Fast track to success

A training programme designed to give university graduates from an appropriate background a boost on progression towards farm management has proved a success. Anne Lee reports.

In News14 Minutes

The inaugural Dairy Grads programme has just drawn to a close for this year with graduates and farm employers roundly declaring it a success.

Five university graduates with an eye to quickly reaching manager level (and beyond) have taken part in the year-long graduate programme this year.

Another eight are due to start in the programme in February next year.

The programme was set up by a group of Canterbury dairy farmers with the aim of developing recent graduates, equipping them with additional skills and knowledge and setting them up for a fast track to progression.

“Other businesses, such as banks, have graduate programmes but dairy farming didn’t have anything to help bridge the move from the technical and theory of university to the practical aspects of actually managing and running a farm,” organising committee member Kim Grayling says.

Graduates can be from any university with the majority coming from Massey and Lincoln Universities having completed agriculture-related degrees.

The programme has a limited number of places each year with successful applicants either securing a job themselves with an employer who is supportive of the programme or the organising committee members putting them in touch with farmers involved in it.

There’s no shortage of employers wanting to be part of the Dairy Grad programme and take on a graduate.

They pay $1000 to help cover costs and are also expected to contribute their time by facilitating one or two of the more than 20 modules.

The development programme centres on these modules with the graduates attending three a month – each run on a Wednesday afternoon throughout the year which runs from February to November but excludes a few weeks over the peak of calving.


  • Pasture management essentials.
  • Financial development.
  • Banking basics.
  • Being an outstanding employer.
  • People management when establishing a team.
  • Winter feeding.
  • Animal health at calving.
  • Onfarm technology.
  • Health and safety.
  • Environmental compliance.
  • Nitrogen use.
  • Managing a simple pasture system.
  • Managing a more intensive system with a barn.

Many of the modules are presented by expert rural professionals but always in conjunction with a farmer who is skilled in the particular topic to ensure it stays relevant to onfarm situations.

The modules are mostly run out on farms where practices are relevant to what’s being discussed in the module but occasionally at other locations.

Organising committee member Campbell Tait says the success of the Dairy Grad programme relies on farm employers taking ownership of it.

“It relies on us committing our time to it.

“We’re the ones who need top quality people coming into our sector – we can’t rely on others to solve this for us.

“If we want to attract and develop these keen young people in the skills that are relevant to eventually managing our businesses we have to be involved in setting and running the programme,” he says.

Feedback from all the parties involved this year has been positive with strong interest for future years coming from both graduates and employers.

Although it’s a Canterbury-based initiative at the moment, it could be expanded to other regions.

But both Kim and Campbell say any expansion must be done at a regional, farmer-run level.

While the Canterbury module topics could serve as a basic template, farm employers in other regions would need to decide on specific module content relevant to their situations.

“As dairy farmers we’re very good at working cooperatively, but staffing is one area where we do compete with each other.

“This is about working together to set these keen young people up for success.

“We need them and by working collectively together we’re also creating a networking opportunity – for us as much as them.

“Even if I didn’t have a graduate on my farm, by being involved in the programme and helping run modules I’m going to meet the whole group and they’re going to get to know me.

“Down the track, those connections are going to help – both parties.”


Campbell and his wife Martine milk 820 cows on a 250-hectare family dairy farm at Hinds where the business also owns a 123ha support block.

The couple has employed Abby Cook this year as part of the graduate programme.

She didn’t come via the usual Lincoln or Massey Universities route, instead coming from Otago University where she graduated with a degree in applied science majoring in forensics and pharmacology.

“At the end of my degree I was desperate to get out of the lab and felt like I needed to go farming.

“My parents and grandparents have been dairy farmers and I think it was always in my head,” she says.

Her Mum and Dad are Elaine and the late Wayne Cook – 2006 National Sharemilkers of the Year.

She says her Mum had spotted the Dairy Grad programme promotions on social media last year and alerted her to it knowing Abby wanted to get into the wide open spaces.

