Friday, July 1, 2022

Red Devon at the heart of an Ashburton farm

Large-scale Canterbury farmers Richard and Chrissie Wright are so passionate about their Red Devon cattle and such is their belief in the quality of their meat, they bought a restaurant in Havelock in the Marlborough Sounds to share it with diners. The Wrights combined dairying and beef production on their 1850-hectare farm at Ashburton, milking 3500 cows on three separate dairy units.

A Canterbury couple have combined their love of dairy farming and Devon cattle on their large-scale farm at Ashburton.

Large-scale Canterbury farmers Richard and Chrissie Wright are so passionate about their Red Devon cattle and such is their belief in the quality of their meat, they bought a restaurant in Havelock in the Marlborough Sounds to share it with diners.

The Wrights combined dairying and beef production on their 1850-hectare farm at Ashburton, milking 3500 cows on three separate dairy units.

“We had a midlife crisis and thought ‘how good would it be to see our own meat in our own restaurant?’ – but that quickly became an issue,” Chrissie says.

“You couldn’t keep up with the steak required without a surplus of everything else, even if you do nachos or beef stew and make salami and chorizo, there’s so much meat that isn’t steak.”

They also diversified into meat pies, working with local bakery Sims to produce Tamar pies but after five years, with the arrival of covid, they decided to close the restaurant. It was a large operation with 25 staff but without being on-site, the business was hard to run.

“Apparently everybody who has a successful business also has to have one that’s sucking the living daylights out of them,” Richard laughs.

They haven’t given up on their own meat though and are licenced to sell their Tamar-branded meat from the farm and their meat pies are very popular.

“We still do sell quite a bit from here but we don’t push it that hard because we just don’t have the time. Recently, I put on our Facebook page that there was a new batch of pies here and sold six dozen overnight,” Chrissie says.

A farmer chasing dairy cows down a race on a motorbike

Team member Mike Mosquera brings the herd in for morning milking.

The emphasis now is on improving their Red Devon herd using genetics imported from the UK and by muscle scanning. They’ve joined Alliance Group’s Pure South 55-day aged beef programme.

“Through traceability we’re going to only breed from the best animals and improve the quality of the beef and hopefully we’ll see it in some of the local restaurants,” she says.

Red Devon are a smallish breed that grows relatively slowly, which they say is a good thing because it means there’s more marbling in the meat.

Richard’s passion for the breed goes back to his roots in Devon, England.

“I’m from Devon and they’re from there. My family had them as well, so it’s quite nostalgic and they’re not a common breed in New Zealand,” he says.

He first came to New Zealand in 1983 as a 17-year-old on his OE, having arranged a job with Marvin Farm Services in Matamata before arriving. In his year here, he mostly travelled the country relief milking, with a little work on sheep and deer farms as well.

“There was still live capture of deer happening and that was fun because we were fencing the old Drury golf course for a family up there and as fast as we were fencing it, the helicopters were dropping in deer they’d captured,” he recalls.

“They were as wild as wild and we had to try to tame them and vaccinate them and tag them. I remember we were wearing cricket pads and helmets so that was quite exciting.”

At the end of his 12 months here, he returned home and did a two-year agricultural course but after completing that, he didn’t stay long.

A woman in a pen of calves

Chrissie rears all the beef calves from the dairy units and rears up to 900 beef animals.

“I had itchy feet and all I wanted to do was come back to New Zealand,” he said.

He worked on dairy farms in Northland and then moved down to Waikato where he met Chrissie, who was originally from Canterbury but was employed on horse studs.

“I was working with horses and then I moved into administration. When I met Richard I carried on working on the horse stud until we had our first child,” she says.

Richard, meanwhile, was working his way up in the dairy industry, from assistant to manager, then contract milking to lower-order sharemilking and in 1994 he and Chrissie went 50:50 sharemilking.

In 1997 they sold all their assets in Waikato and bought into a new equity partnership in Canterbury, becoming 20% owners and managers of a large farm near Ashburton.

“Richard always had a goal of owning 1000 cows by the time he was 30, or farm ownership. When we moved down here it was a 1400-cow farm and we owned 20% of it so that was a combination of both goals,” she says.

They stayed there for five years, investing in two more equity partnerships along the way, and in 2002 they bought their own 220ha farm near Mt Somers in Mid Canterbury. They named it Tamar, after the river that runs between Cornwall and Devon where Richard grew up.

Before they moved there, they bought a neighbouring farm starting a process that has seen them grow their property to 1850ha.

Dairy cows in a race behind a fence wearing collars

The dairy herd is fitted with collars to monitor their rumination and reduce post-calving metabolic issues, including milk fever and ketosis.

“The farm over the last 20 years has just grown. The neighbours kept selling and we kept buying,” Richard laughs.

They retained their shareholding in the three equity partnerships (which they’ve recently partly sold) and in their first year on their own farm reared 1800 calves and grazed everything from sheep to deer.

“Calf rearing was an opportunity to get into something that didn’t require a lot of funding but also, the harder you work, the better you did. Chrissie’s a great calf rearer but it was all new to us on such a commercial scale,” he says.

They progressively bought their own stock and started their own Red Devon beef herd with 25 heifers. Richard liked the breed that came from his home patch. They’re smaller than other beef breeds, but he says they produce well-marbled beef.

The herd has grown over the past 20 years and now they sell their own Tamar-branded beef. They now run 466 Devon and Hereford breeding cows.

