Patience paves painless path to succession
Passing on large-scale dairy operations to the next generation is never easy. But with a little forward thinking, plus looking for alternatives, it is certainly possible, says Gwen Syme.
The Syme family owns Mataora, a 230-hectare dairy farm milking 730 cows at Tirau. Two years ago son, Alan and wife Liz Syme bought the herd, machinery and some of the land. They are leasing the rest with an eye to buying it.
Gwen says it took a few years and a lot of patience to come up with a succession plan that was fair to both Alan and their daughter, Maria. “With the cost of farms, it is becoming more challenging,” says Gwen.
“But people can look at options – equity partnerships, leasing land or cows etc. There are many ways if you are determined enough.”
Alan completed a Diploma in Agribusiness and then worked on the farm for two years to make sure he really wanted to make the move.
Three neighbouring blocks of land had been incorporated into the original farm, which was run with contract milkers as three separate units. These units were combined into one farm before Alan and Liz took over.
One contract milker stayed on for a couple of years while Alan learnt the ropes; when he left, another contract milker was employed.
Alan and Liz, the fourth generation to farm the land which has been in the family for 110 years, have already made changes, Gwen says Alan, who had a career as a teacher, has brought a fresh set of eyes to the business, particularly around finances.
Farm costs have been reduced from $6 to just over $3 per kilogram of milksolids.
He has also managed to drop a labour unit, which, along with changes to infrastructure (such as moving an implement shed closer to the working area) has improved efficiency.
He has switched the farm from a system-five to a system-two with a profit rather than a production driven mentality.
The farm produced 254,000 kilograms of milksolids in the 2016-17 season from a herd of 735 cows.
He is aiming to breed away from large friesians, which don’t suit the hilly farm, to a smaller, more efficient, easy-care cow.
He uses Livestock Improvement Corporation artificial breeding for six weeks with recorded, leased jersey bulls – another departure from Gwen and Les’s days of buying hereford bulls.
Alan considers jerseys cheaper and tougher with less weight, and smaller calves reduce damage to cows.
He has a pasture-based system and has re-grassed aggressively over the last four years – around three-quarters of the farm has been re-sown.
Gwen says Alan and Liz have also carried on the work to meet compliance and environmental targets.
A a pond planted with trees has become a haven for bird and wildlife, and streams have been fenced off and cow numbers reduced.
This was another change instigated by Alan, who felt the farm was overstocked and felt that lower cow numbers would be more profitable over all. Gwen and husband Les still live on the farm and are enjoying retirement.
The aim in five years will be to re-examine the succession plan to determine the next step.
Mataora is part of the the New Zealand Century Farm and Station Awards programme, which aims to capture and preserve important rural history.
Eligible families can submit narratives of their farm history, along with copies of related photographs and supporting documents; these are archived at the Alexander Turnbull Library, in Wellington.
Gwen Syme says the decision to ensure the history of Mataora was preserved was driven by the succession of the fourth generation.
In 1907 a young Irishman, William Fitzgerald (Les Syme’s grandfather) took up a 999-year lease of 193 acres at Tirau. It was, one of 10 farms balloted from a 2550-acre block called Mangapouri Estate.
The government scheme of the time decreed that lease payments counted towards freeholding the property, so the couple set to developing the land into a farm, which they managed to freehold by 1919.
Daughter Emmie married Albert Syme and, in 1944, they bought the property from her parents.
They had three children, including Les (Leslie), who bought the farm in 1970. Gwen says it meant a lot to Les, now 80, when their farm took part in the Century Farm and Station Awards.
“Farming is all he has ever done, and all his parents and grandparents ever did. Entering made me really research the family history.
It’s really awesome to now be passing it on to the next generation and having someone carry on the family business.”