Words by Richard Rennie, images by Laney Willis & Jarrad Mehlhopt
The story of the Dolan family and their ties to mid-Canterbury typifies the massive land use changes the region has experienced in only two generations. But this fifth-generation family has also been making an effort to ensure that if the sixth generation choose to continue farming, then it will be on land that has been looked after, in a way that is sustainable.
Brendan Dolan is proud of being one of the first 200 farming families to join the ATS co-operative that is now Ruralco - set up specifically to get its local farmer shareholders a better deal when it came to sourcing farm supplies. At the time the farm was a typical Canterbury dryland block- located between the sea and the Rakaia River the family ran cattle, sheep and some cropping. But it was pre-irrigation, tough times in late summer many today would struggle to recall, amongst the cool drizzle of centre pivot irrigators working hard in the warm sun amid dark green productive pastures. “I can clearly remember as a kid feeding sheep hay in the autumn. It was so dry, there was simply no other feed around, and that was not so unusual for the time,” he says.
Come 1974 and his father was the second farmer in the district to put in irrigation, drawing water from underground. “He had got a water diviner in, and he pointed out where, and how deep, and proved to be right.” The early irrigation system used the aluminium wheeled pipes on a 30 day round, depositing a few millimetres at a time, compared to the 10 day, 15mm programme most centre pivots run on today. When it came time for Brendan to take over from his Dad in the mid-nineties, the finance came with a caveat from the bank. “That was, that if I was to do so then we would have to go dairying. It proved to be, and still is, quite a learning curve. At the time all I knew about milk was that it came out of a bottle.”
Once again, Brendan and his wife Catrina found themselves at the front of change, converting half the 520ha property into cows, running 1000 cows with a sharemilker for the first three years. During the conversion process Brendan also oversaw the installation of one of Canterbury’s first centre pivot irrigators, a move that included a trip to the United States to check out the new-found water technology. “It was something plenty of people told us at the time was a waste of time!” Today the entire farm has six wells serving five centre pivots, two laterals and two Roto-rainers on a 10-day rotation.
A second dairy shed went in in 2014 to milk 600 cows, with both herds today managed by a contract milker and totalling 1200 milkers. In 2007 the Dolans decided to supply Synlait, a decision they are very happy with today. As a main supplier of A2 milk to that company, Brendan has worked to get one herd completely A2 milk supply, and the second comprising about three quarters A2. “And this year only about 50 of our 300 heifers would be A1 milk.” The family signed up with Synlait’s “Lead with Pride” best practice scheme, aiming to instil another level of excellence into milk supply that recognises and financially rewards suppliers who achieve dairying best practice through their entire farming operation.
“It is a lot of work, but the whole programme is aimed to ensure we can get the best value possible for our milk, while also being able to honestly show that we are doing all we can to run a sustainable, successful farming operation.”
Synlait also encourages and supports farms to be compliant with all the changes in farming practice. Brendan and his sharemilkers have achieved high pass levels in the Lead with Pride programme. He also appreciates the ‘small company’ feel about Synlait, where staff recognise suppliers by name and have the time to sit down and enjoy a drink with them. “And that really is the case right through the entire company from the tanker driver up.”
Sustainability underscores the family’s entire farming operation. Brendan has not used straight urea on pasture for five years. “It was something we relied upon a lot in the early days. But we had noticed up to the early 90s when we were ploughing there would usually be seagulls following behind, getting the worms. But they disappeared after a while, simply because the worms had too.” He figured the urea was doing a good job of growing the grass and killing off the worm populations. “So, we have made a move to slow release fertilisers, with slow release urea minimising volatilisation, making sure that 90% or more of what we put on actually gets used, not lost through the system or to the air.”
“Basically, with urea we are tipping an oil-based product into the ground, and I was not comfortable with that.” He has become a lot more targeted in the farm’s fertiliser use. This year one dairy farm is going to be soil tested across all paddocks for the first time, with an aim that application will be tailored based on what each paddock’s specific nutrient needs are.
It is a move that makes not only environmental but also economic sense, as farmers grapple with fertiliser costs this season that in some instances are double what they were a year ago. Next year this will be done on the other dairy farm. “With the slow release nitrogen we are getting about 120 days of release. It shows in crops, we have yielded up to 32t a hectare dry matter with our fodder beet.” The challenge with the beets is to get the ground preparation right and ensure the spray programme for the first three sprays is spot on. “After that they will pretty much take care of themselves. They are a very high value feed source, and the sort of crop we have to consider if we are going to look for more efficient ways to feed cows.”
The family dairy operation focuses on high output with a sustainable touch, with the big Friesians generating 480kgMS a cow a year. “With Friesians it is a pretty simple equation. If you put plenty of feed in, plenty of milk comes out.” The herd receives a mixed diet comprising maize silage, molasses, grain and a pelletised PKE-brewers grain-sunflower seed mix.
“I have a sense that the PKE will have to go soon, and we would happily look to something to replace that, possibly soy-beans which I think could eventually be able to be grown here as a replacement. It is not so long ago they used to think we could not grow maize down here, and now we can.” The Dolans have a self-contained operation, with all cows grazed all year round across the milking platform and 220ha adjoining runoff block. “It would have been tempting to simply milk more cows, but we are confined by the sea and the river here, so for grazing we could only go one way, further inland, and we would have had to go a long way to get it – it makes sense to milk less on the land here and do the entire job ourselves.”
At 85 Brendan’s Dad remains involved in the business today, still managing to head out for his favourite activity, ploughing, and keen to stay involved in the daily running of the business. “I think he harvested more grain last season than I did!” Brendan is unsure if any of his four sons will go farming yet, and remains relaxed about whatever their decision may be. “I do get more worried about the future of farming here itself, about the level of regulation we are facing, and the increasing cost of compliance.”
“Some things I don’t have a problem with, like the 190kg limit on nitrogen, that’s fine, but the government will have to recognise we can’t continue to face the rising costs that compliance brings – but at the same time, I don’t think we will all be putting ‘For Sale’ signs out the front, there will have to be some sort of middle ground.”
Whatever the future holds, Brendan is proud of the family’s long heritage and history on the land, and he appreciates the huge changes witnessed in his father Phillip’s lifetime when he started farming at age 18. “The farming knowledge, expertise and care for the environment is still a huge part of farming for us.”