Masterton farmers proud to showcase environment
It has been a wet year for an environment award-winning Wairarapa farm. Kate Taylor visited to see what makes them stand out from the crowd.
Located both sides of a busy rural road means Nathan and Kate Williams' crops, sheep and beef farm is a showcase for the agriculture sector.
After winning the Greater Wellington Ballance Farm Environment Awards earlier this year, Nathan and Kate Williams are confident they're doing the right things and are proud of their efforts.
The couple own 237ha on the western side of the Masterton-Castlepoint road, about 4km from the outskirts of Masterton, and lease 100ha from Nathan's parents on the eastern side of the road.
The road itself has been the cause of headaches in the past, so $86,000 was spent on an underpass between the two blocks in November-December 2014.
"The council contributed about a quarter of that because of the volume of traffic on the road. It has transformed how we run stock across there," Nathan says.
"We don't want to be responsible for anything going wrong on the road," Kate adds.
"Moving stock between the blocks was always such an issue with someone on either side of the crossing as well as someone moving the stock. The underpass has just taken that worry away. It has also proved a great thing with the kids going to and from their grandparents' house on the other block as well."
That summer was a busy one for the farm. The dirt from the underpass was used as a base for two new silos, which was built the week after that Christmas.
"Within a day of finishing each silo they were in use. It was an early harvest that season," Nathan says.
Most years the farm's income is shared evenly between crops and livestock. They are flexible about what they grow and base their decisions on the market, contracts available and the weather.
Core crops in recent years have been ryegrass and red clover for seed and barley. They're going into a second year without peas in their crop rotation.
The pest insect pea weevil was found on several Wairarapa commercial pea-growing and storage properties last winter. The Ministry for Primary Industries banned commercial and domestic pea growing in the Wairarapa district south of Pahiatua for two years.
"We have 200ha of crop of which 15 to 16 per cent is normally peas. We'll see what the pea traps bring in this year. We had one of the 13 traps in Wairarapa last year and there are 20 this year. They caught a lot last year but hopefully that won't be the case this time."
They filled the gap left by the pea ban with more barley and by putting more pasture into silage. They also lease 60ha at Taratahi that is used for ryegrass seed, barley and grazing.
About 35ha is cut for silage each year and turnips are an autumn feed crop for lambs.
Between 3000 and 6000 lambs are bought and finished from autumn until spring.
"They go to Ovation throughout the winter. We're aiming for 20-22kg carcassweight, but really we have to finish them on condition as some need more finishing than others.
"Through late winter to late spring we also graze replacement ewe hoggets for six local hill country farmers, who want them as big as possible when they go home."
Cattle are bought as weaners and finished before their second winter, killing out at 238-295kg carcassweight.
"We only bought 160 this year because it has been so wet."
Climate-wise, this year has been difficult for the Williamses and wider Wairarapa.
"The autumn was so horrific a lot of the grass just didn't fire after the crops, which delayed everything and we didn't bring in as many finishing lambs. Our annual rainfall is 900mm and if we're not at that already then we're really close and it's only the end of September.
"Our average rainfall has been variable for the past decade or so. Last year it was only 700-and-something millimetres. Having the mix of sheep, beef and arable is good but it's a matter of constantly juggling the ball to make the most of it."
Nathan's hoping things will start to improve soon.
"From a cropping perspective, we're normally later, so we're not concerned, yet. We'd like to be drying out now so we can get ahead through October. It's not unusual to be planting in late November but it's not ideal."
Environmental work has been ongoing on the farm around usual farming activities. Dozens of mature macrocarpa, gums and some old man pine have been removed from the banks of the Whangaehu Stream, which forms the farm's eastern boundary.
"We did the fencing and planting but the council helped us to clear the trees. The old willows were choking the river and other trees were detrimental to its health. The trees that were there were damaging the stream. Some of them were so old we lost track of the rings. The new planting hasn't been done to stop nutrient run-off but to beautify the stream and renew the fences at the same time."
The planting is three-generational with Nathan's parents, Jim and Jill, working alongside Nathan and Kate's children – Toby, 12, Sophie, 7, Hugo, 8, and Monty, 3.
"They want to be part of everything. Toby would give up school and go farming now if he could. He is so passionate about farming. He lives and breathes it. He's out there moving stock with his bike every chance he gets," Kate says.
Jim and Jill bought the farm in 1968. Nathan came back to the farm in 1998 after finishing Lincoln and his OE and farmed in partnership with his parents and brother until 2009 when the brothers started farming as separate entities. His brother Mick and his wife Karen farm Ahiaruhe, east of Carterton, which the partnership bought in 1999, while Nathan and Kate, a Victoria University graduate and former banker, took over Otahuao. There is also a sister Jane and an older brother Richard – neither are farming.
Succession has always been at the back of Nathan's mind.
"We finished one generation of succession in 2009 and we're trying to make the most of that situation so we can offer the same opportunities to the next generation. We want to get ourselves in a position to take opportunities that come up with succession in mind. It looks like we will have several keen farmers in the mix."
In 2014, experienced stockman Phil Clout joined the Otahuao team.
"He has worked more with livestock but we have no set roles on the farm, we just get jobs done," says Nathan.
"He's more than just an employee. He's even been known to take the kids to rugby practice," Kate says, laughing.
One thing they have been able to share with Clout is their interest in the concept of no-tillage. There has been no cultivation on Otahuao for 20 years. The farm was a site for a Baker Cross Slot drill trial and they bought their first Cross Slot drill in 1998.
"It has given us the ability to crop the area we crop without destroying the soil structure while continually improving the pasture. It's all about the soil. We have lots of trees and love planting, but the no-tillage has been massive.
"We're not brainwashed by Cross Slot or anything, but we believe we get the best results all the time for our conditions. Putting arable crops into pasture each spring is not always that easy but no-tillage has given the soil increased resilience, allows more frequent and hence more productive cropping cycles without damaging the soil structure and reduces the risk of flooding damage."
The farm's flats are susceptible to flooding in spring so retaining top soil when that happens is vital.
The Williams have had a long-standing partnership with a neighbouring family, Peter and Sharon McKenzie, in the ownership of their combine harvester. Last season they upgraded to a Claas Lexion harvester with tracks instead of wheels to minimise soil compaction, which ended up being useful for the wet harvest conditions.
Some of these aspects of the Williams' farming operation led to them winning this year's Greater Wellington Ballance Farm Environment Awards. Entries are open for next year's awards.
Kate says being in the public eye was totally out of their comfort zone but they knew they had a positive story to tell.
"We're proud of the way we're looking after this farm. You can see the trees and how aesthetically pleasing the place is but the health and strength of the soil is what gives us our kick. We can't show it off enough to people."
They followed in the footsteps of Nathan's brother Mick and his wife Karen who won the Greater Wellington title in 2013 with their 224ha arable, lamb finishing and beef unit, Ahiaruhe Farm.
Both couples won the Hill Laboratories Harvest Award and the Ballance Agri-Nutrients Soil Management Award. Nathan and Kate also won the CB Norwood Agri-Business Management Award.
Nathan says their relationships with other people are important to them and their business.
"We value the industry professionals we deal with. We are loyal and we value that in others, whether that is family, stock agents, suppliers, dairy farmers who buy feed from us, Ovation or Silver Fern Farms. Loyalty is an ingrained value for both of us. It's part of our ethos."
"Look after people and people will look after you," Kate adds.