By Delwyn Dickey

Winner of the 2022 Northland Dairy Manager of the Year category is 35-year-old Phillip Payton.

When Phillip Payton was 20 years old he injured his back, and at that moment his future changed. Surgery would be needed to fix the problem properly.

With no heavy work during rehabilitation, his engineering apprenticeship ended.

Instead he found himself working for a year as a security guard in Hastings, mostly at the local freezing works. While he enjoyed it up to a point, sometimes working 12-hour shifts from 6pm to 6am could be tough.

With his future uncertain Phillip thought of his father.

Phillip had grown up in Te Awamutu on the dairy farm his father worked on. His father had loved working on the land but had also suffered a back injury and was never cleared for full-time work again. But he stayed as a relief worker – as his rehabilitation. Soon after Phillip left home at 18, his father went back to just milking.

Phillip had loved growing up in the countryside and his pathway now became clear again.

A dairy assistant job in rural Napier came up, he moved to farms in the Waikato for seven years and then second-in-charge jobs in Taranaki. While he enjoyed the work, the hours were long.

Then back to the Waikato and a move into dairy goat farming for 18 months. It was all in-house with shed feeding and a cut-and-carry operation and Phillip enjoyed doing a bit of everything.

Wanting to be closer to his partner Leef’s family saw the couple move north a year ago on to Greg and Ingrid McCracken’s farm at Te Hana, Phillip taking on the farm manager’s role.

He is enjoying a good work/life balance here and feels he has a good working relationship with Greg, both having a fairly easy-going style.

“Calving is the most stressful time of year and everyone’s tired. A more laid back approach is needed then,” he says. “You have to stop and think rather than being reactionary.”

The farm has only just come back into dairy production after a 10-year break when the previous owners removed the milking apparatus and instead ran cattle, young animals and grew maize.

A refurbished 40-head rotary milking system has now been installed for the herd of 350 cows.

Maize is no longer being grown on the property with supplements being bought in instead. Greg has put a lot of work getting elements back into the soil, Phillip says.

In response to a changing climate, they are looking at moving away from ryegrass pastures. Next summer, they will be using alternative pasture mixes like tall fescue and cocksfoot for persistence over the hotter, drier months.

Fortunately, with two dams on the farm, along with a connection to the Te Hana water supply, water has never been an issue on the farm even during the last big drought.

In an effort to lower greenhouse gas emissions, stocking rates are being kept low – just over two per hectare. This reduces the amounts of nitrates they use, which should keep nitrate runoff to a minimum. Phillip sees this as an inevitable trend in New Zealand.

“Stocking rates are coming down – it’s just how it is.”

They have also doubled the effluent area so that’s not so condensed in one area, which will also help reduce nitrate leaching.

A wetland has been fenced off and will be allowed to regenerate at its own pace.

Shade trees which should combat heat stress in stock have been planted in some areas of the farm, and Phillip is planning on planting up some unproductive areas in trees for carbon sequestering and financial carbon rewards.

“We should look at the positives and move forward,” he says, “Change what you can for the better, but you have to adapt to what you can’t change.”

“With global restrictions coming on farming expansions generally, the amount of milk being supplied will decrease. But the demand will stay the same or increase so prices will go up.”

Work-life balance, appropriate pay, a safe and supportive work environment for staff especially around mental health, along with adequate housing should be seen as investments in any farming operation’s future, he says. He is pleased to be on a wage now so that when he works long hours, he is paid appropriately for them.

Perhaps because of the missed opportunity of his own apprenticeship, education for farm workers is also important to him, and he is supportive of his own farm assistant going through agricultural ITO training.

With plenty of experience but no qualifications Phillip is also looking at doing a level 5 ITO course, recognising this is becoming more important to farm owners.

Ultimately Phillip and Leef are aiming at farm ownership. Along with calf rearing they’d also like to incorporate teaching and education, and have a viable contracting business providing short-term relief staff capable of running the entire operation.

“We’ve encountered many challenges these past few years and some have altered the path, but we have reassessed, overcome what was within our abilities, made peace with what wasn’t, and kept ticking off our goals.”