Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Productivity and sustainability go hand in hand for Wairarapa duo

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Plenty of new projects in their 20 years of farming are paying off massively for Masterton sheep and beef farmers Matt and Lynley Wyeth.
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While nailing down efficiencies in almost every aspect of their 2400ha farming business and growing their output, Matt and Lynley Wyeth are still producing net-carbon zero beef and have recently established more than 30,000 natives and 8km of riparian fencing.

Spring Valley Enterprises, located in the Kaituna Valley in Wairarapa, is “where farming ‘meats’ efficiency”, Matt says, noting that his and Lynley’s focus has always been “converting grass into a top-quality product that’s been sustainably grown and ethically produced”.

Both Matt and Lynley come from long lines of Wairarapa sheep and beef farmers, with Lynley’s farming history spanning six generations, and Matt’s four. 

Their farming business comprises both their families’ properties, along with newly purchased land and lease blocks – an important reason they see themselves as no more than caretakers of the land. 

“It’s something that we want to leave behind, and we want to know that we’re leaving a bit of the country better than we found it,” Matt says. 

“We’re more or less just caretakers of the land, whether that’s for 30, 40, 50 years, you know, and then it’ll go on to someone else. But we just want to leave a legacy behind that we’ve left the farm better than we found it.”

This environmental focus has proven to have no impact on the quantity of produce that leaves Spring Valley, with efficiencies across the board and new projects translating into an operation punching well above its weight. 

One of these projects began almost 20 years ago when Matt and Lynley were first starting out, and involved the introduction of a new sheep breed, the Highlander, which they farm alongside their 1000 head of Angus beef cattle.

The Highlander sheep breeding programme was being established in New Zealand at the time, with the breed originating from the UK. 

The breed is marketed as highly fertile, and able to deliver more kilograms of lamb with the same or less input, and that could not have been truer for the Wyeths in the years to follow.  

The ‘home block’ of Spring Valley. The whole 2400 hectare property consists of three blocks – Ratanui Farm, Maranui Farm and the Spring Valley home farm.

“With our Highlander ewes, that’s our main business driver basically. So we’ve got 8100 ewes, and then we’ve got 3200 hoggets,” says Matt.

“What we’ve found is that they really are a highly fertile breed. So when we first bought Spring Valley we had some Perendale-Romney crosses, and we just weren’t getting the conversion rates that we wanted. We weren’t getting the scanning numbers and lambs on the ground.” 

“So we decided to go in with the Highlander. Then, within a breeding season, that just took our existing production levels and escalated them.”

Scanning numbers skyrocketed within a season, with Matt saying “2002 numbers were sitting around the 130-40% mark, then in 2003, 2004 and 2005 they spiked to around the mid-to-late hundreds.”

More than two decades and a rigorous breeding programme later, the Spring Valley scanning numbers are now at 215%.

As well as the scanning numbers, the Wyeths are impressed by the efficiency of the breed, which allows them to have less input and fewer ewes per hectare while still managing an increase in production well past industry averages.  

“You just can’t ignore the productivity that the Highlanders put out the gate,” Matt says. 

“What we found is that we actually dropped the amount of dry matter eaten, and increased the amount of production going out on the truck.”

“So we’re in the business of growing the most grass that we can, and converting it into a product that we can sell, and for that, Highlanders in my mind are one of the best converters.”

Matt understands that other breeds may be better suited to different farming systems, although he sees opportunity for other farms to give the breed a go. 

“For our system, our country and our management, they are perfect,” he says. 

“So I’m not going to get up on the podium and say they should be throughout the country, but there are certainly areas that they should be, and at the same time I’m trying to think of somewhere they shouldn’t be.

“And where the future is going, whether you agree with He Waka Eke Noa, and our livestock emissions issues, having less stock on and producing more, the Highlander fits in that space perfectly.” 

Given the success they had with the Highlanders, and noting something of a lack of diversification at Spring Valley with “98% of the property’s income coming from one company”, as Matt says, the Wyeths decided to launch a new hogget breeding programme.

“So we decided we wanted to see a bit more resilience and diversity in our business. We also really enjoy the breeding side of the operation.  

“We knew we had a lot of people inquiring about chasing our ewe genetics, and to me why would we be putting some of our ewes to a terminal [ram] to sell lamb at meat value, which anyone can do.”

