Thursday, August 18, 2022

Kin a constant in evolving industry

Neal Wallace
Family is what drives this year’s winner of the Silver Fern Farms Plate to Pasture Awards. Neal Wallace meets the Donaldsons from Taumarunui.
Silver Fern Farms Plate to Pasture award winners Jessica McCrostie with Molly, Alan and Cathy Donaldson with Isla McCrostie, and Tom Donaldson, from Taumarunui. Photo: Supplied

When Alan and Cathy Donaldson ran a shearing contracting business in the 1980s, staff were served typical meat dishes from that era: chops for breakfast and sausages or a roast for lunch.

When the judges for the Silver Fern Farms Plate to Pasture Awards visited their Taumarunui farm earlier this year, they were served Cambodian-inspired lamb meatballs on bok choy leaves with lime pepper dipping sauce and cumin lamb rump with a soy and grapefruit dipping sauce.

That culinary transition is an analogy for how red meat production has changed since the Donaldsons bought their first farm in 1990.

Alan Donaldson says back then they were paid $5 for old ewes, their lambing percentage was 86%, and 700 lambs could fit on a truck and trailer unit because they averaged 12.5kg.

Today they sell lambs from November to April at an average weight of 17kg-18kg, and up to 20kg in better years.

The 2022 winners of the Silver Fern Farms Plate to Pasture Awards, the Donaldsons farm 2500ha southwest of Taumarunui on the banks of the Whanganui River, along with son Tom and daughter Jessica McCrostie.

Of that, 2200ha is medium to steep hill country and 300ha easier country.

“It is typical good King Country hill country,” says Alan.

They run 200 stud Angus cows, 320 commercial Angus cows, 9000 Romney ewes and 2000 ewe hoggets.

The awards, which are in their ninth year, assess suppliers for consistently providing stock that meets company specification and presentation requirements.

Cathy and Alan met when Cathy, recently arrived from Auckland, got a job in the shearing gang in which Alan worked.

“My father suggested I get a job as a rousie, but I had no idea what that was,” says Cathy.

Eventually they established their own contracting business, a way to achieve their ultimate goal of buying a farm.

They achieved that in 1990 after selling the shearing run.

Progressing to where they are today required many small steps, but one of the earliest was loyalty to a meat company, something they deemed crucial for the dry or wet years when they needed to quit stock.

They supplied the Waitotara plant, which was bought by Richmond and then by PPCS – later renamed Silver Fern Farms (SFF).

“We followed the buyouts,” says Alan.

That loyalty became even easier as they bought in to SFF’s transition to a consumer-led company built around a long-term vision for the meat industry.

Cathy says that long-term thinking aligned with their own long-term approach to farming.

The Donaldsons accept that farmers have had to change and adapt to satisfy consumer demand.

“Without consumers farming will not survive,” says Alan. “We’re very much focused on understanding and satisfying what consumers want.”

They supply SFF’s Angus prime contracts for that reason.

That resulting international perspective has also introduced them to flavours and cooking techniques that were unthinkable when they were feeding shearers and shed hands.

“We tried to do things differently back then and use the whole carcass, but it wasn’t always that well received,” says Cathy.

Central to their business is targeting a first lamb draft in late November, around which all other management is scheduled –  tupping, lambing, docking and drenching.

Lambing is spread over five weeks to avoid a bottleneck of lambs ready to go to the processors at once.

Their goal is to finish all their lambs but, if the season prevents that, they will sell them to someone who can.

“We would rather not kill lambs at lower weights but let someone else do it,” says Cathy.

When handling stock they do it in manageable mobs so they can be returned to their paddocks in a timely period and avoid having large numbers of animals waiting around the yards.

Native vegetation is being left or fenced off and a recently logged pinus plantation they acquired is being allowed to revert to native vegetation. What doesn’t revert will be replanted into pinus.

Succession has been another business foundation.

The couple have three children and realised early on that two, Tom and Jess, were keen on farming. Their eldest, Sam, is a mechanical engineer in Auckland. Jessica and her husband Callum have two children, Molly and Isla, and Tom and Lou three: Blue, Huckleberry and Jed. Steve has a son, Jack.

Alan and Cathy say they are not ready to retire, so to accommodate their children the farm has been expanded to the point where Tom and Jess each have a block of their own to manage.

Cathy says they have been transparent about their business, including their financial situation, and all three children are included in succession discussions and decisions.

Alan says some years ago their accountant suggested they write down their vision for the future of the farm, then meet and discuss it with their children.

This exercise should be repeated regularly so everyone knows what is happening and any changes in circumstances can be accommodated.

Farming with their children is rewarding and Alan finds them more open to front-footing the sector’s legislative challenges.

“We have always told them to focus on looking forward not on looking back, and with all these regulations, they help keep them in perspective.

“They work out how to work it into the system and it helps to keep them in perspective.”

Looking ahead, the Donaldsons’ property is being mapped so they can become suppliers of zero-carbon beef and lamb once SFF starts marketing it.

“We understand the way these trends are going and what people want from us.”

Melissa Sowden, SFF’s Agribusiness Support manager and judge, described the Donaldsons’ business as a consumer-driven concern that is both economically viable and environmentally conscious.

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