A few months after arriving to farm at Kereru beneath the Ruahine ranges in western Hawke's Bay, Danny Angland's neighbours started calling him Jonah.
They were joking but he could understand how they felt. "When I arrived in March the place was looking nice and green. But then we didn't get any rain till May 23 - we went into winter with virtually no grass."
That was 2007. Since then, Kereru, like the rest of Hawke's Bay, has suffered through an even worse drought in 2008-09, a lamb- killing spring storm in 2010 and is just emerging from its worst drought in 70 years.
But Angland is no longer regarded as a Jonah, joking or otherwise. Now he and wife Robyn are the Hawke's Bay farmers of the year.
Competition chairman Peter Tod's praise is typical of the plaudits coming the couple's way. "Kereru Station is a large-scale farming operation intensively managed with a high level of attention to detail. Danny has a clear focus and vision of how to integrate multiple stock classes on a variety of land types."
Kereru Station is one of New Zealand's more unusual farms. It sprawls across 2847ha of mainly flat to rolling country with some hills and is riven by four deep gorges.
What makes it stand out is its financial structure. It is owned by two charitable trusts and at least $400,000 of its annual profit is divided among several Hawke's Bay charities.
The trusts were set up in 1968 by Ruth Nelson and Gwen Malden, granddaughters of one of the station's early owners, JM Williams.
Nelson was a convert to the education ideas of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner and her trust supports local Steiner schools. Malden's trust's share is more widely spread and includes retirement homes, hospices and the rescue helicopter.
Angland, Kereru's manager, describes the feeling of working for a charitable trust as "pretty cool". "It's nice to know the results of your hard work are going to worthy causes."
But making that $400,000 for the trusts to distribute each year hasn't always been easy.
In his first year, 2007, he admits he fumbled his way through. "I'd only just got here and had no idea what the place could handle."
His aim was to take his time to get to know the big farm's idiosyncrasies and he used the experience of the drought to begin building flexibility into the farming system.
He was still coming to grips with this when the big dry of 2008-09 hit.
One flaw was immediately shown up. A policy of buying 100kg yearling bulls to grow to 300kg carcassweight meant there was no room for half the farm's lambs - they had to be sold before they could be grown to their market weights to make room for the bulls.
With more than $1 million of the farm's income from lambs, this represented a loss of potential measured in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Now he delays buying the young bulls till March-April to give him the security of finishing the lambs.
His harshest lesson was still to come, however. A vicious snowstorm swept over Kereru in September 2010, just as lambing was under way. He lost 2000 lambs. "It was gut-wrenching, especially when you see 1800 lambs piled onto the slinky truck to be taken away. I knew I couldn't keep farming like this."
With consultant John Cannon, he began looking at ways to cope better with weather extremes. "I was pretty sure I had the mix of livestock right for the country. What I needed to do was lift their condition to give the lambs in particular a better chance of survival."
They decided to plant winter crops to keep ewes and hoggets and their lambs well fed at a crucial time of the year.
However, planting crops would not be enough.
They needed to ensure the success of such a plan with regular monitoring of stock health through condition-scoring, a hands-on method of checking fat cover on a sheep's back and rib tops, and of pasture covers by measuring the grass available in each paddock with a sward stick and rising plate meter.
Angland says the changes are working "big time".
Ewes and lambs are, to his practised eye, visibly more robust and lamb losses from scanning to docking have fallen from 20-24 per cent to below 17 per cent. "I think we can get that even lower, maybe to 15 per cent, which is a lot of lambs when you have 10,000 ewes."
In this year's drought, the crops - a massive 76ha of lucerne and 60ha of kale - proved their worth. Only 29 per cent of the lambs had to be sold early, which he regarded as a good result as the dry dragged on.
Almost 60 per cent of the early- lambing terminal flock were killed at 18.2kg after being on the lucerne till weaning. They were followed by lambs from the later-lambing breeding flock.
At the same time, ewes were being maintained in good health on 20ha of kale, supplemented with barley grain and lucerne silage. Angland has a colourful way of describing what relief this brought to the farm's dry pastures. "It's like putting 2000 ewes on skyhooks - lifting them up for 6-8 weeks and then dropping them back down."
Pressure was eased further by sending away 1000 hoggets to be grazed on a neighbour's farm. They came back at 57kg and were mated as 2-tooths four months later at 66kg.
He feels the two flocks are well- prepared for winter.
The terminals have scanned at 150 per cent but the most impressive figure is the number found to be not pregnant - just 3.5 per cent, or 81 ewes out of 2300. The later- lambing flock is still to be scanned but he says he is "reasonably optimistic".
Planning is assisted by Farmax, a computer program that offers possible solutions to different feed scenarios, allied with Cashmanager Rural, an accounting tool.
He spends a day each month with Cannon, putting management ideas through Farmax and then running Cashmanager across them to see what effects they would have on income. "Being able to use these programs is brilliant, but it's important to realise they're only tools to help you make decisions. They have to be used in conjunction with your own farming skills."
Some of the station's biggest challenges are nodding thistles and grass grubs, which thrive in the light ash soils. Finding ways to deal with them are a constant exercise.
To save new pastures from attacks by the grub, seeds are sown with long-lasting insecticide prills. The thistles are knocked back with weed-wipers and doses of the herbicide Pulsar when establishing new pastures.
Angland says he'd like to see more research into ways to lessen chemical use, such as grass grub- resistant grasses.
He is careful with his drench use, sending faecal eggs to be cultured so he can know what species of internal parasite are on the farm at certain times of the year and can use the most effective drenches.
A self-made man who began his working life at 17 as a cadet on a Gisborne farm and worked his way up to farm manager, he says he was stunned to be named farmer of the year.
He is quick to divert some of the praise to Cannon, to his five staff and to Robyn, a chartered accountant still working part-time but with her hands full looking after their three daughters.
"I realise how fortunate I am to be managing Kereru Station," he says.
"My dad always told me, 'If you think of it as a job, you might as well walk away.'
"I've got this window to put my life into the job and I'm going to make the most of it. I want the property to be the best it can possibly be - the more money we make, the more we can give away."
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