A Hawke’s Bay dairy farmer reckons he’s more a tree man than a cow man. Jackie Harrigan reports.

Guardianship of the land that supports his dairy farm at Patoka is a job Nick Dawson has been carrying out for the past 18 years – but implementing a Farm Environment Plan through Fonterra’s Tiaki programme gave him a chance to prove it.

Nick and Nicky Dawson have been dairy farming the 220-hectare inland Hawke’s Bay property in an equity partnership with Stuart McPhail.

They arrived at Patoka having spent many years progressing through the dairy industry from a Christchurch city upbringing and Lincoln before learning the dairy farming craft and lower-order sharemilking in Taranaki in the early 90s.

“I wanted to be a sheep farmer – sheep farmers in Canterbury looked down on the dairy farmers – although now they are all dairying themselves. My father-in-law suggested we do some sharemilking, the plan was to build up a cow herd, sell it and buy a sheep farm – but the goalposts kept on changing on us the whole way through.”

Nicks’ dream of selling a 300-cow dairy herd for $300,000 and buying a sheep farm were dashed when the sheep farm price tripled to a million dollars. The escalating prices made it hard to secure land without a family farm.

Nick and Nicky did their share of hard graft – recalling their early days of working 18 days on and two days off, then managing a herd and getting one milking off per month, while earning a pittance.

“But it was a place where I learnt a lot.”

“Jobs were hard to get and I had no name – once I worked four months solid to get a weekend off to go to a wedding.”

For their own wedding the owner said they could have two days off, but the honeymoon had to be in the winter.

Working their way up to 50:50 sharemilking and the Patoka job, they managed to double the cow numbers to 500 but after three years when the farm came up for sale they narrowly missed out on buying it.

“It was a huge blow but Stuart McPhail from Palmerston North bought it and asked us to stay on as managers. We really wanted to stay as sharemilkers but he offered us the chance to buy 25% of the equity partnership instead.”

“We were keen to buy 40% but settled for the 25% and bought a place at Kinloch to holiday at.

“It turned out really well – he turned out to be a great guy, and we are still partners to this day.

“We were also able to use his equity to grow the business sideways – we bought another farm up the road, then gradually bought more shares in this farm, then another farm next door to convert and sold them off to buy more equity in the farm.

“Now we are 50:50 in the whole thing – I’ts been a slow progression but its worked out well.”

During the 18 years, three children (Ben, 21, Libby, 18 and Felicity 15) and Nicky having taught at the local school, 35ha has been cut off and retired and planted in thousands of trees.

“It’s such a pretty farm, why wouldn’t you want to cut off waterways and plant them and make it more beautiful?

“I am probably a tree man before a cow man – I love taking a break from the cows and coming down and wandering around the tree blocks.”

Situated on a large rolling plateau about 300 metres asl the farm is not traditional dairy country, Nick says.

“The country was really a five-year conversion process of building up organic matter but now it cycles nutrients so much faster – and the droughts are not as droughty – it’s a real dairy farm now.”

Growing 12 tonnes drymatter (DM)/ha over the past few years, Nick says there is potential to increase it from to 13-15t DM/ha and using meal fed in the shed is a fantastic buffer to keep balance in the herd where production is sitting at 500kg milksolids (MS)/cow.

When the Dawsons arrived every blade of grass was made to count, and the 500 cows were producing about 170,000 kg MS. Now waterways have been cut off and planted both for ease of management and for water quality protection and around 35ha taken out and retired or planted in trees. The 360 cows are consistently producing 180,000 kg MS and 500kg MS/head and the whole herd transitions to OAD after Christmas each season.

“We made and fed out lots of low metabolisable energy (ME) silage back in the higher stocking rate days, so we were tied to the tractor every day.

“At the lower stocking rate the cows are much healthier and producing well.”

Consultant Parry Matthews has guided Nick through the change to milking OAD through the summer until the dryoff in mid-June and the staff and cows all love it.

