Friday, December 8, 2023

Family affair proves to be a winning combo

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There is plenty of room on a Taranaki farm for the whole family to work side-by-side. Ross Nolly reports. 
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The dream of many farmers is to have a family member return to work on and maybe even take over the family farm. 

For farmers Deidre and Vernon Cleaver that dream has come to fruition with son Shane, 31, and  daughter Natasha (Tash) Hepburn, 27, now running their Tokaora farm near Hawera as contract milkers.

The farm was originally a 40ha sheep unit bought by Vernon’s grandfather. 

Over the years it has been added to, developed and is now an award-winning 290ha dairy farm. 

Cleaver Farms won two categories in the 2018 Dairy Business of the Year Awards – Best Taranaki Farm Performance and the Business Resilience Award, which the family says was a big achievement for them. It is a sure sign their management practices are on-point and garnering them well-deserved success.

DBOY judges said as winners of the Business Resilience Award, Cleaver Farms had the lowest cost of production at $3.09/kg MS and the highest operating profit margin at 48.6% in the category so was a clear winner.

“An impressive pasture harvest of 15.9 tonnes of DM/ha and pasture represented 87.7% of all feed consumed. Running a tight ship with excellent cost control ensure their win in this category,” judges said.

Winning the Best Taranaki Farm award was down to a very strong performance and excellent cost control achieving 397kg MS/cow on an 88% pasture system. That resulted in an excellent operating surplus in an improved payout season.

The awards used farm data from the 2016-17 season as are the farms KPIs.

Tash and Shane run a similar system to what their parents did. They have explored other methods but have decided their parents’ methods still best suit the farm and there’s no point reinventing the wheel, especially after their win.

Good communication is the key ingredient in making the Cleavers’ farm run in an efficient manner and help ease any potential succession issues. The farm is set up as a company and Tash and Shane are also directors. The family has regular meetings to discuss budgets and other farm management topics.

“It would be fair to say that Tash and Shane do all the day-to-day work and make those decisions. We may talk about things but if they think something needs to be done they go and do it. We’re acutely aware of busy and stressful times so we try to kick in there to help out,” Vernon says.

“The big thing to us is that the kids have wanted to be involved. 

“The transition has to happen so they can pick up the mantle and it’s nice to see them involved.”

On a clear day the view of Mount Taranaki from the cowshed is spectacular.

When Tash and Shane began working on the farm they needed to learn how the job was done before adopting and trying different methods. Vernon and Deidre have upgraded plant and equipment to make the farm operation run more efficiently and are considering future upgrades.

“We’ve spent quite a bit of capital on infrastructure but the industry has just come through a downturn so, like everyone else, we’re holding the cards a bit tighter at the moment. I’m sure the industry will turn as we’ve been through these situations before. The last downturn knocked a lot of us around and it will take a while to get back on track again,” Vernon says.

A new effluent system has recently been installed after their resource consent expired. The old settling pond didn’t require lining. It only needed blocking up to be used as storage pond that could be pumped from. 

The Cleavers say dairy farming is not a simple occupation. It requires a good knowledge of maths, science, record keeping, staff management and many other functions. And that’s before taking all the variables like weather and animal husbandry into account.

It’s also an unpredictable business environment with many variables that need to be foreseen. Weather conditions, animal health, global trends, government regulations, local and global financial conditions are all factors in the efficient running of a dairy farming business. 

“On a beautiful, sunny day you couldn’t get a better life. You’re always learning things, it’s not just milking cows. Yet some people think it’s a case of putting cups on cows and ask what we do for the rest of the day,” Tash says.

“There’s always something to do and it’s always rewarding to see something that you have put into practice come to fruition.” 

Shane has no interest in sitting in an office. He enjoys working outside. However, getting up at 4am in the spring when there’s a howling southerly blowing he sometimes thinks an office job wouldn’t be a bad gig.

“In this day and age dairy farming is quite an intense job and anyone who still thinks dairy farming is a basic occupation doesn’t understand the complexity of the job. Most dairy farms are multi-million dollar businesses, sometimes being run by one person,” Shane says.

“When you go through summer and the workload drops you get a better lifestyle. You can set the operation up so that you can get away fishing every now and then.” 

Tash plays social touch and netball as a way to get off the farm and wind down. She enjoys going to the gym and water-skiing on Lake Rotorangi. 

Shane takes any chance to go fishing and diving. During summer the beach is his go-to spot for a relaxing time. Most days he tries to do some form of exercise and finds a gym workout to be a good release after a big day on the farm. 

The Cleavers’ farm has been in the family for a long time. Vernon and Deidre say they are fortunate to see another generation return to the farm. 

“We’re lucky that they’re interested in working on the farm because it enables a smooth transition and it also gives us some direction because where do you go otherwise? You just keep trucking along until you put up the white flag,” Vernon says.  

“Having family involved gives more security around the farming operation and, of course, now we can also have the occasional day off. They make a good job of it and really look after the farm.”

Owners: Deidre and Vernon Cleaver
Contract milkers: Shane Cleaver and Natasha Hepburn
Location: Tokaora, Hawera, Taranaki
Size: 256ha effective, 290ha total, 7ha runoff
Cows: 810-820 Kiwicross
Production target: 420kg MS/cow
Target 2018-19: 335,000kg MS

Cleaver Farms’ KPIs

Location: Taranaki


Effective area: 243.50ha

Milk prod: 3976kg MS/cow, 1369kg MS/ha

Return on capital: 5%

Operating profit margin: 46.8%

Operating profit/ha: $4514

Cost of production/kg MS: $3.09

Operating expenses/kg MS: $3.75

Pasture harvest tDM/ha: 15.9

Pasture % of feed: 87.7%

Core per cow costs: $541

Labour efficiency cows/FTE: 219

Environ score out of 15: 7

HR Scout out of 15: 9.1

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