Rising to the challenge

Charing Cross dairy farmer George Dodson takes a rare break from his preparation for the Young...
Charing Cross dairy farmer George Dodson takes a rare break from his preparation for the Young Farmer of the Year grand final. PHOTOS: TIM CRONSHAW
There’s not enough minutes in the day for a Canterbury dairy farmer who’s packing in homework for the Young Farmer of the Year final, on top of his job, writes Tim Cronshaw.

Early morning starts don’t faze Charing Cross dairy farmer George Dodson.

Getting up before the sun rises is part of the job and he finds it relatively easy to get his head off the pillow when the alarm rings.

The 22-year-old is second-in-charge for owner operators Andrew and Hayley Slater at their 430-cow farm on 113 hectares halfway between Canterbury’s Dunsandel and Darfield.

"The early starts aren’t too bad and I’m pretty used to it now. I’m not one of those people that needs a helluva lot of sleep. I suppose if you are one of those people who needed that it’s not well suited for you, but I’ve just got used to it."

As for the double daily grind of milking, he’s at peace with that too.

"You just sort of zone out and daydream and listen to music with a bit of singing and you’ll be right. The more you focus the harder it gets I suppose."

Through the milking season he’s up at 4am and out the door getting the cows to the milkshed with the cups on at 5am.

Milking followed by the cleanup is usually finished by 7.30am at the 36-bale rotary shed with cup removers, auto drafting, feeding and cow manager tags.

"It’s real good, especially if we are mating as it’s essentially a one-man operation. Then we go for breakfast for an hour and depending who’s on that day, we might be shifting irrigation. We’ve got three Rotorainers and a few sprinklers so shifting them around is a few hours. Then we’ve got a few odd jobs like setting up breaks and doing the effluent for an hour or so and then it’s lunch."

In the afternoon more jobs are ticked off the list before the second milking with cups on at 2.30pm and out the shed by 4.40pm if they are quick, and then it’s one last check of the cows and irrigators.

Ten minutes later he’s back home and — in theory — can put his feet up.

The Slaters have been supportive since he moved to the high-performing operation just over a year ago, both on and off the farm.

He had been managing a larger farm further south and wanted to connect with a farm owner who was a good operator and got good output out of his cows.

"Probably Andrew more than anything [was the reason I came here]. I was managing 550 cows so slightly bigger in Southland, but all my family and friends are up here so I wanted to come back. He was probably the main reason and I probably could have got a managing job somewhere, but I wanted to come work here and for the opportunities that are going to come in the future. They care about you and I find they give you more in terms of development."

Usually a relief milker is employed during the irrigation season. Otherwise, the pair look after the operation themselves, with Hayley managing the calf-raising during this busy stage of the season.

For someone so young, he has already built up a resume of dairying experience.

His latest role follows a stint last season managing a larger farm of about 550 cows under the Fortuna Group in Southland’s Woodlands.

Before that he was on a dairy farm near Lincoln on the shores of Lake Ellesmere, relief milking initially as a 16-year-old and progressing his way up from herd manager to farm manager.

While he’s since accumulated dairying qualifications, university was bypassed.

"I just went straight out as I don’t really like sitting in a classroom or at a computer. Dairying is definitely very practical and it has lots of variety. I do like the outdoors, sometimes more than others."

The working week is a blur for Canterbury’s Charing Cross dairy farmer George Dodson who is...
The working week is a blur for Canterbury’s Charing Cross dairy farmer George Dodson who is preparing for Young Farmer of the Year final.
Dairying is in the blood.

His parents, Fred and Sarah Dodson, were in an equity partnership on a Southland farm before they moved to Rolleston when he was 11 years old and his father is now managing a Hororata farm now.

Sisters Emma and Grace, one studying teaching in Dunedin and the other still at school, pitch in with farm work in the holidays.

"I was brought up on a farm until we moved into town when we came here and I didn’t really have much to do with farming until I was 16 and was working on the same farm near Lincoln. I did agriculture at school, but never really thought it was going to be the path for me, but sort of ended up falling into it after high school. It’s good diversity and I’ve learned a lot of skills."

Milking wound up for the season on May 30 and, again in theory, this is typically the quiet stage of the season when the busy rush of dairying slows down.

Except the Tasman finalist for the Young Farmer of the Year grand final in Hamilton from July 11-13 has had his nose buried deep in book work preparing for the event.

"Normally it would be quiet, but I’m doing a lot of studying and work is almost the relaxing part."

This was his second crack in the regional final, finishing fourth in 2022 and last year missing out in the final cut for the Southland regional competition.

He’s one of seven finalists after being somewhat taken aback to surface ahead of a 22-strong field.

Now he’s up against a smaller, but arguably sharper, lineup who are all older than him with the exception of another 22-year-old.

People tell him he has an old head on his shoulders. Being fairly young to take on leadership — and more older opponents in the competitive arena — doesn’t deter him.

Undaunted, he’s taking a pragmatic approach to the challenge and leaving no stone unturned in his preparation.

That’s included working on his knowledge of sheep farming — perceived as a main weakness — and brushing up on his homework for seeds, fertiliser and plants.

"There’s a couple of sheep farmers around the area so I’ve done a bit of shearing and crutching with them, Just enough to get the wool off the sheep, but it’s not that pretty. That’s probably my main focus and there’s a lot more stuff to do with business that I’ve had to learn."

