Thursday, December 7, 2023

Seeking sustainability at scale

Neal Wallace
Ross and Jo Hay are typical of thousands of young farming couples who work hard and continually search for a chance to grow and get ahead. Neal Wallace met the North Otago couple to find out how they are establishing their careers. 
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Ross and Jo Hay are not oblivious to the uncertainty associated with the clouds of rules looming on the farming horizon but they have decided to take a glass half full approach.

Fuelled with enthusiasm and determination to pursue a farming career the Hays are confident there will be opportunity among the plethora of Government rules bearing down on the sector.

“People got through the 1980s,” Ross says.

Jo acknowledges challenges are coming but she is equally optimistic in her outlook.

“It’s all about how you respond. Is it a noose around your neck or a golden goose? We don’t know,” she says. 

Ross and Jo, both 40, own the 274ha farm Springbank and lease 90ha at Herbert, 22km south of Oamaru, and are 18 months in to a 10-year lease on a 410ha block another 20km south at the historic coastal fishing village of Moeraki.

The Herbert property was farmed for about 40 years by Ross’ parents Alan and Anne before Ross and Jo took it over in 2006.

Their fundamental aim is detailed in their vision statement: To farm a sustainable, fully integrated, high-performing sheep and beef breeding and finishing operation using best practice to achieve consistent profits with environmental soundness.

A key part of that goal was to increase cashflow, equity and farm profits to enable their business to grow and to employ a farm worker. A year ago Anna Sutton joined them.

Their goal also drove their decision to take on the Moeraki lease and to install 81ha of irrigation at Springbank, lessening their exposure to drought and providing production certainty.

The increased income and improved cashflow is part of a longer-term goal of buying a larger farm.

They are concerned about the potential impacts of legislation such as the Zero Carbon Bill and the freshwater reforms on their business and rural communities. 

“The Climate Change Bill as set out now will damage farming, the rural economy and communities,” Ross says.

But they take a broader view that society needs food producers.

“It won’t wipe out farming because we are food producers and people have to eat.”

Pending controls on wintering stock are also a concern, especially adult cattle, which the Hays need to control pasture. They fear it could be challenging meeting new pugging rules.

They grow 22ha of fodder beet and 12ha of swedes to carry their stock through winter.

To get ahead they need to increase their scale and broaden and strengthen their business.

“We knew scale is something we needed and Ross’s passion is breeding ewes and development and the additional lease gives us the breeding unit,” Jo says.

They learned early on the risks of being tied to one income when sheep prices collapsed.

“You can’t have all your eggs in one basket. You need flexibility,” Ross says.

Both are from North Otago farming families.

On leaving school Ross worked on farms and went shearing for seven years, saving enough money to buy and lease pockets of land next to Springbank, which were merged into the home property when he took it over.

Jo’s family farmed at Ardgowan for 148 years until the farm was recently sold.

Ross and Jo met while she worked in woolsheds while training as a teacher.

They married and Jo continued teaching but as the demands of the farm increased and family came along she devoted herself to helping with the farm and contributing to the community.

“I am happy to be in gumboots.”

That includes rearing bull calves and lambs.

Springbank is a rolling, dryland property susceptible to drought so when in 2017 the chance came to get water from the second stage of the North Otago Irrigation Company scheme they opted to buy shares. They later installed a centre pivot and K-Line system to water 81ha.

Their water is from the Waitaki River and pumped to a head pond from which it is gravity fed to 200 offtakes in the Waiareka and Kakanui Valleys through a network of 200km of branch lines and 12 booster stations.

The initial scheme was opened in 2006 and supplied 31,500ha. The 2017 expansion potentially supplies irrigation water to another 25,000ha.

Ross says the first stage of the scheme was driven by dairy conversions but the heat had gone out of the dairy sector by the time the second stage was launched.

As well as providing drystock farmers with irrigation the scheme has enabled farmers who have traditionally taken water from the Kakanui River to shift to the irrigation company.

Springbank is one of the last farms on the scheme, about 50km from the head pond, but the water gives them certainty and means they are not at the mercy of the weather or being forced sellers of store or capital stock as they were previously, Jo says.

“You know you are going to have grass to finish stock.”

They can also make supplementary feed for use on both properties.

The chance to buy water shares came at the end of a two-year dry spell during when stock they would normally sell prime were offloaded in store condition.

“What it cost me during the drought is basically what I paid for irrigation,” Ross said.

Instead of selling store or prime lambs at lower weights they are now selling them when the market and stock condition suit them.

While 81ha will not insulate the farm from the full effects of a prolonged drought it gives them some reassurance and time.

Jo says her husband is decisive when faced with making a call when it gets dry but they are decisions farmers would rather not have to make.

