'We can do an even better job'

Ealing dairy farmer Devon Slee talks about native plantings on the property. At right is Andrew Dartnell, of Riverside Horticulture Ltd in Rangiora. Photo by Maureen Bishop
Ealing dairy farmer Devon Slee talks about native plantings on the property. At right is Andrew Dartnell, of Riverside Horticulture Ltd in Rangiora. Photo by Maureen Bishop
Mark and Devon Slee entered the Ballance Farm Environment Awards to promote the industry and the good things happening in it.

The couple had the chance to do that recently when about 170 people turned out to see what makes a prize-winning dairy farm. As supreme winners of the Canterbury awards, the Ealing farmers hosted a field day at their property near Ashburton.

Their company, Melrose Dairy, milks 2640 cows on three dairy units on 1011ha. It has a 50-bale and two 60-bale rotary sheds, with each shed handling about 880 cows.

Dairy farmers needed to sell the story, Mr Slee said.

''I know there are some challenges out there - we've had a lot in the last 12 months.''

He spoke of the tainted milk scare, excessive rain, windstorms where the property lost about 100 trees, and damaged irrigators.

''I'm not saying that in the future we will have solved everything overnight but I'm sure that with education, time, resources and technology, we can do an even better job.''

In 1987 his parents, Syd and Morrell Slee, could not continue to farm sheep, as it was uneconomic. They had no choice but to convert to dairying at a time when banks would not lend money.

While the farm had good border dykes, it took a 28-day cycle to irrigate the property.

''Even though we had good irrigation, it was just the way we were using it. We knew we had to put in spray irrigation. After that we realised how effective it was.''

Areas covered during the field day included measuring soil moisture, irrigation, nutrient-budget challenges, native plantings for shelter, staff employment and overall production philosophy.

Even though the business was on a big scale, attention to detail was important, Mr Slee said. There was an emphasis on getting things right.

Melrose Dairy is one of four top privately run Canterbury farms against which Lincoln University measures 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.

The three sheds on the property are also benchmarked against each other.

Several speakers told of the good use of farm data to aid farm operations, including Overseer, nutrient adviser tools and nutrient budgeting, soil monitoring, irrigation good-management practices, pasture research, and effluent management and storage tools.

Technology was really useful, Mr Slee said. He could now enter a cow's number into his cellphone while out on the farm and get access to the animal's history.

As the business has grown, the couple have spent less time milking cows. Instead, they can spend three days a week in the office.

In 1995, three staff were employed and staff accommodation was a hut and a caravan. The company now employs 13 full-time and two part-time staff. Two of the dairy units are run by managers, with a contract milker on the other.

Mrs Slee spoke of the rewards and challenges of employing so many staff. The whole staff come together once a month. She also produces a news sheet that is distributed to everyone.

''We, as employers, set the culture,'' she said.

''It's about building relationships.''

She also spoke of the plantings done on the farm in recent years.

The couple have planted more than 10,000 native trees over about 8ha.

Natives were chosen because they suited the farm's requirements in that they were slow growing and would not grow too tall.

''I like the biodiversity of natives,'' she said.

''We sprayed all the lines and planted and then watched every hare in the district come along.''

A shoot netted 196 hares.

Frost had been hard on the plants in the open country also.

Mrs Slee warned that the plants had to be looked after and there needed to be a spraying programme to control weeds.

''They are not a cheap option when compared to other varieties such as pines, but they are now beginning to provide shelter and are giving aesthetic pleasure.''

Andrew Dartnell, of Riverside Horticulture in Rangiora, who did the plantings, advised farmers to get good advice, prepare the site well, source plants from a reputable nursery and have a good maintenance plan.

- by Maureen BIshop