Couple focused on better dairying

GERALD PIDDOCK
Last updated 06:48 16/07/2014
Michael and Megan Webster
Fairfax NZ
BUSINESS GOALS: Becoming focus farmers has provided Michael and Megan Webster with an incentive to improve their dairy farm.

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Michael and Megan Webster want to be better dairy farmers.

They want to increase their performance and profit and adopt new and well- reasoned management practises to help drive their business goals.

This desire led them to become the new P3 Trust Hauraki Plains focus farmers.

They felt they could do better and achieve more on the farm and saw the focus farm project as a challenge and a way of pushing themselves.

It had forced them to take a hard look at their business and gave them an incentive to change, Megan said at an open day on their farm east of Ngatea.

"We know we can do better. It's just having the discipline to do it and I think this is an effective vehicle in ensuring that happens."

The focus farm project is led by local dairy farmers who formed the P3 Trust, which has the aim of increasing farm profitability and sustainability across the Hauraki Plains for the benefit of the community.

The Websters run Webster Farms as an equity partnership with Michael's parents Richard and Gillian.

Michael and Megan contract milk the farm and are responsible for the overall operations on the 222ha (217ha effective) property along with the two farm workers they employ.

It has predominantly marine clay soils and is subdivided into 120 paddocks. It is run as one business but operates as two units each with its own dairy that neighbour each other.

The farm had historically wintered 620 cows and rears 130 replacements. It produced 971kg milk solids per hectare last season and this season, the Websters aim to milk 1082kg MS per hectare.

Up until last season, one of the dairies calved seasonally in the spring while the other calved in the autumn. The two dairies will now both operate in a spring calving system. That presented some challenges, particularly around pasture renewal as some paddocks that had been historically winter milked were in poorer condition.

Michael's farming career began in 2007 when he returned to the farm after completing his university studies in Auckland. Megan lived in Wellington, Auckland and Sydney before settling in Ngatea after she finished her university studies.

They were married in 2007 and have been on the farm since then.

The couple had slowly moved their way to contract milking after Michael began as a dairy assistant.

The Websters were the second farmers to become focus farmers, taking over from Angus and Karen MacInnes, whose three-year tenure ended last year.

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After selection, the farm undertook a comprehensive assessment by the P3 Trust in April where it identified areas it thought improvements could be made.

These included upgrades to the effluent system, a review of the stocking rate, improvements to the accuracy of pasture monitoring and allocation, staff management and reduce the number of paddocks on the property.

The farm system was put through the Farmax computer modelling system to help determine the Websters best course of action.

The assessors recommended increasing the supply of homegrown feed, harvesting it at 12,500-13,000kg dry matter while holding their current stocking rate.

The Websters had goals, but lacked a strategic plan.

So they sat down and developed a strategy document that outlined the areas they felt needed to be addressed to help them achieve their goals.

Megan said they spent countless hours working on that document and selected those areas based on what was the most important things in their business.

"We looked at what was going to drive profitability, what was going to drive that mission statement to fruition."

There were challenges in every aspect of those four points and they were all inter-connected, Michael added.

On the top of their list was people.

"The team that we work with will shape the business that we run and ultimately, the team that runs this business will determine its success," Michael said.

They will drive the success of their other goals.

To achieve that, they aimed to foster a conducive team environment, that defined everyones roles.

They would ensure all of their human resources documentation was in order, create a safe, healthy and enjoyable working environment, undertake performance reviews of all staff including themselves and identify any further training needed.

They also set a production goal within their herd of lifting production from 330-380kg MS per cow by focusing on animal health and welfare, reproduction, genetic gain and improving the quality of their replacements.

"We have numerous goals we want to achieve in this area," Megan said.

Feed from pastures was their herd's engine fuel. Their cheapest source of feed was grass and they aimed to try to maximise the amount of pasture harvested.

"We will also focus on pasture management, fertiliser and N, pasture innovation and cropping and supplements purchased," Michael said.

"The major goal is to lift pasture utilised from 10.6 tonnes to 13 tonnes per hectare over the next three years."

That meant undertaking weekly farm walks, strictly following their spring rotation planner, undertaking feed budgets every 10 days and setting a benchmark for zero damage to pastures in the winter.

They will also re-size their paddocks as they look to reduce the number of paddocks from 120 down to 70-80.

A more detailed fertiliser plan would also be followed that outlined costs and the optimal application times and will annually soil test the farm.

An upgrade of their effluent system was also being considered. One of the dairies has a two-pond system with a resource consent, which expires in 2016. Michael said it was highly likely that consent would not be renewed, thus giving them a two-year time frame to futureproof their effluent system.

Michael said they will also contract 80 per cent of their supplementary feed at the start of the season to try and minimise its cost.

They will decide in September what summer crops they will plant. In the past the farm had grown turnips and sorghum.

The financial numbers had to stack up for whatever crop they decided, he said.

"It won't just be a feel-good thing."

Michael said their re-grassing area will be increased from 8ha to 20ha annually.

About 70 per cent of the farm was pasture that was over 30 years old and they believed there were big gains to be made in this area.

"Hopefully that will be a major driver to have new species and again drive that pasture utilising and growing."

The Websters considered cash to be king and a strong free cash flow lessened risk and opened up continuing opportunities.

They will benchmark themselves against the best and had the strategic directive of being within the top 5 per cent of farms on the Hauraki Plains.

"We will take charge of this by increasing our operating profit to $7570 per hectare and reducing our farm working expenses to $3.75/kg MS per hectare," Megan said.

Currently the farm working expenses sat at $4.36 from last season, but they had budgeted down to $3.77 for this year, based on a $6.50 payout.

They aimed to achieve that reduction by minimising waste, capturing opportunities and being disciplined in their spending.

Any extra profit made will be used for debt reduction. That will free up more cash for the Websters over the long term.

- Waikato Times

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