When you consider the amount of times Whakatāne dairy farmers Fraser and Katherine McGougan have featured in rural media in recent years, you’d be justified in wondering whether they’re getting a little weary of telling their story.
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Fraser is a fourth-generation farmer on Willowvale Farm. He studied agriculture at Massey University then travelled for a few years before deciding dairy farming was the right career path for him.

But that’s not the case because dairy farming is not just their story, it’s many others’ too, and their contribution to the dairy industry is having an impact far beyond their own farm gates.

In February 2021, Fraser was appointed chair of the DairyNZ Climate Change Ambassadors, a group formed to lead climate change actions on dairy farms. He has been serving as a Climate Change Ambassador since 2018.

And you couldn’t find a more qualified man for the job. He and Katherine have a collection of awards and acknowledgements celebrating their farming efforts, including the 2019 Bay of Plenty Ballance Farm Environment Awards Supreme award.

He says it’s not farmers’ unwillingness to reduce emissions that needs to be addressed, but rather the sense of overwhelm that stems from a barrage of information.

“A lot of farmers acknowledge global warming is happening and want to do their bit to decrease their footprint, but it’s the ‘how’ that is tripping them up,” Fraser says.

“Farmers are being given too much information, as well as being exposed to people trying to push particular agendas, but the clarity around climate change action is actually quite simple.

“As Climate Change Ambassadors, we’re all interested in climate change and also what we can do about it, and how we can help other farmers adapt to it.”

They certainly walk the talk around climate change action on their own farm.

Fraser is a fourth-generation farmer on Willowvale Farm, which is located on the Whakatāne River flats at Tāneatua. The farm has been in his family since 1898 – an extraordinary 123 years.

He attended Massey University and studied Agriculture and after a few years travelling, he returned to the farm with a clear perspective that farming was, in fact, the right career choice for him.

He entered into an equity partnership as part of a succession plan with his parents, Gavin and Charlotte McGougan; during this time he met Katherine.

Katherine, who was born and raised in Tokoroa, studied a Bachelor of Health Science at Otago University to become a radiation therapist.

After they met, Katherine commuted to Hamilton for five years to work as a radiation therapist, later studying mammography before their first child Emily was born.

Katherine worked as a part-time mammographer in Whakatāne before turning her focus to her family and looking after the financial side of the farm business.

In 2011 they purchased the farm and in 2017 purchased an additional 50ha block they had been leasing.

Today they milk 431 crossbred cows on a 132ha milking platform.

“We are almost self-contained,” he says.

“We lease a runoff from my parents and we have a completely closed herd to ensure biosecurity risks are minimal.”

Young stock are grazed on the runoff and as a System 2 farm, all feed is grown on-farm, with the exception of a little hay or silage.

“We removed PK and all imported feed from the system as it posed a risk that it may be decreased in future by supply companies,” he says.

“We aim to use the resources we actually have and use our pasture to its full capability, which is the most efficient production system.”

They grow between 5-7ha of maize for silage annually; the area depends on what stage their pasture renovation is at.

“We use maize silage as a tool to extend pasture rotation and as we don’t have a feedpad, we need to be strategic about how we feed out in winter before ground conditions become too wet,” he explains.

Planned start of calving is July 25; the date is matched to pasture demand, aligning the system to the capability of the land.

Their stocking rate, 3.1 cows/ha, also reflects their wish to only farm what the land can carry comfortably.

“If you look after your pasture and soil, you look after your cows,” he says.

Efficiency is the name of the game when it comes to genetics and breeding. They look to breed a very high genetic merit herd, mating crossbreed over crossbreed to create an animal that will convert less feed to more milksolids.

The 413 cows on the McGougan farm produced 158,400 kilograms of milksolids last season.

They use an LIC geneticist to select their semen and undertake four weeks of AI starting October 13.

“We have a high fertility herd and are able to generate around 22% replacement heifers,” he says.

“In the future, we may reduce that number to 18% replacements.”

After AI is finished, the herd completes six weeks of natural mating.

“Our mating philosophy is to keep it simple and do it well,” he says.

“We are really looking forward to the day where we can select for low-methane emitting traits.”

Reducing methane and nitrous oxide emissions is at the forefront of their farming ethos.

By targeting the timing, rate and depth of their nitrogen (N) application, they have been able to reduce their fertiliser use to a mere 50 units of N/ha for the season, while still achieving good production of around 1200kg MS/ha.

An overhaul of their effluent and irrigation system in 2020 means they can now store 140 days of dairy shed effluent, which is applied at a 5mm pass.

“The very low application depths contribute to a more sustainable system, and when you’re putting nutrients on at the right place and time you grow more grass, decreasing fertiliser costs and increasing production at the same time,” he says.

“We also use GPS tracking on vehicles to increase application accuracy.”

