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Canterbury dairying future in capable hands

Words by Richard Rennie

20 September 2017

Young Canterbury dairy farmer Will Grayling is the face of a new generation of dairy operators charging up through the industry. Tapped into new technology, environmentally aware and with a good team around him, he is setting new standards and goals for dairying in Canterbury today.

While barely in his 30s, Will has set and achieved some aspirational goals both within his farm business, and for where he wanted to be after winning the 2011 Young Farmer competition.

He has done so acknowledging the support and insights gained from people who have proven to be standard setters themselves in the same industry.

Will wears two dairying hats with his investment in the dairy sector, as a sharemilker and as an equity partner, and has found they are a good balance for taking the ups with the downs in an industry that has seen the extremes of both in only three short years.

While originally from the Waikato, he was drawn to Canterbury to study for four years in agricultural science, finishing with a Masters in Agricultural Science before kicking off as a graduate with Farmright in Southland for 12 months.

But he quickly found the desire to put theory into practice himself on the land was a strong one, and that it would probably be in the South Island.

“I always had a sense it would be down here, you have the scale to operate on, and that is a big part of the challenge, plus Canterbury is a good place to live.”

After leaving Farmright Will worked for Spectrum Group, spending two years managing 800 cows on the business’s Chertsey farm near Ashburton. When the opportunity arose to also manage the farm next door he took that on and shifted to the (then) 1,600 cow Singletree farm adjoining it.

Today that operation is 2,300 cows, the Chertsey farm is 870. Will and his wife Kim are sharemilkers on the Chertsey farm and sharemilkers-equity partners on the larger Singletree operation. As a business entity, they are 30% shareholders of Ashpouri Ltd which is the sharemilking company across both farms. Ashpouri also has a 30% share in the land company which owns both farms, known as Singletree.

Key stakeholders in the farm business include the van der Poel family, also from the Waikato.

Will attributes being around people like the van der Poel’s as having a significant positive influence as he has moved through the ranks to be a stake holder in their business.

“I have found the more you rub shoulders with these sort of people who are forward thinking and positive themselves, the more it rubs off on you.” 

As part of his Young Farmer winnings he also got to participate in the Kellogg rural leadership programme, bringing him close to a range of successful people engaged in the agri-business sector.

That exposure proved invaluable in helping him manage the businesses through the downturn that followed.

“In any business it is the best operators who will survive and dairying was no different. There will always be a New Zealand dairy industry, it is not going away, and it comes down to your ability to manage those tough periods.”

He said it is made that much easier to negotiate through tough patches in the dairy sector, thanks to the industry propensity to share information between operators.

“You also have a lot of people in the industry who are keen to give back to it. One of the things we did over the downturn was link up with some good farmers and share what we were doing.”

“One of the things we learned was the value in collecting more numbers and data on our operation to better evaluate how we were going, and where we could become even more efficient.”

He says the down turn was dealt with across two levels. The first involved closer scrutiny of farm costs, and particularly feed which formed about 50% of those costs at one stage.

This has required him and his staff to squeeze all they can from the cheapest feed source they have, pasture.

“It has come through managing pasture better, by being more aware of the optimal grazing point, and what the optimal residuals are when the cows come out so none is left wasted.”

“If you can extract an extra 1t of dry matter a hectare a year, that is a lot of valuable feed you are not buying in.”

With 16 staff it’s no small job ensuring they all buy into the understanding that “green is gold” but he says with plenty of hands on input from himself.

“Rather than banging on about saving money, we would approach it by ensuring they would know what equations I was using to determine paddock/break size to make the operation more efficient with us all on the same page. Saving money became the outcome, rather than the sole objective.”

The outcome was helped by some smart adoption of new technology. With all the staff having cell phones some of the simplest tech has proven the most effective.

“In the case of optimising grazing areas, we got an app’ that helped them to plan the size of a break for feeding. Everyone works it out the same way, we all get exactly the same area, and you have peace of mind what they have measured is exactly what I would have measured.” He is proud to reveal this welcome initiative came from one of his tech savvy employees Danny Cajucom.

He laughs at the love affair his staff have with their smartphones, but appreciates the commonality it brings to farm decisions.

“Even when it comes to checking how much milk is in the vat, we will refer to our phones and look online, even if we are within reach of the docket!” 

With 16 staff across the two businesses, of whom about a third are Kiwis, a common language is valuable and Will values the “good stable” crew he has managed to forge out across the two units.

Over a tough couple of years, it has been important to Will to recognise individual staff members’ abilities and talents. The gains they can contribute by applying themselves in an area they are interested in and enjoy will far outweigh any costs, and those gains come both in better returns, and happier staff.

Staff assessments occur once a year with both parties honestly laying out where they see things heading next.

For new staff, his rule of thumb for assessing a potential staff member is how well they can hold a conversation over a cup of coffee around the kitchen table.

He also takes a simple straight up approach across all his business dealings. At a time when many operators were out to slice costs to the bone, he was also acknowledging it was tough for the person on the other side of whatever deal was being done.

“You really want a win:win with whoever you are dealing with. If you look to win at the other guy’s expense, you will lose out yourself, sooner or later.”

He says this is particularly pertinent for Canterbury dairy farmers who can benefit greatly by maintaining good relationships with their dry stock and cropping counterparts.

Will has spent the last couple of years tuning up all the cost areas, including irrigation costs by getting better data on irrigator application rates, using moisture strips for optimal application times and recording soil temperatures.

From a financial perspective the farm system is signed onto DairyNZ’s DairyBase benchmarking service which gives a district, regional and national comparison on farm operating benchmarks, including working expenses.

His goal has been to hold costs at $3.50 kg milk solids, something he would like to keep it at as farm income prospects lift this season.

“But we know there will be more pressure there, but our goal is to contain and maintain where possible. However we already face a jump in genetics costs, and Canterbury has had some big (up to 30%) increases in electricity charges in the past year.”

He agrees the past couple of years have “stress tested” the farm operation, and put it in good heart to ride the surge in returns this year, without experiencing a proportional increase in farm working expenses.

“This year we know we have done the hard work getting things down, it’s a case of trying to keep them contained.”

Like most dairy farmers in Canterbury Will is acutely aware that environmental constraints under the regional plan bring a new challenge to the dairy business.

He challenges the value in trying to place a dairy-specific quota on the number of cows permittable in a region, and is optimistic Canterbury’s sub-catchment approach will provide a sensible, sustainable pathway.

“It is about more than simply farming, it is about having a plan that recognises the value communities place upon farming within them, and that is why the sub-catchment committee approach is a good one, everyone is involved about it.”

He anticipates there will continue to be some growth in dairying in some areas, albeit not at the rate witnessed in the past decade.

“And those farms that are created, they will have the latest in environmentally sound technology and equipment, you simply cannot build a new farm to an ‘average’ standard.”

In Canterbury wintering off is a feature that will also require some modifications, and he says that may include more crop variation, on pad feeding, and possibly even the release of a safe nitrification inhibitor at some stage.

Meantime the Singletree business has continued to grow, having recently bought into a joint purchase with Canlac dairies of Towerpeak Station in Southland.

With a foot in both the farm equity partner and sharemilker camp, Will and Kim are in a good position to have a balanced perspective on both.