Happy to share the secrets of success
Top-performing Canterbury dairy farmer Tony Coltman is happy to share the secrets of his success, believing that to be part of the co-operative spirit of New Zealand dairy farming. He talked to Tony Benny.
Nelson-born Tony Coltman's first exposure to farming was working on a second cousin's dairy farm in Brightwater in his school holidays but he had a career in banking and management before he got his hands dirty in his own shed.
At school he was captain of the 1st XV and a competitive swimmer but he didn't really rate himself academically when he enrolled in the Diploma of Farm Management course at Lincoln University.
"I didn't know how I'd go at university but I did really well and got distinction and they asked if I wanted to do the degree. I went travelling for a year and then did a BCom in farm management and did well," Coltman recalls.
After university he had six years as a rural banker, starting in Mid Canterbury before stints in Taranaki, King Country and Waikato. Next, he spent two years as general manager of a marketing and print management company in Auckland, before finding a way to get closer to farming as general manager of development and extension at Dexel, a forerunner of DairyNZ.
"All this time, I'd really wanted to be farming and I had the opportunity to invest and manage farms in Missouri, at (New Zealand-owned) Focal Dairies."
Coltman was general manager of the US venture which had 4000 cows spread over three farms, plus support land, for four and a half years, before coming back to New Zealand where he managed a 1450-cow farm near Ashburton.
On one of his trips home while still working in Missouri, Coltman met Dana Carver, an American living and working in New Zealand. "Friends jacked us up on a blind date. We did the long distance thing for four years and she did some work for us in the US, helping with human resources."
In 2013 they were offered the chance to become shareholders in the farm near Dunsandel and they're also 50:50 sharemilkers on the property.
"I call it an equity partnership, it's just in a different way. That's how we get security in land value and capital but we also get the 50:50 cashflow."
Dana now works full time for DairyNZ as farmer wellness and wellbeing programme leader, while Tony runs the 335ha effective, 1400-cow farm with seven staff.
He's overseen a surge in production, from an eight-year average of 580,000kgMS prior to 2013 to 697,624kgMS last season and is expecting to exceed 700,000kg this year.
Cow numbers have increased by 100 and the area covered by centre pivot irrigator has been expanded but mostly the increased production can be attributed to pasture utilisation, pasture quality management, efficient use of supplements and learning the farm and knowing when to do things, Coltman says.
"It's just attention to detail and the philosophy here is doing the right thing every day, it's a simple as that. I don't think people do that. I think they get to this time of year and they say, 'This is our round, this is what we're going to do, this is the area the cows are getting', and that happens."
Coltman reckons that's not good enough and there's usually room to do better. "Keep an eye on things and make sure you're making the right calls and going to the right paddocks at the right time."
He doesn't claim to have all the answers but Coltman is happy to share his figures and philosophy with other farmers and has been involved with DairyNZ's Tactics For Tight Times programme and has his financials online as a budget case study.
"I'm a big believer in the co-operative spirit, sharing ideas and what we're doing," he says. "I'm not advocating this is the way everyone should farm, all I'm saying is, 'I'm happy to share the information, if you want to look at it, that's fine, if you don't, that's fine', but people seem to be interested in it."
One of the changes Coltman has introduced is using palm kernel and he's feeding one herd 3kg a day at present on a feed pad next to the cowshed to make sure they don't lose condition now that hot summer weather seems finally to have arrived.
"It's easily available, easy to put in and out - you don't have to uncover a stack – it's very convenient and they respond and milk well on it."
He prefers PKE, maize silage and fodder beet to grass silage which he doesn't think helps keep weight on cows even though it keeps them milking and has increased supplement use overall from under 500kg/cow to close to 750kg/cow.
But one of his key philosophies is "grass is king" and supplements are only used if residuals are below target. Nothing is introduced into the system unless it can produce a return on investment.
"What I like about dairy farming is it's very measured so every day you see whether you've made the right decision or not, whereas that's a bit harder in say the sheep and beef sector," Coltman says.
"It makes it a lot easier to make cost-effective decisions because you can see the changes you might have made and the costs and then you can see what production has done and then you can determine whether that was an economic decision or not straight away."
Very aware of the challenges dairy farmers face as pressure to reduce nitrogen loss increases, Coltman is involved as a monitor farmer with the Forages for Reduced Nitrate Leaching Project.
The six-year programme aims to reduce nitrate leaching losses by 20 per cent with proven, adoptable and profitable pasture and forage crop options. Dairy, arable and sheep and beef farms are involved, focusing on alternative pasture species, crops and farm systems.
"Every day we're measuring the number of cows in every paddock, supplements we use, effluent – where and how much – and nitrogen so we can see on this block of land what the biological system is, what are the inputs and the outputs."
Under the Canterbury Water Management Strategy, the farm's N-loss will have to be reduced by 30 per cent by 2035, a challenging target, to say the least.
"I didn't just want to stand on the outside and throw stones, I may as well get involved and see if I can influence this. We're planting plantain – with access to modelling we can look at different things that we think might work."
Coltman believes dairy farmers are working hard to address their effect on the environment but is concerned the load isn't being shared equally.
"We're having an impact but we're spending a lot of money and doing a lot of things to rectify it – I don't see a lot of other sectors doing the same."
He's not put off by the challenges though and is thriving on driving a high-performing, profitable business. "That's what we're here to do and I just wish I'd been doing it earlier but hindsight's a great thing. I always wanted to own my own business really."