Innovation central to farm's success

EFFECTIVE PARTNERSHIP: Andrew McKay, Simon Johnston, and Lynley and Matt Wyeth in front of the wetland they have recently created.
EFFECTIVE PARTNERSHIP: Andrew McKay, Simon Johnston, and Lynley and Matt Wyeth in front of the wetland they have recently created.

Matt and Lynley Wyeth's Spring Valley farm east of Masterton lies in the area called Kaituna, roughly translated as "plentiful eel", appropriately enough for a property that has recently won a top environment award.

The native crayfish, koura, abound in the streams and wetlands dotting the property, testament to the health of the ecosystem. Sons Alex, 9, and Cameron, 6, know the best places to trap the creatures, both having acquired a taste for the freshwater delicacy.

Lying in the foothills of the Tararua Forest Park, Spring Valley can be difficult country to farm. A spring snowfall just around the key time of lambing is always on the cards, while 1800 millimetres of rain makes working the 1000-hectare property a daunting challenge. This compares with an average of 1200mm in Wellington city.

"Weather is the biggest factor working against us, and as a result we are trying to farm within the environment," says Matt, a third generation Wairarapa farmer who has just won the 2014 Ballance Farm Environment award for the Greater Wellington region.

"We know we can't produce a Christmas lamb so we don't attempt to, we match our stock policy to our grass growth. That's what farmers do - understand what fits best where and at what time."

It's apparent from the good-natured ribbing when the Fairfax Media photographer tries to get people to strike poses that the farm is a partnership - first and foremost between Matt and Lynley, but also including two other members of the "team", Simon Johnston and Andrew McKay. Shearers, transporters and allied service providers receive similar treatment.

The partnership is even wider, spanning generations. As well as the home block of Spring Valley, the Wyeths also lease 250ha on the nearby Maranui, a block owned by Matt's family and managed by Andrew. Lynley's parents own Ratanui at Mt Bruce, where Matt and Lynley graze 1000 mixed age ewes and 60 breeding cows. Matt's parents own Brookleigh, providing room and feed for 2500 ewe lambs.

Matt and Lynley bought Spring Valley in 2001 from Matt's parents, who had themselves started an environmental programme of fencing off streams and planting.

Sheep are the backbone of the farm, at a ratio of 80:20 to cattle. Last year they wintered 6850 highlander ewes, 2500 hoggets, 220 breeding cows and placement heifers, 200 rising one-year cattle and 150 rising two-year cattle.

Matt says one option he has ruled out is taking other farmers' cattle and using the farm as a fattening operation.

"You've got to like what you do and I like working with my own stock. I like to think that I've bred and raised them.

While between 10 and 11,000 lambs are born a year, survival rates can sometimes be punishingly low when a severe storm hits the area.

"We lose between 20 and 25 per cent of our lambs, and that's something we can't accept, not only from an economic point of view, but also from an ethical standpoint. We want to give every lamb a fighting chance," Matt says.

Shelter is a priority. Flaxes grow well in the high-rainfall area, so the Wyeths plant about 1000 a year, along with the hardy Chatham Island akeake. Both species provide useful shelter in the cold and shade in the summer months.

"Because we are very exposed, we've done a lot of shelter-belt planting, especially of flaxes which offer dense cover for the ewes and lambs. We regard this planting programme as a fixed cost," Lynley says.

Each year she has the job of raising about 300 orphan lambs. The enterprising Lynley has turned this challenging task into a community relations opportunity. Noting several years ago that there were virtually no farm animals at the school's annual pet day, she joined forces with services co-operative Farmlands to launch a "foster a lamb programme".

"Farmlands sponsored milk powder, children were given a lamb for six weeks and they were then judged on pets' day. It's good for the kids - they learn the responsibility of feeding the lambs twice a day. We'd like to go to another two schools now, 20 lambs a school is about the right number," Lynley says.

"It's all about bridging the town country gap," Matt chimes in.

While his perfect ewe is a mother of twins, Matt sees a lot of triplets coming through. To mitigate the triplet losses, the Wyeths have used Agriventure students from the United Kingdom. The ewes are kept in for between 48 and 72 hours after lambing to protect the stock at a crucial time.

Virtually all their stock are sold to Silver Fern Farms, which the couple regard as a progressive farm producer, so much so that Lynley is an informal ambassador, fronting videos to demonstrate how to prepare lamb in a Mindfood magazine special.

They envisage a future where people have an "eating experience" rather than simply going to the supermarket to buy the evening's lamb.

"In the future it will all be about traceability - like Icebreaker with their 'baacode' on their clothing. That's the way it's going with meat, so that consumers will be able to click online and read the story about where their lamb came from. We have to be innovative," the couple say.

Innovation lies at the centre of their operation. They monitor both stock and pasture, all sheep are EID (electronic identification device) tagged and they use FarmIQ trait monitoring.

To Matt, figures and farming data have an abiding fascination, although he was a late starter in that regard. He admits that school didn't agree with him and that he wasn't a star performer at Lincoln University, where he graduated with a Diploma of Agriculture. But today, Lynley says admiringly, Matt "naturally loves figures. He's always working on data and uses the latest hi-tech products and system."

The Dominion Post