Synlait Farms 2013

April 2013

The continuing growth story for Synlait Farms, Lincoln University Foundation Farm of 2012

Synlait Farms won the South Island Farmer of the Year award in 2012 with a blend of family based traditional practices and the very best of modern corporate innovation and management systems.

The Lincoln University Foundation runs the South Island Farmer of the Year competition. This year the theme was excellence, leadership and innovation in farming.

Synlait Farms started with the conversion from dry land sheep to irrigated dairy in 2001. Now the ownership is a corporate with 90 shareholders. The company was set up by dairy farmers Juliet Maclean, Ben Dingle and farm systems scientist John Penno.

In 2006 they decided to establish a milk powder manufacturing capability and brought in external investment from Mitsui to get this plant up and running, which happened in 2008. Then in 2010, in a move to increase capital and expand the manufacturing operation, they brought in Chinese investment partner Bright Foods. Now Bright owns 51% of Synlait Milk, and the original shareholders own 49% of Synlait Milk and 100% of Synlait Farms.

The competition aims to advance agriculture generally and showcase excellence and innovation which can be transferred to a wider audience, both farmers and those outside farming.

The key reasons Synlait Farms won the 2012 competition were:

  • their focus on continuous improvement
  • how they worked that into a farming business
  • how continuous improvement works with their staff
  • how continuous improvement manifests in the way they run the farm
  • how they look at best practice – and ensure it happens with their cows, soils, pastures and people
  • they are trying to get the best out of a family business in a large scale farming operation, which is a fine balance
  • and they are still maintaining flexibility and innovation, and growing staff at the same time.

Judge and chairman of the Lincoln Foundation Ben Todhunter says “I was impressed with how they were doing the simple things uncommonly well, such as managing pastures. Their measurement and management of their feed wedge in spring was impressive in its level of detail, which allowed them to make superb decisions.

It was basic feed budgeting but they were doing it uncommonly well and using it to advantage.

Another example was measuring cow condition, and how one person had put his hand on 30,000 cows.”

Synlait Farms operates 14 farms on nearly 4000ha in the mid Canterbury area. This season, with 85 staff, they are milking almost 13,000 cows, and producing 1380kgMS/ha, which gives a total of 5.44mkgMS. The farms are within 20km of the Synlait factory at Dunsandel.

They use the key components of successful family farms, and add to that corporate business disciplines of monitoring and reporting.

High performing corporate businesses tend to have robust repeatable systems which allow them to cope with a lot of changes. And they measure and monitor really carefully, and make decisions based on data rather than on gut feel.

Juliet Maclean, CEO of Synlait Farms says “Farmers have lacked some of these disciplines. What I have learnt over the last five years is if we are expecting successful businesses to invest in our business, they have very clear expectations around reporting, data and performance. This allows them to track their investment. They expect reporting information to be available consistently and on time. These corporate disciplines help put farming in good stead to make better decisions.”

Juliet says Synlait considers that all activities in the business fall into one of six strategic pillars:

1. cows

2. grass

3. profit

4. people

5. environment

6. innovation

These form the foundation for excellent business performance, and guide decisions on where to focus resources. By focusing on these pillars, Synlait Farms avoids distractions and continually improves what is being achieved within the business.

“I can still see scope for improvements in performance, not only on-farm performance but in every aspect of the business.

One of our core values is continuous improvement, and continuing to challenge ourselves to do better all the time.

Our environmental work is based around compliance and protection. Our environmental manager Lucy Johnson spends a lot of time making sure the farms follow best practice for effluent management.”

As effluent compliance rules have changed in the last 10 years the farm systems are being upgraded. She also focuses on training farm staff how to manage the systems better.

About six years ago the largest farm Robindale, where 3000 cows were being milked, faced some animal performance challenges, so dairy vet Dave Campbell was employed to help.

For two years he worked as part of the Robindale farm team, and he made huge inroads into improving systems and performance on the farm. Then he started to help across all the farms in respect of animal health. Vet services were still provided by external veterinary providers.

Traditionally vets have made their money by getting farmers to spend their money reactively, but Synlait has moved to a prevention model around animal productivity issues.

Juliet says “A year ago we decided to bring vets inside our team, and currently now have two full time vets alongside Dave. We have new systems and processes for collecting really detailed and robust data about animal performance. Our somatic cell count has dropped demonstrably each year for the past four years. And our six-week in-calf rate has gone up each year too.

Using vets in-house isn’t cheaper than previously but each farm has a lot more contact time with the vets. Training and knowledge of on-farm staff has built significantly, for example in how to treat lame cows. Each farm is visited every week by the vets.

And we are ahead of the game rather than being at the bottom of the cliff. It’s a much more proactive approach rather than reactive.

A good example of innovation in the business is what Dave designed to treat clinical mastitis in first calving heifers.

Innovation is about turning ideas into repeatable actions. We had 20% clinical mastitis in our first calving heifers, and the barrier to reducing this was that the heifers were away at winter grazing.

We didn’t have a way of administering treatment, so he designed a crate and ramp which could be shifted from farm to farm to allow us to treat the heifers. This reduced the clinical rate from 20% to 4%, and it’s an innovation which has been repeated 8500 times! “

Winning the award has given them some third party verification that all the things the team has been working towards have been recognized as successful.

“Certainly we’ve been viewed with a little bit of scepticism by on-lookers, and not necessarily viewed accurately. Some of the negativity built around larger scale corporate businesses is unfounded, but perception is reality in the eye of the beholder. That can be quite hard for people to take. So winning the award is nice for the people in my team, and I was very excited about that.

For dairy farming I hope it is a positive outcome, especially for larger corporate businesses. We can offer interesting career paths and opportunities, and winning this award is a way of demonstrating that.

And it recognizes that doing things differently can have positive outcomes, just puts some balance in that debate. “