The owners of an award-winning farm in Taranaki have been on an environmental journey that has led to unexpected things.
A Taranaki farming couple whose mission statement is to run a tidy, profitable, efficient dairy farm, with very minimal impact on the environment, are keeping their sights on returning the retired areas of the farm to how it was in pre-European times. It’s a long-term vision, but they are adamant it’s the correct choice.
Damian and Jane Roper operate a 320-hectare (158ha effective) Hurleyville, South Taranaki, dairy farm – 158ha is used for dairying, 100ha is planted in pines and the remainder is retired land. They also lease a 40ha run-off.
Their environmental journey began when they fenced off and began predator trapping a stand of 2.5ha virgin native bush. They never envisioned that it would lead to them creating wetlands, planting 26,000 trees on their dairy farm and to begin learning te reo Māori.
They have built a 500-metre long boardwalk through the stand of 2.5ha virgin native bush behind their house and plan to keep extending it. The bush is a reminder of what the entire area once looked like. And after finding ngaokeoke
(velvet worms), the Roper’s formed a partnership with the Taranaki Regional Council and placed the bush into a Key Native Ecosystem. Eventually it will be placed into QEII.
They run a vigorous pest trapping programme and feel it is one of their responsibilities of being responsible farmers. The efforts are paying off with the arrival of a pair of kākā in that bush and they are now seeing many more, tūī, riroriro, wharauroa, ruru and other native birds.
“It’s also so gratifying to see groups like the Te Kōhanga Reo, Botanical Societies, school groups come through and become enthused and excited about the wētā the trees and the biodiversity they discover,” Jane says.
That small patch of bush has inspired them to increase their environmental work. Last year they planted 4500 rewarewa (Knightia excelsa) and mānuka (Leptospermum scoparium) to add to the 26,000 trees they have already planted on the farm.
“Rewarewa flowers in November and mānuka usually comes on in January. You can combine rewarewa as a succession-type tree alongside mānuka and incorporate bees,” she says.
Damian and Jane Roper have planted more than 26,000 trees on their farm. Damian and Jane
in the nursery with mānuka seedlings they have propagated.
A 100ha pine lock is due to be harvested in the next two to three years and the area will be replanted in indigenous forest plants, with a strong emphasis on rewarewa and mānuka alongside other indigenous species.
Logging contractors have told them that they can replant in pines, but are unlikely to harvest due to the steepness. This tells them that indigenous trees are their best option and are looking to incorporate a community cycleway into the planting.
Their totara and beech plantings should provide an opportunity for a cash crop through selective harvesting.
“The indigenous planting and wetlands have been created on steep, marginal land that is prone to erosion and slips. Especially the papa faces, that shouldn’t have been cleared of native bush in the first place,” Damian says.
Taranaki-based GeoSearch has designed a water management plan regime for Lake Ōhuarai, wetlands and waterways that work alongside their environmental farm plan. Their farm water quality is now getting very close to the quality of pre-European times.
“It’s been great to see Fonterra and other milk processors putting sustainability and the environment at the forefront of their operations. It’s a win-win for our milk exports and our native biodiversity,” he says.
Their environmental work won them the 2019 Fonterra Responsible Dairying Award, which recognises dairy farmers who demonstrate leadership in their approach to sustainability and who are respected by their fellow farmers and community for their attitude and role in sustainable dairying.
Through their journey, they discovered that Māori environmental values were identical to their own – caring for the land and water, and not taking more than you need. They already held those values but they were reinforced through learning te reo Māori.
“Learning te reo Māori has taught us that everything is connected. We’ve always known that, but learning te reo Māori has really brought it home. When you affect environmental elements, like the water, it also affects the fish, eels and the food chain,” he says.
“I was becoming self-conscious because I couldn’t pronounce Māori words correctly. We decided to begin te reo Māori classes so we would be more respectful. Māori values fit well with our farming values and our way of working the land. We enjoy it and have met many people through it,” she says.
Learning te reo inspired them to build their pā tūwatawata when they needed something to protect their greenhouse.
The purpose of the greenhouse is:
Ko te kaupapa o te Pā
Ko te whakatipu rakau Māori
Kia whakatokia ki te pamu
Hei taonga hoki mā te hāpori
E hoki mai ana Te Tawa, te Rimu, te Hīnau me te Māire ki te kāinga tupu.
Translated, this means “…for the propagation and growing of eco-sourced native seeds then planting out on our farm and gifting them to the community. The tawa, the rimu, the hināu and the māire are coming home”.
Local iwi Ngāti Ruanui were approached to seek approval and advice and kaumātua and rangatira visited the site to hear about the project.
