It was not their original intent, but Central Otago’s Lake Hawea Station is at the sharp end of what some termed contentious innovation. Neal Wallace meets manager David O’Sullivan.
DAVID O’Sullivan admits he needed an open mind as he oversaw the transformation of the Otago high country fine wool property, Lake Hawea Station.
The station manager says a combination of the skills of the staff, input from consultants and the branding and business backgrounds of owners Geoff and Justine Ross, founders of vodka company 42 Below, created a powerful team that is not wedded to a particular farming system.
That diverse thinking reflects the station’s shift to regenerative farming but also a different approach to managing carbon emissions and sequestration.
Marketing and branding opportunities linked to management of the environment, underpin their farming philosophy and policies.
David was raised in Timaru and wife Chanelle in Auckland, but both were keen to swap their urban upbringing for rural careers and spent a number of years studying and working on farms.
Geoff and Justine pursued business careers but have rural ties in the North Island.
Geoff has a farming background and Justine worked in the horticultural industry but sought a return to farming, buying Lake Hawea Station in 2019.
David has worked on the station for the past two and a half years, starting as development general manager.
At the end of September, the family, wife Chanelle, daughter Isabelle, nine, and son Hunter, six, moved to a new role at Glenorchy.
Lake Hawea Station is a 6505ha high country fine wool and beef breeding property that sits on the south-east corner of Lake Hawea and stretching towards the Lindis Pass.
It ranges in altitude from about 440m above sea level (asl) at the lake to 1500m asl at Breast Peak.
David says other than about 500ha of front paddock country, the vast majority of the property is steep hill and mountain country, with pockets of tussock basins about 700m asl, ideal for wintering cattle.
The station runs 4200 Merino ewes, which were clipping an average of 17.3 micron wool when purchased.
Plans are to slightly strengthen their fleece to average 18.5 micron to provide more marketing options.
Ewes are wintered on lower altitude country and after shearing in August and from October they are run on the front face for lambing.
Hoggets are kept on the paddocks.
Because Merinos are late lambers, David says works lambs are kept over winter and sold from October to December.
Over summer the ewes graze higher altitude tussock blocks.
The plan is to increase ewe numbers to around 5000 and as they draw close to that figure they will start introducing a terminal sire to get lambs away before winter.
They also run 200 Angus cows; the decision was made to shift from Herefords due to the marketing opportunity with Angus beef.
The cows spend most of the year on the hill blocks. Calves are weaned in autumn and sold to finishers and breeders.
The property was bought by the Ross family in 2019 and David was employed to oversee a traditional development programme, focused on scrub-covered lake faces between the station and Timaru Creek.
The land was cleared, resown and fenced.
Elsewhere on the station new stockyards were built, a water scheme installed, along with a gravity-fed irrigation system.
David says it was while starting this development that they heard about Tim Rutherford from The Point Station at Tarras who was following regenerative farming practices.
On further inspection they found it involved not using chemicals, synthetic fertiliser and sowing multi-seed mixes, cover and ground cover crops.
David says it made sense.
“The way I see it, it is a farming system using more biology than chemistry and that resonated with the principles of the property,” David said.
He says regenerative agriculture is about improvement.
“It’s about looking at yourself and what policy you are following on-farm. Are they degrading or improving the soil health, animal health, human health or the environment?” he asked.
He says just as importantly, it feels right to not use chemicals and synthetic fertilisers.
They are principles that underpin the property’s brand and values of enhancing biodiversity, maintaining high animal welfare standards, use of renewable energy, protecting endangered species, planting native vegetation and carbon management.
“It’s really about telling our story,” he said.
“We’re trying to make changes and tell the wider public.”
From those values and practices, the plan is to search for opportunities to extract premium product prices and to help like-minded farmers who want to adopt similar practices.
David says transitioning was helped by having the commitment and marketing skills of owners Geoff and Justine, who have successfully developed a number of products.
It was also helped by David’s career, which was built on a thirst for knowledge and which saw him acquire skills from working on sheep and beef farms and studying at Lincoln University.
Prior to working at Lake Hawea Station, he spent two and a half years as a senior manager for Alpine Fresh, a 600ha vegetable, small seed and arable cropping business outside Timaru.
