grass conditions.
Natalie loves standing out in the paddock with the cows, “you get to see the condition of the cows from their coats, how they act around you, and the grass they are eating”.
An important part of her role is demystifying biological systems to help farmers make milk more profitably and fully feed cows. “One of the challenges of working with biological systems is that there are a lot of variables – there is not one answer, it all just depends”. For this reason she spends a lot of time one on one, or with farmer groups to educate farmers about what factors may produce certain results.
For a girl from Remuera in Auckland, it’s an unusual career choice. When asked how she got into it, Natalie describes it as a mixture of passion and luck.
“I had always wanted to be a vet, but the more I thought about it, I decided that I didn’t want to fix the problem, but find the solution to not make it happen in the first place”. She was quick to add that she thought it was fantastic that a lot of vets now do preventative care.
Testing the waters by first doing a Diploma in Agriculture, Natalie says “I fell in love. I thought that if I could better understand farming systems and cows, we could fix a problem before it happens”, so she went on to complete the four year Agriculture Science degree.
However her path to the nutrition side of dairy farming came by chance in her second year of university. As most students soon realise, her expenses outweighed her income, so she begged her lecturer to let her help out on trials. “We did heaps of work challenging the status quo on cow diets”, she says.
Natalie has plenty of inspiration too from the people she works with. She describes her boss, Wendy Morgan, as “someone who gets things done, makes a stand, and educates people”.
Natalie loves her work so much, she struggles not to take it home with her. “I really want to make a difference”. “It’s amazing what you can change by what you feed the animals, and the incredible diverse products you can make. Human nutritional trends are now showing that whole milk, cheese and butter is good for you, we can do so much on farms to get the most out of cows.”
As a former city, turned country dweller, Natalie viewed education as important for people to understand why we farm the way we do and the passion behind it.
“Bridging the gap is exactly what Fonterra is looking to do. The Open Gates day is an excellent way to help people understand where milk comes from – there is a lot of mixed messages online”.
“It is exciting to see kids coming out to country days, educating them on where food comes from, and how we care about the animals”.
As for her thoughts for the future, while there is nothing like the real thing, virtual reality may become an education enabler in this area.
“When I said I was going to university to study agriculture, one boy said that if I wanted to have meat, milk and cheese I could just go to the supermarket. That was my moment of realisation that education is massive.”