Loving the corporate approach
While many young dairy farmers are working towards buying a small farm, Josh and Rebecca Dondertman are thinking big. They told Anne Lee their roles as equity managers for one of Canterbury’s larger agricultural investment companies are providing them with exceptional opportunities.
Josh and Rebecca Dondertman say they’re living the dream in North Canterbury and it would be hard to argue with them, even in the current payout climate.
They’re in their second season as equity managers on a pod of three farms totalling 3000 cows.
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It’s one of five dairy pods in the South Island owned by Craigmore Farming, a farm management and investment company founded by Forbes Elworthy and Mark Cox.
It’s a big job but the scale is what motivates and excites Rebecca and Josh.
They met at Massey University – Josh is an applied science graduate and Rebecca a resource and environmental planning graduate – and have been farming ever since.
Josh is from a dairy farming background in Wairarapa while Rebecca is from Manawatu.
When Rebecca graduated, Josh left his job on a 200-cow property at Shannon owned by 2006 Manawatu-Rangitikei-Horowhenua sharemilkers of the year David and Barbara Hands and the couple headed to Tasmania where they got bitten by the large-scale bug, working on a 1200-cow property south of Launceston.
They both worked on the farm and quickly realised they relished the challenges of bigger operations. They were keen to get back to New Zealand and get stuck in to building a dairying career at scale and at pace.
In 2008, after 18 months across the Tasman, they took up a job where Josh was farm manager and Rebecca herd manager on a 450ha, 1500-cow farm at Waituna West, north-west of Feilding.
They worked for Kevin and Anna Cvitanovich and had the best possible start in terms of farm manager’s jobs with Kevin still hands-on enough to give advice when needed and provide a supportive, encouraging environment.
The pair were good learners and in their second year were recognised for what they’d already achieved, winning the Manawatu-Rangitikei-Horowhenua farm manager of year title.
Despite the title going to Josh as the farm manager, he said it was definitely a team effort and acknowledged that Rebecca’s skills in helping run the enterprise, which employed six other staff, was key to their success.
They worked on the farm for three years building their operational skill set and growing equity by rearing young stock and purchasing cows that were then leased back into the herd.
Their next job was a strategic move, because they had decided they were keen on pursuing large scale further, even to the multi-farm level, but wanted to add to their financial, business and human resource skills.
They liked the corporate structure idea and applied for a job with BEL Group managing the 2600-cow, 600ha, winter and spring calving Ashton Farm in Central Hawke’s Bay.
While it wasn’t a multi-farm operation its size meant it almost had to be run as such and working with family-owned BEL Group introduced them to a structured, process-led, corporate approach that would add to their skill set.
It was still a manager’s job but they recognised they needed to go sideways to go forward, Josh says.
“We learnt so much there. There were a lot of specialised tasks. With all cows going through one 60-bail rotary, it was running about 16 hours a day so everything had to run efficiently to be sustainable,” he says.
“There’s a very structured way of running the business there and I liked being able to learn from those systems. You do it all yourself but they’ve worked out what works well and give you the guidelines to follow and that was what we wanted to learn,” Rebecca says.
Taking on the job of employing staff was new to the couple but the corporate’s approach provided them with seven fundamental rules or guidelines.
One of the biggest things they took from the experience of working with the group and in particular Justine Kidd, the company’s chief executive, was managing teams and developing people.
“It gave us the confidence and expertise to do things we hadn’t been exposed to,” Rebecca says.
“They gave use the train tracks and we worked within them,” Josh says.
“It also opened us up to more structured planning and made us think more strategically,” Rebecca says.
They worked with their bank manager and Coach Approach to help with more strategic planning.
They’d been continuing to invest in stock and by their second season with BEL Group had 400 mixed-age cows and 150 R2 in-calf heifers.
A 1000-cow sharemilking job was offered to them elsewhere for the next season and Rebecca says they considered it seriously but their vision for the future lead them in another direction.
“We had been thinking about what we really wanted out of life and by the time I was 30 I really didn’t want to be milking cows any more,” Josh says.
“We had this professional drive and we didn’t want to go back to having our heads down working in the business rather than on it,” Rebecca says.
That’s when they looked at Craigmore as an option, but they didn’t jump in boots and all straight away.
Josh took up a manager’s position for a year on one of the farms in the Culverden pod so both parties got a chance to “look before they bought”.
Rebecca worked off-farm for a year and also assessed whether she wanted to pursue an off-farm career.
But it didn’t take long before they knew Craigmore was the right next step for them and they worked towards putting their equity into the pod that includes three farms totalling 950ha.
The farms still have potential and that was another appealing aspect for the couple.
“We probably wouldn’t have been interested if it was going to be status quo farming,” Josh says.
The couple have three ways to grow their own balance sheet.
They’re paid a salary to run the farms, they receive a dividend (although that’s unlikely this season) and they share in the capital gain as the farms are improved and their value increases.
Their agreement locks their equity into the business for three years and they’ve signed up for an initial four-year period.
“We love what we do every day and it’s a great way to grow our wealth,” Josh says.
“For us continuing our professional development was very important and we can do that in this kind of corporate structure.”
Josh is on the board of the pod company rubbing shoulders with one of the investors in Craigmore and has recently joined the Institute of Directors.
He and Rebecca have complete oversight of the three farms, which all have their own managers and herd managers.
All up there are 14 staff and the couple manages the recruitment process.
Craigmore has systems the farm managers and pod managers access for reporting and administration, such as time sheets, with wages and accounts paid by the company’s Christchurch office.
The couple’s points of contact at the head office include Peter McLeod, the company’s dairy farming manager, chief executive Andrew Horsbrugh and general manager of farming Mark Cox.
They have one administration person in the office who deals specifically with their pod so they feel well supported.
Josh says one of the great strengths is the ability to network with their peers, the other pod managers.
They conference call fortnightly and meet in Christchurch about every six weeks to share ideas and learn from each other.
Josh and Rebecca are focused on developing people within the business.
They include the farm managers in the budget setting process each year – or the budget re-working processes as has been the case last season and this.
It’s great for their business, the wider Craigmore group and individual staff members if staff can progress and grow within the company.
They’ve already had one staff member from their team step up to farm management and one who left the pod for a farm manager position elsewhere.
“We want to be employers of choice and our aim is to attract, retain and grow the right people. I don’t think you’d be a large-scale farmer if you didn’t enjoy that side of the business,” Rebecca says.
Josh spends about half of his time onfarm with the managers.
They book in time weekly and he’ll make sure that includes a drive around the farm with them.
They hold monthly planning and review meetings and these sessions take a couple of hours.
They talk about what went well and what can be improved on.
There’s always an agenda and notes are taken so actions required are noted down to ensure they get done by specified times.
“Things at a farm level are very planned out,” Rebecca says.
Managers hold their own team meetings and fill out a weekly report noting physical parameters including cell count, pasture cover, round length, area grazed, amount of supplement fed, milk production, any nitrogen or fertiliser that’s gone on, animal health, and health and safety issues.
It’s on a template and uploaded coming to Josh and Rebecca and on to the Craigmore head office.
Health and safety is a top priority for the couple and they’ve found the web-based software Craigmore uses for that aspect of the business, Impac Risk Manager, makes documentation and recording simple and effective.
“It’s had great buy-in from everyone and that’s really important with health and safety,” Rebecca says.
Each farm has a representative on the pod’s health and safety committee which Josh and Rebecca also sit on.
While this season’s low payout forecast is disappointing and creates a lot of pressure on everyone, the couple are looking through the year to the ongoing opportunities the industry offers.
There’s still nothing they’d rather be doing.