Back to basics secret to successful farm

03:24, Jul 26 2013
TEAMWORK: Mark Slee, right, and contract milker John Booth operate one of Canterbury's most profitable dairy farms.

The farmer who topped the Lincoln University Dairy Farm's profitability by 12 per cent says there's no secret formula - it comes down to doing the basics well.

"There're four or five real basic things but they're quite hard to achieve," said Mark Slee.

"It's getting cows in good condition prior to calving and that's one of the hardest things to keep doing year in, year out."

Mark and Devon Slee's 2700-cow operation in Hinds is one of four top privately run Canterbury farms against which the 160-hectare farm at the university campus, run by the South Island Dairying Development Centre (SIDDC) and milking 630 cows at peak milking, measures its performance.

Lincoln achieved a profitability margin of more than $4600 a hectare during the 2012-13 season compared with $5200/ha for the Slees.

"I was quite surprised how well our figures came out.


"I knew it was a tougher season this year because it was one of the wettest Augusts we have had and then it got quite dry after Christmas," said Slee.

He said after nearly 25 years in dairying on the same property - albeit expanded over the years - he still relies on the same principles, growing grass, using it well and maintaining pasture quality.

"Cow condition drives everything else. It drives your mating performance, reproduction which leads on to a better calving which in turn leads on to more replacement stock and that gives you more opportunities to grow."

The property has a 663ha milking platform, effectively run as three farms, through three dairy sheds. Previously mostly irrigated by border dyke, the farm is now under 10 centre pivots which cover 90 per cent of the pasture.

"It's growing grass, feeding cows, it's just still getting back to doing those basic things and keeping things simple too. We've got a basic system, we do feed grain but mainly in the shoulders of the season," Slee said.

"It's still keeping that attention to detail. Even though we have a larger herd, it's still operating like a smaller type of farm I suppose."

Another part of the jigsaw is breeding and Slee prefers crossbreds, which he believes are tough as well as productive.
One of the farm units is managed by a contract milker who employs three staff and the other units are under senior herd managers who each have three staff. Including a fulltime maintenance-man, permanent staff total 14.

"We can't do it without a good team of people on the farm. We try to have good conditions for everyone, everyone knows what's happening on the farm - everyone's got to have a bit of a buy-in to what's happening," Slee said.

"We've been doing it long enough now, getting good systems in place that you know work, the calf rearing system, wintering systems, it's just having all those things that you've picked up from experience.

"We want to run a business that's sustainable in as many ways as possible - for people, cows and the environment. All these areas have an impact on our business and its profitability. We have followed a lot of LUDF innovations and are impressed with what they are achieving on their pasture-based system."