Words by: Jeremy Bekhuis

The landscape for growing in the dairy industry is changing. Banks are more restrictive on lending to contract milkers and sharemilkers than they were two years ago. To save disappointment, borrowers need to be more prepared and farm owners need to be open to different types of contracts that minimise the requirement for bank support.

Gone are the days where you can turn up to a bank with a signed contract milking or lower order sharemilking agreement and expect an unsecured overdraft facility. The Banks (for all the right reasons) expect to see some financial acumen, minimum outside debt (hire purchases or credit card debt) and some skin in the game by the borrower.

As a firm we usually have about 30 startup contract milkers a year. Three seasons ago, only one out of the 30 new contract milkers were declined finance. However in the 2020 season, we only had six that were approved finance. We are now the gatekeepers for the bank and are often negotiating contract variations with the farm owner on our client’s behalf.

Traditionally contract milkers don’t receive any income over the winter months until they start producing milk, however they incur costs over the winter months mainly in capital purchases, wages, drawings and other farm running costs such as vehicles, shed expenses and power. Often this means they will require an overdraft facility from June until December or January. If they started with nothing, this could be between $50,000 and $100,000.

More frequently we are now seeing contracts that offer variations of payments over the winter months. This avoids or reduces the requirement of an overdraft facility from the Bank. These are set up as advances or loans, hybrid contracts or smooth payment options.


The farm owner advances funds to the contract milker over the winter, these funds are then repaid as cashflow allows. Payments are treated as loans rather than part of the contract and don’t affect tax or have any GST implications.

Hybrid contracts

The hybrid contract is a combination of a contract milking and lower order sharemilking agreement. The contract milker receives a set amount per month to cover expenses, usually a set agreed figure from the farm owner (say $0.75/kg MS of targeted production) and also receives a small percentage of the milk payment, say 7.5-8.5%, this percentage is generally paid directly from the dairy company.

Smooth payment

The smooth payment option pays between 80-90% of the targeted production evenly over the 12 months at the contract rate. The final 10-20% of production also known as the wash-up payment is paid in June of the following season. By only paying 80% of the contract this avoids the contract milker being overpaid in the event that there was a major event and ending up owing the farm owner.

We are often finding the farm owner pushing back and questioning why they would do one of the above options, not seeing it as their obligation, which is fair enough. However they need to be flexible in the current environment to ensure they manage to secure the best candidate for their farm. After all, these are the people running their multi-million dollar investment.

Another consideration we are seeing in the more traditional lower order sharemilking agreements is the introduction of a floor in the contract. This is usually set about the $5 mark – let’s say at 20% of the milk cheque the floor would be $1.00/kg MS. This takes any payout reduction risk away from the sharemilker, and enables the sharemilker to at least have some money in a low payout for their living costs. In the 2016 season when the payout was $3.90, at 20% of the milk payment the sharemilker received 78c/kg MS. Our average cost structure in that season was 76c/kg MS, which resulted in a break even season, however they had no surplus to be able to live off or grow over that period. Some of our lower order sharemilkers in the lower payouts were losing over $100,000.

We are still seeing the flow on effect of the lower payout years on the farmers that were lower order sharemilking. Through no fault of their own, excellent farmers were left with debt, which they are just getting on top of now and in some circumstances they left the industry.

Contract milkers and sharemilkers are the future of the farming industry. Good farm owners realise that for the right people, they are willing to give more away. This pays them back with loyalty, reputation and ultimately in the back pocket. Our most profitable farm owners have consistency of staff and/or contract milkers/sharemilkers. Not every farm owner has the balance sheet to give more away, which is fine, however by offering flexible contracts, this is one way to support the future of the industry.

  • Jeremy Bekhuis is a partner at Agrifocus who are accountants and farm financial advisors, based in Southland and Otago.