Good planning reaps rewards

Farmer Nicole Saunders with Rabobank sustainability and community general manager Marc Oostdijk.

Victorian dairy farmer Nicole Saunders has taken out the 2022 Rabobank Business Management Prize from a field of some of Australia’s leading farmers.

Nicole, who operates a dairy business near Maffra in Gippsland, Victoria, was recognised with the award for the strategic business plan she developed for her enterprise, after completing the Rabobank Farm Managers Program, a specialist course designed to strengthen the operational and strategic skills of emerging farmers.

The plan — which the 29-year-old developed as a management project after undertaking the manager’s program — is already delivering tangible benefits to farm profitability and sustainability, helping to transform the operation she began with her husband Brendan after the couple moved to Australia from New Zealand just five years ago.

The Rabobank Farm Managers Program is an annually-held course developed for farmers looking to enhance their management capabilities.

The program covers topics including global trends in agriculture, business planning, financial management, leadership and succession planning.

Taking the learnings from the program and implementing them into the dairy business, Nicole has been able to achieve improvements in business productivity and efficiency, technology adoption and farm infrastructure since graduating in 2019.

Nicole and Brendan made the moved to Australia from New Zealand in July 2018, as they believed there were greater opportunities available in the Australian dairy sector.

“We were attracted by the lower land prices in Australia and the opportunity for higher returns,” she said.

“At the time we arrived, Australian land prices were approximately a third of the price of land in New Zealand. Of course that has changed dramatically in the last five years.”

The couple has progressed from a 40/60 percentage split sharefarmers in 2018 on a 700-cow farm to an operation with a forecasted 800,000 kg of milk solids being produced in the 2022-23 season, owning 1500 cows and having a mixture of leased and owned land near Maffra.

“We chose to farm in the Macalister Irrigation District, in central Gippsland, because of the security of water — we are very well insulated from drought and adverse weather effects,” Nicole said.

She said participating in the Rabobank Farm Managers Program at a time of massive expansion within their business allowed her to use tools and theories learnt during the program in “real time”.

The business plan Nicole developed included four goals: increase profit per hectare, produce a high-quality product, improve their team and expand the business.

“To increase profit per hectare, we focused on profitable feeding,” she said.

“To achieve this, we changed the calving pattern to fully spring calving to ensure a better match to pasture production and ability to optimise the cows’ diets to their milk production curve.

“We also heavily focused on a pasture renovation and fertilising plan.

“As a result, we had a 25 per cent increase in production on the previous season.”

To achieve the goal of producing a high-quality product, Nicole implemented a bonus system, where employees receive a bonus when somatic cell count averages under 150,000.

“Staff have been vital to the growth of our dairy business — our team is our greatest asset,” she said.

“Our staff are our main focus — they are key to being able to operate at scale.

“We have now included values and culture statements in the business plan, demonstrating just how important our team are to us and our business.

“To meet the goal of an improved team, everyone attended milking courses and we saw a significant improvement in their milking skills and knowledge.

“We also introduced ‘work phones’, as we were struggling to communicate with employees during work hours as they would not have their phones with them in the shed.

“I also changed our roster system, so everyone’s roles are more clearly specified.

“And I introduced a tablet in the dairy shed — this is used both for timekeeping and for managing daily tasks, weekly tasks and checklists via an app.”

Nicole said their fourth goal — to expand their enterprise — has seen the addition of a contracting arm to their operation as well as diversifying into horticulture and tourism, with a new Berry Dairy business set to open in October 2023.

The Berry Dairy will be a pick-your-own strawberry operation with an on-farm café.

Long term, Nicole said she would love to connect the dairy business and the café, by having their own milk being turned into a niche product and being able to have a full paddock-to-plate experience.

“I believe the future of agriculture is in ensuring people are connected to the origin of their food and education.”