Luke McKee understands dairy farming from top to bottom. Now in his second month as Farm Source Central Districts Regional Head, Luke is directly applying global dairy insights to hands-on sustainable and profitable farm practices.
He mixes strategic strengths with tactical on-farm implementation in his role leading the team of +70 Farm Source staff, in the area covering from south Whanganui to Gisborne, with about 900 dairy farmers.
The wide geographic scope as well as the variety of farm sizes, soils and farm types bring their challenges, but his upbringing on a dairy farm and his inherent customerfocus means Luke is prepared.
Luke never intended on becoming a dairy farmer, but he took an opportunity that was presented and began his journey through the industry. Firstly as a herd manager, progressing to sharemilking with 1,000-1,800 cow herds. Taking a step into the corporate world, he commenced a role as Manager of LIC's R&D Innovation Farm near Hamilton.
Following this, he took up took up a role with DeLaval as Product Manager for New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, and five and a half years ago headed to Sweden where he became Head of Brand.
"I had a very broad remit and it was a great role," Luke says. "It required a good grasp of hands-on practical farming mixed with a broad understanding of what is happening at global levels. But even then, I kept a close eye on New Zealand Dairy for which I have a passion, and always intended to come back."
He's now waiting for the end of the July school year when his wife and daughter will join him here from Sweden. Luke brings an understanding of what customers in global markets want - including milk's numerous nutritional benefits - matched against key areas to be addressed on-farm such as greenhouse gas emissions, animal welfare, energy use, soil improvement and increased biodiversity.
He notes other countries are making major commitments to sustainability. USA dairying intends on being carbon neutral by 20501 while optimising water use and recycling. Meanwhile, the EU has mandated greenhouse gas emissions will reduce by 55% by 20302, while improving milk quality, food safety, animal welfare and profitability.
These issues are close to his heart, and he appreciates he has his work cut out in such a widely dispersed region.
"We have challenges around land use, and a push back on dairying into other options such as dry stock, cropping and horticulture," Luke says. "We need to maintain our competitive side and the passion for dairying. We have to change our way of working, invest more in the business and become sustainable."
That said, New Zealand's pasture-based milk production (compared to barnhoused cows in Europe and other Northern Hemisphere countries where feed makes up 40% of farmer costs) is a huge advantage, Luke says.
Sheeting the global consumer preference for such milk through milk flow and processing back to the dairy farm itself is a key component of his new role.
"I'm here to support our suppliers to grow their businesses, and I do that best by understanding what drives them," he says. "This means we have to be knowledgeable and provide proactive support. Farm Source must continue to build trust, in order to develop and maintain a strong relationship."
Luke makes the point that Fonterra interacts with farmers in a range of ways, from printed articles and social media to personal interactions.
"All of those play a strong part, but more than 50% of our impact is through personal engagement with our farmers," says Luke. "Face-to-face interaction is hard to beat as a way to build relationships."
He describes part of his role to encourage a 'flow of understanding' through the industry. It starts with a global perspective, that filters to New Zealand, and down to Fonterra dairy farmers. Farm Source teams then play a critical part in supporting those farmers...while always being mindful of the global imperative.
Within such a holistic picture, his measures of success are surprisingly simple.
"We want to have engaged farmers achieving their on-farm goals, and a passionate and motivated Farm Source team," he says. "We'll do that by exceeding Fonterra farmer expectations and assisting them with the undoubted challenges coming over the horizon. That means building a strong culture in the Farm Source teams to underpin our farmers. That is entirely because if we're good together, we're stronger together."
1 McComb, L. (2020). U.S. Dairy Advances Journey To Net Zero Carbon Emissions By 2050, https://www.usdairy.com/media/press-releases/us-dairyadvances-journey-to-net-zero-carbon-emissionsby-2050
2 Climate change: EU to cut CO2 emissions by 55% by 2030. (2021), https://www.bbc.com/news/worldeurope-56828383