Fresh approach to dairying pays off

THREE COLOURS GREEN: Henry, Dorothy and Jason Christensen have covenanted remnants of riparian and swamp forests with the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust.
THREE COLOURS GREEN: Henry, Dorothy and Jason Christensen have covenanted remnants of riparian and swamp forests with the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust.

Conservation-Department- ranger-turned-dairy-farmer Jason Christensen admits he's a lighter shade of green than he once was.

The practicalities of farming have seen to that.

He remembers in his ranger days walking past dead gorse and scrub, obviously the result of herbicide spraying, and saying to his companion: "Would you look at that - what a waste of a good nursery for native bush." (Gorse can protect native seedlings and dies away as the plants grow through and overshadow it.)

These days he's not so dogmatic. "You can be green, or you can be full-on green, green, green" - he holds his hands to his eyes in imitation of blinkers. "You have to be open-minded to see the full picture. And that is, you can't protect the land if you can't afford to pay for it."

Gorse and scrub have no place on land that can be farmed profitably, he says. "I have steep hillsides that I'm keeping in gorse and will scatter manuka and kanuka seeds through it. But where it's encroaching on pastures, I'll be spraying or cutting."

He returned to Fernhill, the family dairy farm at Mt Bruce, Wairarapa, in 2008 with good green intentions and has largely followed through on them.

A neighbouring farm was bought and remnants of riparian and swamp forests and a wetland have been fenced and covenanted with the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust. They protect kahikatea, red beech, kanuka, northern rata, pukatea, swamp maire and sedges. The native brown mudfish, classified as vulnerable and declining, is also found there, along with a rare carnivorous plant, the stag-horned sundew.

The enlarged farm sits near the boundary of the Tararua State Forest Park and is a few kilometres from the Pukaha Mt Bruce Reserve. Christensen sees the covenants as "pit stops" in Project Kaka, a DOC-regional council joint venture to create a native bird corridor stretching from Wairarapa to Kapiti Island.

More covenants are waiting on a Greater Wellington Regional Council decision on whether to take 24 hectares of the farm for a storage lake. This would put parts of the proposed covenants under 10 metres of water.

The farm would also lose four to six weeks' winter grazing and half of its supplement-making capacity if the lake goes ahead. Christensen doubts if any compensation would cover these losses and the sole advantage for him would be to tap into the lake for irrigation, something he hasn't considered.

Fernhill has been in the family since 1879, first as a dairy farm, then switching to sheep for a brief period a century ago before reverting to dairy.

For the last 40 years it has been home to the Mt Bruce Pioneer Museum, a vast collection of old farming machinery and other relics of rural life assembled by Christensen's father, Henry.

After working in a Masterton nursery for six years and then on Mana Island for DOC for 11 years, followed by another three years as a ranger based in Waikanae, Christensen decided it was time to return home.

"I picked it up pretty quickly, it's in the blood," he says of dairying. He went to discussion group meetings, did DairyNZ courses on pasture management and milk quality and avidly read industry journals. "Coming in with fresh eyes meant I picked up on new research and new ideas, I wasn't used to old habits."

Good dairying is about feeding the cows properly every day to maintain a steady production curve, he says. "I'm still learning off Dad. He's got that seasonal knowledge that is unique to this farm and only comes with experience."

The neighbouring farm was bought in 2009, taking the milking platform from 84ha to 154ha and doubling cow numbers to 400. It also meant they could winter- graze on the farm - a saving of $27 a cow a week - grow all their supplements and have the flexibility of milking off the hills in dry years.

The "icing on the cake", he says, is that they also have the room to raise their calves in their own dairy beef unit.

However, the enlarged herd took four hours to go through the old 16-bale rotary shed built by Henry almost 40 years earlier and a new one was needed. But the milk payout was too low to finance it and they toiled in the old shed for 2 years before they could afford a new one.

It is a 44-bale rotary and milking time has been reduced to 1 hours. It has in- shed feeding - a mixture of barley, wheat and palm kernel used from August to May - and automatic cup removers, teat sprayers and drafting gates.

Computerised data collection records each cow's milk yield and somatic cell counts and monitors biological changes that tell when she is ready for mating.

Christensen says the instant milk yield data was invaluable during the recent drought.

"Each day we were able to identify the bottom 20 milkers and to decide then and there whether they would be dried off.

"Previously, the only yield records we had could be three-months-out-of-date herd-testing data."

The shed also has a milk cooling system that uses the energy generated in cooling the milk to heat water needed for an after-milking washdown. It means 90 per cent of the plant's hot water is free, a saving that will pay for the system within eight years.

Out on the milking platform, all the main streams have been fenced and they are working on fencing all permanent waterways throughout the farm. Before that can be done, they have to install water piping and troughs at a cost of $25,000.

In a valley at the back of the farm, steep scrub-covered hillsides and overhanging trees protect the water quality of a stream. The scrub also provides shelter for stock from storms and snow.

The farm is now owned by a family trust and is leased from the trust by a partnership of Christensen, his father, and mother Dorothy, who looks after the finances.

When not on the farm, Christensen is a keen tramper and is contracted to DOC to inspect tracks and huts. He also works on Project Kaka and is a co-owner and guide for The Tararua Walk, a three-day farm and forest walk that crosses his and neighbours' farms.

He describes the QEII Trust covenants as a win-win. "The trust has the bush protected for posterity and it pays for some fencing to keep the stock out - and the district council doesn't charge us rates for that land."

His conservation experience makes him more aware of the value of native bush and the futility of clearing scrubby hillsides, but says he is not unusual among farmers.

"A lot of farmers are conservators and their sustainable practices are not always in the public eye. They regard themselves as caretakers of the land, knowing they must not use the resource faster than it can be replaced."

He says he wants to be green, but not "hammered down" green. "I've got to make the money to pay to be green."

The Dominion Post