Flex-able Farms

These days, business adaptability is key. Whether it requires a change mindset, diversification, risk management or adopting new tools and techniques. This month, The Farmlander reconnected with past featured shareholders to discover how their operations are flexing to respond to change.

 

Burnlea Dairy Limited, Central Southland

Harley Churstain likes to "fly under the radar" but it appears he is not very good at it. The Winton dairy farmer featured in Farmlands' television advertisements last year and the accompanying Farmlander write-up.

"Hollywood hasn't come knocking but I did get heaps of grief from my friends," he quips.

In some respects, such as personnel and wellbeing, Harley and wife Nicky's 850-cow operation has not changed. The staff that featured in the 2018-produced ads, Josh, Brody and Dave are still going strong. The staff of five pick their own roster at this time of year to fit in hobbies like rugby and hunting.

"It's a team effort. We are happy to work in with them if it keeps our staff happy. At this time of year, we only need two milking so we can provide a bit of flex," Harley says.

Like all farmers, Harley has one eye on efficiency gains and yield improvements. A significant recent development that sets them up nicely for spring is the sizeable calving pad that can fit up to 600 cows. The whole team is excited about making best use of this investment to calve the cows.

"We now have all our cows in one place just behind the cowshed and by the staff houses so they can keep an eye on the cows and their calves. There's no mud to contend with, no moving them around and we can avoid putting our cows on crop which reduces the environmental footprint on our heavy soils.

"It's a great facility and bloody easy," Harley enthuses, having done most of the preparation work themselves. With a 170m concrete feed lane, the cows just step up to eat and loaf around on the wood chip, keeping dry and warm. The chip provides a sterile place to give birth and came from the property's old macrocarpa trees which will be replanted for future chipping.

The crew are also trialling lifting fodder beet this spring. As well as increasing crop yield, with stock off paddock they hope to better preserve soil structure.

The couple are in the process of acquiring more land for cropping beet and cutting more silage. "We want to become more self-contained, within our operation," Harley says.

Then there is the need to respond to external situations.

During the recent COVID-19 lockdown, the Churstains made sure staff interaction was limited. "Luckily our rotary shed is moderately automated, so we only had to have one guy on milking at a time." Harley says seeing pollution drop internationally during lockdown was an "eye opener", highlighting how non-agricultural outputs impact the environment.

"I hope this means farmers won't always be seen as the 'bad guys'. We're passionate about making the farm environment better for future generations."

The recent summer floods did not affect the property but the inclement weather posed a big problem. "We had days and days of rain last spring so we were chasing our tail at the start of the season —it was hard on the top 2 inches but we battled through," he reflects.

"Like many around here we've had to put extra feed in and reduce our stocking rate. It's a credit to the boys that we should end up producing the same milksolids as last year. I try to take it as it comes and make a point of letting things go that I can't control. I have a great wife and family - we, like all farmers, have our tough times but I believe it's how you respond to it that makes the difference."

 

Lone Star Farms, various South Island locations

Given the impact of COVID-19, General Manager Boyd MacDonald is thankful that Lone Star Farms invested in management software a few years back, as discussed with The Farmlander in late 2018. Their focus on staff, plans and data has helped them respond to risk.

"The pandemic has certainly changed things, even permanently in some respects," he reflects.

Six sheep and beef properties are dotted around the South Island and in total the business farms 100,000 stock units on 14,700ha. Since COVID-19 hit New Zealand, the Farm Managers interact with central office staff in Nelson twice a week via Zoom video meetings to share ideas and plug any gaps.

The lockdown response meant each operation needed their own staff policy and farm teams were divided up. In line with their focus on work culture and people safety, Lone Star Farms' management liaised with staff as well as their partners, answering concerns directly and ensuring 'bubbles' were considered.

"I felt sorry for staff that were away from their partners. They still had social contact within their farm bubble but we made sure to reach out to them and ask if they were okay," he says.

"Some of our staff are now taking a holiday so they can reconnect with loved ones. It's important to us that we are flexible, to reward their efforts."

Risk management is an ongoing mantra for Boyd, and diversification plays a key part. While retail programmes tracked well during and post-lockdown, demand for their premium lamb product has declined given their reliance on the restaurant trade.

"The impact on food services has hit hard but export-wise, our marketing and procurement partners all have robust sales strategies and keep us informed of market movement. We have a weekly dialogue with them which is reassuring."

Indeed, the company's strong relationships have come to the fore lately, helping to mitigate the financial impact of low stock-kill numbers and feed pressures.

