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Paying it forward

Words by Annie Studholme, images by Annie Studholme & Natwick

Empowered by a desire to leave the dairy industry better than they found it, Carew dairy farmers and contract milkers Brent and Rebecca Miller are inspiring others through their positive, enthusiastic, and holistic approach to farming and family life.

Husband and wife team, Rebecca and Brent Miller are big believers in “paying it forward”. Without the ongoing support, training, and development they received from Spectrum Group early on in their dairy farming career, and more recently from farm owners Andrew and Rachele Morris, the Millers wouldn’t be where they are today.

Now, with one foot on the farm ownership ladder, and a host of other awards to their credit, they’re passionate about helping others succeed in the dairy industry through sharing their knowledge and philosophies.

At the heart of their success is “farmily” – a balance between working/living on a farm and family. Centred around putting people first, it’s a philosophy that has evolved over their time in the dairy industry.

Born out of their own experiences, the Millers have realised the key to high productivity and profitability lies squarely with having a connected working environment with everyone on board and engaged, striving for the same desired results. That comes with providing an environment where they are consciously protecting every member of the team’s physical, emotional, and psychological self.

They’ve taken their philosophies beyond the farm gate, with both Brent and Rebecca contributing to their wider industry through various roles.

Rebecca is the daughter of dairy farmers. She grew up immersed in farm life. Her parents worked their way up the career ladder from contract milking, share milking and eventually farm ownership. They moved a lot, farming around the Waikato, Auckland, and Northland, with the longest they stayed in any one place being five years. Rebecca was the eldest of four siblings meaning there were always household jobs to get done while her parents were busy out on the farm.

“It was hard for me growing up, and for my younger brother Graham. We never had a home to call our own. We were always expecting to move. I don’t think Mum and Dad ever fully unpacked the boxes,” she says.

Many of the lessons she learnt as a child have stayed with Rebecca. “It was difficult having to establish friendships first, but on the plus side, I got really good at introducing myself,” she smiles.

On leaving school she studied travel and tourism, before later completing a Diploma of Graphic Design and Multi-Media Studies at the Waikato Polytechnic. She worked for a travel wholesaler and then joined American Express. Having started in the call centre, with training and development, Rebecca moved up the ranks into marketing and corporate sales.

Brent grew up in Christchurch but when he was 12-years-old his parents bought 26 hectares near Oxford and dragged the family to the country. Though not thrilled with the move initially, Brent enjoyed the land and having worked on sheep and deer farms, went to Telford and completed a Diploma of Agriculture. There he also met Rebecca’s brother Graham.

After graduating, Brent initially worked on dairy farms in Canterbury before spending two years working on the West Coast. When he returned to Canterbury he flatted with Graham. Rebecca visited, love blossomed and the rest they say is history.

They went farming together in 2004, seeing it as the only option. “We wanted to have a family and enjoy the kids, and we could see a way forward with farming. With the other options, one of us wouldn’t have seen the kids,” says Brent. 

Having moved to the Waikato, working up to a 2IC position, they soon realised it wasn’t quite what it was cracked up to be. “We moved back to the Waikato because we loved the beaches, but the reality of working a roster 28/2 off on 230 hectares by yourself meant we never got to enjoy them. It was breaking Brent. We realised we had to think more strategically,” explains Rebecca.

After some soul searching, they wrote down all the things they wanted. They started sending their CV to different businesses and CEOs asking for feedback. Eventually, they stumbled across the Spectrum Group, a family-owned business with dairy farm interests in Canterbury and the Waikato. “Spectrum was prepared to give us a chance,” says Brent.

The Millers started out working for Spectrum Group working at Island Glen Dairies on Rangitata Island on a second-year conversion on 206 hectares milking 780 cows, before moving to Burmont Holdings near Rakaia, milking 1180 cows on 360 hectares. Being part of the Spectrum Group gave them access to a massive pool of resources and information, with data coming from across the 16 properties.

“They taught us everything about budgets and financials and how to run a big dairy operation. We owe them a lot. They gave us the tools and were there if we needed them, but then stepped back and let us run it as we saw fit. They wanted people to run it as if it was their own; we found that was really empowering.”

The Millers have spent the past seven seasons at River Terrace Dairy farm, near Carew, south of Ashburton, as sharemilkers getting involved when it was in its first year as a dairy conversion. Rebecca and Brent have recently become equity partners in the property, which is owned by Andrew and Rachele Morris, and Bill Hogg.

The farm, spanning 363 hectares started out milking 950 Friesian-cross cows which, with the addition of a 75-hectare support block, has now grown to 1150 cows milked in a 60-bale rotary shed. On average the cows produce 500kg of milk solids per season; last season the cows on farm produced 565,800kg milk solids.

Two years ago, they also started sharemilking the Morris’ second farm, Ealing Pasture Holdings, a 435-hectare block just a few kilometres down the road with a 394-hectare milking platform and 1450 cows. In their first season milking at Ealing Pasture Holdings, they managed to increase production by 12 per cent while at the same time decreasing costs by 15 per cent.

With the support of the Morris’, for the past two years, the Millers have entered River Terrace Farm into the Dairy Business of the Year awards just to see how they were tracking. Over the two years combined they have come away with an impressive eight awards. “It’s a really great tool to benchmark our performance against other farms. We’ve been surprised at how well we are doing,” says Rebecca.

