Saturday, March 2, 2024

One big ‘farmily’ is the aim

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A Canterbury farming couple have spent their dairy careers learning and sharing what they know – and creating a career in dairy on their terms.
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A Canterbury farming couple who have spent most of their lives on the land are now dedicating themselves to being the change they wish to see in the dairy industry and showcasing that to others.

Wanting to create active change in the industry through being industry leaders, Brent and Rebecca Miller have worked hard during their 20-year dairying careers to gather as much knowledge as possible to set up a top-notch farm business. Their efforts have been noticed by way of numerous awards and now they’re sharing their knowledge and experiences to help other farmers.

The couple farm under the business name MilkIQ, which over time has developed into a platform for them to share the ins and outs of their dairy operation with the wider dairy community.

“At the Dairy Business of the Year awards we won eight awards, and on one of the on-farm days we were asked how we could operate our business on such a low farm working expense. The answer was we capture a lot of that with high production. But we had so many questions on the ‘how’ of that. So we decided to create a website and social media platforms to share what we are doing,” Rebecca says.

They are as transparent as possible, opening up their financials and other figures in the hopes that someone takes away a golden nugget from them that they can implement on their own farm.

“MilkIQ is about going out and talking to people, sharing what we’re doing, listening to people and helping with their problems through our experience and knowledge. We want to see other people thrive in the industry and leave the industry better than we entered it,” she says.

Landeve is a platform designed for farmers, the community, primary industry and associated businesses. It’s where you can find all events in your community region, nationally and eventually internationally.

“It’s also a forum where we can have discussion points, all fed back through back analysis to the industry for the creation of more events. It’s providing a communication pathway between industry and provider to give people what they need for training and events,” Rebecca says.

It is a chilly start to the morning on River Terrace with plenty of snow on the ranges.

The Millers believe that by sharing their journey and “being the change”, they can inspire other farmers to be the type of people and employers that will attract the next generation of farmers and keep the industry moving in a positive direction.

The husband-and-wife team and their three children, Blake, 17, Blair, 14 and Rhianna, 12, operate two dairy farms in Canterbury.

Rebecca grew up in a dairy farming family but, though she loved the country lifestyle, being a farmer wasn’t her first career choice.

“I saw my parents work long, hard days. They experienced burnout and all the other struggles that can come with farming, and I’ll admit it didn’t really appeal,” Rebecca says.

Instead, she launched into a career in the corporate world, working in wholesale travel after completing a degree in travel and tourism. She then jumped on an opportunity with American Express that would see her learn a plethora of skills that would help her when she eventually found her way back to farming.

“I was fairly young working on these massive accounts, monitoring card spending, analysing data and streamlining expenditure. It’s been invaluable for farming and has given us a bit of an edge when it comes to bookkeeping and keeping on top of the financial side of our business,” she says.

Blessed with creative flair as well as an analytical mindset, she added to her skill set with a diploma in graphic design. Now, along with keeping the books in order, she’s also chief designer for all their business branding.

Brent grew up in Christchurch city, with his first proper exposure to farming being when his parents purchased land in Oxford and started a small deer farm.

“It was a bit out of the blue, but once I got over the move I really enjoyed the outdoors. I decided to head to Telford to study a diploma in agriculture, and I quickly figured out that deer farming wouldn’t get me far unless I had a family business, which for us was only small. In learning about the dairy industry, I saw multiple pathways to progress up the ranks,” Brent says.

Brent Miller smiling close up
Brent Miller grew up in Christchurch city, with his first proper exposure to farming being when his parents purchased land in Oxford and started a small deer farm.

During his time at Telford he met Rebecca, and the two kicked off their farming careers not long after. They set about gaining as much experience in different farming systems as possible. From the West Coast to Northland, there’s hardly a part of the country they haven’t farmed in or system they haven’t seen.

“It was important for us to get all of that experience under our belts. It’s given us key insights and observations that a lot of people don’t experience and has been important in setting a foundation for our style of farming now,” Rebecca says.

