By Sheryl Haitana

When Scott and Rebecca O’Brien took on a large-scale farm manager role after variable order sharemilking, the couple were told they were taking a step backwards.

Instead, the couple have had three children and have been enjoying a great life along the way and are still on target to be farm owners before they are 45.

The couple both grew up in the Coromandel, Scott on a dairy farm, and went to the same high school. A few years out of school the couple got together and went farming.

After several seasons in the industry and a year travelling and working on a dairy farm in Wales, the couple returned to a variable order role in the Coromandel. They were offered the opportunity to buy the cows, but the milk price was high and they couldn’t justify the cost of cows that season. It was a decision they’ve never regretted, Scott says.

Instead, they took a farm manager role for Opepe Farm Trust in Taupo milking 1000, eventually milking 2000 cows, where they stayed for eight seasons. While there, Scott also won the 2011 Central Plateau Farm Manager of the Year.

“We loved our time there in Taupo, our three kids were born while we were there,” Scott says.

An opportunity came through the relationship with their farm consultant who said there was a good sharemilking position in Galatea for Rory and Susan Gordon milking 650 cows. They sold their investment property in Tauranga to help come up with equity and went 50/50 with business partners and friends Patrick and Tracy Hart. “We met Patrick and Tracy on the first day we moved to Taupo at an antenatal class, we were both having our first child,” Rebecca says.

“They wanted to help us get ahead and we are still friends afterwards. They got an amazing return on their money and we got an amazing opportunity.”

Scott and Rebecca contract milked for their sharemilking company while they had business partners and bought out the business partners this season, a year and a half earlier than budgeted for. Milk price helped along with better production than expected and expanding to a second job.

“We wanted to go straight into large scale sharemilking. We were not actively looking for a sharemilking role but this job came about through word of mouth,” Scott says.

“We saw a real opportunity to increase production through improved management.”

They bought the cows off the farm owner and increased production from 235,000kg milksolids (MS) to 275,000kg MS in their first season.

“It was just through managing grass, very minimal increase in bought-in supplement, just management of grass and cows.”

After three years the opportunity came up to take on a second sharemilking position 14km down the other end of the Galatea valley for Peter and Cathy Brown milking 250 cows, which they’ve employed a farm manager on.

“We were in a position to expand because we had a policy from day one that every dollar in the first term was going to be used to pay down debt.”

The couple always had a dream to have $1 million in equity by the time Scott was 40, which they should achieve by his birthday this July.

Their accountant and business advisor Nick Hume from BFA in Taupo has been a huge help in their being able to buy out their business partners early as well as expanding to a second sharemilking job.

Having good relationships with the people around you is essential to being successful.

“If you don’t have good relationships, you don’t have a business,” Rebecca says.

The relationship they have with staff is one of the most important; showing them integrity, trust and respect, they then get in return, Rebecca says.

They employ a farm manager, one senior farm assistant, two farm assistants, a 2IC and one casual. Scott and one of their farm assistants float between the two farms.

Five of the six staff are locals from Galatea which helps because it’s an isolated area to attract staff to.

“Not everyone is the same and you have to manage people individually,” Rebecca says.

“We have open discussions with them about what they want to achieve and how they can get there. Some people are happy just coming to work each day.”

They have four out of their six staff studying through Primary ITO which is a huge achievement, Rebecca says.

“We like to show our staff we are not here because of luck or a family farm we are just like them, we’ve just done the hard yards. The harder you work, the luckier you are.

“I won’t ask my staff to do anything I wouldn’t do myself,” Scott says.

One of the most helpful tools they use for communication is a group messenger group where staff can share information or ask questions easily, especially if you have some shy staff.

“Our people are an asset. Food is also a biggy – we have weekly toolbox meetings with a staff breakfast and we keep the fridges at cowsheds full of food.”

The couple entered the Share Farmer competition this year once they had bought their business partners out because they thought they had a cool story of progression to tell. They won four merit awards with the highlight being the LIC Animal Wellbeing, Recording and Productivity Award.

“That was the bugger we really wanted to win. Our end goal is milking fewer cows who are the most efficient producers of milk from grass, and having a lower environmental footprint,” Scott says.

Getting the right balance between production and fertility is critical, Scott says.

“As a sharemilker, days in milk and cows in calf is everything. We place very high value on high production per cow but getting as many as we can in calf. Crossbreeding in our big herd is helping our fertility.”

The couple aim to buy a 500-cow plus farm by 2027 probably in the Bay of Plenty region. They want to be big enough that it is not a one-man-band so they can continue to employ others to help them progress. Once they are established they want to be in a position to employ a sharemilker so they can give other people the same opportunity they’ve enjoyed.

One of their priorities is to live somewhere with access to good education for their children, Hunter, 12, Summer, 10, and Piper, 8. Hunter is a boarder at St Peters in Cambridge.

“Our philosophy is life is for living and we have to work hard, but we also have some non-negotiables. The way the world is – we want to make the most of life’s opportunities.”

Scott and Rebecca see themselves growing into governance and leadership roles. Between them they hold a couple of positions within their community including the school board of trustees and PTA. Rebecca is about to take up a regional leadership role with Dairy Womens Network.

“We’d like to help other reach their goals and aspirations by showing them there is no limit to what can be achieved with hard work, support and passion in the dairy industry.”