Lambing with a shiver in the sun on the green hills of Eketahuna
Spring weather goes from warm sunshine to light snow and back to sun when Kate Taylor visits an Eketahuna farming couple looking ahead to the succession of their two sons.
It is one of those spring days when sunshine and an icy southerly play tag. But lambing beats still have to be done for Ian and Janet Woodhouse near Eketahuna.
The couple are lambing their mixed-age ewes and about to begin two-tooth lambing when snow blankets parts of the country. The storm closes the Rimutaka road but further north the snow only lightly dusts Mt Bruce and by the time it reaches Eketahuna it has petered out to intermittent chilly squalls.
The Woodhouses farm two blocks together though they are 8.5km apart and are usually called "home", which is near Eketahuna, and "the other block", which is on Tawataia Rd toward Alfredton.
The expansion of their business has come in increments as both finance and opportunity allowed – usually the latter, says Ian. They started with the 263ha home farm in 1998, adding 174ha next door in 2007. They bought a 367ha Tawataia Rd property in 2004 adding 106ha in 2005 and 91ha in 2010.
"In the scheme of things the extra blocks came sooner than we wanted but when a neighbouring block comes up the best thing you can do is try to buy it. It's easier next door than anywhere else."
There's another factor of having two farms that appeals to the couple – they have two sons.
"If they want to farm they can, or they can use a farm to fund what they want to do. It gives us options."
They have set up family trusts to own the farms and Ian and Janet's company is what they call the farming vehicle, owning livestock and plant.
It is already looking likely Callum, 16, and Archie, 14, will choose farming or something in agriculture as a career. The Rathkeale College students won the national TeenAg title at the Young Farmer of the Year in Timaru earlier this year. Callum is in Year 12. He's a keen tramper and wants to go Lincoln University to do an agricultural science or commerce degree. Rugby hooker Archie is in Year 10 and is also planning to go to Lincoln.
"I'd like them both to go and work somewhere else before they came here to farm, though," says Ian. "There's more to farming than what Dad knows."
He says the boys put a lot of time and effort into training for the TeenAg competition, something he remembers from his Young Farmers days. Ian was the East Coast grand finalist in Oamaru in 1990 and in Palmerston North in 1993 coming fifth both times.
"Young Farmers is a great way of broadening knowledge and meeting different people in farming, especially those outside a farm gate like bankers and consultants."
"…and his wife," adds Janet, laughing.
Ian and Janet's business is just under 10,000 stock units across the two blocks, which Janet says have different climates.
"Eketahuna is that much greener being closer to the ranges, whereas out there at Tawataia Rd the soil is drier and not as heavy. It's not dry in the whole scheme of things but it is drier than here."
They've been farming at Eketahuna since 1998, but Ian's knowledge of the area goes further back – he was born on a family farm down the road. It was farmed in partnership for a few years and is now owned by his brother.
Ian and Janet have 4000 romney breeding ewes, with rams bought from Willy Philip's Anui Romney Stud near Dannevirke.
"They're an open-faced romney and their wool is still worth something, although it's not what it was," says Janet.
"They also have the length and fertility we want and are capable of taking the pressure when the pressure comes on," adds Ian.
The business has staggered lambing dates with the old ewes starting in mid-August, the mixed-age ewes on September 1 and two-tooth ewes on September 10.
"Every second year the ewe hoggets go to a different farm so we have alternate age groups and it helps to keep ewe numbers the same on each property."
Five-year-old ewes are put to an early ram and scanned. Twins are kept and singles are sold as scanned in-lamb.
"We did very nicely out of that last year and made nearly double what people were making at the works - $115 versus barely $60 at the time. Plus we struggled to get them into the works spacewise because of competition with lambs.
"The price did surprise us but it shows the shortage of ewes out there. They were exceptional ewes as well, though."
They don't lamb hoggets, instead reducing stock numbers to give them more grass to get them up to weight for tupping.
They have 18ha of plantain at Tawataia Rd with another 10ha going in this summer.
"We nurse it along to get three to four years out of it, then put in a tetraploidal short rotation ryegrass with white clover with the aim of getting another three to four years, then it goes back into plantain again and will never go back into permanent pasture.
"It is so expensive to work up a paddock so this system saves us doing it more often than we need to.
"We've been through the stage of summer crops. They're great when all goes well and they do produce a lot of feed, but getting the paddocks ready is the expensive part so we're doing what we can to get the best out of it."
He says it's important not to over-graze the plantain and to keep on top of management such as topping and weed wiping.
"Weed control is a problem but when they finally beat us it's time to spray out and start again."
All weaned lambs are finished on the Tawataia Rd block, which has flats with 3km of road frontage.
He says they're not pushing the highest performance, lambing percentage or weaning weights in the district but always try for the best they can.
"We're still killing at the moment and will be for another couple of months. We normally aim for 18kg carcassweight. That's our ideal weight, although in bad years it dips a little under. This year has been mediocre with disappointing lamb returns averaging only $90."
Grass-wise it has been a tough year too.
Almost all of their lambs go to CR Grace-Taylor Preston in Wellington.
"We take a lot of young stock through. We still have more than 1000 lambs to sell – more this year than ever before because we sold cattle this winter."
They have 120 breeding cows and progeny but also buy weaner steers to sell as rising three-year-olds.
"As it turns out, beef has been the star performer for us this year," says Janet.
"That is a perfect example of why farmers should diversify. Our goal is to be 30:70 cattle to sheep, where in the past the cattle figure has been 15 to 20."
All cattle progeny are taken through to R3 – some are sold store depending on prices and the market, but most go to CR Grace-Taylor Preston. They are killed as they reach about 300kgCW. Replacement heifers are kept and the rest go at about 270-280kg.
The choice of breed with the cows is hereford-angus cross although they have started putting more angus genetics into the system. Bulls are bought from Neil and Joan Kjestrup's KayJay Angus near Masterton and Willy Philip's Dandaleith stud.
"We're coming off the white face and slowly heading to more angus, which do better on here than the cross and, like the romneys, can handle the pressure," says Ian.
"Traditional breeds might not be the star performer when things are going perfectly but then if things aren't going so well they are the ones that produce the goods."
"Reliability converts to cash flow," adds Janet.
She does the farm accounts as well as other outside accountancy work from home.
In spring, she also has a lambing beat around eight-10 paddocks, which includes an ever growing pet ewe flock.
"I do my accountancy work until about three o'clock and then I'm in my gumboots away around the hills," she says.
"It was the same when the boys were younger – work while they were at school at Eketahuna then we'd all be on the farm when they got home."
They employ a shepherd three days a week to help with mustering.
"Most of the time it's just us so that rules a few of our decisions. There's only so much we can do."
Looking after the environment at both properties is important to them. Both the Mangaoranga Stream on the home farm and the Tawataia Stream on the other block have been fenced and riparian planting is underway.
"We've found flax particularly successful. It is easy to plant and grows well and we don't have to look after it as much. The survival rate so far is nearly 100 per cent."
They have two QEII National Trust-covenanted blocks at Tawataia Rd totalling 10.1ha.
"We changed the two-wire electric fence to conventional fencing about 10 years ago," says Ian.
"As the bush thickened up the trees had put pressure on the electrics so they weren't running as efficiently."
Non-productive corners of the farms are being planted from cuttings of Chatham Islands akeake, totara and kahikatea. One hundred poplar and willow poles are planted each year for hill country erosion.
"They're not large numbers but we're doing it ourselves and doing it every year. It adds up."