Silver Fern Farms market leader category at this year’s Beef+Lamb NZ awards celebrates commitment by an individual or farming business to drive value by meeting market needs. Charlie Williamson spoke to the finalists.
Alan McDermont and Julia Galway – Pearl Pastures
Where others saw the issue of bobby calves in the dairy industry as a serious problem, Alan McDermont and Julie Galway saw an opportunity.
The pair joined the dots between Kiwi dairy farmers and leading chefs in New Zealand and Japan, intent on making pasture-raised veal like Pearl Pastures’ a staple on their menus and, eventually, those of chefs all over the world.
They contract farmers to pasture-raise dairy calves and have the animals processed for veal. McDermont says although veal is sometimes viewed as a second-class product, he has yet to meet a chef who doesn’t love the ingredient.
“It’s actually a beautiful product, it’s absolutely incredible,” he says. “Anybody that eats it says it’s amazing. People have even told me it’s the best meat they’ve ever tasted.”
Through an agreement with dairy farmers, after the calves are weaned they are either kept on the dairy farm where they were born to be pasture raised, or they are sent to another farm to be finished.
They are taken right through to 9-12 months, or 150kg carcase weight, after being reared and finished on a mixture of cow’s milk and pasture. From there they are processed at two different meat processors to be marketed and sold through their Pearl Pastures brand.
McDermont says there have been negative connotations around the product stemming from the coverage of bobby calves and poor practices around the world, but he thinks NZ is well-positioned to be a market leader.
“There’s this perception that veal is a bobby calf and so from a customer perspective that is terrible, and then the other one is ‘Oh veal, that’s where you store little calves away in the dark in small pens and that’s also terrible,” he says.
“But we [NZ dairy farmers] have incredibly high animal welfare outcomes, our calves are incredibly healthy, and as well as that the farmers that grow them just cannot believe how healthy they are compared to calves reared on milk powder.”
Animal welfare is front and centre for Pearl Pastures, with McDermont saying it was the catalyst for the business.
“It gives the dairy farmers an opportunity to do something a bit different, and for the calves to have a life worth living,” he says.
“Our focus is all about animal welfare, and that’s what drove us to do this. It’s that there has to be a better way. We can’t keep sending bobby calves to the factory at four days old, or killing them on the farm at zero days.
“And then if we can create a beautiful product during that process, we should definitely do that.”
Reon and Wendy Verry – Verry Farming Ltd, Waitomo
Caring for the environment has always been a big part of Waitomo farmers Wendy and Reon Verry’s successful careers on the land, with this focus extending well beyond the farmgate.
They are the owner operators of a 1400ha total, 1260ha effective sheep and beef operation, with the 140ha ineffective either retired native bush or in forestry.
Reon says that using the words “effective” and “ineffective” may be the correct terminology, but after a recent conversation he thinks there could be a better way of explaining land use.
“I don’t actually like the way we say effective and ineffective when talking about the land. I was talking with an old Māori guy the other day on the east coast and he was saying every piece of land has a purpose,” says Reon.
“This resonated because there is no point saying it’s effective or ineffective because the stuff that is fenced off still has a purpose.”
The Verrys have been farming on their own account since 2007, and although they are both from farming families they say they are “just starting the generational farming journey on this property”.
An impressive operation, it’s home to a mob of 4500 Coopworth ewes, 1400 hoggets, 150 beef cows, 700 bulls and 300 dairy grazers. It employs two managers, one shepherd and two Growing Future Farmers students.
Across the property, the Verrys have undertaken extensive work fencing off waterways and carrying out projects to improve biodiversity, with Reon saying it’s always been about figuring out how they can have the most impact.
“So with fencing off waterways, we’ve done about 21km, fencing off bush around the place we’ve done about 15 km. There is some work that predates us, but we’ve supercharged it in the last seven or eight years especially,” he says.
“Our priority with all our projects is where it’s going to have the biggest impact, so making sure that the water that comes off of our property is as good as we can get it.”
Reon credits Wendy’s record keeping for them cruising through their NZ Farm Assurance programme, ultimately gaining a gold standard.
“With the NZFAP+ it’s important because there is actually a bit of a carrot with it, unlike a lot of other requirements.
“With the work we had already done around the environment we didn’t think it would take too much to achieve it, and so you can either achieve it to a silver or a gold standard, and thanks to Wendy we managed to get to the gold standard.
Reon and Wendy have also concentrated these efforts beyond their own property, launching alongside other local farmers what would become King Country Rivercare (KCRC) in 2016, a catchment group covering a catchment of around 350 farms, with well over half of that heavily involved.
Reon says they went all in from the start, and it was a matter of learning along the way, but it has paid off so far.
“The advice initially was to stay small and focus on one little area, but in 2016 we decided that we were just going to have to go large and see if it can be successful at a larger scale and learn as we go, says Reon.”
“There were some challenges, but everyone shared the same goal, and we figured if 60% of people want to do the right thing then it could lead to some big changes.”
“King Country River Care is also a great vehicle for farmers to share their stories.”
Jimmy Taylor and Shane and Lynette McManaway – Ongaha Station, Wairarapa
Two and half years ago, Shane and Lynnette McManaway became only the second family to be custodians of Ongaha, an historic Wairarapa sheep and beef station.
Together with their manager, Jimmy Taylor, they have overseen an unprecedented transformation of the farm’s infrastructure and biodiversity profile.
Today the 580ha, 520ha-effective station runs a terminal mob of 800 to 1,000 ewes, finishes lambs and hoggets and, through a partnership with Wairere Rams, grazes ram hoggets. It also grazes dairy heifers for local dairy farms and runs a cash-cropping enterprise on the 100ha of pivot-irrigated land.
When the McManaways assumed stewardship of Ongaha they and Taylor quickly determined that the infrastructure needed a significant upgrade and immediate work was required to protect the waterways. This has resulted in an extensive development programme, including planting 65,000 native plants and erecting extensive riparian fencing.
The Ruamahanga River running around the property presents a significant threat, owing to regular flooding, but also an opportunity for remediation. Consequently, Greater Wellington Regional Council (GWRC) agreed to contribute labour and shared funding to the work. It collaborated with the McManaways and Taylor from the outset to transform Ongaha to the property it is now.
In addition to 35km of replacement fencing undertaken by the McManaways, GWRC funded an additional 9km of fencing along the Ruamahanga and its backwater system, resulting in retirement of 9ha of marginal land. This is in addition to a 12ha stand of native trees the McManaways chose to retire as a priority, with permanent fencing and fill-in native planting.
Ongaha Station has completed the NZFAP-plus programme to a Gold standard, something Taylor says was hard work, but “bloody good to complete”.
“We want to farm at the highest level, whilst improving the land for the next generation who farm it,” says Taylor.
“The Gold standard reflects what we do on farm already, so it’s a terrific way to pull it all together and be recognised for it,” he says.
A significant focus for Ongaha, Taylor says, is to protect its soils, given its climate and soil types.
“We’re always trying to preserve our soils, drilling crops wherever possible, minimising heavy cattle and preventing pugging over the winter.”
Taylor says he understands the importance of programmes like NZFAP-plus, and is grateful for the work its processing partner, Silver Fern Farms, has done alongside the team while completing the assessment.
“Everything we’re doing at Ongaha speaks to our collective values, which align to Silver Fern Farms’ premium programmes. They do a great job of opening up markets and opportunities that recognise what we do.”
Disclosure: This article was sponsored by Silver Fern Farms, in the lead up to the Beef+Lamb NZ awards on the 19th October, 2023.