He says it equipped him with skills in cropping, managing staff, project management and engineering, knowledge that would prove vital when the decision was made to investigate regenerative farming systems on Lake Hawea Station.
In 2019 they trialled a 2ha block using up to 20 different seed varieties.
The first crop was too heavily slanted towards brassica, but David says they were impressed with the results, especially the improvement to the topsoil.
“It is the network under the soil where plants, through photosynthesis, feed the bacteria and put carbon back in the soil,” he said.
“It’s how we get around continually adding synthetic fertilisers through mycorrhizal fungi and promoting the soil food web .”
Sufficiently encouraged, they recruited regenerative consultants Jono Frew and Peter Barret of Symbiosis Agriculture, and last year 80ha was direct drilled.
He says a key to success is deciding on the seed mix and then managing it.
“We have adopted a policy of a third, a third and a third – a third eaten, a third trampled and a third left,” he said.
Based on soil type and a paddock’s history, annual species are sown for wintering stock, while a mix of annual and perennial species are sown for permanent pasture.
Issues such as soil compaction are crucial in deciding the seed mix, with deep-rooting plant species needed to break up that compaction.
The timing of planting is crucial so it reaches its ultimate nutritional value at the opportune time, such as for winter.
For Lake Hawea Station that means planning feed reserves so they can finish their prime lambs for sale from late winter.
Management of regenerative crops also needs to fit irrigation rotations and the growth patterns of traditional clover and ryegrass pasture, which still dominates the station’s vegetation cover.
He says one observation from the regenerative crops is that livestock are cleaner after grazing and require minimal crutching before shearing.
Part of the reason is that crops are not grazed too low so sufficient plant area is left to allow the crop to recover.
He finds himself talking and thinking about the number of worms in the soil instead of lamb weights.
While this system has required new skills and constant upskilling, they have made mistakes but it has made farming enjoyable.
“Animals are healthy and the regen paddocks attract a huge amount of birdlife and insects,” he said.
Beekeepers have noticed bees from hives placed in traditional sites are travelling up to 3km, attracted by regenerative crops.
During spring he says these paddocks are humming with the noise of bees pollinating the plants, which he describes as very therapeutic.
“You walk out of there feeling alive,” he said.
This year they have sown a further 80ha of regenerative crops using a seed mix of up to 30 species.
There are few regenerative options given the terrain on the mountains and in the tussock basins.
But they are shifting from using synthetic fertiliser to lime and using different pasture species for oversowing operations.
Another key value for Geoff and Justine is to reduce carbon emissions and so far they have planted 18,000 native trees and shrubs, part of a plan to plant 10,000 a year for 10 years.
About 10,000 of those planted so far are to boost vegetation in a 30m wide strip between the lake and the newly developed area.
One of the early projects was to determine the station’s carbon status by surveying emissions and the volume being sequestered.
Having calculated the amount sequestered by new plantings, forests, regenerating bush and the property’s emissions, independent scientists concluded the property was sequestering 2.5 times more than was being emitted.
A subsequent second survey by carbon emissions management company Toitū Envirocare, confirmed that result.
While government policy limits what vegetation is acknowledged as a carbon sink, David says being recognised as a carbon-zero farm could be applicable to many sheep and beef farms and a valuable international marketing tool.
“It gives us an opportunity to showcase NZ and Lake Hawea Station as a farm that is actually doing its bit to heal the planet,” he said.
“It doesn’t take a lot to do the numbers and if more of us did it and showed we were healing the planet, then it will give us an opportunity to showcase that to the world.”
Consumers want to know the environmental impact from the production of their food and fibre and David says increasing numbers will pay a premium price for food production systems that do not have large environmental footprints.
“At the end of the day this is a business and if we are doing something that attracts premiums while healing the planet, then that is a win-win,” he said.
To earn those premiums also requires transparency.
He says the station has hosted farming groups to show what they are doing and interest in the system is growing.
He sees opportunities for groups of like-minded farmers to adopt regenerative systems or prove they are sequestering more carbon than they are emitting, which can be used to their marketing advantage.
It is a matter of reflecting and meeting consumer demands, which David says are changing.
Done right, he believes both NZ and the planet can benefit.