Environment plan identifies profit opportunities
Completing a farm environment management plan for their regional council hasn't been the hassle a Central Hawke's Bay farming couple expected, Kate Taylor reports.
The rain that falls onto Brookwood Station ends up in the Tukituki River, which means the owners have to adapt to meet the Hawke's Bay Regional Council's Tukituki Plan Change 6.
A farm environment management plan has just been done for the 1125-hectare property as part of a trial by the council.
Owner Justin King says the station has a huge number of small tributaries that flow into the main waterways leading to the Porangahau Stream. Water then flows into the Maharakeke Stream, then into the Tukituki River.
The station also has an extensive mix of contour from a "little permanently flowing creek in a flat paddock to a very steep gorge with a creek down the bottom of it. For that reason, and because the farm is a reasonable scale, the council approached us to be involved in a trial with an outside specialist consultant doing a thorough inspection of the property and writing a farm environment management plan to meet the requirements of plan change 6".
Tukituki River Catchment Plan Change 6 was a catchment-specific change to the Hawke's Bay Regional Resource Management Plan that became operative in October 2015. One of the aims was to gain a better understanding of any effects farms are having on water quality and ways to mitigate them including nutrient management, excluding stock from waterways and reducing erosion.
Brookwood is an historic Central Hawke's Bay property that was farmed by the Paulsen family from 1895 to 1998 before being used to rear awassi sheep for live export to the Middle East until Justin and Meg King bought it in 2005.
Justin grew up on a family property at Tikokino which is still farmed by his father. Meg is from a farm at Mangamahu, east of Whanganui, and the pair met while working in Hamilton – Justin as a rural banker for Rabobank and Meg as a self-employed occupational therapist. Meg runs her workplace rehabilitation company, At Work Solutions, from Brookwood. They have two children, Theo, 8, and Molly, 7.
The couple say Brookwood was almost a blank canvas when they arrived. They have subdivided 46 paddocks into more than 200 and installed a water reticulation system (meaning 200 troughs with more than 100km of pipe) as well as building two sheep yards, a set of cattle yards and capital fertiliser dressings.
"I set a plan when I first got here to do things in order," Justin says. "There was no point putting capital fert on until we could control the feed, so we needed smaller paddocks. But we couldn't have smaller paddocks without a decent water supply. So the first thing we had to do was troughs, then we could split the paddocks up, re-grass and improve fertility and utilise it … so it had to be in that order."
That involved a lot of money on top of a lot of debt, he says.
"The plan after that was improvements, including building a new hay barn and general maintenance on staff housing. After that came drainage and shelter, which is where we are at now.
"That's why we haven't looked at the planting or shelter before now because money was pouring out the gate for all that other stuff."
Brookwood carries 10 stock units to the hectare, including 1500 romney ewes, 120 commercial angus cows and 130 stud angus cows including first-calving heifers. It trades and fattens anywhere between 5000-12,000 lambs and between 800-1000 steers and heifers. Crops include rape, plantain, chicory and lucerne.
"We need the crops in Hawke's Bay," he says. "We don't get any quality after Christmas. We don't get the rain to give fresh grass and stock don't do well enough in the new year. Those crops give you options. We're fortunate we have a large portion of the farm we can plant them on."
The couple established their Brookwood Angus Stud in 2012. Cows have been bought from the Lynmar, Goldwyn and Otoka Angus studs. The stud will have 18 bulls at its second annual bull auction at the CASHBAC Bull Sale in Dannevirke on June 14 (Central and Southern Hawke's Bay Combined Sale) and will also have bulls for sale on farm by private treaty.
Both Justin and Meg grew up on stud breeding properties – Justin with border leicester, romney and poll dorset sheep and Meg with romney sheep and murray grey cattle.
"We find the genetics and breeding of cattle both interesting and challenging. The bulls we use in the stud today will breed steak that will be produced in five, 10 or 15 years so we have to be thinking very far ahead if we want to be at the forefront," he says.
"We are determined to have highly fertile females that produce a good calf every year for many years. They need to have good feet during that time so we are focusing very hard in these areas before we look at growth rates and more detailed carcass traits."
Justin says in the past decade the farm has become more intensive, carrying more profitable classes of livestock and making money out of forage cropping.