In 2019, they were joint runners-up in the Dairy Business of the Year supreme award with Waikato farmers Richard and Nadine McCullough from McCullough Farm Partnership. They also took home the Best Canterbury Farm Performance, Best Business Resilience and Best People Leadership awards.  

Their strong performance continued last year when they were awarded the Best Business Resilience Award with the lowest cost of production per kilogram of milk solids for the second year running. While there was a slight increase up to $3.93/kg of milk solids, up from $3.84 in 2019, they showed pasture at 81 per cent of feed input achieving an impressive 502 kilograms of milk solids/cow. They also won Best Canterbury Farm Performance, Business Resilience Lowest CoP, Medium Input with Best Financials and the Best People Leadership awards.

One thing that stands out is that they’re able to achieve impressive financial results and productivity while caring for their people. Notably, their staff turnover is virtually nil. They are still working with many of the same staff they brought with them from their previous job. They’re family!

They were recently named a Finalist in the nationwide Primary Industries (MPI) Good Employer Awards under the employee development award category. 

For the Millers, winning the Best People Leadership awards and being a Finalist in the Good Employer Awards is recognition their “happy staff, happy cows” mantra has merit. They currently employ 11 equivalent full-time staff across the two farms, as well as relief milkers and calf rearers.

Having worked on various farms and for various people, each with their own management styles, they learned early on the importance of treating others how you want to be treated. “People are our passion,” says Rebecca. “We have worked hard to create a good team culture. We talk to people, are honest and try to establish trust. We ask our team what it is that they want to achieve so we can help them attain their goals. This helps us to achieve ours.”

“It’s about creating that team environment and releasing people, not controlling or micro-managing them, giving every individual the opportunity to shine. Everyone has value and needs to feel valued. It’s not about money, it’s about attitude. If we have a positive impact on our people, profit will come anyway.”

The staff are given the power and responsibility of doing their own rosters, working out between them who works when fitting in with overall staff requirements set by the Millers to ensure everything on-farm can still run smoothly. The team has chosen a six-days-on two off roster with light duties in the weekends, and are free to swap and change days off to suit their own needs.

“If there are school events or appointments, then the team can decide how to accommodate this so that no one misses out. One of our key drivers is that everyone goes home and enjoys their families. Obviously, there are times when everyone has to pitch in such as calving where we can’t have three people off and only one working, but we let them take responsibility for that. We do keep an eye on it though so everyone is happy,” says Rebecca.

They also encourage staff to learn how to do every job on the farm, meaning few knowledge gaps when people were sick or needed time away. And where practicable they also actively involve their team in decision making for the operation, especially round feed quality. “Everyone has their eye on the prize,” says Brent.

Brent and Rebecca believe staff retention is critical, especially those with young families. Losing a staff member is not just a cost from a monetary perspective, says Brent. Retraining someone new comes at a cost to the whole business. It also affects milk production and other staff, management, or owners, who have to step in to cover the additional hours.

They run a tight ship, running effective and efficient operations, priding themselves on doing the little things well.

Though they are both busy in the business, alongside raising their three children – Blake, 16, Blair, 13, and Rhianna, 11 – they are also heavily involved in other farming activities.

Not shy of putting her hand up or getting involved, Rebecca’s contribution to the industry is far-reaching, earning her a finalist spot in this year’s Dairy Women of the Year. With an incessant thirst for knowledge, she’s both hard-working and passionate.

Rebecca has been involved in the Dairy Women’s Network for 12 years, since establishing the South Canterbury branch when they were Island Glen Dairies after she saw a need in the community. Just four ladies turned up to the first session, with numbers growing to 50. Last year she established the Ashburton Business Group under the Dairy Women’s Network umbrella, based on a successful pilot in Rotorua. She is also the Federated Farmers Mid Canterbury sharemilker section chair and has been involved with many projects with DairyNZ, including project work for the Good Boss campaign, DairyConnect and GoDairy.

Earlier this year Rebecca hit the road as part of the Dairy Women’s Network ‘Make time for your people', speaking tour, which involved six face-to-face workshops which were held throughout the country.

Rebecca has also launched Land Events, a website aiming to lift the profile and stop duplication of rural events by having all the information in one place, on the back of completing the Kelloggs Rural Leadership Programme. Her Kellogg research showed 81 per cent of people were missing out on farm events because they were unable to reorganise their work commitments. Brent is also completing the Kelloggs Rural Leadership Programme. She hopes it will benefit other farmers and primary industry groups, while also increasing collaboration.

She is also passionate about the creation of an innovation hub in Canterbury that entrepreneurs and farmers can call their own.

Having been hands-on for many years, the Millers are slowly transitioning out of the cowshed, looking to their long-term goal of farm ownership and are eager to share their knowledge with others.

For many years they’ve fielded questions from other farmers regarding their success in certain areas, which has led to the creation of MilkIQ, an information-sharing platform and consultancy business. Using ‘Farmily’ they take a holistic look at the whole business, aiming to deliver authentic partnerships, positive impact leaders, and attention to detail and care. They’re hopeful MilkIQ will get their philosophies out to a wider audience.

“We had to do it here first, but it can be replicated. Working for Spectrum Group gave us a lot of skills that other people just don’t get. They paid it forward to us, and now we are paying it forward,” says Brent.

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