Gippsland dairy farmer Nicole Saunders has taken out the 2022 Rabobank Business Management Prize from a field of some of Australia’s leading farmers.
Ms Saunders, who operates a dairy business near Maffra, was recognised with the award for the strategic business plan she developed for her enterprise, after completing the Rabobank Farm Managers Program (FMP), a specialist course designed to strengthen the operational and strategic skills of emerging farmers.
The plan – which Ms Saunders, 29, developed as a management project after undertaking the FMP – is already delivering tangible benefits to farm profitability and sustainability, helping to transform the operation she began with her husband Brendan after the couple moved to Australia from New Zealand less than five years ago.
Ms Saunders was presented with the Rabobank Business Management Prize by Rabobank general manager, Sustainability and Community, Marc Oostdijk in front of graduates of the 2022 Farm Managers Program and industry leaders at the program’s recent graduation dinner in Sydney.
Now in its 16th year, more than 500 Australian and New Zealand farmers have graduated from the program.
The Rabobank Farm Managers Program is an annually-held course developed for farmers looking to enhance their management capabilities.
The program covers topics including global trends in agriculture, business planning, financial management, leadership and succession planning.
Taking the learnings from the FMP and implementing them into the dairy business, Ms Saunders has been able to achieve improvements in business productivity and efficiency, technology adoption and farm infrastructure since graduating from the program in 2019.
Ms Saunders and her husband made the moved to Australia from New Zealand in July 2018, as they believed there were greater opportunities available in the Australian dairy sector.
“We were attracted by the lower land prices in Australia and the opportunity for higher returns,” she said.
“At the time we arrived, Australian land prices were approximately a third of the price of land in New Zealand. Of course that has changed dramatically in the last five years.”
The couple has progressed from 40/60 percentage split sharefarmers in 2018 on a 700 cow farm to an operation with a forecasted 800,000 kg/MS being produced in the 2022/2023 season, owning 1500 cows and having a mixture of leased and owned land near Maffra.
“We chose to farm in the Macalister Irrigation District, in Central Gippsland, because of the security of water – we are very well-insulated from drought and adverse weather affects,” Ms Saunders said.
She said participating in the FMP at a time of massive expansion within their business allowed her to use tools and theories learnt during the program in “real time”.
The business plan Ms Saunders developed included four goals: increase profit per hectare, produce a high-quality product, improve their team and expand the business.
“To increase profit per hectare, we focused on profitable feeding. To achieve this, we changed the calving pattern to fully spring calving to ensure a better match to pasture production and ability to optimise the cows’ diets to their milk production curve. We also heavily focused on a pasture renovation and fertilising plan. As a result, we had a 25 per cent increase in production on the previous season,” she said.
To achieve the goal of producing a high-quality product, Ms Saunders implemented a bonus system, where employees receive a bonus when somatic cell count (SCC) – an indication of cows’ mammary health and milk quality – averages under 150,000.
“Staff have been vital to the growth of our dairy business – our team is our greatest asset,” she said.
“Our staff are our main focus – they are key to being able to operate at scale. We have now included values and culture statements in the business plan, demonstrating just how important our team are to us and our business.
“To meet the goal of an improved team, everyone attended milking courses and we saw a significant improvement in their milking skills and knowledge. We also introduced ‘work-phones’, as we were struggling to communicate with employees during work hours as they would not have their phones with them in the shed. I also changed our roster system, so everyone’s roles are more clearly specified. And I introduced a tablet in the dairy shed – this is used both for timekeeping and for managing daily tasks, weekly tasks and checklists via an app.”
Ms Saunders said the couple’s fourth goal – to expand their enterprise – has seen the addition of a contracting arm to their operation as well as diversifying into horticulture and tourism with a new ‘Berry Dairy’ business set to open in October 2023.
The ‘Berry Dairy’ will be a pick-your-own strawberry operation with an on-farm café. Long term, Ms Saunders said she would love to connect the dairy business and the café, by having their own milk being turned into a niche product and being able to have a full paddock to plate experience.
“I believe the future of agriculture is in ensuring people are connected to the origin of their food and education,” she said.
Ms Saunders said through the process of developing her management project, she had created a series of three “management steps” to incorporate into her business.
“The first step is focusing on healthy thinking, to ensure you have a really good mindset,” she said.
“Attending the FMP in June 2019 was perfect timing. We were busy establishing a business in a new country during one of the worst droughts – it had been a tough year on my mental health.”
During the program, one of the presenters, Dr Tom Mulholland, provided tools to help recognise thoughts as triggers, and what to do when you have a negative or unhelpful thought.
Ms Saunders said she also learnt to recognise the value of time and to not waste time on negativity.
“You can’t get that time back – I think this idea has changed my thought process significantly. Also, your business is not going to go anywhere, unless you take the time to look after yourself first,” she said.
“Creating a business plan was the second step, with the third and final step being the implementation of the plan and goals.
“The third step of implementing our business plan was critical, because a business plan is of zero use if it is just sitting in a drawer. And over the years we have continued to make tweaks to the business plan in annual reviews,” she said.