Thursday, November 30, 2023

One thing leads to another

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A Northland farming couple have completed their pathway of progression but still have plenty to do. Samantha Tennent reports.
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A farm journey for a Northland couple has been full of ups and downs but one event in particular led them to push themselves to not just move but to forge ahead and buy their own farm.

Don and Kirsten Watson farm on the picturesque Kaipara Harbour milking 260 cows on 112 hectares. They bought the farm in 2017 after spending a month snowbound and without power on their Central Plateau farm at Rangitaiki on the Napier-Taupo highway.

It has been a varied and at times challenging and scary journey but say they wouldn’t change a thing.

“Each thing we’ve done has led us to the next opportunity,” Kirsten says.

“We wouldn’t be where we are now if we hadn’t learnt along the way. Some of our best decisions have come from our most challenging times.”

Kirsten says that weather event at Rangitaiki was the catalyst for taking the step to farm ownership.

“It really pushed us to sell the cows and buy the farm.

“We will always be grateful for the support from the Rangitaiki and Central Plateau community during that difficult and testing time.”

They funded their purchase from the sale of 700 of the 1050 animals they owned as sharemilkers at Rangitaiki.

“We kept 20 of the very best cows, 100 top rising two year olds and 20 of the top calves. The rest were sold and we kept the rejected animals and the old or unsound cows we didn’t put up for sale,” Don says.

“We knew the initial herd would be a balance between our very top animals and budget cows. It would give us the genetics to provide quality replacements and the future engine room of the herd.” 

Their herd is 122BW and 176PW with a significant proportion of budget cows still to be replaced.

“We have pushed to rear a high replacement rate, 60%, to come into the herd in the next 18 months to fast-track our goal of having a highly productive, efficient herd in within three years,” he says.

Maize being harvested on the Watson farm.

“It was a small example of how we are trying to balance supply and demand of feed without a lot of cost, half a kilo of turnip seed per hectare added approximately two tonnes of DM in the first grazing. December was a fantastic month for us being 60% ahead of the previous season’s December.”

The five poorest performing paddocks were identified and sprayed out last autumn with an Italian ryegrass and clover mix planted.

In the next five years the Watsons plan to renovate pastures across the farm, resulting in a mix of paddocks in ryegrass and clovers and fescue and clovers along with a proportion remaining in kikuyu/Italian rye.

“The different grass types have their own strengths and weaknesses. Our goal is to have something growing well at all times of the year, for an average season,” he says.

There is no irrigation on the farm and the kikuyu still grew well through the dry summer months and provided protection of the new grass from overgrazing.

The paddocks are being developed through the summer cropping and Italian rye programme following into permanent pastures, when the paddock is seen as ready.

They are involved with Tiller Talk through DairyNZ, which is helping develop their pasture management skills further.  

“We are lucky to work with an agronomist and have a group of farmers to discuss pasture management with four times throughout the year with the focus of the group around pasture growth and quality and ultimately pasture harvest,” Don says.

They have also been looking at becoming involved with Extension 350, which facilitates farmer-to-farmer learning in Northland. They like to benchmark their business and monitor progress and believe becoming involved with Extension 350 fits with their values.

They do 11 weeks of mating for both the spring and autumn herds with only four weeks of AI. Both herds have a 69% six-week in-calf rate and empty rates of 12-13%.

The herd has a high breeding worth and is crossbred leaning towards Jersey. Their aim is to breed towards a J12 animal so they use a lot of Jersey semen during AI.

This season they put Angus bulls over the herd to provide beef cross calves for grazing their runoff.

There is a gap in the herd because they kept only 20 calves when they sold the sharemilking herd and do not have any heifers as replacements for their autumn herd. They are considering buying some animals to fill the gap until this season’s calves come into the herd.

There have a no bobby calf policy and instead rear everything or foster them with budget cows.  

 “We keep all our young stock and dry cows on the support block. They can walk across the road. It’s very handy,” Kirsten says.

Away from the farm they are kept busy with a number of things including the Dairy Industry Awards. Following their win they became involved with the local competition committee.  Progression led Kirsten to the regional manager’s role for 12 months and for the past two and a half years she has sat on the national executive but is stepping down this year.

“I love the Awards but national level involves a bit of time off farm. It has become hard juggling the family and business on a new farm as well as in a new district where we want to be involved in our community.”

Kirsten is involved with the children and their rugby, she is on the school board of trustees and feels a bit over-committed.  

“The boys are typical, kiwi rural children. They are rugby mad, love the farm and love hunting and fishing so they keep us busy,” she says.

They believe their speedy progress to farm ownership is due to their strengths of shared vision, values and goals and their willingness to use resources to learn and grow their skills and knowledge.

“We aren’t afraid to innovate, to try new things and to step outside the square,” Kirsten says.

“We have learnt to budget, record, monitor, analyse, benchmark and review. We ask for help and support if required and surround ourselves with fantastic people.”

They believe people are moulded by their experiences and having the right attitude is something they value in themselves.

“We have been very fortunate to have been able to align with people who have helped us through our faming journey,” she said.

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