Asked how they got to where they are now, the couple says two big moments changed their course – the first when they were climbing the ranks through farm assistance to second in charge.

“During this time, we hit a point on a few fronts where we had to decide if we would continue dairy farming. Brent injured his shoulder and couldn’t milk. We decided that if we were going to keep going with dairying, it would be on our terms.”

The couple had to look at what they needed to learn to do just that. They approached Spectrum Group, who mentored, guided, and trained them and were instrumental in reigniting their passion for the industry.

River Terrace and Ealing Pastures, owned by Andy and Rachele Morris, are the two farms the Millers run under their MilkIQ business – and they credit the Morrises with providing their next business breakthrough.

“The second big moment was finding our current farm owners, Andy and Rachele. They’ve been a real turning point in our careers and enabled the success and progression we are experiencing now,” Rebecca says.

Working with them, the couple have gone from management to contract milking to lower order sharemilking, and from one to two farms, to being equity partners on River Terrace and now milking a total of 2500 cows.

Farm manager Osler Dutdut and Brent Miller discuss which paddock the herd is going to after milking.

“They are probably one of our biggest business strengths. We have an open-book policy on both sides, so we all know what’s going on. It makes decision-making a lot easier and faster. There’s mutual respect and trust between us, which means we can confidently make decisions and explain them afterwards,” Rebecca says.

River Terrace was originally used as a dairy support block for the larger partnership that was Ealing Pastures and eventually converted to a dairy platform in the 2014-15 season. The 326ha property started off milking 950 Kiwicross cows, eventually growing to 1150 with the addition of another 75ha of land. It’s mostly flat country with Lismore soils and irrigated by six pivots, and the corners in long-line lateral sprinklers. The farm is run by four full-time staff plus the Millers.

Ealing Pastures has been part of the business for three years and neighbours River Terrace. The 400ha is home to 1385 cows and run by six staff. They have separate staff for each farm to keep things simple.

“Initially, Ealing was milking around 1450 cows, but we did an analysis and figured out that the farm wasn’t operating efficiently as it could with that number of cows, so we dropped numbers slightly,” Rebecca says.

The Millers are known around the district for their happy, fat cows. Twice-yearly condition scoring ensures cows are dried off at 4.5, and anything dropping below 4 is separated and put onto OAD milking, and steps are taken to see what else needs to be changed to improve that score.

With some long walks from bottom paddocks to sheds, the longest being 2.6km, they have management protocols in place to reduce the impact on the cows.

“We set it up so they’re only doing that long walk once a day and will graze closer to the shed during the day. We will also tweak their feed allowance to ensure they’re getting appropriate feeding rates for their energy expenditure. This saves their feet and keeps their condition,” Brent says.

“The ticket to our fat, happy cows really sits in our ability to feed our cows well year round and the foundation of this is our pastures. We have predominately diploid pastures. We’ve tried tetraploids in the past, but they don’t have the persistence when going in alongside the diploids.”

Aerial shot of Canterbury dairy farm with snow-covered mountains in background
An aerial view of River Terrace Dairy, which is 326ha and milks 1150 Kiwicross cows.

Plantain is added into the mix to give persistence during the dryer periods, plus 13ha of fodder beet for transition and autumn feeding. They utilise LIC Land and Feed for pasture walks, which are done twice a week on a Monday and Thursday.

“We do pasture walks on Mondays and Thursdays because pasture growth can get away from us if we aren’t on top of it, especially in September when it starts going reproductive again. We will top behind if it’s getting away on us,” Brent says.

Cows are allocated about 19kg per cow per day, with 85% of their allocation being given at night to ensure they aren’t going hungry. It also encourages good intake over the hotter summer months. They feed in the shoulders to extend lactation and support feed shortfalls to maximise pasture intake by feeding grain and palm kernel in the spring.

During the bulk of the season they have pre-grazing targets of 2800kg-2900kgDM/ha and postgrazing residuals of 1600Kg with a target of 2050kg-2100kg cover at drying off.

