Farming next to some of New Zealand’s most beautiful beaches is a blessing for Brent Lilley and as he told Gerald Piddock, he’s doing all he can to ensure his children will be able to enjoy them in the future as well.
There’s money to be made for Brent Lilley when it comes to finishing beef cattle.
The Coromandel farmer has built a business based around buying young cattle in, feeding them on the pastures grown on the 400ha of land owned between himself and father Bruce, and finishing them to the required target weight.
Around 350ha of that land is farmed, with the rest in forestry, native bush or in riparian plantings.
Brent, along with wife Kara and their two young children, are the third generation of his family to farm this land.
Brent’s portion of the farm is 150ha. He owns half of this, with the balance leased off his parents.
“My father farms 200 effective hectares that I help him on, and I farm 200ha made up of owned and leased land,” Brent said.
The farm’s entire operation is 100% finishing cattle, with nothing sold as store. He buys most of his cattle as 100kg calves or as yearlings and finishes them as two-year-olds at 280-300kg carcass weight.
Brent takes a horses for courses approach when seeking out young cattle.
He does not discriminate against any breed and buying decisions come down to which cattle will give him the best return. He also prefers steers only because of the higher potential carcase weights.
Kara and Brent Lilley are the third generation to farm the land, sharing the work with Brent’s parents Joanne and Bruce.
“I will buy anything. I’ll buy autumn-born weaned calves, I’ll buy yearlings and coming out of winter, I’ll even buy two-year-olds that I’ll only have for two to three months,” he said.
“It’s literally what is the right price on the day.”
He gestures to the Friesian steers grazing on his flats close to his house.
“Those are two-and-a-half-year-olds and they’re on a winter contract for Silver Fern Farms (SFF),” he said.
He buys the cattle through agents throughout the region or local farmers he has built up a relationship with over the years.
He has also occasionally bought cattle off Trade Me when he sees a mob that catches his eye.
The system is very flexible, with pasture availability the primary lever around purchasing decisions. If the grass is not growing, he can sell his cattle but delay when new cattle are brought onto the farm.
“If I’ve got a grass surplus, I can speed that up and buy in replacements before I’ve even sold the finished cattle.”
As a result, stock numbers fluctuate depending on the time of the year and amount of pasture available.
The farm’s location is within spitting distance of several popular Coromandel beaches,
including Cathedral Cove, Hahei, Hot Water Beach and Cooks Beach.
As of early May, the farm has 560 cattle being finished, with his father’s farm running around 400 cattle. His father’s farm is run in a similar way to his and he says it was the main influence in farming this way.
The calves are farmed on the 50ha lease blocks and are then transferred to the hillier paddocks as yearlings before being transferred to the flats for their final six months to hit their target weight.
Those flats are the best pasture production areas on the farm and he uses an informal cell grazing system on this area, where those cattle get break-fed half a hectare a day of pasture, as well as silage, before being shifted onto the next break.
He visually monitors weight gain until the cattle are around eight months away from being finished. Once they go to the flat paddocks, the cattle are weighed monthly.
The efficiency of his operation saw him recognised by SFF when he won its Plate to Pasture award last year.
“We sent cattle to the works in September and every two to three weeks since September through to June,” he said.
“For nine months of the year we’re sending finished cattle to the meat works and they said that was exactly what they are looking for from a supplier.”
That policy has remained in place since he started the system over a decade ago.
The efficiency of Brent Lilley’s operation saw him recognised by Silver Fern Farms when he won its Plate to Pasture award last year.
He also previously finished heifers, but a change in the carcase weight criteria offered by SFF for its reserve grade range meant it was more profitable for him to farm steers because these animals are finished at heavier weights.
Brent developed his own record-keeping system, which allows him to monitor the progress of his cattle.
He exports the Nait details of each animal when they are purchased into an Excel-based system, which records the animal’s origin, type, the sale date and weight, including the price he paid for them.
When the animal is sold, he enters the price SFF paid for it and is therefore able to calculate what his return was.
As time goes on, he will eventually be able to work out what the animals are earning on a per day basis.
One of the farm’s biggest challenges is facial eczema (FE).
He combines zinc with water and adds the mix directly to the animal’s troughs in the paddock from January-May to fight the effects of the toxin, regardless of whether the animals are affected or not. This season alone, he has used half a tonne of zinc.
He drenches the calves every six weeks and then as required once the animals are older.
Brent Lilley is in the process of buying more land off his parents that he is currently leasing, as well as gradually leasing more of his parents farm.
The land is flat to rolling hills, with the steeper areas planted in pines. With the exception of last year’s drought, it is summer safe, getting around 1500mm of rain a year.
The farm is roughly divided into 2ha paddocks.
He does not grow summer crops, but does make around 400 silage bales in spring to help carry the cattle through during autumn and winter, or if it turns really dry in summer.
“I make more than what I need in this area, but that’s how I fatten cattle in the wintertime. It’s your buffer,” he said.
As well as the farm, Brent also has a small contracting business which cuts and bales silage and employs a tractor driver, who also sometimes works part-time on the farm.
Kara works in her family business off-farm, and plays a supporting role in the farm
Brent also has an informal agreement with a local grower who grows 2ha of watermelons on the flats, which are supplied in Waikato and Bay of Plenty stores.
The land is flat to rolling hills, with the steeper areas planted in pines
The farm’s forestry was planted post 1990. They held onto the carbon credits in the hope they could be used to offset the farm’s animal emissions on the presumption that it would eventually be brought into the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).
Now they have the option of selling those credits once the trees are 30 years old in five years’ time, or harvesting them for timber and replanting. For now, they plan to hold onto those credits until there is better signalling from the Government around its intentions with the ETS.
The farm’s location is within spitting distance of several popular Coromandel beaches, including Cathedral Cove, Hahei, Hot Water Beach and Cooks Beach.
It sees the local towns swelling over summer and on weekends when Auckland-based bach owners come to stay. International tourist numbers are low due to covid, but he knows one day, they will return.
Being to an extent in the public eye has made him conscious of making sure the farm looks as good as it can in the eyes of the public.
He also believes that subconsciously it has made him more aware of what consumers want from his product.
While he has been asked multiple times if he can supply meat to local restaurants, the lack of a nearby abattoir makes it logistically impossible.
The family farm and one of his lease blocks is located on the boundary of the Purangi River estuary.
The lease land is owned by a trust and one of the conditions on the lease agreement is granting public access to the land via provided walkways.
“It’s the same thing; you’ve got to be presentable and to be seen to be a good custodian on the land,” he said.
The home farm also has three kilometres of fencing to keep animals out of the estuary. The fenced area is planted up in pines or in riparian and natives to soak up any nutrients from the cattle before it enters that waterway.
“We don’t farm any grass to the estuary anywhere,” he said.
The estuary drains into Cooks Beach and Brent does not want to create a situation where large loads of nutrients are entering that area.
“Cooks Beach is a really popular swimming spot and I don’t want animals near the water there,” he said.
“Our kids all swim in the Purangi River and it’s got to be swimmable.”
The environmental work is ongoing and Brent has several drains and waterways that he has targeted to be fenced and planted over the coming years.
Bruce still farms 200 effective hectares and employs Brent to help him farm about half of that land.
He is in the process of buying more land off his parents that he is currently leasing, as well as gradually leasing more of his parents farm.
He shares some resources with his father’s farm, such as cattle yards and water supply, and sees it so far as being a smooth transition.
Family businesses are both the greatest things ever – and also a potential nightmare if workable solutions to succession are not found. That solution is unique for every farm and the Lilleys’ plan reflects that.
“You have to negotiate how it works for you,” he said.