Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Testing The Mobile Cowshed

It's been a busy month testing out the mobile cowshed. I took this video about a month ago & I have only now found the time to put it up. I've been getting a few requests for a video.

It's just a quick look at how the system works. I'm still in the testing phase & we are ironing out all the little issues. 

At the moment I'm only milking 8 cows & the neighbours are taking the milk to feed to their calves.
I can't start selling our milk until I have been approved by the ministry of primary industries. That journey is turning out to be a bit of a drama, but I'll write about that another day.

The cows were still a little bit jittery when I took the video. The buggers wouldn't walk on, but they have calmed down quite a bit over the last month.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

We're Mobile Milking!

I've been milking for 3 weeks now and it's been a hectic 3 weeks. I've finally got a moment for a quick update.
I'm really happy with how the cowshed is operating. The second hand milking plant runs really well, the cows are walking on to the cowshed happily & I've learned how to manoeuvre the cowshed through gateways and up and down hills, while keeping both gateways & the cowshed in one piece.
Mobile Milking

It's funny how over the last year I have thought about how to design various parts of the cowshed & pondered every little detail. Yet it only took 10 minutes of the first milking for me realise I had made mistakes with the layout of equipment etc.

I'll be honest, the first milking did not go to plan. I have bought 7 Heifer cows. They had just calved and they have never being milked before let alone on a mobile trailer with no yards to contain them.

I wised up for the second milking & came prepared with some gates, that I set up as a makeshift yard. 

I managed to get the cows on to the platform & milk them. Although they didn't always face the right way.

Mobile Milking

The cows are now used to the cowshed and the system. Cows love routine, so I've kept everything the same. 
I turn up at 9am every morning, the cowshed is always in the next days break of grass. I run a portable electric fence around the cows to stop them tearing around the paddock. After milking they always exit the cowshed onto a new break of grass with a bin full of meal.

When I arrive the cows are usually waiting for me at the entrance of the cowshed. I've done away with the gates that I used as temporary yards now & I just use portable electric fences at the entrance.

Mobile Milking Parlour

I'm not able to sell any of milk at the moment as I haven't got my food safety paperwork sorted yet (thats a long & painful story).

I'm just putting the finishing touches on the processing room & the pasteuriser over the next week or so & hopefully we will be selling milk in the not too distant future.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Grow Movie- A Great Documentary Which Outlines Young Urbanites Turning To Farming

I watched the Grow Movie the other night. 

It's a documentary that tells the story of how young urban people are being attracted to farming.

The movie follows a few young farmers in the US state of Georgia. We learn how they found themselves farming & why they love it.

Most of the people were highly educated with degrees in finance, engineering & soil science etc, but they have chosen the small scale rural lifestyle.

The documentary focuses on, what we in New Zealand we would call "market gardeners". 

GROW! Movie Trailer (2:09) from Anthony-Masterson on Vimeo.

Two things stood out for me:

Most of these people started with no knowledge of growing vegetables or farming. Most had no money or land. But they started working with a farmer and in some cases simply agreed to work in exchange for accommodation and knowledge. One thing led to another and they now run their own farming businesses.

I found it interesting how one person explained that he got into farming because of his ideological beliefs. He said he now had to balance his ideology with the need to run a viable business.

I found that interesting considering, there are many people in New Zealand giving farmers plenty of advice (including me). It's one thing to talk about how you should farm & another thing to actually do it and stay viable.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Don't Laugh At Wheedle, Good On Them For Having A Crack

The demise of the trading web site Wheedle, is no real surprise. The web sites aim was to take on trade me which is the New Zealand version of ebay.

I'm certainly no business expert, but I've been thinking about it this morning as I did some housework, and there are two aspects of the businesses failure that have crossed my mind.

Firstly, lots of people are bagging Wheedle and its founder Neil Graham. Neil didn't need to start Wheedle, he founded the Mainfreight transport company which is an international success. He's worth an estimated $75 Million, so money is not a motivation. He's also no longer a young man & he has had health problems.

But he did it anyway, he used his own money and he took a risk and he gave it a crack. That deserves respect in my book.

I'm sure that the reason he is successful is because he has backed himself and taken risks in the past.

The second point, is that this is another example of a successful person trying to start a business in an area that they are not experts in. Neil's background is transport & logistics. I think a technology company is very different to a trucking company. The things that make a tech business successful are very different to what makes a trucking company successful.

