Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Farming through the generations

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Members of Guy Bell’s family have been farming in Hawke’s Bay for five generations, with his sons making it six.
Guy Bell, right, works well with sons Straun, left, and Angus. Photo: Supplied
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The Bells are a family that farms four properties across Hawke’s Bay, from the Central Hawke’s Bay coast to the foothills of the Ruahines.

Guy Bell is the fifth generation of his family on his mother’s side to farm in the area, and the second on his father’s side.

He has two brothers and a sister who also farm in the district.

One of his brothers is on the property that his father, who arrived in New Zealand from the UK in 1920, started out on.

Across the couple’s four farms they have about 5000ha, split between the 700ha home farm on the outskirts of Waipawa, another property at Cheviot/St Lawrence, not far from Patangata, a third near the Central Hawke’s Bay coast at Pourerere, with the fourth in the foothills of the Ruahine Range where the track to Sunrise Hut begins.

They each offer different strengths and options during different climatic conditions.

Much has changed since Bell began farming in the area, but one thing he knows he can be sure of is farming in the region brings with it all kinds of challenges, not the least of which is the extremes of weather he’s worked through over the years, both wet and dry.

While this year’s drought was a tough one, it’s not the first and it won’t be the last.

He says the 1960s were dry years, with 1961 particularly so, while the ‘70s were generally wet.

The farm’s soft clay country became so wet during parts of 1977, they had to resort to pack horses rather than tractors for some farm work, although today with quad bikes and trailers it would have been easier.

In 2011 about 500mm of rain fell in 30 hours on their coastal property, blocking roads and causing slips and other damage that required two years of work to repair.

Fortunately they could move stock, including 2000 hoggets, off to their other properties.

Bell says the extreme changes have prepared him to farm in any conditions.

The experience he’s gained means he’s aware what decisions need to be made and when they need to be made by.

“Farming on the east coast is always going to be a bit of a challenge. There’s always going to be dry seasons but we farm for them,” he said.

It’s knowledge that is invaluable to sons Angus and Straun, and their wives Sammy and Lizzie, who with their own children live and work on two of the other properties.

Having the four farms means there’s plenty of work and room for the father and sons to focus on their individual strengths, and Bell says they work well together as a team.

There’s the odd difference of opinion, but a bit of discussion is never a bad thing and they always come together to work out a plan for the future.

After finishing school Angus completed a bachelor of agricultural science at Lincoln University before starting work on a dairy farm.

However, he decided the lifestyle involved wasn’t for him, so came back home to help on the family farm and he’s still there.

Struan wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do after leaving school, so he had a gap year before doing an agriculture course at Eastern Institute of Technology, following that up with work around the country on sheep and beef farms, including some of the bigger stations.

Other staff include two managers. Overall, there’s seven permanent staff, complemented by a pool of reliable and valued casual labour available based around Waipukurau, Waipawa and Otane.

Bell says they have been lucky retaining staff, with one staff member having been with them for 18 to 20 years, one for about 14 years and another for about nine years.

The Bells’ daughter, Henrietta, is not in Hawke’s Bay but she too has chosen a rural life, albeit a bit further south.

Her husband, Michael Royston, who holds a managerial position at the ANZ bank in Ashburton, is part of a significant cropping operation run by his family near Methven.

It’s a part of the country Bell knows well, having worked on one of the large stations in the Ashburton Lakes area before he was married.

It was a property where everything was done on a big scale; the blade shearing team part of 50-strong shearing gang working in a 20-stand shed, while the autumn muster was a three-week job, with about 16,000 merinos mustered by 11 shepherds off more than 38,000ha and driven in a single mob around the edge of Lake Clearwater.

Today though, his role in Hawke’s Bay is more of an overseer who helps with the bigger jobs during busy times.

One of those is docking, a task he enjoys as it provides him with an opportunity to get out and have a good look at the properties.

The four farms provide a mix of topography and soil types, each lending themselves to particular roles at certain times of the year.

Bell says no farm is perfect, but the combination of properties the family has provide a variety that helps smooth out seasonal variations.

The two central farms are good for wintering stock, while the hill country is good for grazing cattle.

The three lower lying farms are mainly focused on sheep breeding, along with some cattle and a little bit of lamb finishing.

