All dairy farmers have ridden an emotional roller coaster over the past two years thanks to the fluctuating milk payout – but Evan Billington has worked harder than most to cope with the financial ups and downs.

Neither Evan nor his wife, Jan, had any prior farming experience when they entered the dairy industry nine years ago. So Evan enrolled with Primary ITO and has just completed a three year Diploma in Agribusiness Management, while working fulltime, to obtain the financial and business management skills he needs.

“All the advice we’ve had from experienced dairy farmers in the last two years is to stick with it and ride it out but it’s pretty hard. All our equity is tied up in our cows and we’re now playing with our life savings so we need to be successful,” Evan explains.

“We realised we needed to have a solid business plan and some financial goals rather than working our way along and seeing what happens. The Diploma teaches you those key business skills so that’s why I enrolled.”

Evan believes the volatile milk price will remain and dairy farmers simply have to live with it. “But I’ve now learned to produce variance reports to compare our budget with actual spending. That way we’re not getting to the end of the season and saying ‘how did we do?’ We can monitor and change things when necessary.”

In addition to gaining business and financial management skills, Evan also found the HR papers extremely useful. He recently won Primary ITO’s award for ‘Best Property Report’ 2016 after analysing another farming business and developing a plan for how they could best meet their business goals. “The report was a lot of work but I enjoyed it. The award came as a real surprise. It was really nice. I was just trying to do the best I could.”

Evan spent 18 years in the police force before making the switch to dairy. He found the Agribusiness Diploma was a great way to gain knowledge in a short space of time.

“I wasn’t from a farming background so I wanted to learn some theory behind farming. Also being older, I didn’t have time to build up that knowledge over a 10 or 20 year period.”

The Billingtons are now 50/50 sharemilkers in Orini, north of Hamilton. They milk 660 cows on 218ha and Evan believes the Agribusiness Diploma will also stand him in good stead when applying for future sharemilking jobs.

“Personally I think having formal qualifications is important in the modern dairy industry. Having that on my CV helps us build our professional reputation and I think it will be a big help in securing future jobs.”

Evan also credits his study for helping he and Jan prepare for, and win, the 2015 NZ Dairy Industry Award for Auckland/Hauraki Share Farmer of the Year.

“Everything you do in the Diploma you can relate back to your own business and improve the way you do things. It was really relevant to being self-employed and certainly helped me prepare my entry for that competition.”

Evan also found it useful to have regular contact with other dairy farmers and Primary ITO tutors to bounce ideas of each other and compare notes on different systems and ways of doing things. “You might take away something from that that’s really beneficial to your business rather than trying to reinvent the wheel.”

The 48 year-old will graduate in March 2017 and he can’t imagine going back to an office job now.

“My other career involved long hours but nothing like this. You’re totally committed to it seven days a week and you don’t get a lot of time off so it can be hard to find time to sit down and study. But my advice is just stick with it. We’re all really busy but it’s a really valuable qualification to have. What you put in is what you will get out.”

Primary ITO