Friday, December 8, 2023

Variety is the spice of life

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It’s tough, rough country but Island Hills Station owners Dan and Mandy Shand are passionate farmers and innovative in their diversification to achieve financial sustainability. Annette Scott caught up with them on their remote North Canterbury high-country property.
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Dan and Mandy Shand farm Island Hills, a 7000ha station in the back of beyond in the rugged Hurunui high county.

When the young couple took over the property from Dan’s parents Ed and Jan, they knew from the generations before them it would be tough going.

In the early days access and weeds were the two biggest challenges. For Dan initially, it was possums. 

“It’s always been tough farming here.

“Grandpa struggled to grow lambs out so he negotiated forestry land to trial new options off the rugged hills.

“With the property bounded by five rivers Grandpa also had isolation issues, often the farm was inaccessible. 

“That’s how Island Hills came by its name and it wasn’t until the 50s that Grandad Arthur built the bridge to at least ensure access to the farm but still, when the rivers are in flood access is frequently washed out to sections of the property.

Through family succession, over the years development progressed but rising from 400m to 1700m above sea level the station’s limited carrying capacity means it’s marginally economic as a livestock operation.

Dan and Mandy started from the bottom and there was only one way to go and that was up.

“We had to start with the law of minimum. In the beginning it was fences, lime and fertilisers. Now it’s more feed and re-grassing.”

A stock rearrangement has seen sheep move from halfbreds to Landmark ewes, putting a terminal sire over the breeding flock and buying in replacements,” he said.

The bridge built by Dan Shand’s Grandad Arthur in the 1950s ensures access to the farm most of the time.

“With Nuffield I went all around the world and everybody is talking value-add but nobody is showing the pathway. The higher value has to come back to the farmer to prove traceability and justify it if you are expecting the world to pay more.

“If you say grass-fed and people are paying a premium for grass-fed then you must be able to prove it for the animal’s entire lifetime – that is real traceability.”

Shand believes Stock Manager could create opportunity for high-value product if it gets up an extra level and that’s not just for meat.

“In New Zealand we do a really good job farming but we need to prove traceability and not lose opportunity when we buy and sell animals.”

“Connectivity has always been a challenge at Island Hills but good connectivity is crucial for today’s farming.

“We need connectivity as then people buy portable devices, they learn how to use them and they can learn any technology.”

Farmers can move on from connection to collecting information on farm, whether for compliance or their own business decision-making.

Reliable rural connectivity has potential to unlock a whole new era of productivity gains and value can start at animal conception.

“We are using single-purpose devices to collect information such as killing sheets from the meat companies, weights from our scales, EID tag information and none of them work together and everything has to be manually put into the computer – it needs to be automated.”

It’s that frustration that’s driven Shand’s desire to build software and together with his team of worldwide counterparts he’s almost cracked it with Stock Manager.

“It can be as simple or complex as you make it but we need reliable mobile technology connectivity in even the most isolated pockets of this country to farm into the future.

“This technology is on its way.

“I didn’t plan on having a software business but I was over spending late nights inputting data to add value and traceability to my business. This is farmers seeing opportunity and learning from farmers.

“It’s the industry level that’s lagging behind.” 

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