Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Sheep farming: it’s in our nature

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Northwest Waikato sheep and beef  farmers Tom and Nicole Whitford never planned on working in the primary sector but today the couple are dedicated to the intergenerational transfer of a farming business. Luke Chivers explains.
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It was Gypsy Day 2016.

Waikaretu Valley farmers Tom and Nicole Whitford’s succession agreement with Tom’s parents for a well-nurtured and developed, panoramic coastal slice of rural New Zealand kicked in – coincidentally the same day their son Mac was born. 

But that wasn’t their initial plan.

At age 18 Tom finished school, left the family farm and became a builder, working on construction sites in Hamilton and Palmerston North. 

“I most definitely didn’t grow up wanting to be a farmer,” he says.

“But not long after I got off the land, lived in town and got a taste of urban life I came to realise that I’d much rather be on the farm where I grew up, working outside with animals and maintaining our family’s roots in the region.

“I think I needed to have a break to appreciate what I once had. Nowadays our farm is something I’m really proud of.”

Anyone who knows the Whitford family – neighbour Nikau Coopworth stud owner Kate Broadbent for instance – will know it’s not usual for them to stay away from the farm for long, if at all. Sheep farming is in the Whitford blood.

“I’m the third generation of Whitfords to farm in Waikaretu,” Tom said.

“My grandfather and then my dad and his brother and now me.”

In response to a drop in labour units from five to three the farm now carries nearly 800 cattle and 800 fewer sheep.

“NZ lamb needed to turn a corner and thankfully it did. 

“On this year’s lamb market and with a high lambing rate, our lamb system is matching our bull system. And the outlook looks promising. Lambs need to be making $120/head to match the much higher labour demands.”

Tom thinks crunch time will be in the next 10 years when aging sheep farmers pass the baton to young family members – family members just like him.

“A lot of the new generation are going to be starting with mortgages. If the next generation is going to continue to farm sheep we need to be getting paid for it.”

He says he’s disappointed NZ is so far behind the likes of Ireland when it comes to demanding a premium for primary products. 

“We are the most innovative farmers in the world but I feel we are being let down by what’s happening outside the farm gate. 

“Beef + Lamb NZ’s Taste Pure Nature is heading in the right direction but it seems five years late. 

“We need to establish a brand that’s behind all our primary products, a brand that we can all support, a brand that attracts affluent consumers in years to come.”

In 2017 Tom formed a Red Meat Profit Partnership action network group in Waikaretu Valley in partnership with AgFirst Hamilton to finding local solutions for some the industry’s greatest challenges. 

“I’m hoping we can collectively shed some light on how to improve because we’ve got such a vast group of guys and girls in there who are at different stages in their farming career and at different levels of production and productivity.

“There’s a lot of brainpower in the group for challenging the old while coming up with the new.”

Looking ahead, Tom believes NZ lamb has turned a corner but wool is what concerns him the most.

“We’ll shear our ewes in the next month but we’re currently looking at under $2/kg which, for the first time ever, will not cover shearing costs. 

“In this day and age where sustainability is constantly talked about what NZ-made product is more sustainable than wool?”

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