You've got to be joking Waikato Regional Council
A hard hill country Waikato station is a contender for draconian measures proposed by the region's Healthy Rivers plan. Andrea Fox visited a family grappling with the costly implications.
Buckets of laughter, a pinch of gibberellic acid and a dollop of challenge is the recipe for life on the Osborne family's Te Toko Station at Waitomo in the Waikato.
This is 1300 hectares of hard hill country where the sheep have attitude, the flattest piece of land is probably the homestead's old tennis court, and the regional council architects of Waikato's Healthy Rivers plan change have clearly never ventured.
The scenery is a visual feast but it's advisable to have sense of humour to farm here. The Osbornes – Kim and Janette, and Kim's parents Bob and Judy – easily qualify: laughter is the strongest memory of a visit to the three-block sheep and beef property about 20 minutes into the hills past the Waitomo Caves tourist hub.
Kim likens the station to three triangles of land with the Marokopa Fault providing a sharp contrast in their landscapes. On one side of Hauturu Road which the property straddles is the "limestone block", home to the senior Osbornes and as the name implies, peppered with steep limestone formations and oyster fossil rocks and dense primary native bush. It's basically a 200 hectare paddock says Kim, who has yet to explore all its challenging bush.
Across the road is the rest of the station and a 105 year old homestead, shipped from Auckland to Kawhia and brought in parts through the bush on a sled by the original owner. Clad in corrugated iron because of the bush fire risk back then, it's home to Kim and Janette. The landscape differs on this side due to the faultline. Steep grass hills are regularly bisected by deep bush-covered, water-carrying gullies and the occasional rock bluff. Much of the station's bush has been convenanted by the Osbornes. This side also provides walking access to the Hollow Hill cave system on Department of Conservation land. The Osbornes are its gatekeepers.
The idea of fencing off all Te Toko's precipitous waterway gullies is a joke. But for once the family isn't laughing because that's just what the Waikato Regional Council's stock exclusion proposals under the Healthy Rivers plan change will require them to do. The station's three blocks are considered "priority one" under the plan and at the Osborne's last cost tally, they face a $500,000 bill to comply. The task would also be a physical impossibility in many areas. Nor do the Osbornes find anything to smile about in the plan's nitrogen reference point proposals.
Deciphering the likely impact of Healthy Rivers and projecting its costs on their farming operation has swallowed many hours. A submission is in the making. The computer skills of south Otago-born Janette, a qualified management accountant with her own wool yarn business, Briar Patch New Zealand, have been a boon. So have the Xero and Figured accounting systems, which allow financial forecasting well into the future. "We have to have a resource consent to farm by 2020," says Janette.
Kim, who says he's "like a monkey with a shovel around a computer", has found the experience valuable though the reason for it unwelcome. "We've been able to bounce ideas off each other."
One idea is to drop cattle and just carry sheep. Kim disputes the notion there's a lot of work in the woolly creatures.
"You can make a lot of work with sheep but with rotational planning they only have to come in three times a year. You make sure you have the rotations sorted so you're not having to pull them in from eight kilometres away."
The station carries 1700 perendale ewes plus two tooths and hoggets.
Kim says the steep terrain needs "psycho" sheep and perendales fit the bill.
Bob Osborne prefers to call them "survivor" sheep.
"When you put a cheviot over a romney you end up a perendale, and they've got attitude."
The station has 120, mostly angus, breeding cows and fattens heifers and steers. Breeding bulls are angus and hereford. This year the farming partnership bought a two year old hereford sire bull from Kim's nephew Sam Tipping, who has Kamaro Herefords at Otorohanga.
Bob says on this sort of country, you have to be prepared to experiment with livestock.
"When we first came here in 1984 we had all sorts and we had belgian blues. They were alright too. But I did what I was told not to and bred to first cross. Some of the calves developed lazy tongue. They got over it but it was time consuming and we drifted away from belgian blues. We've got some wagyu at the moment."
Kim was 18 when the family bought Te Toko Station, which at the time didn't include the block the main homestead is on. Along the way 202ha of the original purchase has been sold in order to buy another 445ha.
Eketahuna-born Bob and Judy, born in Greymouth but raised in Tauranga, came to Waitomo from Matira, where they'd been farming for seven years. Prior to that they farmed in north Auckland where the family preference for perendale sheep developed.
The station's five year old ewes go to a suffolk terminal sire, and the rest to perendale rams sourced from the annual Taihape perendale sale and Philip Brandon's Awaroa Perendales stud. Up to 800 perendale ewe lambs are retained each year, with 150 of these sent to the Te Kuiti two tooth fair. The station buys in up to 1000 extra lambs a year to fatten and sell.
Lambs are sent to processor Wilson Hellaby in Auckland from January through to June-July according to weight but in a first, about 300 lambs went for processing before this New Year. Their average carcass weight was 18.4kg.
"It's been a fantastic season for lambs," says Kim. "We took a gamble that it wasn't going to be dry and put the black rams out with the five year old ewes a month early, about the 10th of March.
"It's been cooler and we chemically topped 300ha. Our native grasses can go mad (in spring) but there's no base to it, so we give it a sniff of Roundup – about 150mls to a hectare – and it suppresses the top so all the clover comes up at the bottom, which is fantastic lamb fodder."
Topping with Roundup also knocks out foxgloves and suppresses ring fern.
Te Toko's lamb scanning percentage is 155 and at docking time usually 120 per cent. Ewes and lambs are shorn at the start of December before the limestone country scourge, biddy-bid grass, gets into the wool, and again at the end of April. The station has two woolsheds, 3.5km apart.
The station's soils are Maeroa or Te Raumoa ash over limestone.
Bob's willingness to experiment has proved useful in improving feed quality on this difficult country.
After reading about the growth effect from plant gibberellic acid in Japan's rice fields, he championed its use in the station's annual aerial liquid fertiliser and mineral drop.
"It works marvels in the spring to get a bit more feed at the right time. We only use 10 grams per hectare and it works really well and halves the chemical rate."
Thistle spray is also incorporated in this helicopter drop. "We've got to stretch the dollars," says Bob.
In hindsight, the family reckons they should have regrassed many years ago to improve feed quality.
Meantime Bob is thinking of adding agricultural salt to the next lime treatment.
"I'm hoping that will make everything a bit more palatable and encourage stock in. You've got to try everything here."
Spraying out a whole paddock to regrass is a risk here, says Kim.
"Especially on a face. You kill a heap of your grasses and it starts to fall to bits because there's nothing to hold it together. You've got to be bloody careful."
He's considering chemical topping by rotation. "We have three blocks so we could chemically top one a year. It would cost about $10,000 a year to do it."
The station buys in about 100 bales of hay a year.
"It's for the cattle at calving time. It makes them more sociable, brings them out of the scrub so we can make sure they're feeding their calves," he says.
About 25 of the annual crop of heifer calves are picked to calve as two year olds, the rest are fattened along with steered calves.
"If we were hellbent on dollars only, we'd leave them as bulls because they'd grow 10 per cent faster but we want ease of management," says Bob.
Only a handful of stock are lost each year falling off bluffs or down tomos, and mustering is not such a challenge that big teams of dogs are needed.
"If we stick 700 sheep out on the limestone block, first muster we might get 500 then we go out again and get another 100," says Kim.
Stock stuck down in limestone holes provide handy practice runs for rescue teams.
"We had an 18 month old bull down a hole for nearly a month at the time there was a national convention here for cave rescuers. We rang them and they roared up and plucked it out," says Kim.
"He was fine. He was pretty anorexic but he had water. He must have lived on the scenery."
Farming Te Toko is not for the faint-hearted – exactly why this family loves it.