Words by Anne Hardie

Mark Roberts and Sian Madden like to lead by example and be role models for their staff and the dairy industry.
The couple won the West Coast/Top of the South Share Farmer of the Year Award as first-time entrants and have their future mapped out all the way to their goal of owning a self-contained West Coast farm.
Last season they contract milked on a 215ha farm near Reefton for Moir Farms Maimai. This season, they have added a manager who is in charge of the day-to-day tasks, while they are 20% sharemilkers on a nearby 377ha farm owned by Moir Farms. Together, the farms milk 1300 cows.
Next season they plan to employ a manager on the 377ha farm so Mark can take on an operational role for both farms. At the same time, they will lift the sharemilking contract on that farm to include a tractor while changing the contract milker role on the smaller farm to a 20% sharemilking contract to capitalise on the higher milk payout Westland Milk now achieves. The year after that, they’re hoping to add another farm into the mix and start buying stock and building equity toward that ultimate goal of farm ownership which is in the five to-seven-year plan.
Clearly, they are very focused and goal-orientated, but they say one of the biggest strengths of their business is how they manage their team of five full-time staff and two relief milkers. They strongly believe in leading by example and encouraging ongoing training and personal development.
“We put a big emphasis into recruitment and retaining current staff,” Sian says, “It’s not about finding the most qualified candidate for a role, but the person who best fits our team.”
It’s important to them that their staff see them out there being active in the community, being present and getting that work-life balance right. They also aim to lead by example by being organised, efficient and placing a strong emphasis on time management.
“Our staff are not expected to work consistent 12-hour days. We would rather them work eight hour days and when we need them to work a longer day, they will because they know they will be rewarded for it.”
Staff proudly wear hats emblazoned with Madden Roberts Farming (MRF) at dairy events. The logo represents the business Mark and Sian created in 2019 and the hats are simply another way to promote the brand that is designed to help them grow their business. They say it also helps instil a sense of pride into their team.
Taking a step back, Mark grew up with sharemilking parents on the Taieri Plains and was inspired to follow in their footsteps, so he joined the dairy farming ranks after he left school. After managing a couple of dairy farms and meeting Sian, they headed to the West Coast for the opportunities it offered in the dairy industry.
“I didn’t think I’d like it, but I love it now,” Sian says. “It’s got location, it’s affordable and it has community.”

Embracing West Coast Lifestyle

When they first moved to the West Coast, Sian thought she would commute to work in Nelson before realising it would take her most of the day just driving the distance. They initially missed some of the bigger businesses and facilities they took for granted in more populated regions.
“It took us a while to adapt to life here because it didn’t have this and that,” Mark says. “But then we fell in love with it because of what it does have.”
Now they embrace the West Coast and support local businesses whenever possible, with the support reciprocated. Something that helped Sian settle was studying for a Diploma in Agri-business Management which gave them the tools to start growing their farm business, from financial planning and business management to human resources, health and safety, and environmental aspects.
It has become one of their biggest strengths, with manuals, templates, policies and procedures set up for the farming business to make it easier for staff to follow.
“It gives us direction and accountability and gives our manager something to look at when we’re not there,” Mark says. “We wanted to be really clear about our expectations and provide guidelines for our staff.”
Templates with simple, easy-to-follow steps can be pulled up to guide staff meetings, calf rearing, vehicle maintenance and just about every aspect of the business.
Sian says they take health and safety very seriously and so when staff complained about uncomfortable bike helmets, they replaced the helmets with ones that were comfortable so they knew staff would wear them.
“Nearly everyone in the industry has a story about how they have been personally affected by an accident or incident onfarm and it’s our responsibility to make sure staff get home safely every day.”

Sustainable farming

When it comes to environmental responsibility, Mark and Sian say they want to be among those leading the way to sustainable farming.
“We want to be seen to be doing our part and leading by example and showing our children the right path.”
Sian says their chief hate is balage wrap lying on the ground. They recycle their balage wrap through a system called Plasback, with wrap stored in a bin which makes it easier for staff to use.
Farming sustainably flows through to livestock where their policy is keeping intervention to a minimum.
“We don’t like interfering with the cows too much,” Mark explains. “Keeping them happy and healthy and helping them do what they do naturally. We’re big on prevention rather than cure. If you can prevent cows from getting lame for example, that is better than dealing with the problem after they become lame.”
The two farms are not the easiest or most productive farms to run. The land is predominantly humped and hollowed with developed pakihi soil, making them lower-producing farms that require farm costs to be kept at a minimum. But they represent an opportunity for Mark and Sian and they have had good support from the farm owners who they can go to for advice, support and opportunities.
Last season their focus was setting up the smaller farm to run smoothly for a manager and this season Mark is managing the larger farm as well as travelling to the other farm a couple of times a week and daily communications with the manager. It will be easier next season when they have a manager on the larger farm as well so Mark can move more easily between the farms.
“I’ll be able to be more present on both farms which should give us a bit more time for attention to detail and provide more guidance to the managers.”
Running the two farms gave them the confidence to enter the awards this year, as a way of pushing themselves further and also representing their region as role models and leaders. They won three of the merit awards as well as the main award and make a point of attending as many dairy events and field days as they can to continue their learning from other dairy farmers.
That way, they can pick up new ideas to add into their own farming system and help them toward their goal.
Though they have a clear timeline toward farm ownership, they acknowledge the milk payout will obviously have a big influence on when they reach their goal.

Sisters are doing it for themselves

Coming from outside the dairy industry, Sian says mentors have played a big part in her own confidence in the business and having strong women in leadership roles has helped.
“I have so many women to look up to,” she says. “Everyone always says it takes a village to raise a child and I think it’s the same for a successful dairy farm.”
Mark remembers when he started in the dairy industry, women’s roles seldom extended beyond rearing calves. “Now it’s totally flipped. Women have a strong voice now.”
Sian encourages mothers with young families to get out there and get involved in the dairy community. They have three young girls, Mila 9, Parker 3, and Remy 1, so if she wants to be involved, it usually means taking one or two children with her. A growing dairy business and a young family makes it hard to get a good work-life balance, but Mark tries to get to as many of the children’s events as he can which gives him time away from work and more time with family.
“Our kids have tried just about every playground on the West Coast and we now consider ourselves West Coasters,” says Sian.

West Coast/ Top of the South Share Farmer Merit Awards:

DairyNZ Human Resources Award – Sian Madden and Mark Roberts
Ecolab Farm Dairy Hygiene Award – Sian Madden and Mark Roberts
Federated Farmers Leadership Award – Clay and Joy Paton
Honda Farm Safety, Health & Biosecurity Award – Clay and Joy Paton
LIC Recording and Productivity Award – Kelley Molloy
Meridian Farm Environment Award – Kelley Molloy
Ravensdown Pasture Performance Award – Kelley Molloy
Westpac Business Performance Award – Sian Madden and Mark Roberts