How to start a dairy farm


If you’re thinking of converting to dairy there’s a lot you need to know. Here’s a basic checklist to help you on your way to setting up a dairy farm.


Contact council

Contact senior planners and land management staff at the district and regional councils to find out what their requirements for dairy conversion are. Here are some questions to cover off:

  • What are the consent and application processing timeframes?
  • Are there any noted features on the property that may need to be managed?
  • Discuss where infrastructure could go. (eg. farm buildings, effluent storage, water-bores, entry and exits etc.)
  • Where could underpass sites be?
  • What can you do to future proof your conversion to allow for future expansion?
  • What are the minimum distances for the placement of buildings, facilities, effluent storage, etc.
  • Are there any requirements around change of land use and the rules for activities? (eg. building, earthworks, irrigation and waterways, effluent management etc.)
  • Are there any relevant plan or regulation changes or variations underway? (eg. implementation of the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management.)
  • What are the sensitive environmental factors on this property? (There could be any number, including high or low rainfall, drainage and flood risk, soil type, unstable steep terrain, water table issues, nutrient loss through water run-off, etc.)

Contact the dairy company

  • Find out about their requirements.
  • Get a full list of their terms and conditions of supply, including the regulatory conditions from the Food Safety Authority of New Zealand.
  • Make note of important application deadlines.
  • Ask if they have a new conversion manager who might be able to help you.

Find out about irrigation schemes

  • Discuss your intentions to convert to dairy with the scheme provider
  • Are there any limitations on land use as part of their consent?
  • What are their environment plan requirements?

Contacting these organisations early in the piece and building good relationships is essential to ensure you don’t go down the wrong path. You could also consider talking to a professional consultant and other farmers who have gone through the dairy conversion process. 


Take what you learnt from council, irrigation scheme providers and the dairy company and integrate it all into a whole farm plan, including:

  • Formulating a business plan that covers farm goals, policies and procedures.
  • Deciding layout and building design, raceways, paddocks etc.
  • Developing nutrient budgets, nutrient management, effluent, riparian and wintering plans.

To do it once and do it right

  • Use technology. With GPS, map out environmental risk areas, exclusion and buffer zones to help get the right farm and effluent system design. And check out what farm management software tools and cloud-based systems can help with reporting and regulatory compliance.
  • Allow plenty of time for due diligence
  • Allow time to talk to everyone you need to in the info gathering stage
  • Put plans in writing (or drawing/schematic)
  • Do a SWOT analysis on your plan (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats). Any major shortfalls or conflicts should be dealt with as soon as possible before progressing any further.
  • Create a detailed timeline noting when you hope to achieve certain milestones, any application of official dates that have to be met, and seasonal considerations (eg. doing earthworks in summer and autumn). This is important because dairying is seasonal and delays can have much bigger knock-on consequences. Remember that a responsible conversion plan covers the period prior to and during conversion.
  • Engage contractors and tradesmen with written contracts that include agreed outcomes, timeframes and costs.
  • Assign a dedicated project manager to drive the project, liaise and communicate with all parties, and ensure all boxes are ticked. This could be the farm owner, manager or a professional PM.
  • Seek help. There are resources, specialists and technology aplenty out there designed specifically to help farmers convert to dairy. Investing in the right professional assistance is likely to cost but also add a lot of value to your business.


Once all the planning is done, it’s time to make those plans happen according to your timeline. On completion of your dairy conversion you should develop an ongoing environment plan, bearing in mind that all new conversions should meet compliance and the Sustainable Dairying Water Accord targets as a minimum from the very beginning.