“Like everything we do, we want the whole team to be across the pasture situation. Everyone on farm knows where the next paddock is once they hit target residuals, all the information they need is up on the board. Our blanket policy is that cows will never be standing at the gate hungry.”

To keep pasture quality high, they regrass around 10% of each farm yearly, depending on what things look like. One year, they had a third of one farm taken out by grass grub, which meant a higher regrassing percentage to recoup growth.

When it comes to their cows, keeping cows at optimum health and fully fed throughout the season is key to their low farm working expenses and high production. When first starting out, their priority was building herd numbers, but that has now shifted to improving the quality of their stock. Their combined herd is in the top 25% in the country, but they know that they have room to improve.

Man in dairy shed with cattle
Assistant Farm manager Graham Hart runs the heifers through the yard as their introduction to the rotary shed.

“We are now evaluating the bottom-of-the-rank cows and are strategically culling out the bottom of the herd on not just physical traits like production or teats but genetics as well. We want to bring out our herd’s top 25% genetics,” Brent says.

To assist with this, they have been experimenting with sexed semen, with this season’s calves being the first progeny from sexed semen. The herd is Genemarked, and BVD tested regularly.

“Our monitor is fairly simple; we want every cow on the farm producing milk. The herd has gone from producing 400kg of milksolids per cow to 500kg MS since we took it on and this has primarily been through our focus on feed,” Brent says.

A portion of the herd is older than 10 years old. While age is taken into account for their culling policy, they believe that if she’s in good condition, in calf, looks sound and is happy, she stays.

R2s are grazed off farm with a grazier before rejoining the herd as in-calf cows. First-time calvers start calving around July 25 with the main herd starting on August 1 when grass growth starts hitting its stride.

Rebecca used to look after the calf rearing on her own, but she quickly found it not to be a viable option after taking on a second farm. Now, they hire dedicated calf rearers on each farm.

“Myself and Rowena, the wife of one of our staff members, run the sheds, and we hire calf rearers as well. They’ve been hard to find this year, though, due to the flow-on effects of border closures and covid-19,” Rebecca says.

Each calf gets colostrum for the first four feeds; anything that won’t drink is tubed to ensure they get a good dose of liquid gold. From there, they are fed twice a day for two weeks before transitioning to once-a-day feeds.

“They get milk, free access to pea straw and some concentrates with molasses. We’ve also been doing pro-calf as well, 5ml on entry followed by 2ml per calf per day. Once we get to a mob of 80 we debud then transfer to a new shed where they are trained on our 120-feeder truck in preparation for going out in the paddock,” she says.

People in calf shed
Brent and Rebecca catch up with assistant calf rearer Katrina Keenan on River Terrace farm to see how the newborn calves are doing.

Planned start of mating is on October 25 each year with premate checks starting from August 30. Tail paint is used during premating, and once mating proper has kicked off, Kamars are also introduced. Mating consists of seven weeks AI followed up with the bull.

“With this being our first season getting calves from sexed semen, we’re keen to see how it will go. If we get too many replacements, we may knock back AI a few weeks. We eventually want to go to five weeks AI,” Brent says.

Empty rates across the farms tend to sit between 13%-17%. They have been working at pushing that back a bit through their work with their genetics and looking at their nutrition.

“We’ve been finding that we have some cows who aren’t getting pregnant till they hit the bull. So we’ve been looking in particular at the protein in their feed. We don’t think it’s the fodder beet causing it but likely the protein in feed in that second week of mating. We’ll look to do some herbage tests this year to confirm, so that will be interesting to see those results,” Brent says.

Antibiogram testing revealed that the Ealing Pastures herd had problems with streptococcus and staphylococcus aureus infections that had immunity to most drugs. The problem was isolated to about 70 cows in the herd.

“We culled those cows, and for some cows, we know we need to keep away from certain brands of penicillin. We have a slightly higher SCC than we would like, but we are aware that a big reason for this is the slightly older average age of our herd. We expect this to improve as we work towards breeding from our top 25%,” says Rebecca.

