Coates Dairy Conversion

March 2013
In 2007 Murray and Gaye Coates Haupiri sheep and deer farm was the Northern Westland Monitor Farm. By June 2008 the couple were running dairy cows on the same block.

According to Gaye Coates, husband Murray was going to be the last man standing, such was his passion for dry stock and his belief that the industry could give good returns to the top operators. In the1990s the couple took on the challenge of farm ownership on a rough block about an hour inland from Greymouth, close to Lake Haupiri. The land area was of marginal economic effectiveness, the debt was significant, but the drive was huge to make it work. Murrays family had been in the district since year dot and Murrays dad had the block before him.

They looked for advice and mentors, altered the way they did things, monitored more, keeping track of stock growth rates and other production indicators.

They modeled pasture management on that of their dairy farm neighbours, aware that this was the crux of their success; and they added in new, more profitable enterprises like winter dairy cow grazing and heifer grazing to maximize return per hectare.

But the transfer of gains to increased profitability, debt reduction and expansion did seem frustratingly slow. Gaye says they were also facing the fact that their kids were getting older and needing to head off to boarding school. Under the dry stock farming systems they werent ever going to be able to get off farm to visit them in Christchurch. They needed a new system which took some of the pressure off them.

The property was 421ha with 37ha of bush. It was running 440 hinds, mixed aged stags, 650 weaner deer, beef heifers and around 500 breeding ewes.

In 2006 they became a Monitor Farm, keen to speed up and fine tune the development of their business. This was also a key to helping them realize that to achieve their goals they needed to move into a business that offered a better return namely dairy farming.

Gaye says theyd spread themselves thinly over a large number of farm enterprises.

And, while this approach had sort of worked , it was complicated and it had made the work almost unsustainable for just she and Murray to run. They also became aware that if Murray got sick there was no one to replace him the risk was significant. At that point the decision to convert became the only clear option.

These days theres not a deer fence left on the property.

They have 320ha effective with 39ha in winter crop. All up, theyre milking 720 cows.

The cows are individually fed their rations on the bail.

They have a fully automated shed using an Afimilk management system. All cows are leg tagged. Information gathered from the leg tags and the milk meters helps the farmer make good on-farm decisions. It also means they can see and anticipate problems with individual cows before things get out of hand. Milk meters, weigh scales and pedometers help paint a picture of the health of each cow.

Rations are currently barley, molasses and mineral pellets. They are also trialing canola cake. Cows are given an individual ration at the bale.

Effluent storage was a major exercise. Murray says it was hard getting a straight answer out of the regional council in the early days of the development of the farm.

Murray and Gaye made the decision in September and they were milking by the following June. It was that quick.

In the early days despite purchasing a herd early enough to be able to nominate the calving date, things didnt go to plan. Calving began before the platform was turning and without the calf shed finished, however there is nothing that they would do differently in the conversion process. Their advice to those considering launching into the same waters, would be to do the sums and soul searching in terms of your farm, finances and your own abilities - and really understand it yourself.

Gaye says There has been no whimsical guess-working here and critical to everything has been the sound understanding of our financial facts and capability; our farms ability to perform as a dairy farm and our own farming aptitude. They also say be rigorous in your planning. Talk to as many people as possible, both the farm owners and the workers. Visit as many cowsheds as practical while they are milking. Be prepared to travel to other areas to look at new technology which has been installed and trialed for at least a season.

Gaye says that comment has been made that the biggest weakness in their conversion is identifying just where the gaps are in their knowledge. This is particularly so, since they have chosen to employ staff as opposed to contracting the operation to a sharemilker. They are not as worried about this as perhaps others are, because they have been fortunate to have had an enormous network of expert farmers. She also adds Dont be paralysed by sticking to the original plan. Inevitably things dont quite pan out as expected, particularly in the areas of timelines and budgets. Know how much you can be flexible and where you can compromise. Accept that there are some things that cant be planned and that need to be worked out as you go.

Staff are Simon, Allen and Heddie. They have had to build more accommodation on the property.

Gaye says it has been an interesting experience learning to share the farm with others (a far cry from the solo days of deer farming). Their advice is to invest time in choosing and looking after your staff. This has been paramount to them especially as the momentum of the conversion has reached its peak and the task of trying to oversee the building process, the development of lanes and fences, the installation of water troughs and the beginning of calving and milking is all consuming. They just couldnt have kept up with all of this without the huge support of workers.