Friday, April 12, 2024

Investing in company culture key to Mid North Farms’ success

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Mid North Farms in Northland works hard to make the most of  the pasture – and the people – it has, designing a ‘looped’ farm systems to maximise production.
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Mid North Farms is one of the largest private farming operators in Northland, producing 874,000kg milk solids across five dairy farms as well as finishing beef.

And it’s the 30 staff who make it possible, Mid North Farms executive director Chris Neill says.

The farm teams are run by 22 full-time farming staff with the rest made up of off-farm staff, part-time relief milkers and assistants.

Neill says that in the past three years the business has undergone a huge transition in how it manages its staff. 

Central to that change was building up a culture in the business of people who want to be part of the business, rather than just wanting a job.

“We’re feeling pretty happy with where we have got to now. We’re in the very happy position of that everyone who is in our business now – they want to be here and we want them to be here.”

Knowing the difficulty in attracting high calibre dairy staff to the region, the company invested heavily in housing and ensured the company’s culture is one their staff want to work in.

“They have to be comfortable at home and their family need to be happy there if you are to have any sort of chance of attracting somebody and retaining competent staff in this part of the world.

“The other part along with that is progressively encouraging them to upskill so they can do the job they have got now and also find a way to progress in the industry or with us,” he says.

That progression includes encouraging staff to upskill themselves with further training such as through Primary ITO.

Neill says they also instill a sense of ownership in their farm managers.

“The approach we take to the managers is that we tell them, ‘This is your farm within our business’.”

Mid North Farms executive director Chris Neill says they instill a sense of ownership in their farm managers. Left to right, Mid North Farms general manager with farm managers Phil Oates and Tom Stilwell, and Neill.

The managers are expected to develop a plan for where they see the farm progressing to, which includes setting and running a budget.

Included in that plan are goals around stock and animal performance. 

The managers have monthly meetings with general manager Aaron Bendall, and have a team that takes care of the day-to-day business of running the farm.

The business is privately owned and had been in Northland for eight years when it purchased its first dairy farm in 2016. 

Since then, it has grown to nine properties. Five of these farms are dairy along with a calf-rearing unit and a dairy support unit, with the remaining two farming beef and forestry respectively.

Four of the five farms are spring calving, spanning 1052 hectares in total and 800ha effective, located south of Kaikohe at Mangakāhia.

These farms run around 1800 cows in total, running herds ranging from 240 to 650 cows.

The fifth dairy farm is a 368ha effective autumn calving farm that is located further north in Matauri Bay, milking 700 cows. 

The dairy support farm is 550ha effective running 7700 stock units, the calf-rearing unit is 4ha, the beef finishing farm is 762ha running 11,600 stock units and the forestry block is 1000ha.

Production across the farms was targeted at 874,000kg MS for this season, which Neill says they are on target to reach.

Their near-term production goal is to reach 1 million kg MS, which Neill says that could be achieved through improving herd performance.

The farms run as integrated business units, with each unit being overseen by a manager.

One of the four spring-calving farms is a designated heifer farm where in-calf heifers from the dairy support unit are milked and calved for the first time for a season.

From there, they are transferred to the neighbouring three-year-old cow farm the following season.

After that, they are sorted into one of the two mixed-age cow farms.

Mid North Farms general manager Bendall describes the cow’s journey as a loop. They are reared in the calf-rearing unit before heading to the dairy support unit until they are ready to join the heifer farm. 

“The heifers calve there for their first year and their second year, then they flow through to what we call our Piccadilly Farms – which is our MA cow farms. They are all three-year-olds and above down there.”

Bendall says they are in their third season of using this system, having changed from a more conventional system where each of the farms kept their heifers through their life cycle.

“We decided to trial it out and it just worked really well. Heifers get bullied by older cows and it was quite good to let heifers develop without that competition.”

It allowed the staff at the heifer farm to focus solely on raising these cattle when it came to training them in the milking shed.

Mid North Farms have undergone a serious investment in their 4ha calf-rearing unit, which is capable of housing close to 1000 calves with 2500 calves going through the unit every year.

