High Performance Dairying

April 2014

Lance Gillespie is a graduate of a Rabobank Executive Development Programme

Lance Gillespie, who won the 2011 Rabobank Business Development prize for a management manual, runs a high-altitude dairy farm at Apiti in Manawatu with his wife Katherine, who is setting up a homestay.

Although they never intended originally to milk cows, they bought the farm in a joint venture with Lance’s brother and his wife in 2004.  Lance describes himself as machinery minded.  At first they farmed with Lance’s brother, now they farm the property by themselves after buying out their family in 2007.

They have three children: Ethan, 13, Charlotte, 11, and Lauren, 7.

Table Flat Holdings milks 385 cows on a total of 309ha at the Apiti property, 50km northwest of Palmerston North. They have a 28 a side herringbone shed.

Their five-year average is 187,000kgMS from a milking platform of 145ha. Eighty ha of land is leased for dairying from a neighbour in a lease/swap arrangement.  In turn 160ha of hill slope is leased out to run sheep and cattle.

At 680m above sea level the area is traditionally sheep and beef country, and the high altitude makes them one of the highest suppliers to Fonterra of anywhere in the country.

They currently have two full time staff members including Tim Laris, the farm manager.

Lance says they are always looking for opportunities, and are now focusing on fine-tuning their systems, “tweaking and modifying” and reducing debt.

The farm has medium inputs, and fits into a system four category with around 30% of supplements used. They make their own baleage and also feed pelletised meal through the shed.

Rabobank runs an Executive Development Programme based in Sydney, for farmers from Australia and New Zealand. Since it was set up in 1999 more than 500 farmers have been through the programme, which has two week-long residential modules.

While business management development is still the purpose, the two-part programme now focuses a little more on goal setting, identifying strategies for success and developing individual business plans.

Lance says the course gets you out of your comfort zone and off the farm for two weeks to look at your business without distractions. Dairy farmers were the minority in the group of 36 Australian and NZ primary producers on the course.

He enjoyed meeting the different farmers and learning about their different farming systems. “At the end of the day everyone has the same sort of issues and problems: staff, weather, health and safety.”

“It opened my eyes up to different people.  Yes, I do recommend it if you are in a position in your business where you want to develop yourself and grow.”

“I have never done a university degree. I left my formal education until I got to a point in life where I know what I want to learn, and develop that education in specific areas for where I am at the time.”

Part of the course is a project, and because Lance knew he was going to have some staff changes, he thought “let’s be practical and put this manual together”.

“The 50 page manual gives potential staff an opportunity to look at who we are and what we do. We have put information out there without hiding anything to give them an overview of who we are and our business, my expectations of them, and their expectations of me.”

He wanted to focus on being able to attract and retain staff to the business. “I see human resource management as the key to running a successful farm business in this challenging environment where we are competing for the right people to fill positions.”

The manual includes :

  • Introduction
  • Background on our family and where we’ve come from
  • Farm information
  • A look at our business values and philosophies
  • Policy and procedures
  • Job descriptions for everyone
  • A section on employment and orientation procedures
  • The year in overview: a broad view of what happens each month of the year and what is expected to happen
  • Recent articles on awards and achievements
  • A detailed farm map

Showing prospective staff the manual means there are no surprises for an employee coming onto the farm.

“It gave me peace of mind that I have done everything I could to make the farm a warm and inviting place because they had the information provided to them.”

Lance’s wife Katherine, who is a nurse by training, is now mainly focused on the children. She also works in the office and does relief milking on the farm.  She also attended the Rabobank course – in the second week partners were invited to join the participants.

Part of that time was spent thinking about other opportunities for her and as a result of that process, Katherine is setting up a homestay on the farm.

As the manual is a living document, it is being upgraded.

Lance is also writing a separate manual on governance strategies and polices to use with financial advisors and other key people. 

The Gillespies are also part of DairyNZ’s farm-based governance development programme called “Mark and Measure.  “It’s an opportunity to let us look at our business from another angle.”

The cowshed had a $90,000 ADF system installed in March 2011. Lance says “We had two people in the cowshed previously, now with the ADF system and cup removers we have removed one labour unit for three-quarters of the milking.”

“The cows get teat sprayed within the cups as the cups are coming off, and there is a flushing cycle to remove any cross contamination between cows. Most people put it in for somatic cell count reasons; we didn’t have that problem, we wanted to save labour and reduce costs.”

Lance and Katherine have been farming biologically for several years, and use liquid fertilisers on the farm, which Lance sprays on. He also does VSA (visual soil assessments) and works with Abron advisors.