A yarding of Spring Valley Highlander ewe lambs, which are part of their hogget breeding initiative.

As part of this breeding programme, ewes are put to the terminal ram and the weaned lambs are sold to smaller scale farms, allowing these farms to simplify their operations by eliminating the need for rigorous breeding programmes. 

“So we thought there was a huge opportunity for New Zealand to actually increase their productivity by going terminal,” Matt says. 

“I believe that farms having below a 3000-head ewe flock, they complicate their system by having a breeding programme with ewe hoggets and two-tooths that could go all terminal.”

“And we’ve done our numbers and they can actually increase their productivity by almost 15-20% while also simplifying their system.

“So what it does is it increases their productivity by getting fat lambs gone quicker and earlier while trusting us with their breeding programme.” 

Throughout this programme, the Wyeths have invested heavily in genomics and EIDs, which has given them solid numbers to back up their ewe-lambs. 

“We’ve got a proven product because we’re monitoring and measuring everything through EID,” Lynley says. 

“So the product we are delivering is a ewe lamb that has recorded data with their birth rank against it that has already had a 5-in-1 treatment programme completed. 

“Also, we’ve had a lot of inquiries because we had a very good worm status, so people are chasing these genetics to help clean up their own flocks.” 

Alongside these new projects, one that has been front of mind for Matt, Lynley and the Spring Valley team is improving biodiversity across the property. 

“We’ve just done our NZ Farm Assurance Programme Plus [NZFAP Plus] certification,” Lynley says.

“So that was to just really understand what it is that we’re actually protecting on the farm, as well as what we could be doing better. 

“We’re by no means a finished article, but in 2019 we started a project planting 30,000 native trees and eight and a half kilometers of river fencing up at our Ratanui farm, which is now finished. 

“So that was a massive job, but we call it our legacy project, our environmental corridor. It has been absolutely amazing for us, and it was one of those projects that we’ve just loved from the start to finish.” 

Through consumer insights provided by Silver Fern Farms, Lynley says that they understand that consumers right across the world are looking at on-farm environmental practices. 

“They actually want to know that we are doing the best that we can for the land, and in turn the best that we can for the product that they are purchasing,” Lynley says. 

These efforts towards on-farm productivity and sustainability have been recognised throughout the industry, with a lengthy list of awards and accolades spanning the past 10 years for Spring Valley Enterprises. 

These include the Wairarapa Hill Country Farm Business of the Year, Greater Wellington Balance Farm Environment Awards, the NZ Golden Lamb Awards, the Allflex NZ Sheep Industry Award for Innovation and Wairarapa Gate to Plate.

There is currently a team of five employed at Spring Valley Enterprises, with block managers, a junior shepherd, a head shepherd and a fencer general/project manager. 

Pictured left to right, Spring Valley farms head shepherd Henry Warren, Ratanui farm manager Jono Tod, Maranui farm manager Nico Butler, fencing and construction manager Jordan Shem with his two children Iziah and Isabelle and Lynley and Matt Wyeth.

Matt stresses that they are the heroes of the day, saying “they’re out there everyday fighting a good cause and learning and developing skills along the way”. 

“It’s interesting how farming evolves. I mean we didn’t set out to be a leader of a team, but we did have the aspiration to build a scalable business, and that involves taking people along on the journey with you. 

“And so we can have no better satisfaction than being able to see people grow. So they come as a junior shepherd and they leave as a head shepherd. Or they could come as a head shepherd and leave as a block manager. 

“We don’t call our employees’ staff, and that’s a really big thing for us. They’re all part of the team. We would never give them a task that we wouldn’t do ourselves. ”

Lynley says the way they have built the business, means each member of the team can be trusted with their responsibilities. This allows her and Matt to give back to the industry and community rather than just their own farming business. 

This includes co-founding Wairarapa Rural Women Incorporated, a rural business discussion group that aims to strengthen local agribusinesses by bringing together women who are partners in their rural businesses.

“So we’re very fortunate that we have had success in building a business, and as it’s grown we have built a team around us to do things like leave our managers and other staff to run things which means we can put time and effort into the industry. 

“We try to get involved with industry-good events and projects as much as possible, and anything that is going to help steer sheep and beef farmers in the right direction to be highly regarded.” 

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