"Our farms went dry at the same time and then came the battle to get stock killed, so it's been a perfect storm really."

Boyd says data collection has been pivotal. Be it in Farm IQ software or their own modelling spreadsheets, the team put feed data into budgets to work out stocking rates for winter.

While crops are good, they know winter feed is going to be tight so managers are constantly assessing supplementary feed and how far they can get through. To cope, Lone Star Farms has moved stock around; within their own farms and on other properties too.

"We have had to exit stock in order to weather the storm, so we've put them out on share farming and profit-share arrangements. We care about our animals and them reaching their potential so we remain focused on weight gain and condition score. While we still own the stock, our aim is to accept the market risk but reduce the feed risk," he explains.

While their focus since Christmas has been on the "here and now", the company's emphasis on planning is significant. They have had Environmental Plans in place for 4 years and are always looking to protect and enhance their environment further.

"You're never finished on an Environmental Plan, it's a live document. "The great thing is it's part of our standard business model now –whenever we are subdividing for example, we look at where we can improve things like water quality," he says.

In other developments, the company is currently upgrading its website, which will be particularly helpful given one of its properties, Puponga Farm in Golden Bay, is open to the public 365 days a year.

Lone Star Farms has also invested in more side-by-sides over the last 18 months. "It's all about the best vehicle for the job. Whenever a vehicle needs replacing, we analyse different products on the market and look to make the best safety decision."

Boyd's biggest learning from the pandemic was the importance of building resilience into existing plans, by way of businessdiversification and preparing exit  strategies as risk mitigation.

"None of us know what is around the corner but COVID-19 has been a wake-up call and is an opportunity to reset the button in business and in life. Our staff look to each other for support during times of change and that means making sure they are really, truly okay."

 

 

Waipapa Station, Central Hawke's Bay

Tree planting, technology and a couple of awards have kept Evan and Linda Potter busy since we last caught up with them a year ago in The Farmlander. While their focus on best land use for land type is as strong as ever, a tough drought means things are looking tight for winter.

"It's been a very challenging season; we haven't seen a dry spell like this since 1998. Back then we were coming off a good spring but this time it was an average spring, so we've had to de-stock heavily," Evan says.

The 740ha property usually runs approximately 5,000 stock units comprising of cattle, sheep and deer. The dry period has meant the Potters have had to downsize by 800–00 stock units compared to last winter, through lowering cattle numbers and not running hoggets or trading lambs. The deer, however, are sticking around.

"Deer are back a bit, but most are capital stock and we don't trade in deer. I'm happy to get sheep and cattle off the property but I'll keep the deer!" Evan says with a laugh.

Back in July 2019, the velvet trade was booming with exports flying off the property. Venison was not far behind but with lockdown restrictions shutting restaurants, this has taken a hit.

"Luckily the velvet went out before COVID-19 hit and we had a pretty solid season. Things are still a bit grey on how the market will look post-COVID but the signs are promising. Venison is a different story –restaurants are not buying so there is a lot of pressure on the market," Evan notes.

"It's not all doom and gloom, there is good opportunity for product diversification, education and finding other outlets in the venison market now. I think the market will have to reposition itself to do this however, as many consumers are voting with their wallets and don't want to pay that premium price. We've always got a full freezer on the farm though!"

Evan and Linda's best-land-use-for-land-type philosophy is a highlight of their operation and since we spoke last, they have retired another 9–0ha to the existing QEII Covenant block of 130ha. They have also planted another 14ha of pines into the steeper hill country.

Offsetting their carbon through planting, combined with a concentrated effort to preserve and protect waterways and manage nutrients, earned them a premier award in the Deer Industry Environmental Awards last year. This year, Waipapa Station has pulled in the Ballance East Coast Supreme Farm Environmental Award, among other regional awards.

The awards were a bright light in a tough season, although Evan and Linda have kept their chins up very well over the last 6 months.

"We are a pretty well isolated bubble at the end of the road but the drought and COVID has really brought home the value of long-term relationships," Evan emphasises.

"We've got a maize supplier that we have had a contract with for 22 years, which meant we have been able to get feed for our stock when others might not have. You really notice that in times like these, long-term relationships come home to roost."

A strong community and a good network of friends has helped keep the Potter family connected and Evan has got the hang of Zoom calls.

"We've been involved in various meetings and have introduced a bit more technology. It's pretty handy, you work your day on the farm, have tea and then jump on your computer while in your armchair. Typically, we would usually do 600–00km of driving over this length of time so there have been some positives to staying home.

"We try to focus on what we can control. Every day is another day towards rain and another day towards spring. There is always hope!"