Currently, the farm has 40ha under effluent irrigation.

“It was a big investment, but an investment that increases profitability on-farm and contributes to environmental sustainability,” he says.

Technology has also increased efficiency in the 34-bail rotary dairy shed, improving milking efficiency and saving water and power use.

Automatic cup removers, bail restraints, automated teat spray and compressed air to purge milk lines have all been installed to increase the efficiency of milking times.

A heat recovery unit is used on the refrigeration unit, providing free hot water to 52 degrees, and fresh water is reused up to three times in the shed before entering the effluent pond, pre-cooling milk and washing down the plant.

As much as technology is welcomed at Willowvale, they have revisited fundamentals with the fencing of all waterways and small areas of native bush, including a stand of Kahikatea trees, which was first fenced-off by Fraser’s father.

“The kids (Emily, 10, Isaac, eight, and Liam, five) are helping us to rejuvenate these bush areas by helping us with additional planting,” he says.

“We are also undertaking a regenerative process controlling weeds and pests using biological means.

“And the 50ha we bought in 2017 has trees so we’ve retired that land, fenced it and are replanting natives.”

Fraser says his journey to climate change awareness started with simple curiosity.

“Our farm, located on the Whakatāne River flats, is prone to flooding and I often questioned why extreme weather events were happening more frequently,” he says.

“That was the big driver in starting my climate change journey.”

The DairyNZ Climate Change Ambassadors group was created in 2018 under the Dairy Action for Climate Change. Fifteen ambassadors, representing diversity in location, farm systems and experience, were appointed to help farmers understand the changes they can make on their farm to reduce emissions and improve water quality, while maintaining or even increasing profitability.

Fraser McGougan is the chair of the DairyNZ Climate Change Ambassadors, a group formed to lead climate change actions on dairy farms and leads by example.

In addition to being appointed chair of this group last year, Fraser was also selected to be part of the Farmer Reference Group for the Primary Sector Climate Action Partnership – He Waka Eke Noa.

The partnership, made up of 13 primary industry groups and a steering committee, was formed in 2019 as a response to the Government proposal to price agricultural greenhouse gas emissions through the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (NZ ETS).

Agricultural sector leaders and organisations did not accept this and proposed that an alternative pricing framework be developed and implemented in 2025.

The Government Climate Change Authority has sought advice from farmers as to where they should be heading with climate change legislation, and Fraser says He Waka Eke Noa is a critical part of creating a fair and equitable solution for the agricultural sector.

“It simply has to work,” he says.

“The NZ ETS cannot be an option.

“We have been asked to come up with some workable solutions for climate change, and we believe we have two really good ones.”

Option 1 is the Farm-Level Levy, under which farmers would face the cost of reported emissions from livestock and fertiliser, and offsets, to a third party organisation or new government department.

Option 2 is the Processor-Level Hybrid Levy, under which processors would pay for emissions based on the emissions charge applied to products supplied or bought by farmers or growers.

If the primary sector does not come up with a viable alternative to the ETS via He Waka Eke Noa, the Government reserves the right to price agriculture emissions in the ETS earlier than 2025 as legislated. DairyNZ says this decision would strip farmers of control and they would be faced with a broad-based tax via reduced payout.

In February, DairyNZ, Beef + Lamb and Federated Farmers will be running a nationwide engagement roadshow that will present the He Waka Eke Noa partnership options to farmers in a number of locations around the country.

“I’ll be attending the Rotorua and Whakatāne regional events to show my support for farmers, and I strongly encourage all farmers to attend,” he says.

“There is no use putting your head in the sand about climate change legislation; it’s happening and it’s happening now.”

Fraser says fundamental to He Waka Eke Noa partnership options is the ability to reinvest the levies collected into agriculture through research and development (such as methane vaccinations and low methane forages and breeding), and incentivising actions on-farm that reduce emissions.

“We have a target of reducing emissions by 10% by 2030 and we can achieve that, but we need to accelerate the research and development of new technology to meet our climate change requirements,” he says.

Making small changes on farm is not only more manageable for farmers, but reduces overwhelm.

“There are many simple ways to make a positive impact: timing and strategic use of nitrogen applications and technology are some ways to make positive changes today,” he says.

“A lot of farmers spend all day making themselves busy – they increase their stocking rate and grow and harvest more feed to meet the demand.

“They need to stand back and say, ‘What am I actually here for?’ For most, the answer is to build a profitable and sustainable business. There’s a lot to be said for simplicity – looking at fertiliser and timing, stocking rate, and growing more pasture and less supplementary feed.

“Know your numbers, critically analyse your business and get used to the idea of consistently evolving your farm practices to stay ahead of the game.”

Katherine says the greater understanding you have of your farm’s financial position, the less daunting this aspect of your business becomes.

