Dairying standard set by award winners

A chance to show what is happening in the dairy industry led Ealing farmers Mark and Devon Slee to enter the Ballance Farm Environment Awards.

The couple said with growing interest in the dairying industry in Canterbury in the past five to 10 years, they were keen to show there were a lot of farmers working to succeed in the social, environmental and financial areas covered by the awards.

Their entry paid off. They won the supreme award for the Canterbury region and were also presented with the LIC Dairy Farm Award, the PGG Wrightson Land and Life Award and the WaterForce Integrated Management Award.

Melrose Dairy Limited milks more than 2600 cows on three dairy units on 1014ha. With a milking platform of 660ha, last year the operation produced 1834kg milksolids/ha, well above the region's average.

The award judges said the Slees were top industry performers who had demonstrated the ability to run a highly profitable dairy business, while ensuring excellent environmental management.

They described the business as a proven family operation that had achieved long-term growth and success through innovation, discipline and sound business management.

Melrose Dairy was an industry leader in profitability, the judges said. It was one of four top privately-run Canterbury farms against which Lincoln University measured the performance of its dairying operations.

During the 2012-13 season, Lincoln achieved a profitability margin of more than $4600/ha compared with $5200/ha for Melrose Dairy, which was top of this benchmark group.

Mr Slee's parents, Syd and Morrell, converted the original 365ha sheep and beef farm in 1987. Mark and Devon, who have two young sons, started managing the property in 1991. They later bought the home farm, adding two neighbouring properties and a dairy support unit.

The operation now runs two 60-bale farm dairies and one 50-bale unit. Irrigation is provided via a centre-pivot system and herd size is kept under 1000 to place less pressure on the cows and staff.

Mr Slee has always had a strong interest in irrigation. He is a past director of the Mayfield Hinds Irrigation Scheme, and of Rangitata Diversion Race Management Ltd and a current member of the board of Irrigation New Zealand.

IrrigationNZ chief executive office Andrew Curtis said the Slees' sustainable irrigation practices and investment in technology played a large part in their win.

''Mark and Devon are among our top performing irrigators because of their significant investment in technology and personal commitment to reducing their environmental footprint,'' Mr Curtis said.

''By monitoring soil moisture to assess water need and by using GPS technology to check sprinkler application, the result is highly targeted and efficient irrigation.''

Mr Slee said the couple had been well supported by Dairy NZ as they developed the business.

Originally sheep farmers in Southland, the Slee family moved to Mid Canterbury in 1980. He completed his education at Ashburton College, Flock House and Lincoln University.

Melrose Dairy employs 13 fulltime employees and two part-time. Two of the dairy units are run by managers, with a contract milker on the other. Most employees are New Zealanders but they also have staff from South Africa and the Philippines.

The award judges praised the Slees' outstanding staff management and their high level of awareness and consideration towards staff. This has resulted in low staff turnover.

Environmental sustainability is a focus of the awards. Existing shelterbelts have been retained where possible, but in areas where trees have been removed to accommodate the irrigation system, these trees have been replaced with low-growing native species. The couple have planted more than 10,000 native trees. The couple's management of land, labour and capital was exceptional, the judges said.

A field day will be held on the farm, at the end of April or the beginning of May.

- by Maureen Bishop