Emmeline (Em) Mitchell, farm manager, Wairarapa
Em is a farm manager assisting Mark and Brigitt Le Fleming on their 135ha farm at Eketahuna, peak-milking 300 cows this season (the farm’s second full season on OAD). Em lives on-farm with her daughter Aurora (9). They’ve been here three seasons and this season is Em’s first as farm manager.
Casey Meiklejohn, farm worker/2IC, South Auckland
Casey’s had five seasons farming, with this season seeing her as second-in-command (2IC) on Jamie Lyons’ 270ha family farm at Mangatawhiri. It’s a mixed farm, featuring dairying, beef, ewes/lambs and raising young stock. Dairying accounts for 90ha and milking 220 cows.
Marcus and Kathryn Tuck, family farm owners, West Coast
The Tucks are in their fourth season on their 200-hectare (ha) (effective) family-owned farm at Rotomanu, southeast of Greymouth. They milk 420 cows once a day (OAD) and employ one manager. Marcus previously farmed for more than 30 years in the North Island.
Shannon and Anita Keoghan, contract milkers, Canterbury
Shannon (right) and her wife Anita are in their second season running 1200 cows on a 400ha corporate farm in Oxford, Canterbury, one of 32 owned by Craigmore Farms in the South Island. Both see farming as a great lifestyle where hard work can translate into financial success.
1. What's the best way to make a successful start at sharemilking or contract milking?
As farm worker/2IC Casey Meiklejohn puts it: “Find a farm owner you get along with!” Contract milkers Shannon and Anita Keoghan also say it’s important to do your homework on employers and check out the infrastructure versus labour required. “Get a rural accountant to check your numbers; get your lawyer to check over your contract.”
Farm manager Em says: “From the get-go, you need to set goals – smart goals. Work towards truly achieving those things. Show you’re committed to benefitting someone’s business.” Farm owner Marcus Tuck is also aware of the importance of goal-setting. “That, plus the standard ‘work hard/save hard’. Don’t buy too many coffees down at the coffee shop!”
2. What tips do you have for progressing through the sector?
Marcus says that when it comes to goal-setting, “don’t set them too high or too low”, revisit those targets regularly and don’t over-extend. “Set your ‘normals’ on the average over the last 10 years – not the ‘new normal’ in a one-off year. Use that as your benchmark.”
Em has joined discussion and progression groups, bounced ideas off other farmers and she’s involved with Dairy Women’s Network – each effort is “a free learning tool!”. She also entered this season’s Dairy Industry Awards to get an idea of how she’s doing alongside others in dairying.
For Shannon and Anita, it’s about “understanding your net worth and how you can improve it. For example, by reducing personal debt, consolidating, earning extra income”. They’ve also attended DairyNZ's Biz start and Biz grow workshops, and will soon be doing DairyNZ’s Mark and Measure.
3. Any innovative ideas for improving staff retention and attracting staff to our sector?
“Education and training are important,” says Marcus. “We offer ITO training to Level 5 for employees and we encourage them to do that. We pay for them to do it but if they fail one year they pay for their next year.”
Shannon says she and Anita also encourage staff education: “When they are ready, we get them into ITO and help them with exposure on developing their skill set to climb the ladder. It’s more genuine on their behalf than pushing it down their throats.”
Communication-wise, Marcus also recommends using written reports on a weekly basis, rather than just conversations, to improve communication between everyone on-farm, while Casey and her boss Jamie get together for breakfast after milking, most days.
Marcus wasn’t the only one who commented on the pressure to “fulfil our needs for good housing and good work/life balance or we won’t attract and retain people”. The Keoghans agree: “Housing can be a killer and shared accommodation is the biggest cause of staff leaving.”
Work/life balance is a big issue; it’s "huge to millenials", say Shannon and Anita. “We give regular and consistent time off – we don’t change the roster for calving or mating. Over calving, I would rather take the hit of having one staff member less for four days of the month than have a disgruntled employee who missed a social event on that weekend. Too much shed time can also kill staff motivation.”
Flexibility’s made a big difference to Em Mitchell’s ability to stay in dairying, as has OAD milking. “To be able to be a dairy farmer and a mum at the same time has been exceptional.” She’s also a fan of job rotation, which helps prevent boredom and grows capability across the team. Being given a passion-based project is also a winner in her eyes, and so is being told the ‘why’ behind decisions.
4. What are the best ways to start a new season or leave the old one?
Marcus advocates having regular team meetings, as well as sitting down annually to review things. Em suggests celebrating at season’s end – perhaps a barbecue for the team. “I also like to give the boss a gift to show how I’ve really appreciated what I’ve had from them over that time.”
