Three farms in three years – in Brazil 7 Aug, 2015 by Clare Bayly

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The Douglas family are establishing dairy farms in Brazil using New Zealand’s systems, approach and technology

Twelve thousand kilometres from the home farm in Northland, the Douglas family are establishing dairy farms using New Zealand’s systems, approach and technology.

In just three years three dairy farms milking 2000 cows have been built in Brazil with more planned in the future.  

Murray and Marcelle are second generation Northland dairy farmers.  The home farm is 600 hectares with a 320 hectare milking platform milking 900 cows through a rotary and a herringbone dairy.  An additional leased farm milks 400 cows, along with a 1000 cow share-milking business.

“We have three sons – Rodger, Ian and Tim – and until the end of 2010 our focus had been on improving our farms and lifting production.  At that point we went through a succession planning process and decided that, by working together as a family, we could achieve more than we ever could as individuals.   

“Rodger had spent some time in Brazil firstly as a high school exchange student and then as part of his degree at Massey - he studied at the University of Sao Paulo with a focus on tropical agriculture. While doing this he learned about a social extension programme which helped small farmers improve production and achieve a better lifestyle.  He questioned why, if this was possible with 10 cows, it couldn’t be done with 1000.”

It was a prospect worth investigating so in 2011 Murray, Ian, Marcelle and Rodger went to Brazil at different times to look at the opportunities and to evaluate the potential. After undertaking due diligence on a range of opportunities Rodger moved there in June 2012.

Ian and his partner Rowena and Tim remained in New Zealand managing and growing the Northland farms which now milk around 2500 cows under Ian and Rowena’s management.  

The region the Douglas family settled on in Brazil is a 200,000 plateau of flat land 930m above sea level which gets around 2800 hours of sunshine per year – 15% more than any region in New Zealand. Water is plentiful and of very high quality with around 12,000ha irrigated via pivots.  The land is fertile and has historically been used for cropping – Brazil is one of the world’s largest producers of grain. 

The area is isolated from services and Murray says, right from the start, every aspect of farm development required a new way of thinking with an emphasis on working with and alongside local people.  

“Our first venture involved 106 hectares of a larger 430 hectare block which belonged to a Brazilian couple.  They had purchased the land and wanted to develop a dairy unit but were short on human capital to do the job.  We said if we are both looking at doing the same thing we will be stronger if we do it together and draw on our individual strengths.  We helped them build a farm on their property and also purchased land from them for our first farm.

“We entered into a Partner Farm Agreement with Leite Verde where they own the cows and we lease them off them. We build and operate the farms.

“The area is very isolated from the services we take for granted in New Zealand – there are no builders, no contractors, and building supplies are brought in from a significant distance. We had to think about power, accommodation for people, water, irrigation, pasture and fencing. We wanted the farm to be based on a modified New Zealand system and realised that relationships were the absolute key to getting anything done – and some of these would be across the miles from New Zealand!”

Murray Douglas said the basic components of working with suppliers takes on new meaning when there is a geographical separation of 12,000 km.

“We wanted New Zealand technology and so it came down to working with suppliers who’d take the time to understand the geographical and other challenges we were facing.  They had to share our values and commitment to getting it right because we needed assurance that every delivery would be supplied in full and on time - there’s just no margin for error because you can’t go down the road for spares or items left out!

“We had Waikato Milking Systems’ sheds on our farms at home so we knew the company and the quality of their products. It helped that they export around the world.  They were willing to work with us to understand the unique demands upon us and help provide us with a total solution. It all had to come in a container.

“We opted for herringbone sheds because they are simple; you don’t want complexity in that environment or at that stage of development.

“In the initial stages we brought two New Zealand dairy builders to help get us going and to train our local team in building techniques. This worked very well and the capability of that team of people has gone from strength to strength.

“The first 40 aside shed duly arrived in a container backed by a team from Waikato Milking Systems who installed the technology, with some training for local people along the way.  They understood our need to have spares of everything and provided such things as a spare vacuum pump, SMART air controller, milk pump, pulsators etc.”

At the same time the remainder of the infrastructure was being built – 600 cow feed pad, associated feed bunkers, shedding, housing for staff etc.

The herd was sourced locally, a mix of Brazilian and New Zealand genetics and is expected to achieve an average of 480kms or 6000 litres per cow.

As the first farm was completed for the neighbours Rodger moved the construction team on to build the next farm, utilising the skills, knowledge and relationships developed from the first farm.  This farm is effectively a copy of the first farm also with a 40 aside herringbone dairy.

With that farm up and running, the Douglas family turned their attention to a leased 400 hectare property which they are now developing into two farms.  The first has been completed with a 50 aside Waikato Milking Systems herringbone, and the other will be a 40 aside. Around 215 hectares of the land will be under pivot irrigation and the farms will milk a total of 1600 cows.

“When we came here there were four other dairy farms in the area – all based on New Zealand systems – and all supplying Leitissimo which produces UHT milk. We worked with them to set up the partner farm model because they needed capital and expertise to grow the region as a dairy base. The principles behind it are based on the New Zealand cooperative dairy model where information is shared and everyone helps and looks out for each other.”

With three working dairy farms under their belt, the Douglas Family is looking to develop more.

“As we have developed each farm, we have trained local people – some of whom we’ve sent to New Zealand to learn first-hand how to run efficient dairy units – and we now have the capability to design, build, develop and operate 600 to 800 cow farms in six months.”

Murray Douglas say he and Marcelle have now stepped back from the ‘day to day stuff’ and devote their energies to managing relationships.

“Relationships are key to everything we’re doing – with our farm partners, our neighbours and the local people in Brazil, and with our suppliers back in New Zealand. To make any of these things work you need collaborative relationships. We have values and processes as a family and a business and we need to align ourselves with other businesses that align and meet those needs. Waikato Milking Systems has certainly done that.

“It is very satisfying to look back and see the difference we’ve been able to facilitate in peoples’ lives in Brazil, and it’s fantastic to be working alongside your children as peers.”