Auckland's lost its sparkle for farming convert
Andrea Fox meets a young south Auckland hereford cattle stud breeder who's thrown himself into farming with all the passion of the true convert.
It wasn't too long ago that Pip Robinson was a full-blown Aucklander and almost had to be dragged down to the family's Kokonga Farms stud deep in the Waikaretu Valley south of Port Waikato.
Now aged 30, he's managing the picturesque 1296-hectare sheep and cattle property and in his enthusiasm for farming he's a lot like one of his bouncy spring lambs.
"I was engrossed in Auckland, I had to be made to come down here. It's been a long road, I needed to grow into it and I didn't realise how lucky I was. The more I learn, the more I enjoy it."
Pip, short for Phillip, hasn't had a day off in two months with calving and lambing, which starts early here, on July 1. But he's thriving on the pace and finds that nowadays when he does head for Auckland and a social weekend, he gets bored quickly. He hopes to get a day off before Kokonga Herefords' 10th annual yearling bull sale at Hamilton's Frankton saleyards on September 14.
He's proud as punch of the 40 stars of the show which he says will be 30 kilograms heavier than last year's entries. But he's taking no credit for that, or for the farm's classy cow and calf and heifer line up, good-looking lamb crop and their top-condition mums.
Without his two full-timers, veteran cattle man Graham Potter, and head shepherd Mark Crawford, son of previous manager Roger Crawford, Pip suggests he'd be lost, given the steep learning curve he's on. In fact, the list of people whose support he is thankful for rivals an Oscar speech. There's adviser Alastair Reeves, a Waimai Valley romney stud breeder, Roger Crawford "who taught me so much", and his dad Bruce Robinson who founded Kokonga in 2004 and step-mother Margot, who split their time these days between Auckland city and Queenstown.
"I'm very fortunate to have this place and very lucky Dad bought so well, maintained it so well, and is so passionate about it. I'm also very lucky to have good staff and all credit to Dad and Roger (Crawford) for all the work they've done on the farm."
Pip probably isn't as green as he makes out. He studied at Telford agricultural college and some of his boyhood was spent on a sheep and beef farm at Matira near Raglan when his parents for a time swapped Auckland city life for beef and sheep farming. He also spent a few school holidays on the Gisborne region sheep and cattle property of his relatives Kate and Richie Thomas. So he's not exactly a stranger to farming life; it's just that his attitude to it has dramatically changed since he became manager of family trust-owned Kokonga about 18 months ago.
The Robinson family made their farming debut in 1983, three years before Pip was born, when Bruce and his late wife Jan sold a women's wear manufacturing company, Montego Bay, in Auckland and bought the large Matira property. Jan was from a farming background but it was all new for Bruce. (Pip is one of three sons, the other two are commerce professionals in Auckland.) But Jan became ill and the Matira farm was sold and the family moved back to Auckland where she died in 1993.
Bruce, with three boys under 12 to raise, focused on property investment for a time but he'd caught the farming bug. He returned to the west coast 14 years ago, buying 485ha, the foundation of the present farm. "I didn't want to go back into the rag trade and the safest way not to lose money was to go farming again," he recalls. He then bought two neighbouring properties, taking the home farm to its present size, about 1150ha effective.
"We'd had a few herefords at Matira and about 10 years ago I decided to get into herefords here. We're only custodians of the land so why not have nice livestock around you?"
Bruce also has a few people to acknowledge for their support in establishing the registered stud, including Matamata hereford stud breeders Jan and Barry Wills, Charlie and Margaret Lee of Hawke's Bay's Leelands Stud who helped with young stock and were the source of foundation females, and Dave Morrow of Okawa Stud in South Canterbury for in-calf heifers.
Bruce, about to head back to Auckland where he has commercial interests after a day visit to Kokonga, has passed the baton to Pip but still takes a keen interest. "Each year the stud quality improves, but this year there's been a huge jump. We sell to the dairy industry mainly and we're trying to produce a bull to use over dairy cows that's easy calving and can produce good black whitehead calves. We try to produce a bull that's soft and meaty that will produce a steer or heifer that produces a lot of meat. If you're going to pay $400 for a four-day old calf you might as well get a good one."
He says a good quality line of cows is key to stud breeding. "I make a point of buying the best genetics."
Kokonga has culled heavily in pursuit of its commitment to build a sound, functional, high-performing herd of cows selected for their constitution, milking ability and fertility.
Pip's ideal animal has a quiet temperament and is easy calving with classically-correct hereford white markings and deep red colour and soft skin, which denotes tender meat.
The coastal rolling-to-easy property with its limestone and Maeroa ash soils can be challenging to farm but this has allowed the Robinsons to build a reputation for selecting cattle put under pressure that will do well when on-sold.
This year for the first time the stud will use AI. Bruce says he has bought into a syndicate of six New Zealand hereford studs which has semen rights to Australian bull Injemira Anzac, which fetched a country record A$110,000 at sale. Artificial breeding will start on September 26 using 60 straws from the Australian bull. "It's a quick way of getting genetics into the bloodlines. We're (the syndicate) going to share the progeny and will use the semen from the best bull that lands next year."
The farm carries 139 hereford breeding cows. Including heifers, 179 females will be mated this year using AI and the stud's homebred bulls. At any time there are 500 charolais or simmental beef cross steers on the property. The aim is to finish and kill 500 steers and 150 heifers a year as rising two year olds.
On the sheep side, the farm runs 3000 romney ewes - 1000 go to a poll dorset terminal sire with half the resulting lambs off the property by mid-November and the rest by January to chase the best prices. From the other 2000 mixed-age and two-tooth romney ewes the farm sources its replacement ewe lambs. Wether lambs are fattened and off the farm by March. Hoggets are mated and shearing is in November and April.
Pip, who says it wasn't until he'd worked overseas that he realised he wanted to farm full-time, has had a baptism of fire, but is learning from his mistakes. "Sometimes things haven't worked out and at times it's been rough, but that's where I'm lucky to have such good staff. We can talk it over and we all want to keep improving. It's a Kokonga team – we all do our part." He has six dogs which he says thankfully have learned the basics from local dog triallist Mark Porter. "So we're learning together."
Pip is growing 16ha of brassicas a year for replacement ewe lambs, and 4ha of Japanese millet which is cut as balege for the weaner bulls from March. Ninety bales of millet were taken off this season. "The stock do brilliantly on it. There's no weed spraying, no insecticide and it doesn't need fertilising."
His focus is on improving Kokonga's productivity. In five years he'd like to have achieved a 145 per cent lambing rate, have 160 females calving down and be selling 60 yearling bulls a year.
"Our aim is for the best quality stock. Dad's a fantastic networker and that's been a huge benefit for this place." Pip would like to develop the farm to the point where he could focus on the hereford stud and leave the sheep and other cattle operations in the capable hands of staff.
And while Auckland's nightlife no longer calls to him, the city is still very much in his sights.
"It's amazing how much Auckland has grown and how quickly. Lambs and heifers and steers should be going there from this area. It's a fantastic place for farming, why shouldn't we be feeding Auckland? The sky's the limit I think."