Thursday, August 18, 2022

All pasture, no supplement

A young farmer from the UK came to New Zealand to get farming experience and loved it so much he returned here permanently.

When Will Green first arrived in NZ as a student looking for farm experience, he got just that and was so impressed by the opportunities here that he came back permanently a few years later.

Green is the sharemilker on a 270ha farm milking 1060 cows for Dairy Holdings at Hinds, Mid Canterbury. Since he took up farming in NZ, he has quickly climbed the career ladder and this year was named Share Farmer of the Year at the Dairy Industry Awards.

“I think I got a real good taste for farming here and really just enjoyed myself,” Green says.

“I went back to university, finished my degree and was quite unsettled from what I’d seen, with guys getting into farm ownership through sharemilking and shearing.”

His win, which he credits to the support of partner Sally Eames and the wider farm team, was part of creating DIA history with all three major categories being won by Canterbury/Otago entrants for the first time.

He met Eames, the daughter of Manawatū sheep and beef farmers soon after emigrating.

“I met Sally two years ago at a touch rugby tournament just after I moved here and we got on pretty well, pretty quick. We’re quite different people but we quickly identified we both wanted to be on a farm and build a family home. It’s easy because our end goals are so similar,” he says.

“We share the common goal of herd and farm ownership so it’s easy for us to work together towards that,” adding that she has a real soft spot for Jerseys.

“There’ll be lots of changes coming in our farming futures but we’re optimistic and as long as we are educated and informed, we can make the best decisions for the future of farming. At the end of the day we all need to eat, and what better way to live than by producing top-quality food.”

Will Green and Sally Eames with the Dairy Industry Share Farmer of the Year trophy.
History was created at the Dairy Industry Awards this year, with all three major categories being won by Canterbury/Otago entrants for the first time. Will and Sally at the awards dinner.

A trained veterinary technologist, she works off-farm at MedSource in Ashburton but worked closely with Green on their dairy awards presentation.

“Sally put in as much work, if not more than me, keeping me in line and doing all sorts of aesthetically pleasing things for the hour and 45-minute presentation when the judges were here,” he says.

“We were quite aware that we were the very last ones being judged so they’d be pretty tired. So we needed to have a bit of glitter around the edges to make it stand out.

“We had eight stations around the farm and back at the house and my mum and sister made some cow bunting and they sent that here from the UK and then we just got a heap of light carpet, balloons and bits and bobs and just had those little things at the presentations.”

For Green, the Dairy Industry Awards was a chance to build networks and benchmark himself against the other competitors.

“I think I’m always trying to add value to ourselves and you never know what the next opportunity or step might be so it’s just putting ourselves out there,” he says.

“One thing I found from doing the manager’s award in 2018 is it opened a lot of doors for me and certainly got the conversation started with DHL for this opportunity.

“In terms of being an employer it probably makes us look a bit more attractive and builds a profile that way, as well as us maybe looking at that next opportunity whether it be an equity partnership or farm ownership.”

Not being born in NZ, he doesn’t have the family contacts here that he has at home and the dairy awards were a way to get noticed.

“Back home there might be a family connection, someone your dad might have gone to college with or something to open a door, but here I’ve got to do all that myself and this has certainly fast-tracked it,” he says.

“It’s also a good way to get Sally more involved with the business and good for our guys on the farm too – they all spoke and have been heavily involved too. And it’s good for us to benchmark.

Will Green in paddock with cows
Will is originally from the UK and came to New Zealand to get experience as part of his agricultural studies. Will checks on the herd.

Share Farmer head judge Guy Michaels, from DairyNZ, says Green impressed the judges with his contagious energy, accuracy and his constant business reviewing looking for opportunities to learn.

“He’s a great example of somebody who has come to New Zealand and recognises the opportunities the New Zealand dairy industry offers and has embraced the system, which is completely opposite to what he was used to back home,” Michaels said.

He was brought up on a dairy farm near the England-Wales border. His family has farmed the same land for three generations but always as tenants and although his parents have 40ha of their own, the opportunities for farm ownership there are extremely limited.

He studied agriculture at Harper Adams University and part of the four-year course requirement was to do 12-month industry placement. He took a job on a Taranaki sheep and beef farm where he was exposed to low-input, pasture-based farming, which is quite different to what he was used to at home.

“I did really enjoy it, just the mindset about working and organising the week and bumps in the road, shearing, dog work and everything. And it definitely advanced my stockmanship skills.”

But dairy farming in the UK is different there too, focused on liquid milk for the enormous local market, and cows are housed for six months of the year to facilitate year-round production rather than following the seasons as happens on most NZ dairy farms.

“The main difference with the seasons is you can have your mind on calving, or have your mind on mating or on winter, so it’s nice and easy, focused on that one thing. That suits the way my mind works and I got hooked on that,” he says.