They breed and finish up to about 35,000 stock units, split between prime cattle, lambs and deer.

The property in the ranges, which sits between about 500-750 metres, is also used for breeding, with deer added to the mix.

Across the four farms the stock mix is roughly 50% sheep, 44% cattle and the remaining 6% deer, which is focused on producing venison, with a little bit of velvet on the side.

The central farms are early lambing country, which suits the essence of the operation, which aims to get lambs away as early as possible.

The base of their flock is Romney-crosses and Guy says any move away from that in the future will be gradual.

During his parent’s farming days wool provided about 60% of the farm’s income – a far cry from today’s returns.

While there are groups working to turn around the strong wool industry, Bell says it will never be what it was in terms of income and today’s farmers have accepted low wool prices, although he is hopeful of a gradual improvement in the future.

These days farmers in the industry focus on genetics around fertility and meat production and the Bells’ flock also needs good feet to cope with the environment, with genetics again important.

Maintaining the quality of the breeding cow herd is another focus, with a lot of work going into the genetic composition of the cattle.

Initially the herd was Angus but as the Bells learned more about cattle and how they coped with Hawke’s Bay conditions, it moved towards an Angus-Hereford-cross, about 70-30% respectively.

Given the summer dry nature of farming in Hawke’s Bay, growing their own supplementary feed is an important part of the business.

They make a lot of silage, which is buried underground until it’s needed. They also make baleage and grow summer greenfeed crops, mainly for lambs, while locally-sourced maize is bought in for ewes and deer.

The family pride themselves on their stockmanship, which Bell says has been challenging during the past year because of drought conditions in the region.

That has meant some breeding stock are lighter than he would like, but overall he’s pretty happy they came through relatively unscathed.

Part of that has been because of a good supply of their own supplementary feed, which meant they were able to maintain stock numbers at a good level.

Considering the drought, Bell was reasonably happy with the latest lambing percentages.

In early September it was looking like it was going to be a dry start to spring, but in the middle of the month the Waipawa property received about 40mm which, with warm temperatures, resulted in some good grass growth.

That said, the district has only received about half its usual rainfall for the year, although a reasonable soaking in early October, followed by another 55mm a month later in Waipawa, with more towards the coast, was welcome.

The Bells’ operation won last year’s eastern North Island section of Silver Fern Farms’ Plate to Pasture Awards, with judges noting that as well as their stockmanship, their care for the environment was commendable. 

The judges said that to manage soil loss from erosion the business has an annual planting programme of 200-300 poplar and willow poles each year, in addition to about 100 hectares of forestry on unproductive land. 

Nutrient budgeting is also an important part of their approach to managing the environment, with fertiliser applied by ground spreading and from the air, depending on the land in question. Many waterways across the farms have already been fenced off, while future planning on how to approach the rest is being revised.

The family respects the history of the properties they are guardians of and have invested in keeping some of it alive.

The farm at Cheviot/St Lawrence is home to a historic woolshed that is part of the former St Lawrence Station.

Built in 1885, they have spent $50,000 restoring and painting it, complete with original-style doors and latches, while also restoring the original steep-pitched roof.

It’s not open to the public but Highgrove, the farm in the foothills of the Ruahines, is a different story, being the main access point for trampers to get to the Sunrise Hut.

Within an hour’s drive of Napier and Hastings, the hut and the track to it attract up to 20,000 visitors a year, who have to travel through the farm gate to get to the parking lot at the beginning of the track.

Guy and Bridget have also developed a strong link to potential overseas consumers, using their Waipawa home as a host farm for international farm stays and tours. 

They have been running farm stays during summer since the mid-1980s, with the stays proving most popular with German, English and American tourists.

The couple have travelled extensively overseas themselves, including specialised farm tours to Chile, Argentina, Brazil and South Africa.

They have also visited Portugal and Spain where live shipments of cattle are sent to North African nations on the Mediterranean.

In the mid-1970s they went behind the Iron Curtain, travelling through Russia. Not only was it completely different to what they were used to in NZ, the vastness of the country also made an impression on them.

With a new generation of the family already growing up on the farms, their approach of building on knowledge to try and do things better means the properties will be in good hands for years to come.

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