After almost 25 years in dairying Ian Hopkins and Shelley Dew-Hopkins have decided to venture into the hills to become sheep farmers.
Not for them the prudent course of carefully feeling their way into a new project. From the start they have aspired to farm at a high level and are embracing the intricacies of FarmIQ, the $151 million Primary Growth Partnership plan that aims to lift the profits of all in the meat supply chain by improving the quality of meat to the grocery shopper.
It means learning new skills, particularly around breeding desirable traits in sheep, and also mastering some basics not encountered in dairying. Like working a sheep dog.
"The first day, I whistled like crazy and the dog just stood there looking at me, as if to say 'What are you going on about?'," Ian says. "I learnt I needed four whistles, all pitched differently, for the four basic commands, run out, right, left and stand, and it took months to get them right."
But dairying also has many skills that are transferable to sheep farming. Such as close monitoring of pasture growth and stockmanship - the ability to judge an animal's condition.
Bringing a fresh eye to sheep farming can also produce some out-of-the-square thinking. Ian, who has a computer science honours degree, has the idea to short-cut work taking sheep in and out of yards to identify them by scanning their eartags, by putting a scanner on the gate to a paddock.
And their dairying experience means they are not wedded to tradition - cutting a crop of baleage is done when an analysis of grass condition tells them the time is right, not when the district's time-honoured harvest date rolls around.
Ask the couple why they have made the move to the Rangiwahia hills in northern Manawatu and they have no simple answer. Part of the reason is that they want to provide for their three sons, aged 16 to 23, who all want to be farmers and who show an inclination for sheep and beef over dairy. And sheep farms are certainly more affordable than dairy farms.
They also believe firmly that red meat has a rosy future, particularly if processors and exporters can resolve problems within the industry and focus on processing a diminishing number of lambs into high-value products wanted by the customer. They are fans of the co-operative Silver Fern Farms and believe in locking in seasonal supply contracts to bring some certainty to their balance sheet.
If they have any qualms about the move to new pastures they are keeping them to themselves. "Life is about learning and it's life-long learning," Shelley says.
She is someone who obviously needs constant challenge in her life. A townie from Palmerston North, she trained as a nurse specialising in neurosurgery and orthopaedics and worked in a Melbourne hospital trauma unit before returning to New Zealand to study nursing and education at Massey University.
She met Ian while at Massey and her life in farming began. She sums up the next two decades in a quickfire sentence: "I was a nursing tutor at Ucol in Palmerston North for 17 years, milked the cows every morning and night, had children and completed a masters degree in business studies." She pauses. "And I got tied up with the Feds."
She was invited along to a Federated Farmers branch meeting by a friend. "Suddenly, I'm the vice-president."
The next year she was president. "I thought, 'Right, I'm going to get into this.' I had a plan to increase the Manawatu-Rangitikei membership from 750 to 1000 within three years."
Believing that such a grassroots organisation should have a high public profile, she became a prominent local spokesperson on rural issues, wrote a lively regular newsletter, fired up the branch committee and kept close contact with local MPs and mayors.
In the middle of this came the devastating 2004 storms and she was thrust into a leading role in helping rural communities cope with the aftermath. For four weeks she worked 18-hour days with a team of helpers to field calls and direct aid to stricken farmers and then eased off to 12-hour days for a further three weeks without a day off.
Hundreds of farmers and rural service workers answered her call for help and someone had to take the lead. "That was me. Sometimes people would want to debate with me but I would say, ‘Just do it'. I probably became a bit of a Tarter." She laughs at the memory.
It took 18 months before the help put in place was no longer needed. It was years before she got over it. "I'd hear rain on the roof in the night and would have to get up and pace around, anxiously looking out the window."
Ian returned to the family farming business in 1983 after graduation for a break before looking for work as a systems programmer. "Dad put me on a new Strautmann - a silage maker that picks up, chops, loads and unloads - and I stayed 10 years."
Then he and Shelley leased a 200-cow farm for seven years before taking an equity partnership in a dairy farm at Opiki for six years, along with a dairy grazing farm in Rangitikei's Kawhatau Valley.
In 2005, they moved to Waverley in South Taranaki to their own 400-cow dairy farm which they ran in combination with a dry stock lease in the hills. They ran dairy grazers, grew maize under contract, farmed a 350-hind deer herd and finished lambs for Silver Fern Farms.
When the lease farm sold in 2011 they decided to sell the dairy farm and make the leap to a sheep and beef farm.
They came to Mairedale, 475 hectares of hill country at Rangiwahia, in April last year and in March this year joined FarmIQ's Plate to Pasture programme.
The seven-year programme focuses on five projects - market, database, genetics, processing and farm productivity - to add value to the supply chain.
The potential for gains begins before livestock are born, by having the right genetics matched with the right on-farm systems, then captures information through electronic identification and X-ray scans to show farmers how they can keep improving. Finally and critically, it involves matching products to markets.
Theirs is one of 10 farms throughout New Zealand selected to showcase FarmIQ's systems.
For the couple it has meant gathering data on their farm's capabilities and finding the stock to match it.
A Massey student, Kaitlyn Corpe, has been hired to walk the farm at two-week intervals, measuring the pastures on the hills with a sward stick and the flats with a plate meter. The information goes into the Farmax pasture management program.
It's early days but a picture is building. This year's drought has taken six months off what was scheduled to be a two-year plan to bring pastures up to lamb-finishing standard, Ian says.
"The farm was understocked when we took it over but we've managed to get paddocks under fairly good control"
They have dug 22 dams and are gradually building up stock numbers. They are waiting for 2400 ewes to lamb this season, including 600 stud romney ewes from a sharefarming arrangement with Terry and Lesley Clare's Stormy Point stud.
They also have 300 hogget replacements and 60 prime heifers. They expect to bring back dairy grazers to the hills and as pastures improve will add more ewes and look at taking on trade lambs.
Overseeing all this is a formal company structure. The couple have formed Kohi Lands Ltd to own Mairedale with equity partner Gavin Forrest. Massey University governance and strategy specialist James Lockhart is independent chairman.
All board members are also on the farm's FarmIQ steering group, with Massey precision agriculture specialist Ian Yule, retired AgResearch scientist Greg Lambert, farm consultant Gary Massicks and FarmIQ's local business manager Todd White.
They have drawn up a 20-page business plan setting out their goals and spelling out in detail how to achieve them.
"We prefer a formalised structure," Shelley says. "It gives you discipline. We run the farm for Kohi Lands and we have to report regularly to the board."
It is also set up to allow their sons to join as shareholders. But Ian and Shelley are adamant they will have to prove themselves worthy of it. "They've got to be hungry for it. If not, they won't get the opportunity." Sons Tierney, 23, Lachlan, 20, and Conor, 16, are either away or intending to gain experience elsewhere over the next few years.
Shelley is still active off the farm, as chairwoman of the regional Ballance Farm Environment Awards committee, a member of the Horizons Sustainable Land Use Initiative Committee and as a candidate in the Horizons Regional Council elections.
Ian's computer science training has not been lost. As a member of FarmIQ's development group he meets with systems programmers to help them put into practice the farmer group's ideas.
"My studies taught me to do things in a methodical and systematic way and that's how I approach farming problems," he says.
The farm still has to be aligned properly to FarmIQ, he says.
"We're trying to grow not only our own business but also to do something for the industry's good. We think FarmIQ is a good way to achieve that."
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