“They gave us their blessing and guided us through the entire process. Ngāti Ruanui helped us name the Pā; Ōhuarai Pā I te kohu; Ōhuarai Pā in the mist,” he says.
“We followed Ngāti Ruanui protocol and they coached us along the way. All workers on-site were blessed and throughout the build it had a peaceful and enjoyable atmosphere. The team couldn’t wait to get back on site each day. It took about six weeks to build and was a fantastic experience that brought the community closer together.”
A plastic-clad propagation whare named Rongo-marae-roa, (the house of generosity and hospitality) and a smaller shade whare named Tāne Mahuta (on growing the trees) nestle in the shelter provided by 4000 round fence posts that make up the pā walls. The construction cost was $60,000.
“Some of the local farmers have allowed me onto their farms to collect eco-sourced seed, especially the extremely rare swamp māire. We’ll propagate the seeds and use the resulting trees on our farm and distribute others as gifts to the community,” he says.
The Ropers run a vigorous pest-trapping programme and feel it is one of their responsibilities of being responsible farmers.
Damian checks a predator trap in the 2.5ha protected bush behind the house.
They are also building a mushroom complex at the Pā and plan to grow shiitake, lion’s mane and oyster mushrooms.
The Ropers began their dairying journey via a non-typical route. Damian hails from Rotorua and completed a Bachelor of Agriculture at Massey University.
He had always loved sheep and beef farming. He learnt to shear in Australia and after shearing there for a time he had the opportunity to shear in England and Wales. He then returned to Australia to shear before working in New Zealand.
Jane was born on a beef, sheep and crop farm in Australia. She completed a Diploma in Hospitality and met Damian when she was undertaking practical experience in Rotorua.
“I thoroughly enjoyed shearing, the people you meet and the places you see. It was how we were going to build a farm deposit. However, a shearing accident forced me to change tack,” he says.
The couple decided that if they couldn’t go shearing for their farm deposit, they’d go dairying.
“We started working for wages on a Waverley (South Taranaki) dairy farm. We were fortunate to have a very good boss who took us under his wing and taught us well during our three years there,” she says.
They spent a year contract milking before beginning sharemilking. It was a fast transition and many banks were hesitant due to their short time in the industry. But the banks could see their drive, determination and good savings history.
“When we began I knew nothing about dairy farming and didn’t even know that you milked cows twice-a-day. Damian wasn’t a lot better but we absorbed everything like sponges and went 50:50 sharemilking on the farm next door for four years, where we milked 420 cows,” she says.
“We were then offered a 50:50 job on a neighbouring farm and spent 17 years there milking 820 cows. We were fortunate to bring up our family in Waverley, which allowed our children to complete their schooling.”
In 2006 they bought a 65ha farm at their present location and leased another to milk 300 cows. The farm they now live on came up for sale in 2008.
Peripatus cortens silhouettes along the farm tanker track and the cowshed lit up in the early morning.
“We operated those farms under variable-order sharemilking. We remained in Waverley for a further 12 years to make things pay. We moved to our present farm in 2015 and last year purchased the 150ha block that we’d always leased,” she says.
While working a 50:50 sharemilking job and running their own farm from a distance, the couple also operated a direct-drill (grass seed and crops) farm contracting business. They were very busy, but made it work due to having a good team on board. Their son Jack works on the farm and has now taken over the seed drilling contracting business under Roper Agriculture.
In 2012, they combined the farms and built a new 50-bail rotary shed, which made the two old herringbone sheds redundant. They had considered upgrading the old sheds but decided a new custom-designed centralised shed was the best option.
“Two years of planning went into the new shed. We teamed up with our sharemilkers Bernard and Jodie Walkington and designed the dairy focusing on cow flow, cow comfort, aesthetics, labour efficiency and water efficiency. We wanted to build the shed and feedpad at the same time so they flowed together. Many of the kitset sheds had good and poor aspects and any changes came at a cost,” he says.
They picked the best aspects from the sheds they visited and incorporated them into their design and used a project manager from Waikato Milking Systems who put their ideas together. When they looked at the first draft, apart from a couple of minor tweaks, they thought “I think we’ve got it”.
Their shed was built by contractors who had never previously built a cowshed, but who were the best in their area of expertise. Having a project manager to sort out problems simplified the construction. This was especially important because they were still sharemilking at Waverley and couldn’t always be on-site.
They winter 440 cows and milk 420-425. Last season the herd produced 585kg MS per cow. The target was 580kg MS, but a good autumn helped them achieve more. This gain was achieved at the same feed input as when the herd produced 450kg MS per cow.
The farm is a System 3-4, with 20ha of the milking platform and 5ha of the runoff being used to grow 450 tonnes of maize, 100t of pasture is made into silage and 150 bales of hay made. They also purchased 140 bales.
