Muller 2015 Taranaki Environment Award Winners

April 2017

Mark and Jacqui Muller run a 167ha dairy farm with a leased 35ha run-off property 3km away. The Muller’s operation has been in business for over 100 years. Mark is a third generation farmer. His Swiss grandfather Melchior began farming the original 48ha Muller family block in 1914.

Mark’s parents and a bachelor uncle farmed together as Muller Brothers. Mark acknowledges there was a lot of hard graft, “My father and his brother were old school, they did a lot of hard manual work here, concreting races, digging, fixing and securing drains. I do feel the need to carry on and pass on that strong infrastructure.”

Mark began his working life on farm on wages and progressed through to 50:50 sharemilking. In 1992 Mark and Jacqui purchased the home block from Muller Brothers. Two years later they added a neighbouring 45ha farm, incorporating it into the existing property. The flat to rolling contoured property is fenced into 3.5ha paddocks with 2 troughs per paddock.

There is a strong focus on team culture, with a manager and a 2IC, along with a couple of general farmhands who work on the farm. Their exemplary teamwork prompted judges in the 2015 Taranaki Ballance Farm Environment Awards to make special mention of both the team culture and commitment to the environment when they awarded the farm the regional supreme title.

The business has benefitted in the past five years from input by Greg O’Byrne, a local farm consultant from High Performance Farming. Greg encouraged the Mullers to focus on performance through improving pasture, adding crops, reducing production costs and protecting the environment.

Mark and Jacqui are firm on the importance of training good people for the industry. Mark talks a lot about transparency with their workers. All workers are given core information and encouraged to ask questions. Greg O’Byrne emails his reports to all the team members. This way, everyone knows the plan and it allows people to know why they’re doing what they’re doing.

They employ workers for a period of round 4-5 years. Mark says that allows 1-2 years of learning, followed by a year to make sure they’re getting it right and a year to do it alone. He reckons that’s long enough before they need and want to move onto bigger and better roles. Further, they make sure that all their workers get a good grounding in farm skills by giving them ‘whole job training’ from milking, tractor work and training in pasture management.

Presently they have a new manager, Sam Ebbett. Sam replaced Conrad Maeke who helmed the farm when they won the Ballance Award. Conrad finished his 5 years and is now working with local iwi on PKW drystock farms. The Mullers say Sam appealed to them as he was clearly a “people person” from his references and he came with great stock skills, and was the 2014 Manawatu Dairy Farm Manager of the Year Award. Sam is joined by ex-banker Andrew (who has farming connections from his childhood) and the Muller’s daughter Ellie who (like any new farm worker) is starting at the bottom of the ladder.

Weekly staff meetings include a health and safety education component. Staff members have every second weekend off and a sleep-in every third morning milking.

In 2015 the Mullers took out the supreme title in the Taranaki Ballance Farm Environment Awards. Mark says a neighbour brought him a beer and coerced them into entering the awards – but Mark admits he saw a chance for a good news story for the team at a time when, “farmers are up against it”.

Mark and Jacqui’s interest and commitment to making the farm more sustainable was driven by the feeling that they’re only here for a short time and they need to leave the farm in a good state for the next generation.

Their environmental work involves riparian planting, better utilisation and timing of fertiliser; two day breaks in paddocks on wet days.

They’ve also worked with farm consultant Greg O’Byrne for 5 years now to fine tune the business. Mark says they were plodding along but wanted to improve and make the best of their farm. The farm has an above-average milk solids production per season for the district, but Greg says they were spending a lot of money getting there.

Greg has worked with them to increase cropping and re-grass the farm. Mark says Greg is, “big about the grass” and the Ballance Farm Environment judges noted that “pasture management is a feature of this property, farm walks are regular, grazing rounds are determined by the number of days it takes from grazing to the third leaf stage.” Mark has also moved away from turnips to chicory, saying they get a good 18 to 22 day round out of it.

Greg has used software to maximise fertiliser inputs and timing. They regularly test each paddock and only apply to the paddocks that need it. This is saving them money and aiding their drive for a more environmentally sustainable farm. The Mullers have seen an increased production of about 90,000kgs of milk solids a year with Greg’s fine-tuning.

The Mullers appreciate Greg’s input. They say he brings modern ideas and does a lot of reading, looking at applicable recent research. They also appreciate the role Greg plays as a mediator between the manager and themselves when they have different ideas. Mark attributes a key benefit from Greg is the confidence he installs in them and the team.

With present low payouts they’ve dropped their stocking rates but the focus is still on good performance from good cows and milk production per hectare (aiming for 450-500kgs of milk solids per cow per annum).

The team is going to break even this season at the opening $4.25 milk price but they’re still pushing towards a small profit with the announced increase to $5.25.