Dan and Gina Duncan in the farm’s 60-bail rotary dairy.

Valuing the future

Northland Share Farmers of the Year Dan and Gina Duncan have identified their 30s as the years for working as they make their way in the industry. Glenys Christian reports. Dan and Gina went on to win the national title of Share Farmers of 2018 at Invercargill in early May.

After graduating from Massey University in 2008 with degrees in rural valuation and management Northland Share Farmers of the Year Dan and Gina Duncan secured jobs as valuers in Tauranga.

Both Dan and Gina practised as rural valuers and attained their certificate of registration, becoming registered valuers. Four years on Dan could see with the arrival of PSA in the kiwifruit industry his work was going in a direction he would not enjoy as much as he had previously.

The job ‘ticked too many boxes to be ignored’

“We were at pretty major crossroads,” he says.

“We had committed to three years of study and a further three years to become registered, so it took a bit of time to make a decision on the change. It wasn’t one that we took lightly.”

Gina encouraged Dan to get into dairying while she remained in her rural valuer position.

“I backed Dan 100% but I had no idea that by him changing career I was too,” she says.

“When we committed to making the change we put pressure on ourselves to progress quickly,” Dan says.

The first step was to find a job with progressive farmers who were well regarded in the farming community. In the 2012/13 dairy season Dan took a herd manager’s job in Matamata while Gina commuted to work in Tauranga. Dan immersed himself in the job. Gina says he read “text books and study guides from uni as night-time reading”.

‘Dan is really good at seeing opportunities where other people might not, and he quickly saw what the equity position could look like.’

Dan completed Primary ITO milk quality and effluent courses and entered the Dairy Industry Awards in the Dairy Trainee section where he placed second in the Waikato region.

The goal for the couple is farm ownership but they knew a 50:50 sharemilking job would give them the skills and opportunity to build equity to achieve their goal.

“It was unlikely we would secure a 50:50 job so soon, so contract milking was the logical next step”.

After one season as herd manager they secured a 620-cow contract milking job in Tokoroa.

“This was when I realised that I was about to become a dairy farmer,” Gina says.

“It was a sink or swim situation.”

Gina was still working as a valuer in Tauranga and managed to work two days a week from home commuting the other days. On top of this she was sole calf-rearer.

“My days consisted of waking up at 4.30am to feed calves before driving to Tauranga to do a full day’s work then back to the farm to feed calves getting in at around 8.30pm.” Dan’s workload was just as full on.

“It was a challenging farm still in the development phase and being relatively new to full-time farming, this made things busy,” Dan says.

The farm owners were transparent with their business and on the 20th of each month they met with Dan to go over the accounts. Dan took it on himself to be the person to ring around and get prices etc, making contacts and building relationships with the local businesses. The couple also bought about 90 heifers, leasing them back to the farm owners.

Gina Duncan in the farm office.

In 2014 when their first son, Lachie, was born, Gina was able to work part-time from home providing a much better balance for the family. They continued to expand their knowledge and skillset with Dan taking the Dairy Production Systems course and Gina completing the LIC DIY Insemination course.

The couple was always on the lookout for a good 50:50 job but were aware of how competitive Waikato was.

“We went for a final interview for a 400-cow job in Putaruru, we went away and did some numbers and just didn’t think there was enough in it for it to work for us,” Dan says.

“It’s always a bit disappointing when that happens but you get over it pretty quickly. The last thing you want to do is to commit to a job that isn’t going to take your business in the right direction,” Gina says.

“We knew 50:50 was the next step and we were looking for something that ticked all the boxes.”

The couple was looking for something with scale, at least 600 cows and, ideally, low input. With jobs like that in the Waikato few and far between, as well as having only four years’ experience they widened their search nationwide.

That’s when they came across an ad on Farm Source for a 50:50 sharemilking job on two Northland farms with the possibility of the successful applicant farming both.