“The staff look forward to after Christmas to get on to OAD – there is a sigh of relief – it has revolutionised farming for us.

“In the heat of the Hawke’s bay summer the cows would be using as much energy walking to the shed rather than making milk – they are so happy to stay in their paddock.”

Nick has considered moving to OAD all season but says the drop in production for the high-producing cows on all-season OAD would be much higher, according to Parry.

With rainfall varying between 1250-1700mm the grass growth curve in the Patoka area is very flat and it’s hard to maintain pasture quality, Nick says.

Ten percent of the platform is cropped and then regrassed each year, with summer crops including chicory, turnips and rape to carry the herd through the summer.

The cows move on to the crop after milking and then walk to their overnighting paddock.

“Having the cow herd in the cropping area we deposit high levels of nutrient there and then they go to the pasture.”

All of the crop and pasture resowing is done by direct drill to save the light pumice ash soils from blowing away during cultivation.


Nick and Nicky Dawson have been retiring blocks and planting them out in tress over the past 18 years, much of it at their own cost for the tree seedlings.

“I love a mix of natives and deciduous trees, fruit trees and others, I love to see the mix of them and see how they grow and watch the birds come back – it’s all about the birds,” Nick says.

All of their Patoka waterways and ponds have been fenced off and Nick plants a conifer each side of the gateway at each retired block.

“It’s my signature – having the two tall trees flanking the gateway.”

Numerous friends, neighbours and work colleagues have been invited to plant a special tree to signify a special date or passing of a loved one.

“We have a couple of trees planted on top of placentas, and many to honour a dead spouse or relative.”

Nick loves to wander around through the trees and check on the progress of his eclectic mix – pears, olives, fig and bay trees brush shoulders with oaks and elms, alongside kauri and totara, rimu and miro.

Having always thought of themselves as guardians of the land and doing their utmost to protect and enhance it, Nick and Nicky were keen to join Fonterra’s new Tiaki programme and have their initiatives documented.

The 18-month old programme is a live Farm Environment Plan which captures a holistic view of the sustainability aspects of each farm – under the pillars of farm and land management, effluent management, waterways management and nutrient management. Its an individual tailored plan which focuses on good farming practice and identifies opportunities for the farmer to improve along with a timeline and review period for checking the work is completed.

The company reached its target of having 1000 farms with plans in 2018 and is working toward all 10,000 shareholder’s farm plans being completed by 2025. Their team of 26 Sustainable Dairy Advisors nationwide work to support their farmers in the rapidly changing regulatory environment.

Anna Reddish is the adviser for Nick’s region and worked with him to put together the plan, spending a day onfarm looking at the sustainability initiatives and opportunities which she will revisit annually to update and audit.

“We talk about and agree on all of the plans and are able to discuss alternative ways of doing things and sensible timelines for investing in infrastructure.”

“The beauty of the Tiaki is that they are living documents, and as active plans they can adapt to changes in practice and to Plan changes for different catchments,” Anna says.

Nick’s Fonterra area manager suggested he engage in the process as the Patoka area is part of the TANK catchment undergoing a plan change with the Hawke’s Bay regional council. The plan for the TANK (Tutaekuri, Ahuriri, Ngaruroro and Karamu) catchments has been notified and will undergo community and stakeholder consultation. Having most of the dairy farms in the Patoka area armed with FEPs will be a proactive approach to submitting to the plan change for water quality and quantity allocations and environmental outcomes, Nick says.

”It’s a good process and we are on the right track giving proof of the work we have done over the years – its important to front foot the plan change, and to show we are being proactive.”

Nick and Nicky have most of their ducks in a row, after retiring and planting so many waterways and investing in a new effluent system three years ago.

They also retired their rubbish pit and now transfer their rubbish to the waste transfer station in Napier, although Nick says he can’t really see the difference between them burying it in a hole compared with the council doing it.