For starting a new season, our farmers say you should aim to provide a written handbook, and explain its goals and your expectations. Involve the team in building plans, policies and budgets so they take ownership of shared decisions and stay accountable. With health and safety inductions, try the Keoghans’ approach: a two-week process which ‘buddies up’ new staff with an existing employee.
5. How do you think the dairy sector is evolving?
All our farmers agree science is making a big difference to on-farm decision-making, but there are positive and negative things about the way the sector is changing. “I think it’s moving towards a more corporate way, which I think is disappointing,” says Marcus. “We’ve got to be very careful that we don’t lose the family farm.”
Casey agrees: “On the whole, it’s getting bigger and more corporate. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. Once you have bigger farms, the staffing issues grow. It’s harder to get, say, four or five staff whose personalities match. It creates more of a ‘factory farm’ approach. You get cowsheds running six, seven, eight times a day and that’s all people are doing.”
On a more positive note, Casey thinks “technology is speeding up processes a lot and animal care is going in the right direction too, plus there’s all the environmental work that’s going in. Having farms that people are proud of and that kids in the next generation can enjoy is pretty cool.” “I think [the sector is] going backwards in the labour side of things,” Shannon says. “It’s almost impossible to employ people."
Meanwhile, Em says: “I think it’s great to see the new restrictions coming in which help encourage farmers to ensure their staff are getting better time off, better work/life balance and flexibility in their work. Although, dairying is not ‘just a job’, it’s a lifestyle.”
6. How do you approach using a limited budget?
“Low payout versus high cost – that’s what I see is the issue when it comes to limited budgets,” says Marcus. “Our focus now is on costs rather than income and now we’re making a profit.”
The Keoghans say stick to the basics and do things well. “Protect your milk – you need to hit production to dilute costs. Always know your feed situation. Keep up shed, plant and equipment maintenance – it’s the unexpected costs that blow budgets.”
While not involved directly in budgeting, Em has some practical suggestions. “Maximise your grass and avoid buying in feed. Do farm walks to monitor things – they’re so worth it. Keep on top of good pasture management.”
Casey has one tip that immediately springs to mind: “Fertiliser – just put on enough to keep things ticking along.”
7. What new ideas, innovations, practices and apps are you using?
“Getting our children involved in the farm has been an innovation for me – I don’t control everything,” says Marcus. “Also, doing OAD for the last four seasons has made a big impact on our farming system.”
For Em, putting their first-calving heifers on OAD four weeks prior to and during artificial insemination has been great for their overall health, without affecting production.
Em also uses Minda Live and has used the SmartSAMM calculator. “I’ve also started using the (DairyNZ) Body Condition Score app just to get an idea of where the girls are sitting.” Casey cites Minda, and DairyNZ’s Healthy Hoof and Envirowalk apps as useful.
As well as using Minda Lookup and Protrack, Shannon and Anita use Farmax for their farm’s physical budget. Another innovation has been their using sexed semen to lock in required heifer replacements in the first three weeks of mating. "This allows us to have beef breed live calf sales for the following four weeks. The aim is to move away from fully relying on 'bobby calf' services," says Shannon. Their staff must also have their own smartphones. They’re provided with a phone allowance, as well as free wifi at the shed. Each phone runs Craigmore’s health and safety app Auditz, customised to each staff member’s login with their responsibilities and instant notification of near-misses. The Keoghans use a Fields area measurement app to improve accuracy and time efficiency in relation to their break fences, and their staff use Fonterra's On Farm app for farm collections.
While PaySauce is a more widely used pay software app across the dairying sector, the Keoghans use another app, Payroll. They're pretty happy with how it's improved on-farm efficiency and saved time for themselves and their staff.
8. How do you get the best from your soil?
Regularly soil-testing seems to be the key. Both Marcus and Casey are careful not to over-fertilise on their respective properties. “Targeting our fertiliser to those paddocks that need it is good for the environment and saves dollars – and test costs are offset by the drop in fertiliser spend,” says Casey.
The Keoghans are part of the Waimakariri Irrigation Scheme, using the ReGen app. “It has info regarding soil moisture, temperature, and our water flow from each pivot, so it gives us a more accurate reading on what we’ve put on, and what our moisture levels are,” says Shannon. “It gives us a five-day forecast on when to irrigate. So that helps us not waste our water.” Over the last two years, Shannon and Anita have soil-sampled each paddock to build up fertility, and they follow best practice with nitrogen.
Many thanks to our farmers in this article who provided us with a snapshot of their views across a few aspects of farming. Over the coming months, suggestions given to us by Inside Dairy readers will continue to shape this magazine.
This article was originally published in Inside Dairy May 2019