A Northland couple gave up successful careers in Sydney to find success onfarm back home. Chris Neill reports.
In February 2014 Greg and Janelle Imeson left promising careers in engineering and creative advertising in Sydney for Greg to be a dairy farm assistant in Northland. It was the beginning of their new farming life for which they gathered knowledge from the vast DairyNZ online resources.
This was complemented by advice from farming and non-farming rural professionals, allowing them to advance quickly through farm management to farm ownership. In that time, Greg won the Northland Dairy Manager of the Year Award in 2017 along with the Fonterra Farm Source Dairy Management Award, Primary ITO Power Play Award, and Westpac Financial Management & Planning Award.
Following that, Greg and Janelle became runners-up in the 2020 NZ Dairy Business of the Year award along with Best Northland Farm Performance award and High Input with Best Financials award.
At the beginning of the 2020/21 season Greg and Janelle, with their children Jethro and Marley, are settled on their 74-hectare dairy farm at Poroti, milking 195 cows. Currently split calving and reliant on imported feed, they are gradually moving to autumn calving and a focus on homegrown feed. All replacements are bred and raised off-farm from weaning.
When looking for options after managing an 850-cow herd, their lack of experience made them unattractive as sharemilkers, so their solution was to invest their savings into their own farm. They took advantage of the low farm milk price to secure shares and cows, and picked up a small, high-producing farm other buyers drove past because it was “too wet”.
While Greg grew up on the family dairy farm at Hukerenui, Janelle was a town girl from Blenheim. In their discussion when buying the Poroti farm, Janelle offered to be an active participant in the farm work, with a throw-away question of “how hard can it be?”
Learning everything from milking, tractor operation and stock handling, with two very small children attached, was challenging and successful. Now a capable and active farmer who can operate the farm on her own, Janelle enjoys the happy banter and stories of this learning experience with Greg, who was her tutor.
In telling their story of early farm ownership, Greg and Janelle talk about “tying themselves to the farm for three years”. This meant no discretionary spending or holidays, and holding on to every cow with no culling until their first self-raised replacements came of age.
Greg watched with envy while his neighbours brought in machinery to make farm improvements, and Janelle continued her graphic design business while learning the business of farming.
However, this astute couple who have been recognised by the industry, are setting up a farming business giving them a sense of achievement and the lifestyle they want as a family. They continue to apply the skill and disciplines in their business that contributed to their competition success.
The period of putting all possible income into debt reduction provided time to understand the property. This has given clarity to the placement of drains in the three-year laser drainage programme, which Greg believes will remove rushes to improve permanent pasture and increase total pasture production by 10% at a cost of $100,000.
This development connects with the pasture renewal programme, which includes growing 7ha of maize annually to reduce reliance on imported feed, and a target to produce 80,000kg milksolids (MS) a year with once-a-day milking.
It also fits with their transition from high input to System 3, and with reducing pugging and stress on animals and themselves. Their farm has produced 80,000kg MS previously, but milking twice-a-day.
With these changes they expect to see a steady increase in equity and business profitability, allowing them choices now and in the future. It requires tight control of farm costs, and focus on achieving production to deliver high-quality milk from a farm that is recognised by customers as environmentally sustainable.
They are adamant that staying ahead of compliance expectations is essential because the costs of trying to catch up are too high. Achieving this means staying current with factors that will have an influence on the business, thinking about their impact and responding – which may not mean doing what everyone else is doing.
The 2019/20 drought in Northland was a memorable event that has challenged many farmers. For Greg and Janelle, it was a time of recognising and responding to the immediate risks while protecting the future of their business.
In their discussion when buying the Poroti farm, Janelle offered to be an active participant in the farm work, with a throw-away question of “how hard can it be?”
Maintaining production to protect income was essential. The season had started well, 12% ahead on milk production at Christmas and on track for the target 76,000kg MS. Their Wharekohe soils hung on into February, then pasture went into survival mode. The 6.6 ha of maize, which was expected to yield 22 tonnes/ha and provide feed for calving and the following summer, came in at 18t/ha.
They decided to use the bulk of it along with palm kernel to achieve season production of 71,000kg MS.
This was a calculated risk, which has led to a new plan that maintains confidence in the pasture and maize to deliver feed for this season.
Greg and Janelle see a positive future as global food producers, recognising there will be challenges meeting social and environmental challenges, finding competent relief milkers and riding the fluctuations of milk price. They believe in the New Zealand industry and, as supporters of DairyNZ, expect their industry body to provide management tools to address new demands, explore the science for new solutions, and promote the industry politically and to the wider community.
Making no claims to getting everything right, they do have clarity of what is important, which includes getting off-farm, hunting, fishing, diving, surfing and mountain biking with their children.
They see their farm as a big, profitable lifestyle block. Their management system is designed to secure that profit, which gives them scope to enjoy their lives as they choose.
They think and act to achieve the outcomes they want and maintain flexibility to respond to changes that are inevitable in business.
They have shown that the DIA and DBOY awards they won are a reflection of their ability to focus on what is important to their farming success.
DBOY 2020 KEY PERFORMANCE INDICATORS
(Based on 2018/19 production season)
Milk production: 366kg MS/cow, 950kg MS/ha
Return on capital: 7.1%
Operating profit margin: 39%
Cost of production: $4.14/kg MS
EBIT/kg MS: $2.82/kg MS
Homegrown feed, t DM/milking ha: 10.7
Pasture % of feed: 73%
Labour efficiency cows/FTE: 192
Environment Score: 8.1/15
HR Score: 8.9/15