With the irrigation established Ross and Jo realised they needed scale to achieve their aim of a sustainable, secure business.

In April last year they leased a 410ha Moeraki property, a strip of fertile soil between rolling hill country rising to 150m above sea level and the coastline.

The two farms are now run as one unit with breeding ewes and cattle kept at Moeraki but prime and replacement stock at Springbank.

The size and scope of the enlarged operation has added flexibility as well as meeting their cashflow and equity aims.

“We had a system that wasn’t very flexible and all the ducks had to line up in a row,” Ross says.

They now have that flexibility and can mix and match stock classes and management between the two properties as needed. 

They run 2700 Romdale ewes and 750 hoggets, 250 bull calves, 250 rising yearling bulls and a similar number of two-year bulls.

Cattle are wintered on fodder beet and progressively sold in later winter and early spring.

In the past Jo has reared up to 150 bull calves and 80 lambs. This year they changed the system to make it less onerous with the demands of lambing and looking after their three children.

Jo and Sutton reared the lambs and 55 calves this year and bought in about 210 weaned calves at 100kg. They are sold prime at 270kg to 300kg carcase weight as rising two-year-olds. In addition, they run 40 steers bought in spring and primarily used to control pasture.

The Hays have endured the emotional and stressful roller coaster of Mycoplasma bovis, three times having had trace cattle tested and culled, only to be subsequently cleared.

They endured testing and having stock slaughtered and while it was restricting and stressful as they worked through the process, Jo says not having breeding cows meant they were not as severely affected as other farmers.

The worst thing was the way they were treated by Government officials who forgot they were dealing with people’s livelihoods, businesses and their passion, she said.

“I think that has really been forgotten, that it’s more than a business.”

Officials lost sight of important things like the impact of having stock trucks turn up a day before scheduled to collect cattle for slaughter and officials telling farmers their herds have tested positive on a Friday then leaving for the weekend while the farmer is left in limbo.

The Privacy Act restricted the flow of information and the ability for the community to extend help to those going through the process, which Jo and Ross found beneficial when their cattle were treated as testing positive.

“It was nice to have a neighbour ring and say, ‘come round for tea’.” 

They have come out the other side but Jo and Ross have empathy for those still working through the repercussions of the disease.

When they endured the storm they tried to extend a helping hand to others in a similar situation, being sympathetic listeners and supporters.

“When you are going through M bovis or a drought it feels like the world has stopped when in fact the world keeps going, there is stock to feed and to be cared for.”

Lambs are weaned at 90 days and the irrigation and scope now allow decisions on when to sell them based on market conditions rather than the weather.

They plan to finish all their stock and to buy in an extra 4000 store lambs each year but prices last year meant they bought only a fraction of that target.

The Moeraki farm has required investment in a reticulated water scheme and fencing by the owners but Ross sees its potential given the soil fertility and rolling terrain. Rabbits are also a problem and in the last year well over 2000 were shot.

Jo says the owners are passionate about the Moeraki farm, a piece of New Zealand that is very important to them and which they want carefully managed.

“The owners are awesome,” she says.

Mutual appreciation, understanding and commication are crucial when entering a lease.

The Moeraki farm also creates some new challenges, dealing with the 30,000 cars a year that drive out to the historic Katiki Point Lighthouse, also known as the Moeraki lighthouse.

Katiki Point is also home to yellow-eyed penguins, NZ fur seals and Penguin Rescue, a sanctuary for injured birds that also advocates for the species.

Community is very important to the Hays. They are both involved with the Maheno School and Maheno Rugby Club and Ross is the North Otago Federated Farmers meat and fibre chairman.

Jo says getting rural families off the farm is essential. The loneliest place in the world is being trapped inside your head.

“It is so important getting together, connecting with other farmers and realising your farming systems might be different but you all face similar issues and stresses.”

She is active in the Agri Women’s Development Trust. With AWDT support she has set up a regional hub called Lip Gloss and Gumboots, which meets every couple of months to enable the development of skills, confidence and creating connections.

Jo says it also provides a forum for exchanging complementary ideas and the transferable skills women bring from their careers that are applicable to farming businesses.

“One of the things I’ve learnt along the way is that while women want to be upskilled, we can learn those skills in lots of difference places and in lots of different venues.

“But the one thing most women want and seem to be hungry for and are passionate about is personal development.”

Another community initiative she introduced to the area was the Maheno Food Fairy in which a group of people collate food packages for new parents or families enduring a difficult time.

Jo says the initiative has grown and now everyone who has benefited from the scheme is involved in providing provisions.

The Hays are passionate about farming and the rural lifestyle it offers their children Charlie, 10, Phoebe, 8, and Archie, 6. 

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