Sustainable farm development in Otago

ROB TIPA
Last updated 06:40 22/07/2014
David Smith (second left) explains his reasons for fencing off 2.3km of the north branch of the Waikouaiti River to a Beef+LambNZ environmental planning workshop on his property.
Fairfax NZ

STOCK CONTROL: David Smith (second left) explains his reasons for fencing off 2.3km of the north branch of the Waikouaiti River to a Beef+LambNZ environmental planning workshop on his property.

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David and Sarah Smith, who farm steep hill country in East Otago, are enthusiastic advocates of environmental planning, but that has not slowed down an intensive programme of sustainable development on their 1436ha Mt Watkins and Lancewood properties.

The couple are equity partners in the business with David's parents, Rex and Glenys, maintaining strong family connections to both farms on either side of the north branch of the Waikouaiti River.

Earlier this year they won the Donaghy's Farm Stewardship Award, the Meridian Energy Excellence Award and the Alliance Quality Livestock Award in the 2014 Ballance Farm Environment Awards.

Judges commented that the Smiths were "an enthusiastic young couple with a strong desire to succeed and a real focus on sustainable development".

This month the farm hosted two environment planning workshop visits organised by Beef+Lamb NZ.

The couple first entered the Ballance awards four years ago to benchmark their development.

"The feedback has been phenomenal," David Smith says. "That's where the idea for a wetland has come from and it has spurred us on to what we are doing now."

The encouragement they received from judges and other contestants inspired them to develop a 7.6ha wetland, including two ponds of open water covering 1.5ha, excluding stock from two small streams flowing through a very wet area.

"We got a very good grant from the Game Bird Habitat Trust. They paid for half the dam construction costs at the time which was quite significant, otherwise we couldn't have done it."

They applied for a Queen Elizabeth II Trust covenant to protect the wetland, sharing the cost of fencing with the trust. They then captured female freshwater crayfish (koura) from a creek on the farm and transferred them into the ponds, where they are thriving.

Smith says there is no financial gain from retiring the wetland, but it does give his family the personal satisfaction of enhancing the value of the property and the benefit of fencing off waterways.

This winter the focus is on fencing off 2.3km of river boundary along the north branch of the Waikouaiti River between both properties.

Their timing could hardly have been better. This month the Otago Regional Council launched a unique regional water plan which firmly places the onus on landowners to take responsibility for water quality leaving their properties.

While there was no obligation on the Smiths to fence off their river boundaries, their decision to do so has put them well ahead of the game by keeping stock out of the river and making both farms easier to manage.

The Waikouaiti River has a large, fast-draining catchment drawing water from as far away as Macraes Flat. The river floods regularly, frequently knocking out flood gates and allowing stock access to the river.

Initially the decision to fence it off was a management tool to control stock, but when Smith heard the council's water plan was going ahead several years ago, he decided "it was a good place to start".

"We leased the Lancewood property for a start and my first reaction was to fence it off," he says. "We don't want stock in the river anyway."

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He says he thinks the river is in good health, with no didymo. The family swims in it in summer and it has a good population of endangered long-finned eels, trout and other native fish in the tributaries.

The Smiths have received a biodiversity grant from the Dunedin City Council this winter to plant out flax and toetoe along the river frontage while weed spraying is an on-going annual task to control gorse and broom which used to grow down to the water's edge.

Since they purchased the 510ha Lancewood property, the Smiths have pushed a 2.5km all-weather access track from the river to a new set of yards up on the ridge.

The family runs 4000 perendale-texel ewes, 1000 hoggets and between 450 and 500 friesian bulls, which are generally finished in spring as 2 -year-olds but can be sold off the property during dry seasons, giving them plenty of flexibility to drop stock numbers quickly if required.

They have ambitious plans to develop 180ha of unproductive browntop and tussock over the next three years and have just completed the first 57ha block with an aerial programme sowing a swede crop for next winter, followed by rape and grass.

Both farms are too steep to feed out balage, so they rely on swedes in winter and rape, grass and lucerne in summer. A few years ago they established 100ha of lucerne on the dry, northern faces despite advice that it would never grow in East Otago. The ewes are lambed on lucerne and both the lambs and bulls are finished on directly grazed lucerne.

While the programme of intensive development in tandem with environmental sustainability has been a huge undertaking, Smith says it is very much an on-going team effort with Sarah closely involved in the programme.

After they finish fencing off the main river, next on the agenda is to look at ways to keep stock out of the smaller creeks and tributaries on the farm.

- NZ Farmer

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