After he finished his degree, Green tried farming at home but it wasn’t long before the opportunities on the other side of the world tempted him and he cold-called well-known South Canterbury farmers Leonie and Kieran Guiney and asked for a job.

He knew they’d achieved farm ownership via sharemilking and that they had a pasture-based system and that was what he wanted to do too, so when they offered him a dairy assistant’s job he was soon back on a plane to NZ.

He had that job for six months and then progressed to management with the Guineys, a job he stayed in for three more years.

“Then I did two years of lower order sharemilking for them and that was really good, a good opportunity for me to get a start,” he says.

“It happened a lot quicker than I thought it would. I wrote down my goals when I first came here and one of them was to own my own cows by the time I was 30.”

He got his opportunity to achieve that goal when he was offered a sharemilking job with Dairy Holdings (DHL), large-scale South Island corporate farmers who have 60 farms. He bought 400 cows and added them to 660 DHL cows to create a 1060-strong herd on the 270ha Hinds, Mid Canterbury, farm called Propad.

Dairy farm down long gravel driveway
Dairy Holdings Ltd owns 60 farms across the South Island including one dry stock farm in Otago.

“The first cow calved on July 20 and I turned 31 on August 19, so I ticked that goal off by 30 – just,” he says.

Part of the attraction of the DHL job was the opportunity the company gives to its contract milkers and sharemilkers to rear and own excess calves for a charge of $100 each, basically the cost of milk to get them to 100kg. When the calves leave the dairy farm for a grazing block, they take ownership of them and pay the cost of grazing them on Dairy Holdings pasture.

Green took on about 50 calves a year for three years, as well as buying mixed aged cows from exiting sharemilkers and now has a 47% sharemilking contract with DHL.

“It’s a really good opportunity and you can grow at your own pace. I’ve taken the opportunities quite aggressively, so that’s been good. Obviously milk price has been favourable to keep doing that and the bank has been very good and been very flexible to changes,” he says.

Now he is nearing another of his goals and expects to fully own the herd in 12 months.

“I’ve bought 90% of the herd as of June 1 and in another 12 months’ time I’ll get that last 10% and then in three years I‘d like to have that herd debt-free or be in an equity equivalent to do something on the side. Then five-10 years it’s farm ownership,” he says.

All but about 2ha of the farm is irrigated by two centre pivots with K-line in the corners. The farm has a 54-bail rotary shed, with no high-tech aids, and a 500-cow capacity yard. Target production is 360,000kg MS.

“We’ve been a bit below that this year, but I think that’s achievable without putting any purchased supplement in,” he says.

About 10 % of the farm was regrassed this year.

“We’ll keep pushing on that and really maximise our ability to grow grass and that will be our direct driver of improving production and profitability.”

Dairy cows in paddock
Last season, the 1060 cow herd produced 334,000 kilograms of milksolids and the target for this season is 360,000kg MS.

He shares DHL’s farming philosophy of grass-based production with minimal supplements, using them only if needed to top up any feed shortages and not as a way to increase production.

“That was a big driver for me working for the Guineys and Dairy Holdings, they have the same philosophy and I have no desire to start buying supplements and chasing production. It’s all about maximising that pasture, growing and harvesting the nutrients,” he says.

“I’ve come to New Zealand wanting to do that, I was very clear I wanted to do it from all pasture, no supplement – a bit of silage maybe here and there. That’s my aim as I’ve learned more, I’ve seen how incredibly prolific grass is and how a lot of people have grown from doing it.

“It always made sense in my head that it would be more profitable. The Guineys were really good mentors and role models and I learnt more about financial discipline at Dairy Holdings and any free cash we have we put into buying cows and servicing debt and we’re not having to buy and maintain expensive machinery. Everything’s going into appreciating assets.”

That means a very close focus on pasture growth in summer and spring, at the same time as keeping N use in check to comply with tighter environmental regulations coming in.

“We’re focusing on maximising our pasture growth and having a higher stocking rate in the spring and the summer, when nitrogen uptake is greatest from the plants,” he says.

“Once we get into autumn we use less or no nitrogen and no supplementary feed and get rid of all the empties because that’s when your plants start to take up less N. We’re drying-off cows earlier just to help reduce that risk there.

“That model works well for us because we have to reduce N losses by 35% by 2025 and we’re well on the way over the last two years to achieving that.

“We’ll do less production but we’re still growing a lot of grass and that’s my key KPI, maximising pasture harvest and utilisation. That’s one of our key drivers of profit.”

Like for other farmers, growing grass this past season in Canterbury has been easy, thanks to plentiful rain but the pasture has been of lower quality than usual because of lack of sunshine, but he says there has been an upside to that.

“Sunshine hours in October-November knocked down milk production a little bit so it’s been a little bit of a slow season, but it’s been a kind season because we haven’t had to irrigate and haven’t done much after Christmas at all,” he says.