About 150t of PKE is fed, but they are looking to swap it out. They feed 160-170t of a kibbled maize/DDG-based in-shed performance feed and summer crops of chicory and turnips are used to cope with any dry periods.
“The chicory grows well, but still needs moisture. It does grow in a drought but at a slower rate. That’s when the turnips kick in, which takes the pressure off the chicory. We graze the turnips for a month and by then it’s usually rained and the chicory comes back into play,” he says.
“No-till is the way of the future. And our son Jack is really developing and growing his direct drilling business. We’ve noticed a huge increase in soil microbes, improved soil structure and drainage due to no-till. Our crop yields are similar and often better than conventional tillage. Every five to six years pastures are replaced with the latest variety, helping us to grow 17 tonne DM/ha.”
Through dropping the 110 lower production-worth cows out of their system to attain their present number, they achieved a 28% rise in productivity. Animal health issues have dropped and animal drug use has halved. They can now ride out climatic extremes far better.
During calving the springer mob comes to the feedpad at 6am to be fed a mineral blended feed. Freshly-calved cows are drafted from the pad into the colostrum mob. This has proved to be a safe, time-efficient and stress-free system.
Maize was fed in the paddock. A quadrat sample was undertaken from pasture where the cows had eaten the maize and where Damian couldn’t see any leftovers. They discovered that there was 25% wastage.
“We then sampled a slightly wet area and discovered that the wastage was up to 40%. On the feedpad we only have 2-3% wastage. In the first year of using the feedpad we used 200t of feed instead of the usual 400. And we had more production. That’s a huge cost saving. A feedpad is a must in areas of higher rainfall,” he says.
Calving begins on July 26 and they keep 21% replacements. Jane is in charge of calf rearing. The calves are given colostrum immediately on arrival then fed six litres per day until week four or five. Calves then move onto pasture and milk intake dropped to three litres per day, plus meal, until weaning at 110kg. They are run on the farm until November when two-thirds go to the runoff and the rest (the smaller calves) stay on the farm until March/April.
They do premating heats using tail paint ahead of mating, which begins on October 20. Since the reduction of the stocking rate, no CIDRs or intervention have been needed.
“We keep our mating system very simple. We do 10 weeks of AI. During the first week Jersey semen is used across the entire herd for crossbred replacements. Friesian semen is then used for a further four-and-a-half weeks and short gestation semen from week six to 10,” he says.
Rather than starting up the entire plant, Jane milks the first few early calving cows into a bucket.
One of their aims is to reduce bobby calf numbers. There’s a strong market for Friesian bull calves and they have the ability to on-sell their bull calves, which helps them achieve that goal.
They do not use bulls and their six-week in-calf rate is 70%.
“With an in-calf rate of 87-90%, there is still room for improvement and we have scheduled on-farm meetings every six weeks throughout the year with our nutritionist and vet, which are certainly paying dividends,” he says.
The herd is 66% Friesian and 33% crossbreds (black cow-first cross). They find the first cross to be an efficient cow. Their herd has a BW of 112 and PW of 135 and a 99% reliability. It is a high-producing and low animal health-cost herd.
“The crossbred has hybrid vigour, lower health problems, is easier to get in-calf, has higher fat/protein ratios and still able to achieve 580-600kg of milksolids. It’s the best of both worlds and has worked for us for around 20 years. Pure Friesians are needed to obtain our first-cross replacements,” he says.
They are members of the WelFarm group and feel that this will become evermore important in the future.
“Vets come to the farm to undertake complete cow full-body scores throughout the season and rank us against the other WelFarm farms throughout the country,” she says.
Damian, Jane and fencing contractor Colin Schrader who built the pā.
It provides a guideline as to how our farm performs. It’s pleasing to see that dairy farmers are making good animal husbandry changes, such as antibiotic reduction, less lameness cases, lower SSC.”
They are transparent about the work they are doing on farm and proud to show others what can be achieved.
“Our farm has an open door, we say ‘no’ to no one. Farmers should be proud of what they’re doing and not shy away from having people on their farm,” she says.
“We’re still making strong profits and want to design an intergenerational farm system. We want the waterways clean and the birdlife back on our doorsteps. That’s what’s driving us to leave a meaningful legacy,” he says.
The lake the Ropers created and planted up on their farm with the pā on the hill above.
A keen duck hunter, Damian’s maimai is on the left.
Owners: Damian and Jane Roper
Location: Hurleyville, South Taranaki
Farm size: 320ha (158ha effective), 40ha lease runoff
Cows: 420-425, Friesian and crossbreed
Production: 2020-21: 248,900kg MS
Target: 2021-22: 250,000kg MS