Fertiliser use is done on an as-needs basis. The two farms mostly lack in selenium and copper but have a steady Olsen P average that sits between 22 and 27. About 180kg of nitrogen is applied across both farms at a variable rate based on soil-testing results with proof of placement through Hawke Eye and Ravensdown.

“We do per-hectare soil testing every three years, so we only prescribe what we need on each hectare. While it costs $30,000 for the test, we save a lot more than that on base fertiliser alone. Ealing farms has its own fertiliser truck with GPS and variable rate system enabling accurate placement,” Brent says.

Man riding quad bike in paddock spreading fertiliser
A staff member dusts the paddock with magnesium.

River Terrace has two stage effluent ponds with a second pond with an artificial bladder on it and irrigates over 50% of the farm.

“We can go down to 5ml applications on both farms. We are consented across both farms to apply effluent on the whole farm, it’s just a matter of when and where we utilise this. We have 60-day storage on River Terrace and 40-day storage on Ealing Pastures,” he says.

Along with focusing on their farm business, the two have completed the Kellogg’s Rural Leadership programme and Rebecca is active in Dairy Women’s Network.

The couple often uses the term “farmily” when discussing their business. They developed and trademarked the word, which they say refers to an intentional community on farm who look out for one another – a cohesive environment where they look at the whole person.

“Employment is layered and complex, as all people are different. It’s about developing authentic relationships and heightens the need to be an employer of choice and an employer of trust,” Rebecca says.

“People are key to the cream on top, and the environment we live in as farmers is always changing, volatile and dynamic. We cannot leave the farm and expect that the farm will be okay if we lock the gate and just walk away. So having a great team that knows the intricacies of the whole operation is so important.”

Having 10 staff across two farms to manage is a big task for them, but during their time in the industry they’ve honed their skills in this area and look to lead by example.

“We’ve hunted out our shortfalls and places where we can grow. Staff management was one of these and is an area we now really pride ourselves on. We want to provide our staff with a working environment that allows them to thrive on all levels,” Rebecca says.

Riparian planting has been done around the cowshed and other areas.

They aim for zero skill gap loss, meaning everyone on the farm is trained to do everything while maintaining the ability to go into a hierarchy when need be. They also focus on ensuring they know what their team wants and tailoring training and opportunities to suit.

The staff take an active role in how the farm is run and their employment terms. A great example of this is their roster, which has evolved to a 6 in 2 system with light duties on weekends.

“It’s a setup they decided on together. A typical week is 42 hours, but even over calving, the maximum they’ll do is 52. They’ve chosen that on the last day of their roster, they work a half day, and on their first day back, they get a sleep-in start and begin work at the morning team meeting. It makes it less stressful to return to work,” said Rebecca.

There is flexibility in the team for people to take off to attend school events, doctor visits and other things without repercussions on farm or on their annual leave balance. When it’s time to look at hiring new staff members, they involve the team to ensure any new hires are a good fit for the team.

“Because we aren’t operational any more, it’s essential to involve the team to ensure we’re hiring someone who is going to fit the culture of the existing team. We’ve included the team and they know that this is their farm too. This approach means they are great at voicing their ideas and take real ownership of the place,” she says.

A large focus when it comes to their team management is ensuring their people don’t burn out or get injured on the job. This comes after Brent’s days in the milking shed were cut short when he injured a rotator cuff several years ago.

“Our staff only milk 1.5 hours a day once a day each. We want to reduce that repetitive use syndrome and, across the whole farm, work out ways of reducing risk of injury. This comes down to good training and health and safety protocols,” Brent says.

The farm business is now at a point where they can leave for two weeks and know it will be well cared for by their teams. They joke that they’ve almost made themselves redundant in that respect, but it’s allowed them to keep their focus on the high-level aspects of the business to help it keep moving forwards. Ultimately, they have created a career in the dairy industry on their terms, just like they set out to at the start.

This article first appeared in Dairy Farmer September 2022

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