Canterbury sharemilkers Michael and Susie Woodhouse found the Dairy Business of the Year competition a valuable learning exercise. Now they’re looking to move up to farm ownership. Anne Lee reports.

Throughout their dairying career Michael and Susie Woodward have always been prepared to share – whether that’s been through benchmarking onfarm information, through discussion groups or opening their farm to hordes of city school children.

Putting it out there you see, has a boomerang effect and what comes back by way of reward far outweighs the effort, they say.

It’s not only the buy-in and engagement the large-scale, Canterbury-based sharemilkers get from sharing their onfarm physical and financial data with staff it’s also the learning they do on how to improve business performance when they benchmark amongst their peers, allowing them and others to scrutinise the business.

“Sometimes you have to make yourself a bit vulnerable and put the numbers out there, let someone else take a look,” Susie says.

“When you’re looking at your own numbers all the time you sometimes don’t see where you could make improvements.”

“It’s about learning – you might think you’re doing a good job in an area and then when you benchmark it you see someone else is doing a lot better. Then you can look more closely at what they’re doing, learn from them,” Michael says.

“It makes you either see where you could do better or makes you justify what you’re doing. You ask yourself what are the constraints I have here on this farm, am I able to physically achieve those results?” he says.

Taking a closer look at how they compared with others through the Dairy Business of the Year competition last year, analysing their 2016-17 year data, revealed they weren’t making the most of their stock asset.

“We weren’t getting the income some of the others were from stock sales and that’s because we were just putting the bull with the heifers and doing nothing special with the cows except getting our replacements from them,” Susie says.

Michael says they earned 37c/kg milksolids (MS) from stock sales in that year where some others were achieving 50-60c in the benchmarked competition group and they know of other top performers who earn close to $1/kg MS.

Improving your top line income without incurring a lot of extra expense is going to add to profitability and for a sharemilker those stock sales are 100% your income, they say.

During the 2017 mating they’d started changing things with the use of some Speckle Park and Brown Swiss semen but they were just playing around the edges, Susie says.

This past mating, though, they’ve been able to artificially inseminate (AI) their heifers and have followed up the AI mating with Angus bulls to get beef-cross calves from them they can sell.

The AI heifer calves will help boost the rate of genetic gain and give them a bigger pool of AI heifers to either use as replacements or sell.

It’s the first time they’ve had the opportunity to AI the heifers, with their young stock grazier able to hold the young stock longer on his irrigated land thanks to the advent of Central Plains Water’s second stage.

In the past the heifers would have been moved off his home farm and on to a hill block where there aren’t any yard facilities for mating.

Michael says they naturally mated them with bulls for a week and then synchronised them with a prostaglandin (PG) shot.

Susie was the AI tech for the job with 95% of their heifers submitted.

Early pregnancy testing results show 66% are in-calf to AI which should give them about 70 higher breeding worth (BW) heifer calves as an option for replacements.

During the 2017-18 spring they reared 100 Friesian bulls to weaning at 100kg but this past spring they had a buyer prepared to pick up four-day-old animals and opted for that as a better return and use of resources.

This last mating Michael and Susie put their noncycling cows to short-gestation Hereford bulls they bought as two-year-olds with the view to holding on to them for another mating.

They’ve also brought more replacements into the herd over the last two seasons which has greatly improved the age structure and had a significantly positive effect on in-calf rates, Michael says.

“We built the herd on carryovers so last season we upped the replacement rate to 24%. It hurt us in milk production that season but we’ve benefited greatly from it in reproductive performance,” he says.

Their six-week in-calf rate has gone from 64% to 66% , then jumped to 73% last season. This season it’s at 72%.

Their InCalf graph clearly showed the older cows had been letting the side down.

At the same time, they’ve worked on tightening the calving spread, cutting the mating period from 11 weeks to just nine weeks now.

That’s meant that despite improving their six-week in-calf rate they’ve still been sitting at about 15% empty.

Despite that they’re making good headway on lifting their stock sale income.

“It’s not necessarily about doing it all at once. It’s more about moving towards the target. If you try and close the gap in year one with anything you can end up burning a whole lot of money,” Michael says.

People are a big focus for the couple as is creating an enjoyable working environment and culture.

While their labour efficiency – scored as cows per full time equivalent employed – was at the lower end of the benchmark group (153), that’s more a reflection that about half the farm is watered by Rotorainers.

“That’s again where you’ve got to look at the KPI and ask yourself is this something I can – or want to do something about, what’s behind the number?” Michael says.

“We employ an extra person because of the extra labour needed to shift the irrigators.

“Our people work 43 hours per week for the whole season and for us the long-term sustainability of our people is more important,” Susie says.

That’s reflected in the fact they scored second-highest in the overall human resources category.

Creating a strong, happy, team culture, managing hours worked and having a personalised training and development programme are all part of their everyday people focus.

