Friday, December 8, 2023

Consistent performer helps others

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The Cookson family are at the true heart of Northland’s beef finishing industry beside State Highway 1 at Kawakawa and consistently producing carcaseweight yield and financial results well above the provincial average. Their pursuit of knowledge from hosting trials and research projects energises the Cooksons and draws hundreds of farmers to their field days. Hugh Stringleman went along.
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Former New Zealand Spearfishing champion and international representative Geff Cookson has an impressive record in the water and on the land.

He has hit target after target and inspired many fishers and farmers over a lifetime of sports activities and on the Kawakawa hill country home farm he took over from his father in 1970.

Now more than doubled in size to 730ha (485ha effective) the family business is bull beef finishing and forestry with four Cooksons involved.

Geff’s wife Dinah is the record keeper and two of their children, Kaleb and Emarn, are working alongside recently hired farm employee Axel Goodhue.

It is now hard to remember when the Cookson farm was not in the public eye because the list of community involvements is long.

It has been a Meat and Wool NZ focus farm, hosted the Clover 300 trials, pugging trials and Kikuyu Action Group trials, featured in the AgResearch Making Good Production Better project, hosted a major field day for the Grassland Conference 2009, participated in the Totara Working Group, the Finished by 20 Months project and is among the Northland Diversified Forages hosts.

The business runs on two blocks about 2km apart, both on the hard hills a little to the east of the town along Ruapekapeka Road, which leads to the historic pa and 1846 battle site.

The pasture area is 50ha of flat-easy contour, 320ha rolling to medium hill and 155ha steep hill.

They have 70ha of pines and the rest of the property is native trees, mostly fenced off to prevent erosion and protect natural waterways.

Slips and gullies have also been planted with poplars and willows that provide shelter for livestock as well as holding the soil.

The property is managed with the help of a soil conservation plan.

Class 7e, steep, erodible greywacke hill country has been retired and encouraged to regenerate to native bush.

Apart from 90ha of semi-volcanic soils, the rest is podzolised silt loams or heavy clay hills.

Topsoil and clay depths can be very shallow on the bony hilltops but those drier summits can run cattle in prolonged wet periods.

The fertiliser programme is mixtures of reactive phosphate rocks (RPR) with potash and sulphur and some potassium, copper, cobalt and selenium when indicated by herbage tests.



The soil pH average is 5.9, the Olsen P 28 and the potassium test is 6.

The anion storage capacity results were low in five of the 11 farm zones where soil tests were done, according to Neil Walker of Ballance, indicating podzolised soils with low retention of nutrients.

Phosphate is applied annually as a mixture of RPR for slow release and Super10 for faster release of phosphorus and all blocks have been maintained in the target zone of 20 to 30 Olsen P.

Almost all 485ha of pasture has been fenced into grazing cells, either permanently or with moveable hot wires, enabling small mobs of 25 to 35 bulls to be stocked at 700-750kg/ha liveweight in the winter (10-11 su/ha).

The mobs are rotated through 1ha cells over 60 days in the winter and 40 or 30 days for the rest of the year.

When dry, the mobs might stay two or three days in a cell but more regular shifts are required in the winter, providing a constant work demand for moving up to 30 mobs a day.

“It does require more labour shifting mobs every day and putting up temporary tapes every winter but it lasts for only three to four months and the benefits are worthwhile,” Geff said.

Efficient, long-rotation cell grazing ensures the nutrients are spread evenly by the stock across all classes of land rather than being concentrated at stock camps on ridges or not spread at all on steeper faces.

Total bull numbers were about 1030 on June 30, a third R1 and two-thirds R2. The R1s count as four stock units and the R2s 4.7su. Therefore, total stocking is about 4500su.

Wetter winters have prompted a move away from high stocking rates and the risk of pugging damage to soil profiles.

Soil condition has improved over the years through using efficient grazing systems though rat’s tail weed re-infestation is a problem right now.

Strong clover growth over the whole property is evidence of the attempts to avoid pugging damage.

Farm consultant Gavin Ussher, of Kaitaia, guides Northland farmers through his clover trials on the Cookson farms.

Annual clovers will also provide 130-140kg/ha of nitrogen fixation worth about $175/ha and that will be plant-available more slowly and steadily than contributions from bagged nitrogen.

Oversowing annual clover into unsprayed but mulched kikuyu-dominant pasture failed because of the presence of kikuyu trash, competition from grass early on and the presence of soil-borne pathogens.

This year power harrows were used more successfully to get good clover establishment and Geff Cookson asked for higher sowing rates of perennial ryegrasses to provide more persistence in coming years.

Ussher has also established plots of clover monocultures and obtained high spring growth rates between 80 and 100kg/ha/day DM.

He said it is important to get good germination to ensure high establishment rates and have the clover plants available to fuel rapid pasture growth in spring and early summer.

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