Part of making the final was completing a time-consuming 3000-word innovation project that was handed in a few weeks ago, under a scenario of inheriting a farm from parents and having to pay out siblings.

That’s involved putting together an investment plan, which he believes will come in useful later when he tries to get on a farm, set budgets and possibly bring in outside investors.

His prep work for the Canterbury/North Otago dairy manager of the year competition, where he finished runner-up, might also be invaluable. Research which included new freshwater management policies will hopefully come to play out in his favour.

In the past he’s had a good measure of success in the Dairy Industry Awards, finishing third in the Canterbury/North Otago dairy trainee of the year contest in 2022 and runner-up for Otago/Southland dairy manager of the year last year.

"It’s an aggravating one to tick off my list after two seconds in a row so I haven’t quite cracked the nationals yet and you have to get first to do that. That’s one to do, but if I’m going to be owning my own business next year this is my last crack this year and it will certainly be on the watchlist. I will have a couple of months to calve and mate and then recover and get back into it again."

Already, he’s over-achieved on his goal in the Young Farmer of the Year competition — making a national final before "aging out" at 31 years old.

His strength in the Tasman final was agri-sports, but he was consistently in the top three for most of the events to find him top of the leaderboard before the quiz.

George Dodson’s goal is to one day own his own farm.
George Dodson’s goal is to one day own his own farm.
Finishing second in the rapid-fire quiz, he’s brought his parents in again to sharpen his buzzer skills.

"I’ve certainly done a lot of buzzer practise. We try to have one here every week because we’ve got practise buzzers in the region. I have a few mates around and a few beers and Dad is the quiz master. He loves it as well and competed in the grand final in 2000 and my uncle has won it as well. Dad was down in Southland and his older brother was in Marlborough and won it for Tasman. So no pressure."

The quiz master makes sure the questions come thick and fast and having his mates around makes it fun, as so much of the prep work he has to do himself.

There will still be nerves to overcome competing in front of a large crowd.

His plan is to ignore the outside distractions and put all his focus on what he’s doing.

He travelled to Waikato in April to try to learn more about the region, and visit kiwifruit, blueberry and avocado orchards in the hope some of this material will surface during the competition.

This was followed by a return visit in a promotions event at Mystery Creek’s Fieldays where he met the other finalists after eyeing up the competition in a photo shoot in Christchurch in May.

"People keep telling you, even if you don’t win it’s pretty unreal to even get there and so many people try and don’t make it.

The learnings from this really condensed study period and the networks you make is pretty phenomenal even if you don’t do as well as you hoped in the competition. You are always there to win it but there’s positives if you don’t and you still get a lot out of it."

All of this studying doesn’t give him much time to relax, but he likes to play sport with his mates, while a trip to Tonga to visit his partner’s family is already booked.

"It will be good to get away in the warmth for a week and come back to do the calving pretty much. Spending all your free time in front of a computer writing reports isn’t easy when you’re a farmer and like to be outside so it’s starting to get a wee bit old, but there’s only a few weeks left and you just have to get it done and enjoy it."

Never one to sit still for long, he will restart studies towards a diploma in agribusiness management that were put on hold for the Young Farmer title bid.

In the medium to long term, his goals are to stay with the Slaters until the end of the 2024-25 season just started and then he’s keen to go into a sharemilking partnership with them on another farm.

The arrangements have yet to be sorted, but he might run the sharemilking and put in some equity into the partnership with "room to grow".

Failing that he would like to progress to contract milking on a 600 to 800 cow farm.

Yet to invest in his own cows, he’s put his money elsewhere to get a good return on investment.

"There’s a bit in the bank. I’m just sitting on my hands trying to work out what’s my next move I suppose. I don’t really know as if you want to go into sharemilking you need to have your cash ready. It’s got to be doing something for you, but be reasonably liquid."

Mentors he taps into for advice include the Slaters, his former Lincoln employer Tony Dodunski and his father.

They’ve all taken different paths and this helps him to find his own middle ground.

Further into the future is the goal of owning his own farm.

"Hopefully I’d like to get a family farm of some description that can be passed down to the generations and keep the passion for farming going. I’ve got heaps of time and there’s still people doing it these days so it must be possible still."

Agri-manager to represent Aorangi in grand final

Ravensdown agri-manager Gareth McKerchar is the other local competitor, representing Aorangi in the grand final.

The 25-year-old member of the Pleasant Point Young Farmers’ club combines office work with on-farm duties. As an agri-manager for the fertiliser co-op, he travels widely in the Waitaki Valley, Omarama and Twizel area, recommending fertilisers to farmers.

Growing up on a family farm in Fairlie, he made his debut in the competition after joining the Pleasant Point club last year.

Assisting with modules in previous events and watching contestants gave him the confidence to compete.

Seeing his name at the top of the leaderboard going into the buzzer quiz, he adopted a cautious approach, aiming to safeguard his position.

This paid off and he managed to hold off 28-year-old runner-up Samuel Allen, another Pleasant Point club member, also making his debut in the competition.

He is planning on using his network to build his knowledge and skill base in the leadup to the final.

His wide background from irrigated dairy farms to high-country stations is expected to help him prepare for the big day.

Assisting him in the quiz and modules will be the bachelor of agriculture degree he holds, with a focus on plants and soils. Working an Australian harvest might also play out in his favour.

The challenge he enjoyed the most in the regional final was the farmlet module and he’s hoping to have further success in this event in the grand final.


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