“For the majority of those involved in the financial side of farming, it is not their primary skill set, so making sure that you utilise the skills of those around you, including your accountant and your bank manager, helps you in areas that you may struggle with,” Katherine says.

“Fraser and I feel it is crucial that both partners have at least some understanding of where the farm is sitting financially – even if one is more involved in this component of the business than the other – so you can work together towards your common goal.”

With profitability in mind, one mental hurdle farmers need to overcome is the idea that production is king.

“Farmers can get hung up on production figures to their detriment,” Fraser says.

“Production means nothing to us; profitability and sustainability are the measures of our success.

“We sit in the top 20% of farm owners in DairyBase for profitability, which really reconfirms to us that what we are doing is right.”

He says at the end of the day, positive change can be narrowed down to one aspect: people.

“People override everything,” he laughs. “If you can upskill, teach, learn and listen, you can achieve small gains very quickly.”

The McGougan family measure their success through profitability and sustainability and sit in the top 20% of farm owners in DairyBase for profitability. Fraser and Katherine with their children, Isaac, Liam and Emily.

They have adopted this philosophy so well they have been recognised for their work on a number of occasions.

In addition to the 2019 Ballance Farm Environment Awards Bay of Plenty Regional Supreme Award, they have accepted a Ballance Agri-Nutrients Soil Management Award, DairyNZ Sustainability and Stewardship Award, Norwood Agri-Business Management Award, and Bay of Plenty Regional Council Environmental Award Two.

They were also recognised in the 2016 Dairy Business of the Year, winning the Best People Performance Leadership award, Low Input with Best Financial Performance award, and the Best Bay of Plenty/Central Plateau Performance award.

Fraser says it is important for farmers to remember there are a number of organisations backing farmers via direct support, advocacy and lobbying.

“Farmers needn’t think they are alone in this,” he says.

“There is so much good work going on behind the scenes, through lobbying and supporting positive change.

“There are 15 Climate Change Ambassadors that want nothing more than to help farmers understand how to decrease their footprint.

“They are more than happy to answer questions and give advice to help the dairy industry progress in the right direction.”

He says the idea that climate change legislation is the ‘end’ is a falsehood.

“Really, it’s just the beginning. We are only scratching the surface of what’s possible,” he says.

“There is so much science and technology on its way, and with He Waka Eke Noa there will be the ability to reinvest money into science and technology.”

Fraser says with two full-time staff on farm, he is now able to take on more governance roles and seize opportunities as they arise, if they resonate with him.

In addition to his climate change roles, he is on the Whakatāne River Advisory Board, which manages the Whakatāne River and how it fits into the whenua (land), and is the chair of the Apanui School PTA, the school his children attend.

Katherine says during the first few years after purchasing the farm, where it was simply “head-down and all-consuming” work, Fraser was working on the farm while she was working on the business.

“At that stage, there was simply no room for overlap in our respective tasks, especially when you add a young family to the mix,” she says.

“There is now some space for Fraser to be involved in the business as well, he can take an overarching view of where we are currently, and where we may possibly progress to … and I tell him if we can afford it.

“Also, appreciating his desire to become involved in governance and external discussion groups means that for that to happen, the other partner has to be prepared for some sacrifices.”

Fraser says he wants to do more for others.

“It can sound wishy-washy, but it’s true,” he says.

“At the end of the day this isn’t just for me and my family, but for others as well.

“It’s almost the multiplier effect: I can reduce emissions by 10% on my own farm, but if I help 10 people do the same, that’s a 100% reduction.”

He says he loves the constantly evolving challenges that dairy farming offers.

“There are so many aspects to the job: working with staff and council, and every day is a new challenge that is constantly new and evolving,” he says.

“And during my time off I’ve taken up trail running, which is more of a personal challenge, whereas farming is more of a team sport.”

Katherine says the space a farming lifestyle offers is second to none, especially with young children.

“The physical space that the kids are fortunate to enjoy means there are endless opportunities to create, explore and understand the environment around them,” she says.

“And the space within a farming lifestyle means during certain times of the year there is the opportunity to get to the kids’ sports, events and performances that other jobs may not allow.”

They have accomplished the goals they set for themselves in recent years – the effluent and irrigation system upgrade, and ‘sharper’ nutrient management – but they’re not stopping there – it’s now time to share their knowledge and experience with others.

“As efficient producers of milk, New Zealand needs to stay at the forefront of the climate change issue; we are an export nation and we need to strive to be better,” he says.

“And once you start delving in, with the help of others, you’ll find it’s not daunting at all.”

 

Farm facts:

Owners: Fraser and Katherine McGougan

Location: Tāneatua, Whakatāne

Farm size: 132ha milking platform (148ha total)

Herd size: 431 Crossbred cows

Production 2020-21: 158,400kg MS

With calving underway, dairy farmers are being urged to plan ahead to combat feed shortages.

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