Some signs of this are that Wheedle seemed to rely on traditional marketing like sponsoring the Crusaders rugby team and TV adverts. When we look at successful tech companies, they don't do traditional advertising. You don't see Twitter, Facebook, Xero or Vend advertising on TV, radio or sponsoring a sports team.

Suzanne Paul is another example of a very successful person who turned to a different area of business. She made her fortune via informercials & sales but then took her money and invested it into a tourism venture which didn't end well & she lost the lot. She is now back doing what she does best, which is informercials.

Richard Branson is a unique example of someone who has been successful in many different categories, such as music, airlines, trains and mobile services to name just a few. It would appear that he is an exception.

The third aspect I find interesting is that most people don't have a problem with the current online auction site. Wheedle were promising lower sales fees. Saving a few dollars on my trade is not enough of a motivation for me to change.
Wheedle wasn't different enough.

So I think it is great to see people backing themselves and taking risks but I think it's really important to stick to your area of expertise & if you are going to take on the big players in the market, you really need to be substantially different & offer something really unique.

Monday, July 7, 2014

You Can Afford A House in NZ, Despite What People Say!

I’ve had a few conversations with people who I’d describe as being middle class New Zealanders. They are earning around $100,000/year, yet they claim they can’t afford to buy a house.

As we talk it over further, it becomes clear that they actually can’t afford a house of the required standard in the desirable area of the major city in which they live.

It’s pretty hard to buy your first house in Queenstown, Christchurch, Auckland or Wellington, especially if you are not prepared to live in the cheaper suburbs.


It occurs to me that people have priorities in their lives and when they say “we can’t afford to buy a house”, they really mean that they are not prepared to make the sacrifices required to get into home ownership.

Some Examples

I have 3 friends who live in & around Rangiora. All of these people have average jobs, they all have young children, all of the wives have chosen not to work & instead stay at home with the children.

They all own their homes.

One friend was in the army for 6 years and left as a private, he now works in forestry driving a digger. He and his wife bought a small slightly rundown house in Rangiora, which they live in. They continued to save his average wage (by NZ standards) until he had a deposit & bought another house around the corner, which he rents. I estimate these two houses are worth $250,000.

He’s now looking for his third house.

Another friend drives a forklift has a special needs child. His wife looks after their child during the day. They bought an average house in Kaiapoi right next to the motorway. It’s a comfortable house but nothing flash.

My third friend is a builder/hammer hand, he has 3 kids which his wife home schools. They managed to buy a house in Rangiora when they were first married. They recently sold it & purchased a larger house on a lifestyle block.

All these couples bought very average properties with flaws. For instance, situated right next to a motorway or slightly rundown or had a very small section. But they did it and they have gained financially as the properties have increased in value.

I just did a property search on trademe. It showed 485 properties in Canterbury under $250,000.

I bought my first house in my early twenties.

I was working as a dairy farm worker in 2001 earning $30,000/year when I saved $5,400 and purchased a property for $54,000 in Invercargill. I rented it out and it was cash-flow positive.

In 2004 my wife and I cobbled together $10,000 & purchased a house for $100,000, which we lived in. It wasn't located in a great area & it had a shared driveway. We spent the next 2 years renovating it ourselves. We sold it five years later & more than doubled our money on that property.
Renovating the laundry

It sounds so easy just writing these examples down now. But the one thing all these people have in common is they sacrificed things in order to be able to buy their properties.

In my early twenties, my friends were buying $12,000 motorcross bikes & spending their weekends racing, others were borrowing money to buy $20,000 cars, while others were travelling the world.

I missed out on all of that. My wife and I lived a very simple lifestyle. Most weekends were spent painting or hanging gib board or simply staying at home as we had no cash.

I do regret not travelling and my wife reminds me constantly about how unacceptable it was to not have a real honeymoon & rather use the money to buy our first house. 

She’s right though; it was unacceptable to not have a honeymoon. I’ll have to make it up to her. I was so focussed on getting ahead.

Money gives you options

When you are young you have no money and I think all money does is give you options. 

When you have no money you have limited options and you have to focus your limited resources.

It’s totally possible for young families to buy a house in New Zealand. The question is are people prepared to make the sacrifices required?

When I look at the people who tell me they can’t buy a house, I notice that they all eat out at restaurants regularly, there’s lots of money being spent of manicures and salons & plenty of nights out on the town & shopping trips to Australia.

The same thing applies to farming. I saw my parents move from Zimbabwe with nothing in there 30s, working as farm workers to buying their first farm 11 years later.

