North Canterbury cattle stud makes it through drought and out the other side
Three years of drought and an earthquake that destroyed three farm buildings and badly damaged another has failed to deter Kaiwara Angus Stud of Culverden, in north Canterbury, from preparing for its annual bull sale in a month's time.
Stud owner George Johns is in the process of producing the catalogue. "You think you have taken great photos through the year, but where are they when you need them," he says with a laugh.
The stud was formed in 1971 by George's father Bruce Johns. At the time the family farmed a property in Waiau but moved to Culverden and Kaiwara Farm 25 years ago.
Kaiwara began with 25 stud cows from the Blythswood Stud along with the foundation sire Cadogen of Pikikuia Stud. In 1972 nine cows plus stud sire Proclipta of Totroanui was added to the stud herd. At the Tautane dispersal sale, three more cows plus a heifer calf were bought.
The only other females injected into the stud have been from Wayne Chisnall's The Downs Stud and last year, from Jane Jenkin's Floridale Stud, George says.
"The breeding policy for our cows has been to breed cattle that are fertile, calve as a two-year-old and have the constitution to get back in calf easily. The cows are tested on this by being run under very commercial conditions."
Kaiwara aims to supply bulls that will last, are easy fleshing and have good actual and estimated breeding value (EBV) growth rates. This is crucial for both store stock producers and finishers, George says
"To get these attributes we have invested and in 2011 purchased a Te Mania bull for $32,000 and Tuiria Bravo for $30,000. In 2014 we purchased a Turaeata Regent son for $32,000 and in 2015 the top priced bull from Matauri Angus Northland.
"This is along with [artificial insemination] sire Stern Braveheart who is arguably New Zealand's most influential sire," George says.
"The stud gradually grew to 200 stud cows and that's the biggest it has been. Two hundred cows plus heifers are probably enough to keep the quality up.
"Kaiwara used to have a combined sale with a local hereford breeder and another angus breeder but now it is just us," George says.
Regular buyers are spread from South Canterbury to as far north as Kaikoura. Many of them are from the local farming district. The 25 sale bulls go quickly, and the sale represents a good portion of the farm's income at about $100,000.
George brings in genetics from elsewhere and tries to keep one of his own bulls every third or fourth year. He also buys in the odd female.
"It's important that our bulls have good figures, and are fast finishing and can produce a good cow for the hill country. There is a lot of pressure put on our cows; we run them in a decent mob.
"During the drought, we ran out of feed. We have two southerly faces and break-fenced these and that was the only way to ration out what feed we had. We have started doing this across a fair bit of the farm now. [Plastic] posts and one wire fences."
Eight years ago the family converted 330 hectares of the property to a dairy farm and this is run by George's brother Douglas. The family also bought a neighbouring 300ha. The property now has all up 40ha of flats, while the rest is rolling downs plus 700ha of steep matagouri hill country.
Stock numbers change all the time, especially with the drought, George says.
"We used to be beef, sheep and deer, but the property was too dry for deer, so we got out of those.
"We have 1000 halfbred ewes and have just sold all our romney ewes.
"We buy in a five-year ewe and probably get an extra year out of a halfbred [over the romney]. They will last an extra year and they leave more feed for the cows. They don't deck the place, they sit on the tops and the cows will go down the bottom of the gulleys whereas the romneys will just clean out the place. At the moment we have 1000 ewes and I don't know whether we will increase that. I'm in no rush.
"The halfbreds go on the steeper faces, anything around 45 degrees because the cows make a mess of this country in the rain and cause erosion. The rest of the country is split with one-wire fences for the cattle."
George runs the cattle in a mob of 300. The "skinnier ones" are condition scored and go in front of the main mob with the heifers. It gives them a "better pick," he says.
He tries to keep the bull calves off the fodder beet as long as possible because he was finding they weren't getting the dairy cows in calf.
This winter he is grazing 1100 dairy cows.
Last year George put in crops of oats and italian ryegrass on the rolling country, and this year about 60ha of omaka barley and italian. It grows well if you get a warm winter, he says, and will be kept for the young cattle. The italian will go through to December and then he will "knock it out." He hopes to get 15 tonnes of dry matter from it over this period. "Pretty good," he says.
In terms of cashflow, the revenue earners are in order dairy grazing, the stud and then the ewes. Because of the drought he does more of a trading policy. He has a few more cattle to trade rather than wintering them over and sells them in the spring on the grass market.
Two years ago George put in five kilometres of fencing and a new watering system over 450 hectares of the property. This means 500ha of hill country has water troughs, he says. It cost a bit, and now it's a matter of utilising this and growing some grass.
"The drought definitely knocked us back," he says. "You can sell your stock but you have to buy them back and you can easily burn up your capital. We had stock grazing on the West Coast and didn't buy any ewes in. We were calving our angus cows on some donated fodder beet and that didn't go well. The cows didn't milk and they left their calves at night. They were calving in the mud."
Where to for the stud with the annual bull sale looming?
"Until there are more cows around I won't be expanding," George says.
"There are a lot of cattle studs around, quite a few in North Canterbury. We are getting good prices but it is going to take a while to rebuild the herds because of the drought and because farmers are running more sheep. People are farming tentatively and there is less cow tucker around. In a drought beef cows are the first to go. It will take a while for people to bring cow numbers back up.
"I did have a yearling sale but it was too much pressure getting the calves up to weight. I'm deciding whether to bring this back in rather than carrying them through. Long term it's a prospect.
"I would like to be selling in-calf heifers. I tried selling export heifers to China but now the domestic prices are just as good."
And the drought? "I'd say it's finished," he says.