“The first time I had been over the harbour bridge was when we went up to the open day,” Gina says.

The job “ticked too many boxes to be ignored” and wanting to fast-track their progression through the industry they could see the opportunity for growth by increasing cow numbers as well as production through management changes.

“Dan is really good at seeing opportunities where other people might not, and he quickly saw what the equity position could look like,” Gina says.

With the market for cows suppressed they also wanted to capitalise on low cow prices. The couple spent the weeks between the open day visit and the final interview doing as much research on Northland farming as possible, a lot of it around managing kikuyu, something they had no experience of.

“We knew our weakness was not being familiar with Northland farming practices, but we stressed that we weren’t the sort of people who come in to a situation thinking they know everything,” Gina says.

As well as researching Northland farming practices the couple ran through the numbers very thoroughly.

“My valuation boss said I suffered from paralysis from analysis,” Dan says.

But it got to the point “where it just felt right”.

“While we were looking at a loss in the first season we were comfortable with that knowing there would be equity growth in the background,” he says.

“It was a calculated risk, and fortunately the payout increased and we haven’t looked back. Some people might have lost interest in the position if facing a first-year loss,” Gina says.

From the outset the couple have worked closely with the trust and its farm consultant for joint strategies to make the farm more profitable. Dan is constantly thinking about investment options both in the dairy industry and off farm. “Ideally, we would like to invest in the dairy industry but are open to other options,” they say.

“We don’t want to spread ourselves too thin, it needs to be a passive investment.”

The couple felt the need to push for quick progression in the industry but say progression doesn’t have to be fast.

“We have struggled with a healthy work/life balance over the last five years, having identified our 30s for working,” Dan says.

“But, since having their second child, Brock, in January this year, we have to make sure our kids don’t miss out on fun because we’re too busy working.”

They’re readjusting their goals to include an improved lifestyle.

“We still plan to work hard but we just need to make a conscious effort to make time for the family and get away from the farm,” Gina says.

Dan and Gina Duncan with the cows on the Poutu Peninsula farm.

Progression tips

Dan and Gina Duncan by no means feel they have “made it”.

“But these are a few things that have worked for us,” Dan says:

  • Set your goals and put them to paper. Not writing them down can mean they might not be as clearly formed as they seem in your head.
  • Set the timeline for achieving these goals. Progression doesn’t have to be fast and finding a healthy work/ life balance is more important than you may think.
  • Align yourselves with progressive, well-respected people.
  • Research the job and do the numbers. The next traditional step doesn’t automatically mean it is the right move for your business.
  • Make sure your goals align with a potential employer. Profit might not be the biggest driver for both parties.
  • Take on responsibilities that aren’t yours where you can, and don’t give them back.
  • Continue knowledge-gathering and improving your skill sets through courses, study, discussion groups etc.
  • Save hard so you can make the most of an opportunity when it presents itself.
  • Be creative with ways to build your equity – can you lease a block to rear young stock or buy heifers to lease to the farm owners?
  • You can’t get through by just being a good farmer – relate to and be part of a community.

Farm facts

Location: Pouto, Northland

Owners: Pouto Topu A Trust

50:50 sharemilkers: Dan and Gina Duncan

Milking platform                  460ha

Cows                                       1020 breeding towards F8J8 cross

Production                            2016/17 274,000kg MS with 960 cows,

2017/18 311,000kg MS with 1020 cows

Milking supplement            235kg DM/cow palm kernel

Nitrogen                                 120kg N/ha

Farm dairies                          40-aside herringbone

60-bail rotary, automatic cup removers and teat sprayer, added in 2016

Six-week in-calf rate             73%

Empty rate                              6%

Runoff                                      124 ha owned by trust.

Gross farm income                $3.91 (forecast)

Operating expenses               $2.72/kg MS (forecast)

Operating profit                     $1.19 (forecast)

Farm working expenses       $2.13kg MS (forecast)