My first employer started dairy farming at 17 and was sharemilking 400 cows at 28 and at 40 years of age owns a large dairy farm, among other things.

These are all examples of ordinary people with ordinary intellect just getting on with it and getting ahead.

It’s all about priorities, attitude & peoples willingness to do what is required.

I'm developing a pot belly. But its not a priority for me to get rid of it and I'm certainly not prepared to make the sacrifices required to get rid of it. So, I can't complain about not having a flat stomach, if I'm not prepared to do what is required to get flat abs.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Quick Video Of The Mobile Cowshed

A quick video of the mobile cowshed & a look inside the milk processing room.

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Reasoning Behind My Micro Dairy Business

In the next 2 months, I'll begin milking a small herd of 15 cows. I'll sell the milk direct to the public. I'll milk my herd on leased lifestyle blocks, using my mobile cowshed.

In my last blog post I outlined 5 points that I wanted to achieve with my new business.
  • Create a truly environmentally sustainable dairy business
  • Create farming opportunities for young people that also provided a great lifestyle
  • Keep control of the value chain
  • Offer real unaltered whole milk to the public
  • Concentrate on building a brand rather than owning land
It's taken a few years of thinking about the issues and I wanted to briefly outline how I have come to settle on my current system.

Question Everything

I started off by questioning every aspect of traditional dairy farming.
I asked:
Why do we do what we currently do? 
Why do we need irrigated land? 
Why do we use ryegrass & clover pastures? 
Why do we milk twice a day? 
Why do we need a big concrete cowshed? 
Do we really need laneways? 
Why are their less small herds around now?

I investigated dairy farm cost structures and profitability.
I asked why do farmers supply dairy companies like Fonterra or Synlait? 
How do people progress in the dairy industry? 
How much money do dairy farmers make?

I questioned what we know about the environmental aspect of farming.
How exactly are water ways affected by farming?
How do nitrates work? 
Where do the nitrates come from? 
Why do we deal with effluent the way we do now? 
What is Phosphate & how does effect our effect the environment?

Environmental System

I started with a blank sheet of paper. The first priority was to design an environmentally sound dairy system. I’d worry about how to make it profitable later.

The research tells us that nitrates are the greatest pollutant caused by dairy farming in New Zealand. Turns out that the cows urine patch is the biggest contributor to nitrate leaching by a long shot. I learnt that the wetter the soil is, the more leaching occurred. Large amounts of nitrate are leached over the winter months. I discovered that plant root systems are the greatest absorbers of nitrates.

I thought, if we forget everything we know about farming and just designed a system that would leach no nitrate.

What would that farm look like?

We’d want to reduce the amount of urine on our paddocks, which means we want a lower stocking rate. We don’t want our cows on wet soils. So wintering cows on crops on a small area of land (as is the usual practice) is not going to work for us. We also want to use un-irrigated land because it leaches much less nitrate. We want plants/crops with deep roots to absorb the nitrate, which means ryegrass & clover pastures probably won’t work for us.

All these points put together basically mean, we would leach very little nitrogen. But more land is needed & that land will produce less because it’s not irrigated. Our wintering & feed costs will be a lot higher too.

It’s pretty clear that this farming system would not work financially, if we supplied Fonterra or another dairy company, we simply would not be profitable.

Make the farm fit around my desired lifestyle 

With the environmental aspects sorted, the second priority was how could we design a dairy farming system that I wanted to work in and that suited the lifestyle I wanted to lead. I assumed that if I could achieve this goal, then it would also be attractive to the best of today’s young people.

There are lots of brilliant young farmers out there, but we need more. Many great people are choosing other occupations and agriculture has to compete for good people.

So again I questioned every aspect of the daily duties on the farm.
Why do we start milking so early in the morning? 
Why do we milk twice a day? 
What activities take the most time?

Milking the cows took the most time and you can easily spend over an hour herding cows to the cowshed each milking.

So milking once a day milking is an attractive option. The research shows that most cows milked once a day were producing 19% less milk, but had less animal health & feed costs. Trading 19% less milk for about 40% less work still feels like a winning situation to me.

But the main attraction to once a day milking, is that dropping the afternoon milking gives you much more options for giving staff (& me) more time off. It allows much greater flexibility on when the jobs get done.

While milking once a day may help with a better lifestyle, the other half of the solution to attracting young people to farming is financial opportunities. This system had to be achievable and in reach of young (& cash poor) people.

Basically it needs to be cheap to set up.