Michael and Susie have worked for TheLand Purata, formerly Synlait, since 2003 when they met on one of the company’s first farms, the giant Robindale which at one point milked 3000 cows through one farm dairy.

They went on to manage that farm before moving on to sharemilking on the 294ha Tapatoru in 2014.

In 2016 they were Canterbury Sharemilkers of the Year.

Through the years they’ve been heavily involved in developing systems and policies within Synlait and then Purata such as its lean management, continuous improvement process dubbed InSynch.

“Those systems at this kind of scale allow us to have consistency, repeatability and that’s important when new people come on to the farm. They get up to speed pretty fast,” Michael says.

But he points out all of the systems and processes are living documents – hence the continuous improvement part of lean management.

“If people come up with a better way of doing things then we bring that in.”

Michael has taken on an overseer role within Purata now in addition to their sharemilking business, giving their staff a chance for progression within the farm and their 2IC to take on day-to-day management of the farm.

With large-scale farming there’s the risk that monotony can set in with some tasks but Michael and Susie are always looking for ways to switch it up and add interest.

This mating Susie asked staff to each pick a milking breed to inseminate a cow with.

“They loved that and they got excited to be involved. It was just 10 straws and out of that five or so will get in calf then we’ll get two or three heifers so it’s not a big issue in a 1000-cow herd but they’ll follow those cows and look forward to seeing the calves,” Susie says.

The farm has a Grass Fed contract with Synlait Milk which means no imported feed and no home-grown crops grown for grain.

They’ve used green chop silage made from catch crops following fodder beet grown on the platform but have moved away from that system given their cows are wintered on kale not fodder beet.

The time and hassle of transitioning that number of cows onto the crop and having the paddocks out for such a long time just didn’t stack up, Michael says.

Pasture management has to be a priority with the irrigation limitations and reliance on home-grown pasture.

Michael says they invested in their own mower, allowing them to be more proactive as well as react more quickly.

“It’s definitely paying dividends in pasture quality,” he says.

Next steps: Farm ownership

This year Michael and Susie are hoping to realise their ultimate dream of owning their own farm.

They’d hoped to do it by the time Michael turned 40.

“Looks like we’ll do it a year earlier,” Susie says.

They’ve both sacrificed being away from family to build their dairying career – Susie a little more so given she’s from the United States. Michael is from Waikato and all going to plan they’ll be back there next season.

With Synlait opening its plant at Pokeno it doesn’t mean they will have to break their long-held ties with the company either.

“It will be something to celebrate and a big change from large-scale dairying,” Susie says.

But that’s the next chapter and they’re yet to write it.


Owners: Purata Farming
50-50 sharemilkers: Michael and Susie Woodward
Area: 294ha
Cows: 1030 crossbred cows
Production: 432,000kg MS
Staff: 6 full time
Irrigation: centre pivot and rotorainers
Farm working expenses: $2.22/kg MS for sharemilkers


While sharemilking in Canterbury, Michael and Susie have had a dabble in angora goats but they’re hoping a move north might allow them to diversify their income and make more use of the versatile animal.

Michael’s father John has been heavily involved in the mohair industry since the 1970s and is one of just two exporters still operating in this country.

He’s currently on the board of Mohair Producers Inc.

After the heady years of the late 1980s the cost of buying good animals is a lot more affordable at anywhere from $80-$200 for a good doe.

Their fibre is still sought after and the market is sorely undersupplied, which has kept prices higher.

At peak global mohair production reached 24 million kilograms per year – it’s now about 3m kg/year.

The lustrous fibre fetches about three times the price of sheep’s wool.

It’s sought after particularly for apparel.

At an average of $20-25/kg for the fibre returns per animal can be about $80- $100/year.

The goats are shorn twice a year.

Superfine kid fibre fetches more than $30/kg and the latest prices show kid at $28/kg, young goat at $21.50/kg and adult animals $17.50/kg.

Susie is smitten with the animals but says aside from the cute factor they are versatile on the farm, especially if you have rougher areas.

They’ll eat thistles, blackberry, gorse, willow weed and fat hen to name but a few weeds.

They do need shelter to be able to get out of the wind after shearing and kidding but that doesn’t necessarily mean purpose-built facilities providing there’s good natural shelter.

You also need a good boundary fence but they do respect electricity, as long as they can’t scoot under it.

“It really is a fantastic fibre. It doesn’t shrink or wrinkle and absorbs dye well,” Michael says.

If you don’t want a breeding flock, wethers are an option too to get a similar fibre return to the does.

While not a designated meat breed they do have a meat value.

Michael also points out goat is becoming more fashionable as a red meat option.

“They’re just a very under-rated animal at the moment given the returns you can get from them.

“They definitely have a place if you’re looking to diversify and running them as a compliment to your farming business adds that extra bit of interest to what you’re doing,” Michael says.