That was then, this is now

In every challenge, there’s opportunity. That’s if you can adapt, as these farmers have done.

Inside Dairy

6 min read


When former travel agent Belinda Price joined husband Ben to go dairying back in the early 2000s, she went from booking others’ journeys to crafting her own. Proving the sky’s the limit, she went on to win Fonterra’s Dairy Woman of the Year in 2021.

Belinda and Ben have seen big changes in workplaces across the sector as they’ve worked their way up from sharemilkers to farm ownership. They’re now in their fifth season on their own Taranaki farm, and added a leased farm to the mix 18 months ago. However, back in their early days as employees, maintaining relationships with “the farm owner, stakeholders and the team” could get tricky. 

“As a sharemilker, you’re kind of like ‘piggy in the middle’, trying to keep everybody happy at the same time,” explains Belinda. 

By the time they became farm owners, they’d seen all kinds of complex behaviours from people at every level. 

Nevertheless, becoming ‘the boss’ was another big learning curve.

“I think some of the staff knew more about HR and what their entitlements were than I did,” smiles Belinda. “I got pulled up by them a few times! 

“The key to everything now is work-life balance. You can’t do 12-hour days all year and not have a break. Now it’s a more inclusive environment. Everyone takes a lot more responsibility, things have to be talked about, communicated about.”

Farm facts

Ben and Belinda Price

Farm facts role:

Farm owners and farm lessees


Auroa/Otakeho, Taranaki

Farm size:

93.5ha (own farm) and 129ha (leased farm with runoff)


600 crossbreed cows (two properties)


230,000kg MS/year (two properties)

Ben and Belinda Price

Managing the people

Given the current sector-wide labour shortage, successfully recruiting and retaining people on-farm is important. That’s something Belinda and Ben are hot on. A key part of choosing their employees involves selecting people who are a good team fit. It’s a major reason they’re enjoying working with their current staff, who’ve told them the feeling is mutual. 

Their approach also lines up with the sector’s Great Futures in Dairying 10-year plan (dairynz.co.nz/GFID) which is focused on keeping dairying competitive by growing, attracting and retaining a wide range of people into modern, productive and safe workplaces.

We just try and be honest and truthful and have the right environment where they can flourish and achieve their goals.

“There are always challenges, even within really great teams,” acknowledges Belinda. “We just try and be honest and truthful and have the right environment where they can flourish and achieve their goals. That’s really important to us — that when they do leave us, they’re better than when they came.” 

Having a great team is also “hugely powerful”, she adds. 

“When you’ve got that, it’s really awesome. You know you can rely on them and, when you’re having a tough time, they’ve got your back, they’ll step up and take that pressure off you.” 

The Prices also make sure their team has rostered time off (they run six days on, two off, year round), plenty of food on hand, “warm, dry, up-to-spec” housing on-farm — and even free gym memberships. Team get-togethers and off-farm activities are an important focus too. 

“I’ve even taken them to Surfing for Farmers each week over the summer,” Belinda laughs, noting, “I was shocking at it!” 

The Prices also provide and support their team into opportunities to get formal qualifications, attend learning events off-farm, and informal on-farm training. 

“Ben went out with Harmony the other day to show her the different stages of the grass growth, the leaf stages and things like that. We’re all learning together,” says Belinda.

Belinda leads a team session

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Partners Tee and Andrea (herd manager)

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On-farm training on how to use the defibrillator

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Tractor fan and eldest son Hayden Price changing oil

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Managing the dry and wet

Learning and adapting over time is something Northland dairy farmers Murray and Helen Jagger have also been doing. Murray’s family has owned and worked on their Whangarei Heads farm since the 1850s. Murray’s been tweaking its system since the 1980s to cope with warmer temperatures and changing rainfall patterns. 

That’s mainly been through trialling different kinds of pasture species better suited to today’s conditions there, says Murray. He also runs Jerseys as, in his words, they adapt really well to hotter drier temperatures. 

“In the 1980s, we were part a farm scheme similar to the Extension 350 programme,” explains Murray, who was also an early mentor when E350 was set up. (E350 was a Northland partner farm network that ran from 2016 to 2022). 

“We captured quite a lot of data then and since, and we’ve got quite a lot to draw on, including weather data and growth rates.” 

Murray says annual rainfall volumes haven’t changed much: it’s the frequency and intensity of rain events that’s different. 

“Now we have more extremes, the drys are starting a bit earlier and going a bit harder, the wets are wetter and there are more of them.” 

They used to get massive soil cracking in summer in the 1970s, but not now.