It is also more practical. The calf-rearing unit adjoins the runoff where the cows are raised as in-calf heifers.

The cattle are then walked down the race to the heifer farm, where they have their first calf.

Mid North Farms’ mixed-age cow farms are 10km up the road and the cattle are trucked up to there when they leave the heifer farm.

All of the calves born across all of the farms are transferred to the calf-rearing unit at four days old, where the cycle begins again. 

The rearing unit and the support block raise both replacement and non-replacement calves with the latter walked across the road to the beef finishing farm once they reach target weights.

The 100% autumn-calving farm operates slightly differently.  There, the calves are transferred in batches to the calf-rearing unit at 4-10 days of age.  

They are reared to 74kg liveweight then transferred to the dairy support unit (DSU) and grown to 100-110kg liveweight.

At that stage, the cattle are selected to be reared as replacement heifers for the autumn-calving herd or they are transferred to the beef finishing unit.

The farms are all predominantly pasture based, feeding out home-grown supplements in the summer, during the winter wet and in the shoulders of the season, sitting at around 2.5 in intensity.

“Northland farmers will appreciate that it’s very hard to be a straight System 2 up here because the grass doesn’t grow for long enough,” Neill says.

As well as its people, Mid North Farms has heavily invested in its Mangakāhia farms’ infrastructure, improving its fencing, water supply, pastures, effluent system and housing.

“This is to ensure that the farms deliver what we want and that they are a place where people want to work,” Neill says.

Farm assistant Denver Catedrilla keeps an eye on the cows during milking in the pit of one of Mid North Farms’ spring calving farms. 

Inside the milking sheds, they use MINDA software to track the cows and have just completed 12 months of using Halter on the autumn-calving farm.

The beef farm uses FARMAX to monitor farm performance and will use this software in its other farms next season.

This will let the heifer farm manager monitor the progress of the young stock on the support block prior to these cattle joining the herd and that they hit their target weights.

Bendall says this season so far has been good. Summer has gone well and the rain in February was readily welcomed.

“It’s been a pretty typical season for us which is quite nice considering the last couple of years that we have had.”

Per-cow production is on a par with previous years, he says.

Calving on the Mangakāhia farms starts on July 1, with all of the cows including the new heifers on the heifer farm – and those joining the mixed-age farms – have been shifted to their locations by June 10.

Calving usually occurs across 10-12 weeks and is staggered across the farms to account for the different pasture growth rates across the farms. 

In-calf heifers that are mating for the autumn herd are sent to the farm in February for calving in March. Mating starts in early June for that herd and gets underway for the spring-calving farms on September 20.

The cows are inseminated followed by natural mating using Hereford bulls. 

This season, the autumn herd are being mated with low birthweight Hereford genetics to enable them to use every animal that is calved.

Those cows breeding replacement calves are mated with genetics to produce a Kiwicross calf with a black and white Friesian influence.

All of the animals are dried off up to 65 days ahead of calving on both farms, depending on condition score, health and milk volume. 

Mid North Farms has invested heavily in improving pastures on its properties. Managing these pastures while dealing with the impacts of climate change has been extremely challenging, with pasture resilience being an ongoing issue on the farms.

Historically, grasses would last up to five years.

“Now, with the typical grasses we are using, we would be lucky to get two years out of it, and we’re trying to manage around that,” Bendall says.

One of the farm’s dogs rounds up a mob of steers on Mid North Farms’ beef finishing farm.

Kikuyu grass is also a dominant species and spreads to cover the farms’ pastures if left unchecked.

As a result, pasture is a precious commodity, and Bendall and his team aim to keep wastage to an absolute minimum.

Farm staff regularly plate meter the paddocks and follow a spring rotation planner. This, along with input from Bendall, helps determine feed allocation and round length throughout the year.

The aim is to leave a cover of around 1500-1550kg DM/ha post-grazing through the season.

Anything lower, and the pastures can be trashed and the cows will not eat it. The staff control the surplus above that and turn any surplus into grass silage either as bales or stored in pits.