“I had a zoom interview with Campbell, Tony Dodunski (Canterbury dairy farmer and original organising committee member) and Mark Grenside (ANZ) and soon after that they let me know I’d been accepted.”

She started out as a dairy assistant in February and is now working at closer to a 2IC level.

“I was a bit of an outlier in the grad group because I hadn’t worked on a dairy farm or completed an ag degree but the modules were so good I’ve learned a huge amount in a short time.”

The modules coupled with her eagerness to ask questions, learn on the job and employers committed to helping her progress already have her feeling that managing is a realistic goal within the next couple of years.

“Now it’s a matter of keeping that continuous learning going,” she says.

The personal development module with Sarah Watson from People Mad stood out to her.

“It was a good one at the start of the year because it set the base and opened up your mind to being self-aware when it came to learning styles and how different personality types communicate and learn.

“All the modules were so full of information – all of them were good.

“I’d 100% recommend it to other grads going farming.”


Hamish Kidd and Peter O’Connor both work for Canterbury contract milker and 50/50 sharemilker Steve Ketter.

They too fully recommend the programme with both a bit gutted it’s come to an end.

Hamish grew up on his parent’s Dargaville dairy farm and is the fifth generation of the family to go dairying.

He completed his Bachelor of Commerce Agriculture (B. Com. Ag) in 2020 and spent last year on a dairy farm near Burnham in Canterbury and the summer on a sheep and beef station up the Rakaia Gorge.

He heard about the Dairy Grad programme through Peter and signed up to it and a job with Steve this year.

Heading back home to farm is in the back of his mind but right now he wants to get as much experience as he can.

Canterbury irrigated dairying and the Dairy Grad programme have opened his eyes to some new ideas particularly around irrigation and pasture management.

He’s now a trainee manager on the 887-cow Barnscroft Dairy Steve contract milks for the Pye Group.

There are three other staff on the 241 effective ha farm.

Hamish says modules such as the banking basics gave him an insight into what was needed for the next steps in progression and getting that ahead of when you’re actually taking those steps meant greater opportunity to prepare ahead of time.

The people management modules and learning efficient time management were some of the modules that stood out to him.

“That’s a massive learning curve but really rewarding.”

Having modules well timed for what was seasonally happening onfarm meant they could put what they had learned into action.

Getting the opportunity to mix with and learn from top farmers was a huge bonus, he says.

“You hear people talk about the importance of contacts and networking but you don’t realise just what it can do until it happens.

“Everyone has reiterated that if we have any questions we don’t feel comfortable asking our employers we can give them a call. They’re all genuinely wanting to help us.

“It was nice too having people at the same stage of their careers in the group – we made good connections and we’ll keep in touch even though the programme has finished now.”

Peter had been 2IC on Barnscroft Dairy last season when he won the 2022 Canterbury and New Zealand Dairy Trainee of the Year title. He’s now managing Steve’s 400-cow sharemilking job half an hour away at Lauriston.

He too found big benefits in the programme even though he’d already had onfarm experience working for Steve.

Being able to spend a whole afternoon drilling down into a subject, asking questions and having both the theory and the practical applications teased out built his skills and knowledge.

“Having the farmers we had there was good because they could talk about how they were applying the theory – it gave you some practical tips for how to do it yourself and made it all a lot more real.

“The farmers involved in this see the real value in upskilling their people – they see the big picture and can see there’s going to be a problem in the future with having people to run their farms or grow with so they’re doing something about it now,” Peter says.

Steve says there are big benefits to being part of the programme – not only are the graduates building skills they can put to good use straight away on their employers’ farms to help run them more efficiently and productively, they’re also making connections with top young people who they can work with in the future.

“It’s a great concept. It helps get good keen people into the industry, thinking ahead and ready for the next step.

“If it wasn’t for these two we wouldn’t be doing what we are doing now – we wouldn’t be growing our business as well,” Steve says.