Attainable to young people

I concluded that it needs to be small scale system. It's easier to find the money to buy 20 cows than 200 cows. Also when you have a small herd the amount of equipment needed is greatly reduced.

Land is by far the biggest expense when setting up a farm. The land required for a small 20 cow operation would cost at least $1,000,000. Which is hardly in reach of your average young person.

My solution is to lease land. But you are hardly going to build a small cowshed on land you don’t own. This is where the mobile system becomes important. If I could build a fully contained cowshed that is totally mobile, then milking off leased land becomes an option.

My research into dairy farming financials showed that interest paid on land was one of the biggest expenses on a farm. By leasing land rather than buying it, I could save a lot of money. Which could offset the extra costs & lower production caused by our no nitrate leaching measures.

As I thought about this more, the mobile system looked like it could save a lot of time on farm as well. For instance, I would not have to spend time herding the cows to the cowshed as I’ll milk the cows in the paddock. No concrete yard to clean, which saves time & water. No need for a conventional effluent system, which is one less cost. No need for lane ways or permanent fencing either.

At this point I had a rough idea of how I could farm dairy cows and leach very little nitrate. I worked out that a mobile cowshed could be achieved & the mobile system made it possible to set up a small scale herd on leased land for a relatively low amount of money.

Who will buy the milk?

Now it was time to ask the question, who will buy my milk & how can we make it financially viable?

From my research, it was clear that there are a number of people who would love to buy a sustainable or eco brand of milk. This is a brand that can promise its farming practises do not adversely affect the environment. 

The public are aware of the environmental impacts that dairy farming has on our water ways & a good number of people say they would support a brand that stood for more eco dairy farming practices.

There is also a growing number of people who are concerned about what is happening to our food in these modern times. The whole food movement is growing.

There are clearly people would buy my milk if they had the opportunity.

Could I make it pay though? 

The following thoughts were going through my head; 

All the trends are for farms to get bigger and have greater scale & I’m proposing going smaller!

On farm costs have been increasing which is putting pressure on farm profitability. I’m proposing even higher costs combined with production drops in order to meet my self imposed environmental & lifestyle standards.

A trip to the supermarket showed that 1 litre of Organic milk was retailing for $3.40, 1 litre of Anchor or Meadow fresh blue top sells for $2.45.

If I could receive $2.50/ litre for my milk, then I could make it work financially. I worked out that if I could keep the money that the farmer & the processor get, then I could break even. 

But breaking even is not a very sustainable goal. I would also need to retain the 30-40% margin the the retailer receives in order to make the business viable.

So, I would need to be the farmer, the processor, the delivery man & the retailer in order to be profitable.

In conclusion:

I've just described, very simply the thought process that occurred over a couple of years that has brought me to where I am now.

I hope that I have found a way for us to milk cows sustainably that is attractive & within reach of young people & profitable too.

We’ll see if it works. Stay tuned.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Why Bother With A Mobile Milking System?

Well, I've finally got my act together and started building my mobile cowshed.

The question I get asked a lot is, why? 

There are plenty of opportunities to go dairy farming. I could go lower order sharemilking or contract milking. Those two options don’t require a huge amount of money & I've got the experience to do a good job of it. 

But there are certain aspects of the dairy industry that don’t fit with me. I'm not saying that these aspects are wrong. But for me, I want something different.

So I've spent the last few years thinking about how I could create the perfect farming business that suited my family and my beliefs.

So I’d like to explain what my 5 issues are. Once people understand the 5 issues it becomes a bit clearer as to why I'm building a milk business based on a mobile cowshed.

Real milk
When I left the farm & moved to town, I was surprised by how different the supermarket milk was compared to the milk I got from the vat every morning, while living on the farm. Any dairy farmer will tell you that the milk we buy in the super markets is quite different from the milk that comes straight from the cow.

Virtually all milk brands in New Zealand put their milk through a number of processes. The result is milk that isn't really like the real thing.

There has been a lot of demand from the public for raw milk. It’s common to hear people rave about how great raw milk tastes etc. 

But the difference in the milk is not because it's raw, but because its real milk that has not being heavily processed.

It’s crazy that New Zealand produces so much milk, but it’s so hard for kiwis to buy real milk.

So I’ll give people the opportunity to buy milk straight from the cow. I’m going to simply milk our cows, gently pasteurise the milk and then deliver it to the public. 

Brand is better than land
You can generalise by saying the farming business model in New Zealand is to, borrow heaps of money & buy a farm. 