The farms are soil tested annually and fertiliser applications on the paddocks are based on those readings. 

Mowing those paddocks and creating that supplementary feed is a must in the business to ensure the cows are properly fed and to reduce palm kernel usage.

A large portion of that silage is mown off the support unit and transferred to the dairy farms as required, reducing the need to import outside supplements.

“We utilise every blade of grass that we can,” Bendall says.

“The big part of our silage policy is to ensure that we are making high quality rather than high volume,” Neill adds.

Bendall says they prepare for the worst when it comes to summer management – which is why they produce as much silage as possible.

“It does get extremely dry now. I don’t think we have had a typical summer now for five years.”

Supplements, particularly home-grown grass silage, play a critical role in maintaining cow condition across all of Mid North Farms’ properties.

The cattle do get fed some grass, but the bulk of their diet through this season is supplementary feed.

This includes the grass silage as well as 105ha of maize and 60ha of turnips – all of which are homegrown – and palm kernel.

During winter, the paddocks are extremely prone to pasture damage and the focus turns to pasture protection and each farm has designated areas where the cattle are stood off to prevent pugging.

The mixed-age cow farms, for example, have an off-grazing block called Flintstones that contains a large number of rocks; the cows are fed out supplementary feed to maintain condition.

The large range of soil variability across the farms makes this especially challenging for the farm managers. Rather than a set, broad-brush policy, the managers consider the paddock’s soil type when determining round length.

“We have paddocks that you couldn’t pug if you tried and you have some that you could bury the cows in,” Bendall says.

Mid North Farms’ 4ha calf-rearing unit is another part of the business that has undergone a serious investment.

Considerable thought went into flooring for the calf pens and the new unit houses close to 1000 calves, with 2500 calves going through the unit every year.

The site where the unit sits has a concrete floor from an old silage bunker allowing them to consider grating options during its development. A robust, non-slip composite grating was installed. This is raised off the floor on 65mm chairs enabling washing and sanitising of the grating and floor. This, along with the sloping floor allows the waste to be flushed through the shed under the grating into an existing dairy effluent sump and then spread out onto the land.

The setup provides a warm, dry, non-slip environment within the pens.

“We believe we have provided as good as you can get by way of a facility. Then it gets down to our people in terms of calf health and growth and alongside that, making sure that the feeding regime is as economic as we can possibly get it.”

The calves enter the unit at four days old and spend six weeks in the pens with a target weight of over 70kg.

They are then run outdoors on paddocks until they reach 100kg and drafted off either to go to the beef unit or the support block, depending on their breed.

All of the young stock – both beef and dairy – are weighed monthly and are vaccinated with Rotovac when they arrive at the unit.

Mid North Farms has around 900ha of radiata plantation forestry and close to 100ha on the farms planted in trees where the land is unsuitable for stock.

Mid North Farms’ effluent infrastructure has also been redeveloped.  Some of the farms – including the autumn-calving farm – currently have a consent to discharge treated effluent into waterways.

But with this due to expire in 2025, the business has been proactive in upgrading its effluent infrastructure to future-proof the business, including a new pond at the autumn-calving farm.

“By next year, all of our effluent systems will be operating without discharge to water,” Neill says.

As well as having close to 900ha in radiata for production forestry, Mid North Farms also has close to 100ha on the farms planted in trees where the land is unsuitable for stock.

Looking ahead, Neill sees challenges on the environmental front, and he questions what the future of a pastoral farming business looks like in Northland when pasture resilience is such an issue.

“My view is that to be sustainable with pastures, that only last two to three years. It isn’t going to work.”

He believes the reason so many pastures fail in Northland is that the market is not large enough for seed companies to specifically design a plant for Northland conditions.

“The seeds that we can get are really designed for the Waikato and Canterbury – and I understand why they do that.”

But there’s also opportunity. 

Mid North Farms can still grow in terms of improving the performance of both dairy cows and the beef herd and making sure they employ the right people. 

“You can switch that around – we want to employ the right people to get the best out of our farms.”

This article first appeared in our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.

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