Reaping labour of love rewards
Dairy Business of the Year winners Martin and Linsey Furrer say the secret to their success is attention to detail and the fact they love dairy farming.
"We are passionate about what we're doing and I am personally involved in the day-to-day running of the farm - I'm there, I'm hands- on and we probably try to run everything to a certain standard," reflected Martin Furrer, back home in Hinds, mid-Canterbury, from the award ceremony in Hamilton.
The judges dig deep into farm accounts to assess each competing business, with 70 per cent of their marks based on financial performance, 15 per cent on environment and 15 per cent on human resources.
"They analyse it through a system called Red Sky and they also give us a full report on our business, pointing out the strengths and also weaknesses or more high risk areas or where they think we will have more room for improvement.
"Sometimes it's better when somebody else tells you still have the possibility to improve."
The Furrers milk 1250 cows on 295 irrigated hectares, achieving production of 501 kilograms of milksolids a cow and an operating profit of $5025/ha - significantly higher than the national average of 377/kg a cow and $1997/ha.
"We're definitely controlling costs and compared to other people we do produce quite a bit of milk and the result is quite positive. Pasture management is probably our strength, we grow the most grass of all the people who took part in the competition."
Furrer said the fact their farm was not a new conversion but well established with high levels of organic matter and deep topsoil helped a lot with that. "The pasture harvest, that's the key, that's what you produce, what you don't have to buy in."
Neither Furrer, who's Swiss, nor Whakatane-born Linsey were raised on farms but Furrer said farming was his childhood dream.
"My father is a civil engineer but all I wanted to do is farming. I had done the agriculture degrees in Switzerland and then I realised, like everybody had told me before, there's no future for you on a farm [in Switzerland] so I also did a commercial degree and worked for a company like Wrightson."
But before he settled down, Furrer came to New Zealand as an exchange student and when he returned to Switzerland he took his Kiwi girlfriend, Linsey, with him. They stayed for six years.
"The people I worked for as an exchange student kept on asking us if we wanted to come back sharemilking and one day we said 'let's do it'. For Linsey it was going home but for me it was a big jump, leaving my family, but it's the best thing we've ever done."
Ten years ago, after three years sharemilking in Bay of Plenty, the Furrers got the chance to buy into an equity partnership in Canterbury. "A friend moved down south and he said there are opportunities in Canterbury, 'you have to see it', and that's why we came down."
Much of their success can be attributed to their equity partners, Martin and Rikie Rupert of Peel Forest and John and Colleen Campbell from Whakatane, Furrer said.
"We've got a good setup because the other two families are older than us so whenever we want to buy more [shares] we can. The way we've got it set up works really well."
Equally important is human resources, where the Furrers scored highest of all the finalists. Staff turnover on their Longlands Dairies property is low, with one couple having stayed for nine years and another for six.
"Without the people we could not do what we do," said Furrer.
"There are several factors why people stay in a job and I always say the wage package is only really important at the interview and the first two weeks but after that other components come in like if they're satisfied, if they're respected, if they like what they do, if their accommodation is to a nice standard.
"I think we've created a nice work environment so that helps and everybody is pulling in the same direction and I think my people - and I specifically call them my people and not our staff because they do have job satisfaction - do and they have pride and that doesn't happen overnight."
The four permanent staff are supplemented by Swiss or German exchange students. "They bring a bit of fresh blood in - many times they're really motivated and interested. It can happen if you have people a long time it gets a bit stale but with the new blood coming in it keeps it all a bit lively, I would say."
The Furrers use System 4, a medium input set up. The cows get supplements all year round with grain or palm kernel fed in the shed.
"It drives a little bit [of] the production, of course, and probably is a system which suits my personality and where I come from, kind of a touch of European farming, and normally a farmer performs best in an environment or a system which he's used to and it is here about the same," Furrer said. "I quite like to fully feed my cows and get satisfaction out of it."
The herd is wintered on a farm in Ruapuna, inland from Hinds, near the Canterbury foothills.
The cows have the choice of fodder beet or kale, backed up with silage, a mix Furrer said not only kept condition on but also made for content stock.
They've just bought a block on which to do their own wintering to give them more control and avoid being at the mercy of the market for supplements. They also have an eye on the future with stricter nitrogen leaching limits in the wind under the Canterbury Land and Water Regional Plan.
"We bought a bit of time with that so we can see how the situation pans out but we've got enough scope and enough land to be nearly self-contained.
"That's a strategic move, to secure safe winter grazing and young stock grazing, and whatever happens . . . we would be able to milk cows there, too, in case we have to reduce stocking rate here. It just gives us options."
In the shed, Furrer uses a system promoted by DairyNZ called MaxT.
After about Christmas, once the peak is passed, he doesn't try to milk every cow out completely; once they have been around the rotary once, that's it, they don't go around again. The slow cows soon adapt to a shorter milking time, without any discernable effect on production or rise in the incidence of mastitis.
"Peak milking takes 10 hours a day - if you can make it more efficient, it's only good."
The Furrers said they didn't enter the Dairy Business of the Year to get into the limelight but because they wanted to see how well they were performing.
"That's better done by from someone outside than yourself because we tend to say 'sweet as', anyway," Furrer said.
"I encourage other farmers to benchmark themselves against others because we can always pick up something which you probably didn't realise or didn't want to realise. There's always something to gain if you benchmark yourself with others."