Moovers and shakers in dairy industry

By Linda Clarke

Rebecca Miller is one busy dairy farmer. She and husband Brent are growing their own business, and Rebecca is regional convener for the Mid Canterbury branch of the Dairy Women's Network. The branch has about 200 members who meet regularly, sharing information about the industry and raising the knowledge bar for all involved. Linda Clarke reports

Rakaia dairy farmers Rebecca and Brent Miller live in a fish bowl.

Their 1070-cow farm borders State Highway 1 just north of the Rakaia overbridge, and every man and his dog can see what they are up to.

Rebecca says the couple jokes about living in the limelight, but they farm with pride, knowing the cows and land they manage are scrutinised regularly by passing dairy farmers and are often photographed by tourists, who are taken by the green grass, black and white cows and snowcapped mountains.

The Millers are farm managers at Burmont Holdings, a 285ha property owned by the Spectrum Group. This new season will be their fourth with the group, which has 12 dairy farms in Canterbury.

Spectrum's Tower Peak Station, a dry stock support unit based in Te Anau, winters up to 4000 heifers but most of the Millers' herd is wintered at Hororata. With calving to start, there is plenty to do on the farm.

Brent, 32, and Rebecca, 34, met in 1997 when Brent was at Telford with Rebecca's brother, Graham. They both come from farming families and have worked on dairy farms all around New Zealand.

It was a deliberate mission to know as much about the industry as possible, Rebecca says. They decided Mid Canterbury, with its opportunities for large-scale farming, was the best place to be.

They "head-hunted" Spectrum to give them a job for the 2009-10 season.

They found themselves on Rangitata Island, milking 750 cows. Rebecca says it was a lonely existence and she decided to follow up a suggestion from Spectrum boss Sue van der Poel to start a new group in the area to meet other people.

She started by asking other women in the area if they wanted to meet for a coffee. It was the beginning of a new branch of the Dairy Women's Network.

"There were four women at the first meeting, then 10 at the next, then 20, and it peaked at 40," Rebecca says.

Though she and Brent left for Burmont a season later, the group is still going strong under new leadership.

Rebecca now runs activities for the Dairy Women's Network Mid Canterbury branch. It ran a calving information day recently, with 60 people turning up.

"Calving is one of the most important times. We are all focused on it and we all want a great calving," she says.

"It is a job often done by women. It is quite a maternal thing and we have a lot of patience to give to the future of the herd."

She says the network is a great vehicle for spreading information and making friends. "We are focused on bridging that change and getting out of our comfort zone to meet others.

"You work on the farm and sometimes don't see many people. If your networks are not at school, or your kids have left school, there can be few opportunities for interaction with other like-minded people."

Rebecca uses IT skills from her previous job as a graphic designer to make the most of her communication with network members, the Spectrum community and the five permanent staff members who work on Burmont.

Her staff rosters are colour-coded and financial documents, reports and spreadsheets have a "wow" factor. "My first purchase was a computer at 15. I am not a nerd, but I know how to use it."

You can see the Millers' farm from SH1 - it is just three minutes' north of Rakaia. The property is dissected by South Two Chain Rd, with the 50-bail dairy shed on the eastern side.

Rebecca says they have taken pride in the farm environment and condition of their herd. They are planting natives and have plans to establish an orchard that will also supply fruit to workers.

They are constantly improving their business knowledge and trying to achieve a healthy work-life balance. They lock in family time for their three young children: Blake, 7, Blair, 4, and Rhianna, 2.

The couple is involved in a Lincoln-based focus group that is challenging concepts around stress and fatigue in the dairy industry.

"They have identified a shortage of skilled workers on dairy farms, not only in Canterbury but around New Zealand. But where will these workers come from?" says Rebecca. "There is stress and fatigue in the industry, we need to get that in check to provide an environment which will appeal to all people considering work in the dairy industry."

Robust rosters and systems are important, as is time-management and communication.

The focus group involves dairy farm owners, managers, sharemilkers and professionals like accountants.

The industry has identified it will need hundreds of new qualified farm employees per year to keep up with demand.

At least 600 qualified dairy-farm workers will be needed in central Canterbury if the South Rakaia Irrigation Scheme to irrigate another 30,000ha goes ahead and another 120,000 dairy cows come into the district.

Rebecca says Canterbury is abuzz with dairy farmers who want to be profitable and environmentally sustainable. She and Brent are part of that movement and have plans to progress as sharemilkers.

Rebecca, who looks after the financial and HR side of the farm, is planning to start a bachelor of business degree through Open Polytechnic next year.

Change is inevitable, she says. "You have to keep up with it and be prepared to meet the challenges ahead."

- Hamilton News

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