“Five years ago it was best practice to burn it in a hot fire, now we can’t even bury it.”

The main thing that Anna identified as a risk for Nick and Nicky was a steep track on the farm that sediment can wash down and into the waterway. Nick decided to put in a cut out to prevent that happening as sediment loading on the rivers has been identified in the TANK review.

Other actions include monitoring soil fertility to inform fertiliser application, water metering, summer crops, feed storage and ongoing weed and pest control.

Once Anna has collected information in the farm visit she uses the Tiaki GIS mapping software tool to download the farm map into the system and mark all waterways, tracks, infrastructure and other spatial features.

Every aspect has a risk rating assigned to it in the Tiaki report in a colour coded format with higher risk escalating the colour and providing a visual scorecard.

Discussion between the advisor and farmer brings agreement as to the timeline for fixing any problems. In some cases Fonterra can use the review to enforce change if minimum standards are not being met and ultimately suspend the collection of milk if necessary.

In the future Fonterra may include greenhouse gas emissions in the Tiaki process.


Nick is on the Hastings District Rural Community Board and for many years the family have opened their farm to school visits from Napier and Hastings schools as they are the closest dairy farm to the twin cities.

Every year the Big Day Out for local city schools sees 150 year-10 students spend a day on the farm learning about dairy farming activities alongside careers in logistics, machinery, environmental issues product marketing.

The tanker is usually a big hit, alongside the tractors, contractors and free ice creams. The inclusion of Ag Sports makes it a fun and educational day.

Looking to farm succession and with a son who is home from Lincoln and mad keen on sheep, and Suffolks in particular, Nick and Nicky have recently leased the 550ha dairy support farm next door and Ben is managing it.

Protecting the dairy platform from Mycoplasma bovis was high in their thinking, allowing them to rear all of the young replacement dairy stock there, along with wintering 300 dairy cows on the block and rearing more dairy beef calves to avoid bobby calves.

“It’s a biosecurity issue really, this way we can keep all the cows in-house.”

Calving has been moved forward by two weeks to July 15 to generate more days in milk.

For farm succession, the plan is for Ben to generate extra income from the six-year lease block so Nick and Nicky can pay out their equity partners and then work on transitioning Ben into the business.

Ben has owned a small Suffolk stud since he became enamoured with the breed at age 10 when he bought 14 ex-stud ewes. Since then he has branched out into Sufftex crossbreds and has been selling a small number of rams. Now he is home after boarding school and Lincoln Uni he hopes to build to 100 stud Suffolks and 60 Sufftex ewes.


  • Milking Platform: 150ha
  • Milking 360 cows
  • Runoff: 30ha plus new 550ha leaseblock
  • Retired: 35ha retired and planted
  • 550ha lease farm next door – wintering cows, young stock, small sheep flock


When she was studying Environmental Management and Planning at Lincoln University, Hamilton city-born Anna Reddish was exposed to the opportunities for her skills in the agri sector.

She successfully applied for the Fonterra technical graduate programme which gave her a broad understanding of all aspects of the Co-op’s business and added a Masters of Dairy Science and Technology to her education.

“When I looked for a role that suited my background and interests I landed a Sustainable Dairy Advisor role in late 2016.”

Getting out on farms and building a relationship with farmers and their families is the favourite part of her job, which can be daunting when she is helping farmers through large changes in their business.

“Sustainability is a space that’s always changing, farmers are a lot more happy once they have got their heads around the uncertainty.”

“The Tiaki programme is a great tool for farmers to upskill and document the changes they are undertaking as it is flexible and changes with regulations,” she said.

The plan is a holistic look at the farming operation while focusing on the individual aspects of nutrient budgets, effluent and waste management and farm management.

The plan analyses the likelihood of contaminants meeting the waterways – including the risk of that happening and the likely size of the event.

The team have completed 1,000 Tiaki plans in the first year, with plans to build on the number and finish them all by 2025.