The herd is wintered off-farm on a DHL block, where they’re fed kale and fodder beet. Young stock are wintered on-farm.

Dairy cows in paddock with fodder beet
The herd is wintered off-farm on a Dairy Holdings block, where they’re fed kale and fodder beet.

Calving starts on July 28 and they keep 25% replacements. Once replacements have been selected, Green keeps surplus heifers to rear for himself and grow his equity. The remainder are bobbied.

“We don’t do anything special. We stick to our rotation planner and our spring feed budget and that’s it,” he says.

A staff member will be designated to feed the calves and Sally helps out in the evenings and weekends.

Mating starts on October 22, with LIC high fertility, high BW crossbred and Jersey semen, using 1.2 straws per cow. Once all the straws are used over about five and a half weeks, sweeper bulls, reared on other DHL farms, take over to complete the 10-week mating period.

No special pre-mating interventions are used, with the focus being on body condition scores and a rising plane of nutrition, targeting light and poor BCS animals to get them up to target weights.

“It’s about breeding better genetics,” he says.

“If you get in there and arse about with CIDRs and whatnot, you’re going to be breeding from animals that aren’t naturally wanting to get in-calf, so we just breed from the fertile ones.”

The six-week in-calf rate is 78%, matching the dairy industry target, but about 7% above the Canterbury average.

“That’s something we’re still trying to improve on, to get those extra days of milking in the spring,” he says.

And the extra days of milking means more income. The dairy award judges noted that finance was one of Green’s strengths and that of his business.

“He has an excellent knowledge of the financial drivers in his business and things that have a direct impact on his financial performance,” judge and senior manager ANZ Michele Cranefield says.

That’s always been part of his make-up, he says.

“I love playing with numbers and I’m always doing Excel spreadsheets and doing the math on opportunities. At the moment I’m always doing quick maths on how far away I am from buying a farm. Sally has more words and colours, but I think I communicate better with numbers.”

Another thing the judges would have noticed is the colourful sign Green’s had made for the side of the cowshed, which lists he and Sally’s business philosophy.

Dairy shed on farm
The Dairy Holdings values and visions align with Will’s own and are on display at the shed.

“We’ve got all our visions and our values there. They’ve always been written down and I’ve done that since I did Biz Start with DairyNZ five years ago and we’ve developed them as we do our goals every year,” he says.

“They say if you write something down it helps keep yourself accountable and then sticking it one a big poster on the side of the shed means everyone else can see what your goals are and they can hold us accountable as well.

“If they turn up and we’ve got brand new utes and all the toys, they’ll be able to say, ‘That’s probably a bit of a crock of shit, really’, and we’re not putting out money towards our goal of farm ownership. It helps us keep our eyes on the prize.”

But though he appreciates the importance of getting the money side of the business right, Green says for him there’s more to dairy farming than that.

“I love working outside, working with the seasons, that’s the beauty of being in New Zealand. If there was no money involved at all, I’d still be working on the pasture thing and working with livestock and working with a great group of people,” he says.

“Money’s not a driver for any of those decisions. I understand the importance of it because we’ve got some very clear goals we want to achieve but I always have to make sure I enjoy the day job and the guys on the farm enjoy the day job, otherwise what’s the point?

“But we’re still extremely hungry and focused on making as much profit as possible but if you’re not enjoying it, you’ll have to change something.

To help make sure the farm team enjoy life Green has formed a five-a-side football team to compete in nearby Ashburton on Monday nights.

“We do get a few South American ring-ins who are friends of the guys working with us so they add some quality to the squad,” he says.

Like most Canterbury dairy farms, the staff are multinational with Sally the only Kiwi, and Will (English), joined by a Uruguayan, an Argentinian and an Irishman. That mix will likely change next season and Green has potential applicants from France, Ireland and Wales.

Dairy Farmer Will Green with other farm workers
Will catches up with some of the team.

“The last two seasons have been tough with the borders being closed and that’s been a challenge for pretty well everyone being at least half a staff unit short the last two years. So I think a lot of people are looking forward to just getting some keen young people on the ground to just take the pressure off,” he says.

Though he aspires to having a farm of his own, he likes being part of Dairy Holdings’ business.

“We certainly enjoy ourselves and see the opportunities. There are a lot of good people with clear goals,” he says.

“I didn’t really think I’d be able to make all our dreams come true but whatever you want to achieve, I think dairy farming has options for everybody.”

Farm Facts

Farm owners: Dairy Holdings Ltd
Location: Hinds, Mid Canterbury
Farm size: 270ha
Herd size: 1060 crossbred cows
Production 2021-22: 334,000kg MS
Production target 2022-23: 360,000kg MS

This article first appeared in the July 2022 issue of Dairy Farmer.

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