Sheep and beef island in a sea of dairy
While most of the water from the new Central Plains Water irrigation scheme is growing grass for dairy cows, there are other options says one farmer who tells Tony Benny why he's sticking with sheep and beef finishing.
Since he first started work on a 400ha farm near Hororata 16 years ago, Rodney Booth has lived with the spectre of drought, always just around the corner if the rain stopped and the drying norwest winds blew too long. But in September last year that fear disappeared with the commissioning of Stage 1 of Central Plains Water.
"We've had to do a complete 360 degrees in our minds as to how we operate," Booth says.
"Previously it was one eye on the sky, watching the weather, and, 'How much stock do we have to get rid of this week to keep on top of it?' But now it's, 'How much stock do we have to buy to keep up with the growth?'"
Irrigation's not new in the district but until the new scheme, which draws alpine-sourced water from Rakaia River, was built, farmers relied on groundwater, spending tens of thousands of dollars on electricity for their pumps. And only dairy farming, at least while payouts were good, earned enough to pay for that. Sheep and beef farmers on the Canterbury Plains became something of an endangered species.
"For what we were doing, pumping costs were too expensive, we would have had to have converted to make it work, so we waited and we've put money into the scheme for it seems like forever, waiting on consents and all the other crap that's gone on," Booth says.
When at last the scheme was consented and constructed Booth and his wife Sonia's equity partners, Margaret and Ross Manson and their daughter Rowen, resisted the move to dairy and opted for a sheep and beef finishing operation instead, moving out of breeding and finishing their own lambs and trading some cattle into a full trading operation, buying in store lambs and cattle to finish.
"We're a bit of an island in a sea of dairy at the moment. The way we see it is the water gives you options; if you put a dairy shed on you've got one option. If you don't put that shed on, you've got lots of options."
The farm has been completely redeveloped with all the old fences taken out and replaced, new laneways formed, underground supply pipes and power cables put in and half the pasture resown. The farm is now bisected by the irrigation scheme's main canal, crossed by two substantial bridges.
"Initially, we thought having the main canal cutting us in half was going to be a major drama but as it's turned out it could have been the best thing out because it's allowed us to do a few negotiations, get a few perks along the way in terms of development. They've formed all our lanes for us with material that came out of the bottom of the canal."
Shortly before the work was due to start in 2013, devastating windstorms struck, flattening every shelter belt on the farm, thousands of trees, effectively giving the redevelopment work a kick-start. Though the clean-up job was enormous, once the trees were gone, there was a clean slate.
The first job was putting in pipelines for the 11 new centre pivots on the farm, which range from a couple of small two-span models to a 10 span, 560-metre machine. They cover 94 per cent of the property.
Once the below-ground work was finished, re-fencing started. Any wire and posts worth saving from the old fences was recycled, with the rest sold as scrap. It took contractors three months to put up 32km of new fences.
Every paddock is now roughly 10ha, all of the required width for fertiliser and spray trucks to do their runs without any overlaps. "There was a lot of thought went into little things like that to make things more efficient."
The redevelopment cost between $6000 and $7000 a ha. "The key to what we're doing here is we've started from a very good financial position initially. We have borrowed to do all this development work but it's manageable debt. We're lucky here in that respect, we've been able to do it that way," says Booth.
He and Sonia are in an equity partnership with their former employers the Mansons.
"Margaret and Ross were here initially and we started working here in a management type of role and they offered us an equity partnership on the farm and more recently their daughter has come home and joined the company we've formed.
"It has developed beautifully. Margaret and Ross still live on the farm and they have a bit of input in the day-to-day stuff. They like to keep involved with what's going on, especially with this development which is quite exciting for everybody."
Now Booth's focus is on making the best use he can of the plentiful grass the farm grows and his biggest problem is sourcing enough stock to do that. While there were plenty of store lambs available a few months ago, there are far fewer on offer now.
"We could afford to be a bit choosy about what we took but now with a bit of rain in the country, and a lot of lambs have gone north and a lot have gone to Southland, it's a bit harder to come by.
"You've got to be on the case the whole time because you're turning stuff over so fast. We've been targeting 30kg lambs, that good second-cut of lambs, and a drench and four to six weeks later they're out of here, so it's quick turnover.
"The cattle are the same. We're getting some huge growth rates, just with good, consistent quality feed and they're not here as long as what you'd think either."
Booth works closely with Silver Fern Farms whose agents find most of their stock.
"They've got all those contacts round the countryside and they know what's coming up. Buying through them we can avoid paying too much commission and we can probably get things a wee bit cheaper.
"An agent can come to us and say, 'I've got 1500 lambs from such and such a place', and we can say, 'Yes, send them'. It's easier for everybody."
At present there are about 500 cattle and close to 4000 lambs on the farm, all knee-deep in plentiful grass and all putting on weight fast.
"We're almost becoming a grass factory. I had to go out and buy a topping mower for the first time to groom those paddocks," says Booth.
"In the past that seemed like a waste of diesel and we used stock to do it, we pushed the ewes a bit harder and made them chew the top off but now the whole idea is to have those stock grow as fast and put on as much weight as possible in the shortest time possible and get them in and gone."
In his first season with virtually 100 per cent reliable water on tap, Booth is still feeling his way, seeing just what the farm can produce and just how many stock it can carry. But he envisages being able to turn over a 1000 cattle and up to 10,000 lambs a year.
"In the past it was almost like farming with the handbrake half on because you always wait for the next dry, you're trying to work out where you're going to send stock if it gets dry, how you're going to get rid of them, what you're going to do.
"Now it's like the handbrake's off and the accelerator's on. You're thinking about how many stock you're going to get away and how many more you've got to get in. It's turned into a real balancing act, actually; numbers in and numbers out."