"The farm is more efficient with better handling facilities and multiple laneways with all-year access… making it more enjoyable to farm, really."
About 70 to 80 per cent of the work highlighted in the King's farm environment management plan was already in their own farm plan, Justin says.
"But we're now putting that more at the forefront of what we're doing so it will get done a bit quicker. It was always a one-day job whereas now it's putting it in a timeframe and breaking it down. The priorities of what we were going to do in terms of planting have changed.
"So, areas I wasn't considering doing for quite some time have now become more urgent. Areas that were difficult or where water quality in a stream hadn't been considered will now be done ahead of some hill country I was going to do."
The plan was done by Dan Elms from Groundstock in Whanganui.
"It includes incredibly detailed information on contours, waterways and land use of the property including GPS points. Every trough, every dam and every culvert," he says.
One of the aspects that both impressed and surprised the Kings about the report was the breakdown of soil types on the property and associated land use classifications.
The farm ranges from the Class 3 rolling flat paddocks that make up about a quarter of the farm to the top of Rangitoto, which is Class 7. Sixty per cent of the farm is Class 6. It was the soil mapping that contained a fascinating surprise.
"We thought we had five soil types but it turns out we have 17," he says.
"For each of those, he's given a description of their properties and details about where those soil types are. There's so much detail. See that light blue? I know exactly where that is. There used to be a flax mill there 100 years ago. It's a little bit bony and right beside the railway line so that's where they used to load the flax off."
Each soil has different retention and some require much less phosphate than others.
"There is huge opportunity to use that soil mapping data to fine-tune your inputs and to know what your expected outputs are too.
"In other words, no wonder new grasses don't really thrive on that country… or stock do so much better on that face than that face.
"The key is to use that data. That's where you can pay for this plan pretty quickly. It will be interesting and it's going to require effort."
Justin says the next step is improving the software he uses to help improve the farm's record-keeping, which will work in with soil tests to help farm decisions.
"It's more evidence-based then, it takes the second-guessing out," adds Meg.
The farm plan also includes fencing and planting plans for stream banks and waterways, erosion control, forestry and native regeneration.
"I had a plan in my head and I'd done a little bit on paper about where I wanted to go with waterway planting and shelter planting etc over probably the next 15 years."
Justin says in this category, the farm environment management plan isn't as thorough or detailed as what he was planning himself, but the priorities are different.
"Some of the things I had listed as 'one day' have been moved into the next couple of years. They were always part of the plan, but when I could afford it."
He says they're not following through with the recommendations in the plan solely to "tick off" Plan Change 6.
"I'm doing this to improve my property aesthetically, improve my stock performance through shelter and shade, and, to be honest, those sort of things, especially for the animals, for me come ahead of waterway protection.
"The waterway improvement was a side benefit of what I was proposing to do, whereas now it's the other way around. But I have to make money out of it or the farm simply can't afford it."
Justin says many of the fencing and planting costs would be in the farm budget anyway and were not necessarily a direct cost of meeting Plan Change 6.
"We've done over 100km of fencing on this place already. We've spent hundreds of thousands on fences and water already to get the farm more profitable. So… this just means it's going to take a bit longer and possibly for different reasons, but with the same outcome.
"That's where I get some element of satisfaction. Challenging myself to significantly improve what I'm doing and the place I'm working on."
Both Justin and Meg say they're looking forward to the planting programme getting underway in earnest.
"Brookwood is pretty bare. It hardly has a tree on it. Look at that… look at the trees shown on here…" Justin says, tapping the planting map.
"If we can achieve that in five years we're changing the property. We really are. If we can pull this off, imagine driving around in 10 years when the trees are visible.
"We're fencing off a lot of the crap and leaving productive paddocks… and the not-so-productive stuff is creating something else for the farm either aesthetically with native planting or financially with pine trees.
"I think we're embarking on a plan that will change a bare farm to an aesthetically pleasing one that will last hundreds of years. It's the opportunity to leave our own stamp on it."
It is leaving a legacy, adds Meg.
"We look at the big old oak trees around our house. We're so thankful to the people that did it. That's one of the reasons why we planted our main laneway through the middle of the farm in a big oak avenue. We know what that will mean in the future."