“Dad regularly used to put wheat bait on to kill the cricket populations too,” remembers Murray. “We haven’t needed to do that for many years. I’d put that down to soil structure and root capacity improvement.”

Murray says ryegrass plants are unsuitable for the dry conditions and have weak root systems. They also damage easily in wet conditions, which leads to soil structures breaking down. Kikuyu is their pasture of choice now, alongside fescue and cocksfoot for renewals.

Murray also sees managing climate change as part of a partnership between the regulators and farmers.

“Learning from experience and staying adaptable is where industry and farmers come together,” he says. 

“We’ve been doing this for 30 years. We can’t change weather events, but we can change the decisions we make on-farm and how we adapt to that changing data. Whether that’s temperature recording, rainfall recording, whatever, we can become more resilient with what we can control. You can only influence that if you know what the challenges are and what’s happening.”

We can’t change weather events, but we can change the decisions we make on-farm...”

Farm facts

Murray and Helen Jagger


Farm owners


Whangarei Heads, Northland

Farm size:

230ha (effective dairy platform); 320ha beef


50 Jersey cows


200,000kg MS/year

Former Kikuyu Action Group leader Murray says pasture renewal fescues and cocksfoot are now softer and more palatable to cows

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Murray (R) and Duncan Bayne do a weekly C-Dax pasture meter ride

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Managing the rules

Canterbury farmers Mark and Devon Slee also have decades of dairying experience under their belts, which makes adapting to change second nature. The Slees have been farming in the Hinds Plains catchment in Canterbury for 33 years, including buying Mark’s parents’ farm in 1995. Now they own three properties, with a lowerorder sharemilking couple on each farm. 

“Back then, there weren’t a lot of environmental regulations and things were more production-oriented. There were some rules around effluent management, but really, it was a different scenario,” notes Mark.

Since then, water management and efficiency has become a big focus for Canterbury farmers of all kinds, alongside winter grazing, climate change, water quality, and operating within the regional council’s N-cap (190kg N/ha/year), says Mark . 

“Over that time, we’ve changed our water management from flooding irrigation to border dyke manual and labour-intensive irrigation, and finally to centre pivots plus soil moisture monitoring. It’s all about putting the right amount of water on.” 

Since the 2017/18 season, the Slees have managed to:

  • Reduce the farm’s fertiliser use from 258kg N/ha/year to 178kg N/ha/year (without a significant impact on milk production) 
  • Reduce the farms’ N-loss from 91kg N/ ha/year in the 2016/17 season to 73kg N/ha/year by the 2020/21 season (they’re now sitting under the N-cap) 
  • Drop their purchased N surplus from 141kg N/ha/year in 2018/19 to 72kg N/ha/year in 2021/22. 

“It’s about being proactive, getting the right advice, talking to farm advisers, going to discussion groups, getting some good advice on what to do to achieve today’s nitrogen reduction targets,” explains Mark. “Use expert knowledge so you know what the next steps are, and use background information gathered off your farm.” 

He’s also big on seeing challenges as opportunities. 

“I think the N cap one is a good example. While it’s better for the environment, you’re actually getting a better return by using nitrogen efficiently; it’s potentially more profitable than what you were doing in the past. 

“Focus on keeping your cost structure tidy, so that over time you can make changes. If you’re not in the black, it’s hard to be green.”

"If you’re not in the black, it’s hard to be green.”

Farm facts

Devon and Mark Slee


Farm owners


Ashburton, Canterbury

Farm size:

1109ha (effective) (across three farms, including 751ha total milking platform)


2850 Crossbreeds (approx. 950 cows per farm)


440-470kg MS/cow/year

The Slees say the way they irrigate their farm has completely changed

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Mark addresses farmers at a recent open day on their farm, outlining the Slees’ environmental achievements

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Mark says centre pivots not only irrigate efficiently, they save on labour too

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Tip-ping points

Our farmers share their top tips on adaptability.


The Prices: 

  1. Don’t sweat the small stuff — choose your challenges. 
  2. Don’t react to issues instantly — time your discussions carefully. 
  3. Ensure staff know what’s needed. Step back when you can.

Climate change

The Jaggers: 

  1. Understand your own environment: measure, monitor, understand.
  2. Use the technology available to help you make those changes. 
  3. Stay continually adaptive to the conditions.

Environmental regulation

The Slees: 

  1. Make small incremental changes over time.
  2. Pick up technology along the way. 
  3. Know your business — knowledge is power. 

Page last updated:

21 Feb 2023


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