Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Lessons from New Zealand

Season's greetings to everyone reading this. I hope 2015 was a good year for you and that 2016 proves a prosperous one.

I haven't blogged for a while now, I've been enjoying time with my family and thought it best to wait until I felt a bit more "inspired" by a particular topic. So without further digression here's a blog all about my recent trip to New Zealand.

If you'd rather not read the "travelogue" then just skip to the bullet points!

It seems like a long time since I first read about NZ and grass based dairying. When I came home from university, my wife was living and working away whilst qualifying as a teacher, this left me with a lot of time to learn about the farming business my parents were then running. A typical evening would consists of finishing milking, showering, eating, then simply sitting and reading articles, journals and magazines on kiwi dairying. It fascinated me that there could be such a well researched and clearly defined system for operating a dairy farm, and yet its practices were adopted by only a minority of UK farmers. I knew one day I would have to visit NZ and see for myself.

Last November I set off for three weeks on the Positive Farmers NZ tour. This is a biennial tour run by Mike Murphy. The program looked appealing, starting in the north and working our way down to the south of NZ, taking in all the major dairying regions.

It was a well organised tour, with some important and very clear messages imparted to the group. In fact a lot of the value of the trip was gained in the interaction of the group on the bus with Mike orchestrating and guiding debate. These moments, where we were each encouraged to give our own take and engage in debate with each other, will stand as some of the most enjoyable and memorable of the tour. Topics from goal setting to our own individual farm issues were opened up to the group with really interesting discussion.

I'll confess straight away that the first week was a shock to the system. Now, as you may have guessed, I love cows and farming, but I do endeavour to have "other interests" and not become a "farming bore" as I'm regularly accused! So the idea of two farm visits a day, with not much respite in between, wore thin quicker than I had hoped. Not to mention it took me a good four days just to recover from the jet lag!

One problem for me, was just how similar the farms we were taken to were. They were largely System 1 or 2 farms with little to no imported supplement fed and cows wintered on deferred grazing. This is the ultimate simple system with minimal infrastructure. So apart from the cows and grass there really wasn't much to see. It was explained that this in itself was a problem for kiwi farmers. It is simply too easy to be a dairy farmer in NZ. Climate, banks, genetics, land availability; all their ducks line up neatly in a row for them. Boredom was a big fear for them, and is partly responsible for the intensification of systems they have experienced in the last 10 years.

Whilst it was clear that these "simple system" farmers were fantastic businessmen who, in staying true to their system and not following the crowd, had reaped huge financial reward, some of what I encountered was simply "not cool".

A typical narrative was one of a young sharemilker starting out with a small herd and really valuing each one. But as their numbers expanded and they moved to multi-unit management, cows just became numbers. They became so fixated by their "nil-supplement" system that when a drought occurred, or a spring deficit the only options they had were to cull hard, "chop their heads off", or "mine body condition", another term for this was "controlled starvation". A lot was made of the resilience of their cows to lose condition and still get in calf. Cows which over conditioned themselves were callously referred to as "fat bitches". To me this goes against everything I believe about the care of cows. I have always been taught that it is a privilege to rear and milk livestock and that we have a duty of care towards every animal. This isn't to say that every farmer on this system felt the same, but attitude towards cows with certain individuals was nothing short of disturbing.

Deforestation for dairying

Another aspect which surprised me was the sheer prevalence of dairying in NZ. We drove up to the North Island town of Taupo. Along the way we saw miles and miles of deforestation. Then as the trees were cleared the ground was being cultivated and sown to ryegrass for dairying. Until recently any woodland which was removed had to be replanted somewhere else. A change in this law now means that NZ's forestry is declining at an alarming rate. This seems particularly perverse when you consider that tourism is such a vital part of NZ's economy. Marketed and traded heavily on their unique natural beauty, bit by bit this is being eroded to plant more European ryegrass species, to milk more cows.

Now I don't want to end on a negative. The above stands as my own thoughts and reaction to a very unique trip, and should by no means be taken as an indictment of the entire country or dairy industry. In fact none of the farms we visited could be described as representing the average in any way. A lot of the language I have quoted, was in all likelihood an exaggeration on behalf of a few individuals and not, if pressed, their true feelings.

I did take home a lot from the trip, as I've tried to summarise below. I met some really great people, especially our host family in Taranki, and saw some absolutely jaw dropping scenery and natural beauty. There's no doubt I'll return to NZ one day with my family in tow and hopefully explore more of its unique landscapes.

Key Take Home Messages:
  • Simple systems provide more free time to asses opportunities and grow.
  • Simple systems are, by their very nature, more repeatable in both establishment and outcomes.
  • Having clearly defined goals and values allow you to make smarter decisions. If you are in business with someone else it is important that these goals are delineated from the outset and aligned.
  • "Free Time" is as equally valid a goal as "Free Cash", though the two may not be mutually exclusive.
  • Debt levels should be set according to the capabilities of the operator and their personal approach to risk. "Back yourself" was a common phrase. If you run a cash rich business, you can service debt, if you can service debt you can grow your business.

1 comment:

  1. You make it sound so interesting and I have been wanting to take my wife to New Zealand for a long time. There is so much to do and see and the scenery is unique and stunning. It looks like you enjoyed your trip - one day I am sure you will make it back.