A Canterbury award-winning dairy farming couple seek to counter the industry’s negative press, writes Heather Chalmers.
David and Brenda Hislop are proud to be dairy farmers.
They’ve even got a big sign proclaiming the fact on Medbury Rd, which dissects their North Canterbury dairy farm.
One of the first dairy farms in a district which is predominantly drystock, they say it is a positive industry to be in and they are proud of their achievements.
It’s no idle boast either, as their winning of this year’s Canterbury Ballance Farm Environment Awards shows.
The Hislops say they entered the awards as they wanted to show others what is good practice. “It’s good for the industry and to counter negative press about the dairy industry.”
Medbury Farm Ltd is an equity partnership, milking 1240 cows on 442 hectares near Hawarden. The Hislops are the majority equity partners, with accountant Mark Daly and lawyer Janet Girvan also having long-term shareholdings. A founding equity partner in Medbury Farm, Girvan’s husband Eric Jacomb, a Farmwise dairy consultant, died in a tramping accident two years ago. It was Jacomb who encouraged Medbury Farm to put entering the Ballance farm environment awards in the business plan four years ago.
Growing up on a Wairarapa hill country sheep and beef farm, David says he went sharemilking to buy a sheep farm. However, since taking up dairying the Hislops have not looked back, buying the first 209ha in 2001. This was converted for the start of the 2002 milking season with a 50-bale rotary cowshed milking 500 cows. Since then, other adjacent blocks have been added, and cow numbers lifted.
“It’s not an easy shaped farm like some of the new conversions,” he says. As well as wrapping around the historic Hurunui racecourse, which holds a biennial race meeting, the flat, terraced farm also borders the Hurunui and Waitohi rivers and several natural spring-fed streams.
Sustainability is a key consideration at Medbury Farm, whether this applies to the farming operation, staffing, or environmental management. Any “hot spots” are worked on until a better, more long-term solution is found.
“We are constantly looking at improving things.”
As cow numbers rose and the long hours milking became too much for cows and staff, a second rotary dairy was installed across the road. Together the farm produces more than 540,000kg of milksolids annually, with yield figures of 1550kgMS/ha and 445kgMS/cow. The milking platform is about 350ha, depending on the area grown for winter feed.
The System 4 farm feeds 300kg of palm kernel expeller and 300kg of barley per cow during the milking season. No silage is fed as this is used during winter grazing. All cows, apart from 200 heifers, are wintered at home on fodder beet and some kale.
Irrigation is vital for the existence of the dairy farm, with water sourced from the Hurunui and Waitohi Rivers and two bores. Originally 156ha of the farm was borderdyke (flood) irrigated, but this has been replaced by more efficient spray. Nine centre pivots now irrigate about 280ha.
In the gaps between the centre pivots, the Hislops have long-lateral sprinklers, but are moving away from these to sprinklers on tall fixed poles, spaced 50 metres apart, for ease of use. “While the fixed poles are three times the cost, these require no work once they are installed. You don’t have to move them and they water every two days on a timer on a set grid.”
They now aim to change from long-lateral to pole irrigation at about 10ha a year, as part of fodder beet rotation and regrassing.
Moving long-laterals can be time-consuming, taking up to six hours each day, so David modified the system to make it easier and safer. Originally an attachment to pick up the sprinklers was designed for the front of an ATV, but was shifted to their small four-wheel-drive farm vehicle. “We moved it to a truck, as staff were travelling 100km a day on a bike,” he says. “It’s also more comfortable in the truck and staff don’t get wet shifting irrigators when they are going. Originally the attachment was on the front, but you can’t get a WOF like that so now it is on the back.” The hydraulic arm is operated from inside the farm vehicle with a simple up-and-down control to pick up the sprinkler and drive it to its new position.
Each sprinkler has eight GPS positions in the paddock and a screen fitted in the farm vehicle means the staff member can identify which sprinkler is to be moved and exactly where the next position is. “Before, there was a lot of guesswork.”
Aquaflex soil moisture sensors are employed to help irrigation management decisions and prevent overwatering, while stock water meters feed information by telemetry to the farm computers.
The Hislops have a consent to apply effluent over the whole farm, with a neighbour dictating when it can be applied, depending on the direction the wind is blowing. “He sends a text to confirm it’s okay.”
A variable rate irrigation system on the centre pivots means no unnecessary water or effluent applications as the sprinklers are programmed to automatically turn off over lanes and waterways.
As well as fencing and planting its boundaries with the Waitohi and Hurunui Rivers, Medbury Farm is also riparian planting spring-fed streams which run through the property. About 2km of willows and old man’s beard has been cleared, with the streams refenced and planted in natives. “The next step is shade trees within paddocks. We are always conscious of our footprint.”
David acknowledges the assistance of former Environment Canterbury councillor David Bedford, who died in February. “He visited the farm a couple of times for discussions on issues we had and he did a lot for the area.”
Monitoring and recording is second nature at Medbury Farm to meet the increasing audit requirements of organisations like Fonterra and Ecan.
The judges were impressed with their understanding and integration of the farm environment plan into their normal business practice. They also had outstanding documentation and clear policies around all areas of the operation.
With five full-time and one part-time staff members the Hislops aim to provide an enjoyable working environment with a roster that considers the personal situation of the staff.
“Initially when we moved here our business fed four people and now it feeds 25 people (including staff and their families),” David says.
“Two staff have been with us nine years, farm managers Levi Dagcutan and Joel Velmonte, with manager Dennis Lagrosa here for five years. We don’t change staff very often.” All staff that were available attended the awards dinner with them.
“Some people say staff is the hardest part of farming. I say the hardest part of my job is getting cows in calf.”
Not all Philippines’ qualifications are recognised in New Zealand, including a staff member with a veterinary degree. During their travels the Hislops have visited two of their staff members’ families in their home country and the university two of their staff graduated from.
Their staff are encouraged to integrate into the local community, with the Hislops forming a touch rugby team. “Some of the staff initially didn’t know how to play,” says Brenda. Each year they also have a French student for three months as part of an intern exchange programme.
David says that when it comes to staffing he cites a triangle of attributes. “Attitude is at the bottom, then ability to learn, with passion in the top. It is this top bit that I can influence.”
By: HEATHER CHALMERS