You then need to farm it like crazy to pay the interest bill. Farmers then make a small return of about 4% of asset per year. But that doesn’t matter because the land always seems to increase in value, and the capital gain that is made on the land is tax free.

This is actually very similar to what urban New Zealanders do too, except they do it with their home. 

The goal of many driven young farmers is to own their own farm. 

I take a different view; I believe owning a brand is just as good or even better than owning land. 

If we look at some well-known companies we find that the value of the tangible assets, like land, plant & equipment is only a fraction of the total value of the company. The intangible assets or the goodwill of these companies are worth more than the actual assets that you can touch.

The “McDonalds” brand accounts for 70% of the total value of the company. This is despite the fact McDonalds owns some of the best commercial real estate in the world. 

The Coca cola brand is said to account for 51% of the company’s value. This is despite the fact that the company owns many other drink businesses too.

So I'm not really interested in owning the land that our cows graze. There is a limit to the amount of production a piece of land can produce, but there is no limit to how far you can grow a brand.

I feel that New Zealand agribusiness doesn't concentrate on building the consumer brands enough. We are very good at producing commodities. But the consumer brands are where the action is, in my opinion anyway.

My focus is on the building a consumer brand.

Sustainable farming
Rightly or wrongly, farmers are copping a fair bit of criticism about the environmental impact of modern intensive farming systems, especially dairy farmers.

I've decided that environmental sustainability is imperative, both on farm and off farm. 

These days, just about every farmer will say that caring for the environment is very important. It seems that “environmental sustainability” is a relative term used by everybody regardless of their farming practices.

I've looked at the science around water quality & nutrient leaching. It appears that the science is quite clear. We know what factors cause environmental damage. 

Unfortunately it can be quite difficult for a traditional dairy farm to change their practices to meet the science & stay profitable at the same time.

We've designed our farming system so that it is adaptable & fits around what the science tells us about nutrient leaching & effluent run-off.

The farming system we employ, has to be pure. That means our goal is zero nutrient leaching, zero waste & eventually carbon neutral.

Now, that’s a ballsy claim to make! 

To be clear, I'm not saying we will achieve those goals from the start, but that is our goal. 

We’re prepared to get radical & funky with the way we farm to ensure we get there. 

Value chain control
If we look around the world we see farmers who have lost control of their product.

Many dairy farmers in the UK have found themselves at the mercy of the milk processors & the major supermarkets. 

The supermarkets have all the power and they use their power to drive down the price that the farmers receive.

Our friends in the Australian dairy industry have found themselves bearing the brunt of the supermarkets using milk as a loss leader. Again the farmers find that they have little power.

Recently in New Zealand we have seen many suppliers complain about the business practices of our supermarkets, which happen to be owned by the same Australian supermarkets, which (quite by coincidence) are being run by the same bunch of Poms who used to run the UK supermarkets. 

So, I want nothing to do with supermarkets. (Actually, I don't think the supermarkets would want anything to do with me either.) 

It’s easy to say “we’re going to take control of our product”. It’s quite another thing to actually do it. 

The easy thing to do is to sell our milk via a retailer. They have the customers and it’s easy to get the volume that I require to be profitable. But in the long term, I would find myself dependent on the retailers for my distribution.

I'm going to spend a little more time and effort now & get set up to sell our milk direct to the customer.

But in order to produce a truly sustainable product with a small scale herd, I need to know that I'm not going to get screwed down by a retailer.

Opportunity & Lifestyle
This section comes out of the “I want my cake & I want to eat it too” department.

I want a great lifestyle where I can spend quality time with my kids & wife. I don’t want to be tied to the cows and I don’t want to be running around in a frantic rush, trying to get all the jobs done in the day. 

I also want to earn a good living and to top it all off, I don’t have much money to spend setting up this business. 

So it has to be cheap to set up.

Some will say I'm an unrealistic dreamer to think i can have all those things together. Well maybe I am, but I'm going to give it a crack.

If this works, there is no reason why young eco conscious, entrepreneurial men & woman from around New Zealand, can’t set up their own milk business.

When I was 25 I found an investor, who helped me go into business for my self.  There’s so many good young people out there who don’t think farming is an option for them. I want to get young people into agriculture. Many young people give dairy farming a go but decide to leave the industry & do something else (like myself). I want to see if we can create opportunities for young people to start their own farming businesses that provide the lifestyle we all want.

So those are this issues that have been on my mind for the past few years.

In my next post I'll explain how the mobile milking business will work and why it addresses these 5 points.