Friday, December 8, 2023

It’s all about the bloodline

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Central Hawke’s Bay farmers Harry and Kate de Lautour are dedicated to bloodline but it isn’t just about their ancestry. Luke Chivers reports.
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From  the crack of dawn to the close of day sheep and beef farmer Harry de Lautour is set on challenging his animals for the betterment of their health.

The 31-year-old from Flemington has a long-standing connection with the primary sector, sheep genetics and performance recording.  

Growing up in rural New Zealand instilled that passion.

“I grew up on a sheep and beef farm in Hawke’s Bay and absolutely loved it,” he says.

“Being out there on the land and working with animals – there’s nothing else quite like it.”

At 11 Harry left the family farm for boarding school and in 2006 moved to Canterbury to study for an agriculture and farm management diploma at Lincoln University.

“My involvement in the industry never really stopped. I worked on sheep and beef farms right throughout my studies.”

But not long after graduating Harry packed his bags and set off on a world trip for nearly five years.

“Initially, I played rugby in Russia and then headed to the United Kingdom to work on English farming estates.

“I wrapped up my time abroad with a year-long stint working on super-yachts around Europe.”

It was during that time Harry started dating Kate – a colleague and old friend of Harry’s at the time – who is now his fiance.

Both wanted to work in the primary sector so returning home permanently was always on the cards.

“I always thought that I’d end up farming,” Harry says.

“And I’d always hoped I’d end up working on the family farm and I’ve been lucky enough to do that.

“We’re the third generation of de Lautours to farm in Flemington,” he says. 

Te Whangai is a 1500ha (1200ha effective) property Harry de Lautour describes as medium-to-steep coastal country that is typically summer dry.

Online tools, like Cloud Farmer, provide insights for the de Lautours.

“As long as the technology actually works when you need it to,” Harry says, laughing. 

“It saves me a lot of time and hassle having all our records on hand. It means fewer hours in the office and more time on the farm.

Since returning to Te Whangai in 2013 Harry has also electronically identified every age group to build reproduction records.

“We’re starting to reap the rewards now, keeping on top of bad feet, bad dags or poor composition.

“We’ve certainly had to adjust our farming operation or else risk being left behind.”

Harry is no stranger to on-farm research and development.

He is a member of the Wairarapa Romney Improvement Group, which seeks to breed the most profitable sheep for commercial farmers.

It provides nine individual breeder members with the opportunity learn and share information, taking advantage of genetic trends and new technology.

“We sort of trade and swap genetics between us members. 

“We’re competitors but we’re working together to use the best of each other’s genes to try to create the perfect sheep.”

And rightly so, because in recent years Harry has had concerns about the sector – particularly its uncertainty. 

“Stock prices are looking pretty good this year but you wouldn’t say it’s that stable, nobody knows where it’s going to go.

“We barely covered the costs of our shearing this year as the payout for wool is terrible at the moment. Exchange rates play a big part in that but I think NZ could be better at marketing its products.

Beef + Lamb NZ is pushing the GMO-free, antibiotic-free and grass-fed message in the United States and I think we’re seeing a good response to that but it’s a small portion of the global market. 

“As soon as a major player like China drops out then we’ll be in deep water.”

Staffing issues are also among the challenges.

“There used to be a lot of people keen to give farming a go but you can see the number declining.

“It’s something I frequently hear from other farmers too. They don’t think the industry is keeping up with the training. 

“If the likes of Taratahi, for instance, isn’t replaced with something then I’d say it will be a pretty big problem.

“The onus is going to fall on us as farmers to be providing that training. Kate and I try to have a young shepherd on our farm at any one time but the reality is there’s only so many people one farmer can train.”

Harry says higher incomes and better working conditions could help to draw more people to the primary sector. 

“It needs a whole of industry approach to change – it’s easy for us farmers to say the Government just needs to step in but I think we all need to do our part.”

In recent years the de Lautours have been trying to change their own working environment to be more relaxed, allowing staff to have more time off and not work such long hours.

“The thing is, though, something’s got to give as the work does have to get done. 

“But I think we’re noticing that with less hours being worked, to a degree, with more rest, we’re seeing more productive work being done.

“It’s all creating a working atmosphere where everyone’s happy, getting along and keen to have a beer with each other after work. That sort of thing.”

Looking ahead Harry and Kate say their next steps are to grow their business even more and future-proof it for their family.

“We’re here to make a future for ourselves while carrying on the business.

“We don’t want to let the previous generations down by letting this place go or anything like that.

“We want to keep this farm in our bloodline.”

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