Farming in the fragile Mackenzie Basin at Haldon Station
Manager of iconic Haldon Station, Paddy Boyd is making sure his farm remains economically and environmentally sustainable. Pat Deavoll talks to him about the highs and lows of farming in the harsh yet fragile Mackenzie Basin
Haldon Station sprawls east across the arid Mackenzie Basin from Lake Benmore to the top of the Kirkliston Range. The 22,000 hectares of rugged highland, degraded flats and irrigated pasture are a challenge and a balancing act for station manager Paddy Boyd. He has grappled with Haldon for 35 years but says he's never lost the passion for developing and improving the place.
"I've driven Haldon as if it's my own," he says. "I've never stopped trying to improve it, and make it more sustainable."
When Boyd arrived at Haldon in 1981, the place was a "dust bowl."
"It was suffering from the effects of drought and rabbits," he says. "Whenever there was wind, the soil would pick up and blow in great clouds. Nothing got a chance to regenerate. My wife Barb hated the place."
At the time station owner James Innes was at the forefront of the deer recovery movement, and at one stage six helicopters flew from Haldon searching for live deer. Innes "went under" in 1991 and Boyd managed the property for the receivers for several years before it was bought by the Klisser family of Auckland.
"The Klissers told me I had a free rein so long as I made it work, "Boyd says. " It had to pay its way."
Since then Boyd has always looked to diversify and intensify the farm to make sure it remains economically and environmentally sustainable.
"I've tried to develop a balance of high country and improved, irrigated paddocks to earn enough to pay for the sustainable management of the place. In particular, to control weeds and pests in the fragile high country. Otherwise, the income from a high country farm won't pay for itself."
One of the biggest costs is weeds and pests, Boyd says. Constant vigilance is needed for the rabbits, wilding pines and broom. Boyd spends upward of $100,000 a year on weed and pest control and $30,000 of this could be on a single 10:80 carrot drop. Under Haldon's lease agreements, the farm is liable to manage the rabbits and wilding pines. But the biggest scourge of the property is drought, as the eastern Mackenzie only averages 20 centimetres of rain a year.
"When you get drought and rabbits and weeds together you don't get a lot of recovery for native grasses."
Boyd says the key to the farm's viability has been in adapting the farming and stocking regime to the opportunities the land offers. In 2004, he added a centre pivot to the existing border dyke irrigation system and a second in 2014. There are plans for two more. What was once a barren 300 hectares unsuitable for grazing now finishes 1500-2000 deer and 4000 fat lambs each year and provides vital options for sheep and beef.
"The irrigation system was a big call," Boyd says. "It was expensive and designed only as a trial, but it paid for itself well inside five years."
Intensifying has also had positive outcomes for the high country which in difficult years stock put under pressure. Now Boyd is able to spell that land, manage its ground cover and improve its long-term sustainability.
"We can take stock off at critical times and put them on irrigated land. Some blocks I have been able to spell for 15 months at a time and got a good recovery with over-sowing and a bit of sulphur."
Haldon is commercially diverse with six main income earners: 16.5 -18-micron merino wool, prime lambs, beef, bulls, velvet and venison. The diversification is aimed at spreading the risk of the farms exposure to both market volatility and the challenging climate.
"I don't ever want to be exposed to the risks of supplying only one market," Boyd says.
Haldon runs 13,000 merinos and halfbreds, 1200 cattle and 6000 deer. The 7000 merino ewes lamb on the hill, come in for weaning and go back out for autumn. They are mated on the hill and brought in for shearing and lambing.
The 2000 halfbred ewes are merino cross-border leister and mated to a terminal sire suffolk to produce quick growing lambs. They are kept on the more intensive and irrigated areas.
"We fatten and kill about 4000 lambs a year," Boyd says. "We never had that option before irrigation. Because we are late lambing, we used to have to sell the lambs in February, regardless of what condition they were in. The price was usually at its lowest - we were market controlled. That's why we put the irrigation in. To control our own destiny."
The station has 700 herefords which are bred and reared in both the flat and hill country. The cattle have proven low birth weights and high growth rates, high serving ability and genetically are "some of the most predictably sound hereford cattle in the industry," says Boyd.
Since the 1970s the cattle have been run under the "genepool hereford" recording programme. Haldon, plus 15 other large South Island farms representing about 30,000 hereford cows, selected top stud bulls for artificial insemination. The best of the progeny were chosen to run together at Haldon, to give the animals the strongest environmental challenges. Eventually, Haldon began to breed its own bulls, initially to supply other Genepool members. But as time went on there was more and more demand for the bulls and an annual on-farm sale has been held since the early 1980s.
All male progeny are kept as bulls and the best offered as yearlings to dairy farmers. About 40 are kept for the bull sale. Surplus heifers are marketed at 18-20 months, before their second winter.
In 2004 Boyd introduced angus to his stocking regime, sourcing from Te Mania Stud in North Canterbury.
"The breeding principles for the angus are based on the same programme as the herefords," Boyd says. "The angus cattle are sold as a registered stud."
As one of the industry's pioneers, Haldon has tried to breed high performing red deer. The original herd came from live capture and since then the genetics have improved considerably.
"We have introduced European bloodlines to get absolute top quality progeny," Boyd says. "We are aiming for quiet temperament, and quality body weight and velvet yields."
The 6000 deer have in recent years provided most of Haldon's gross farm income.
"If you look at our books you would ask why don't we go completely deer. The industry has got itself in good shape in the last few years, but I don't want to be exposed to one market," Boyd says. "
"Deer are a better type of fit for this kind of country, especially breeding hinds. I could run 30,000 hinds easily, instead of all these sheep. Much kinder on the ground, but it's just difficult getting staff to work them."
Boyd is committed to finishing his stock and producing winter feed on the farm. In 2007, he was "caught out" when after two years of extremely low rainfall, he made only 187 round bales and was forced to buy extra feed. This was very expensive. This summer he set aside 4000 bales from feed grown under the irrigation system. Needing 2500 bales a year, this "built a little fat in the system."
The centre pivots have had a huge impact on the station and on the basin itself, Boyd says.
"I've put 300ha of pivots on land that has never grazed anything in the 35 years I've been here, and now I finish thousands of lambs on it. It has a real capability.
"That's my biggest argument about the Mackenzie for which I feel a lifelong affinity. If it had been closed to farming most of the basin would have blown away due to the rabbits. It would never have had a chance to regenerate and fencing and irrigation has helped with this."
Boyd thinks there is the possibility to strategically irrigate the basin, and take the weight off the more fragile areas. That's as long as the irrigation is well placed and there is no nutrient shift, he says.
"We've got to look after the lakes."
"Our consents are stringently monitored. Independent monitors take water samples monthly through the irrigation season.
"There is a lot of public interest in the Mackenzie these days. People travel more and have taken ownership of the area and want a say in how it is looked after.
"I can see their point - they see the dairying which has changed the landscape and had bad publicity for a long time now. The dairy farmers are doing quite a good job and have stopped the wind shift, but the land here can't handle the same intensification as the heavier soils down-country. The soil is prone to leaching and less able to handle the impact."
"The biggest challenge I see for the Mackenzie in the next 10 years will come not farming but from tourism. There were 600,000 bed nights spent in the Mackenzie in 2015 and the challenge will be managing the pollution these numbers create. With tourism, at the moment, there is no control. Farming does have control of itself now."