Only four years ago, Marcus Graham was selling houses in Auckland. He's now running the family farm at Ohaupo, Waikato. It's been a steep learning curve but getting advice from family, business advisers, farming friends and some wise old hands at DairyNZ discussion groups has helped him make informed decisions.

Graham has already packed a lot in to his life. At 35, he has a commercial pilot's licence, has bought, renovated and sold houses, worked for Fonterra and DairyNZ, and is a director of tech company Knode. Now, with his wife Kylee and their young children Carter and Lucas, he's running the family farm.

Started by his grandparents in 1955, the sheep and beef operation was converted to dairy in the 1980s. Marcus' parents, Judith and Peter Graham, were 50:50 sharemilkers on the farm until they had a chance to buy it in 2003.

Now it was Marcus' time to take over, but he first needed to brush up on his skills.
"Once Kylee and I made the decision to go farming, I realised that although I'd grown up on the farm and had a good feel for how things worked, my skillset wasn't where it needed to be in terms of the day-to-day running of the property. I needed some hands-on experience."

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A job came up as a farm assistant at DairyNZ's Lye Farm, near Hamilton, where best-practice farming is combined with the resources to carry out pasture and animal research trials. "It worked out perfectly for me," says the man who had for the past eight years worked hard at real estate "and went flying for fun" and was now involved with fodder beet and methane trials.

When Marcus and Kylee married in 2012 and decided to start a family, they thought it would be a good time to shift back to the country. This coincided with his parents wanting him at home on the 145ha farm, so four years ago they made the move.

Old hands offer pointers

Last November, Marcus Graham hosted a well-attended DairyNZ discussion group. He wanted to find out how other farmers were using technology in their daily operations and whether it was helping. He also wanted to learn how other farmers tackled buttercup.

From chatting with the other farmers, Graham found he was ahead of the game when it came to using technology. And two local farmers, Malcolm Macpherson and Jim Grayling, gave him some excellent pointers about his buttercup quandary. The pair have been involved in discussion groups since the mid-70s.

"Back then, most farm systems were similar, and the majority of farm owners worked at the coal face, so they were the ones who came to discussion groups," Macpherson says.

"Farm ownership is more diversified now, with family trusts and corporate farms, and not all owners are actively involved. But I think owners should ensure their staff get access to discussion groups because we're funding them through the levy and they can learn something from them."

Graham is grateful to have benefited from Malcolm and Jim's knowledge. "We spray about 20ha of buttercup annually and finding the best approach from two wise old hands has been helpful. It's been good to have the benefit of their experience and to mull over the pros and cons of various approaches."

Considering a system change to once-a-day milking (OAD) was another topic at Graham's discussion group. As an animal health measure, he already puts young stock on OAD from Christmas until dry-off and he wanted to see whether it might be worthwhile for the whole herd.

"Our DairyNZ consulting officer, Steve Canton, took us through some numbers and everyone had a view, but the consensus was that it's not necessarily about numbers — it's about benefits which sometimes aren't that tangible. It was good to hear everyone's opinions, so we can do our own numbers and weigh up when we might do it."

Marcus and his family have been carrying out native planting along the margins of Lake Maratoto, a peat lake on their farm. Photo / Paul Sutherland
Marcus and his family have been carrying out native planting along the margins of Lake Maratoto, a peat lake on their farm. Photo / Paul Sutherland

Plugging tech gap

Using technology is second nature for Graham. He is a director of Knode, a tech company he and some friends launched in 2017 to simplify the management of on-farm water supplies. Knode is now used across a number of industries and has added to its farming offering, monitoring effluent systems and providing weather and soil monitoring technology.

"Water is a valuable resource on-farm and wasting it is not an option. Measuring water flow is one of the key things we have to keep on top of — nobody wants a leak."

But Graham says he's not only learned a lot from his parents and discussion groups but has also studied livestock husbandry with Primary ITO, and uses
DairyNZ tools and services. "When I first started at the farm I used the DairyConnect mentoring service and was quite randomly teamed up with a family friend, Malcolm Piggott. It was good to be able to chat with him about everyday matters."

Graham also uses the Body Condition Score Tracker app and the Healthy Hoof app. He also finds the Facts and Figures app useful for calculating feed requirements.

"I also regularly check DairyNZ's Farmwatch online. The DairyNZ website is a mine of information too. Using technology is a time-saver, so it gives me more time to get more out of the day, or options to spend quality time with Kylee and the children."

Graham recommends DairyNZ discussion groups for farmers at any stage in their career.

"I think discussion groups are valuable. For someone like me who's relatively new to farming, there's all that experience out there. Even if you don't act on the advice straight away, you can pick up one or two things to mull over," he says.

"It's a two-way street too; you build relationships with other farmers and you share knowledge."