Peter and Helen McLaren Tutaki Heights , Murchison

June 2008
Peter and Helen McLaren are very accomplished large herd farm managers, and have worked in the industry for a long time; they are very successful with their staff; and were finalists in the Dairy Farm Manager of the year award.

They have been on Tutaki Heights for a year at June 1 2008, and since then have been very successful at using the Lincoln University Dairy Farm techniques and ideas in managing the farm.

Previously they managed a big dairy farm at Westport and have had 10 years in the dairy industry. Before that Peter was a shearer, and worked throughout the West Coast, North Canterbury and Marlborough. Helen comes originally from Arapawa Island.

West Coast Dairy Ltd has six dairy farms on the West Coast, with 6000 cows being milked. This is one of the largest farms with 1500 cows.

Geoff Baxter, West Coast Dairy, is the full time supervisor looking after these farms. He has been with Dairy Holdings, the parent company, for a long time, and has been a sharemilker for them, moving up the ranks. He visits the McLarens about every 10 days, and really enjoys going to the farm.

The Lincoln University Dairy Farm (LUDF) is the model for production for Dairy Holdings and West Coast Dairy Ltd: the LUDF is in the top 1% in production and profitability for dairy farms in NZ, and uses few supplements and has a low cost system, focusing on pasture management. It produces something like 1700kgMS/ha/year.

Farm production on the 600ha had been quite poor previously before the McLarens arrived, and per ha production was very low.

Although this season was a nightmare for the Murchison district, they managed the pastures extremely well.

A flood last October took out 100 ha of pasture from grazing, and was followed by three droughts. It was a nightmare year for Tutaki like the rest of the country but locals had never seen it like this before.

While production was poor as a result, the McLarens managed their grass very well, and their feed wedge.

They knew exactly what was happening on the farm, and utilized the grass property; doing all the work the Lincoln University Dairy Farm staff (such as DairyNZ systems developer Adrian van Bysterveldt) has been teaching the company staff.

Even with the nightmare season Peter stuck to the principles and managed pasture very well.

Geoff says the most important job on the farm apart from looking after the cows and milking them is to monitor the pastures. This needs regular farm walks using a rising plate meter.

From these walks a feed profile or feed wedge is drawn up to show how much feed there is coming up in which paddocks. When there is too much feed in front of them for the cows to eat they make silage or balage. But this past year was so dry they didnt do that.

The quality of the pastures: at Tutaki Heights the pastures arent top quality, and they have a lot of weeds and waste areas, or areas they cant graze like swamps and rushes and river banks. That makes it harder to monitor than a flat irrigated farm like Lincoln.

Regrassing: the farm has a major regrassing programme underway, and more than 100ha has been regrassed this year, which has changed the farm out of sight. These new pastures are much more able to be utilized and grazed properly by the cows.

Production: This year they produced 310,000 kgMS, which worked out to be 688kgMS /effective ha. Geoff says there is a lot of room to improve the systems, but the McLarens have such good skills it is a very exciting project.

Geoff says a target of 900kgMS/ha at the right cost structure is a good target. If we could do 1000 we would be over the moon.

Peter and Helen have four staff, including their son Glenn.

They are very experienced at staff management and are particularly good at bringing young people into the business and taking them through the system. For example West Coast Dairy has hired Peter and Helens second in charge person from last season to manage a farm this coming year.

His replacement is also likely to go on to manage a farm with the company next year. They are good teachers, and very good at people issues.

On a big farm you have to have these good people skills to keep staff in their roles. Peter has such a good reputation people come to him for jobs.

Both Peter and Helen are avid hunters of deer and pigs, and this is one reason they took this job at Tutaki Heights with West Coast Dairies.

The scale and topography of the farm are important: the cows walk a long way to the shed, which is in the middle of the farm.

Its farming in the mountains, Geoff says. You have to be a special type of person to handle farming this place and Peter and Helen are, he says.