The following will be of interest to many TRM ‘farmer’ inmates:
Taking Stock 27 February 2020
Chris Lee writes:
MOST of us know what makes us feel good about being a New Zealander.
It might be Richie McCaw or Laura Langman, holding up a world cup, Kane Williamson being dignified in defeat, Jacinda Ardern displaying social intelligence or Mark Pennington winning world gold medals for excellence in office furniture design.
It might also just be looking down from a hill beneath the Southern Alps, gazing at 560 cows grazing from green pasture, patiently waiting for the signal to wander up to the milk shed while the farmers close gates, use the effluent to fertilise empty paddocks, or assess soil moisture levels, or view MetService forecasts, as they go about their business.
What does not bring a smile to my dial is reading the propaganda and worse, lies, used to support the woke movement which wants to butcher the nature-provided advantages that underscore living standards in New Zealand.
The picture of a beef farmer (Sian Elias) allowing cows to wander into a lake might provide graphic support to the movement which wants to reduce dairy farming but, as always, there is another story to be told that might provide balance.
Last week I visited three farms on the edge of the Mackenzie country near the quaint town of Fairlie, on the road to Tekapo and Queenstown.
Fairlie is probably best known for its famous pie shop, where you queue to choose pies of gourmet quality, with fillings of salmon and brie, or roast lamb, mint peas and roast vegetables, or pork, crackling and apple, amongst others.
A successful couple invited me to visit and learn of their farming philosophy.
Put simply, they practised natural dairy farming, focusing on nurturing the pasture and controlling input costs, neither stretching the ability of the paddocks to grow pasture, nor pushing the cows’ health in pursuit of more milk solids.
They had proved that their annual returns were better by far than comparable returns, where the competitors spend heavily to increase output, and thus become reliant on permanent high milk solid prices.
They had expanded by being able to borrow and service debt to buy land whose price fell during the periods when milk solids were cyclically at lows. Banks like lending to farmers who service and reduce debt even in the tougher years.
If you can make a living from low prices, you create handsome, useable surpluses when prices are high.
If you use surpluses to reinvest in pursuit of ever more output, then your input costs and capital expenditure puts you on a treadmill that seizes up when prices stall, as they do cyclically.
To farm well, you do not need all the bells and whistles; you do not need a $300,000 tractor to cart your silage across a paddock. A second-hand ute does the job well. Capital is better used to enhance nett revenue rather than show off new toys.
Profits should be used to reduce debt or to obtain synergies by expanding, but only at a price that produces nett gains.
The admirable couple started with their equity in modest town apartments and from that base have built six farms, including four dairy farms, that provide excellent lifestyles for their farm managers, their sharemilkers and their own family. The superior returns attract good people and provide them with rewards that relate to their contribution. Good and happy staff and managers build a sustainable future.
Where else, but in NZ, could one start with ‘’zippo’’, work hard, become sharemilkers, save by frugality, and within 20 years own thousands of acres in a beautiful part of the world?
The couple bought one nearby block of roughly 400 hectares that had provided a modest living for one sheep-farming couple. It now provides four families with their homes, good income, good prospects and a lifestyle that includes travel and family time.
The key point of difference has been ‘’farming the pasture curve’’, rather than trying to push nature to produce more pasture, and grow milk production with imported feed, in pursuit of higher gross, but not nett, revenue.
The farms looked great. The farm managers were informative and unstressed, and the land viewed from its highest point (500m about sea level) looked wonderful, despite the absence of any irrigation. There was no scrub or gorse in sight. The water in streams was drinkable.
As a model of dairy farming, it was clearly from the Kiwi drawer, not some fancy European or American drawer. In Europe, dairying is characterised by inside living, bought-in feed, subsidies and ridiculously (for Kiwis) inflexible lifestyles.
In the USA, cows are seen as short-life, force-fed machines, expected to produce milk for 18 months, dried off for three months, back at work for 18 months, and then sent off to the abattoir.
At the Fairlie farms, a cow died recently, aged 17, having had 15 calves and having had an average holiday each year of 65-75 days, never kept indoors, never force fed, a ruminant wandering around a paddock, producing milk from grass, probably airing her complaints about the All Blacks’ loss to England with her mates across the paddock.
The intensive, animal-unfriendly practices are neither desired nor needed in New Zealand.
I left the paddocks understanding that between how politicians, bankers, environmental extremists and the general media see dairy farming, and how the rural towns and the farmers see dairy farming, there is a chasm.
Some imagine this chasm houses empty rivers and streams, the water ‘’stolen’’ by irrigators or polluted by run-off or effluent.
These people imagine never-ending excessive applications of carcinogenic phosphates, imported from Morocco or Russia, applied to maximise pasture in the short-term and they imagine that the demise of Malaysian and Indonesian native forests follows the NZ importation of ever greater supplies of palm kernel, used to overfeed cows in pursuit of liquid gold.
They see farmers as indifferent to rivers and streams, short-term in their exploitation of pastureland and animal health, greedy people, seeking their millions, selling out to corporations and the Chinese.
1. The NZ system works because of our weather, our open spaces (grass fed cow’s milk will soon attract global premium pricing), our sharemilking, which creates a structure for hard workers to progress, and the co-operative model. As every farmer enjoys the same price, there is co-operation and information-sharing that occurs in very few business sectors.
2. Irrigators may not take any water from rivers or streams unless the authorities are satisfied the take-off will not affect the health of the waterway. Low rivers equate with low rainfall, NOT irrigator abuse.
3. Farmers have the most pressing need to preserve animal health. It would be a moronic farmer who disregarded animal welfare.
4. Farmers are not cow cockies. They are more knowledgeable of meteorology, currencies, economics, soil health and animal health than any other grouping. Their breadth of knowledge far exceeds that of their critics, I suspect.
5. Farms use technology far better than most. Probes measure soil moisture levels and message farmer cell phones with the need for more or less water. The probes measure the ability of the soil to absorb effluent. No one sprays effluent on sodden paddocks and allows run-off. For heavens’ sake, water, pasture and animal health are the key determinations of long-term survival.
6. The rural sector produces not just a handsome percentage of GDP and exports but is undeniably linked to tourism, the current star performer in our economic model. An extraordinarily high percentage of tourists arrive here because of our farming status and farming standards.
7. Farmers do get out of bed early. They do not struggle up at 10am to photograph themselves modelling jewellery or clothes, in the modern-day quest of being a social influencer. They create essential products, jobs and wealth. They deserve our gratitude, not our scorn. They deserve a far higher level of understanding than might be found in banks, where quarterly profits equate with meritless bonuses.
If you struggle to absorb this, drive down from Geraldine to Fairlie and ask someone in the Fairlie pie shop to find you a local farmer to show you around.
You may find a farmer in the shop, ordering a salmon and brie pie to give to his wife, after she has mucked out the milk shed.