Their farm was dryland, which comes with risk in drought-prone Canterbury, so they bought an irrigated block in Mayfield that was already converted to techno-grazing for beef and they were soon finishing 1500 bulls a year there under irrigation.

Twelve years ago another neighbour’s farm came on the market. Even though it was dryland, the Wrights bought it and converted it to dairy, the idea being that it would create the cashflow that was lacking in their beef business.

Two workers in a cowshed talking to each other

Richard checks in with sharemilker Shayne Miers in the cowshed during milking to find out things are going.

“We were doing everything on borrowed money and we had the security of an equity partnership dairy as a backup, so that gave us a bit of cashflow but it was still tight,” he says.

They also committed to the Barrhill Chertsey Irrigation scheme that was looking to expand into their district.

“So long story short, we irrigated that farm and then we bought the next one and since then we’ve bought about three farms, all adjoining each other. Now we’re running 1850ha as one block with three separate dairy units,” he says.

The floods that hit Canterbury in May threw some challenges their way, with 200ha inundated and left covered by shingle and silt by the raging Ashburton River.

“We had the whole river flowing down here,” Chrissie says, pointing to the southern edge of their property on a farm map.

“We’re having to redevelop 150ha so that we can run the centre pivot and we’ve got about 16km of fencing to replace.”

A woman next to automatic calf feeders in a she

Due to covid-19 disruptions, Chrissie’s has not been able to employ casual workers to help her with calf rearing so bought two automatic feeders to reduce her workload.

But compared with some of their neighbours, they are looking at the positives. They didn’t lose any stock or have any houses flooded, even though they do face hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs to get their lower terraces next to the river back in action.

“It’s just part of farming I think. Over the years we’ve had big snows, big winds (they lost 400 trees in the 2013 gales) and now the floods,” he says.

“Every day is a challenge and there’s always something that’s going to challenge you.”

The dairy units are now operated by sharemilkers, with the Wrights doing dairy support and the beef operation and Chrissie rears dairy beef calves that come from the three farms. At peak they have 32 staff.

The Te Mahanga farm is 374.9ha and 18% sharemilked by Shayne and Bec Miers, milking 1250 cows. Production is 593kg MS/cow totalling 600,590kg MS.

The home dairy consisting of two farms – Strathclyde and Wightmans – are 520.6ha and sharemilked by Two Rivers Ltd, milking 2000 cows. Production is 460kg MS, with a total of 920,062kg MS for the season.

They feed 180ha of fodder beet and 28ha of kale in winter, as well as molasses and grain through the in-shed feeding system. Oats are sown as cover crop after the fodder beet and 46ha of fodder beet is grown on the dairy units to transition cows in autumn and spring.

About 150ha is re-grassed annually and 200ha is undersown annually, with chicory, plantain, clover over-sown on all pastures, particularly dryland and subterranean clover, sown on river terraces.

A waterway after a flood has come through

The floods that hit Canterbury in May threw some challenges their way with 200ha inundated and left covered by shingle and silt by the raging Ashburton River.

Grass plays a big part in the system and sensors keep track of soil moisture levels, satellites to monitor pastures and collars on cows to detect when they’re on heat and for health monitoring and hopefully in future for virtual fencing.

Richard claims he’s no good at technology himself, but says it’s important to keep their staff interested in the job. Chrissie’s not quite convinced by his argument.

“You might say you don’t like technology but you use it all the time, for example, reading the pasture growth by satellite and not having to go round pasture plating,” she says.

Richard says using satellites to read pastures means all staff can instantly see pasture covers over the whole farm on their phones or computers and even if that’s not quite as accurate as pasture plating, it means everyone’s on the same page.

“It’s my job to make sure there’s always pasture and always feed on the farm and I do all the fertiliser so I can quickly see where all the stock are, I can see if there’s damage, I can see where fertiliser is needed. We use proof of placement for the fertiliser so we can link it all together and use it as part of our feed budgeting,” he says.

A farm worker training calves to drink from a calf feeder

Team member Lai Pei Qi (Peggie) trains the dairy calves to drink from the feeder.

“We know with all the moisture and weather probes around the farm exactly how much water we’re putting on, how much we’ve got stored in the soil, the soil temperatures, the air temperature, all that sort of information.

“It’s like hydroponics. It’s my job to manipulate the feed according to all the information that I’m getting. I’ve got it all at my fingertips, it’s really easy. I know exactly how much feed we have on the farm in every paddock, I know what we’re growing.”

Thanks to their scale, they operate Tamar as a closed farm.

“For biosecurity reasons we opted about six years ago to become totally self-sufficient and closed, probably a year or two before M bovis, so that was quite a good decision,” he says.

“Everything happens here. It’s quite unique being self-contained. All the calves get finished here, the winter grazing happens here and we supply the bulls and then we’ve got the beef herds.”

They aim to keep 25% replacements in the dairy herd.

A herd of dairy cows waiting to be milked in some yards with mountains in the background

The 1250-cow herd on TeMahanga produce 593kg MS/cow. totalling 600,590kg MS.

The beef herd is calved in autumn, both to spread the workload and to give them most mouths on the ground in spring when they’re needed to control the pasture.

Chrissie takes the beef calves at four days old and rears up to 900, but this year she’s making a change to the operation with the installation of automatic calf feeders, mainly because for the first time she hasn’t been able to employ casual labour to help her. She says the lack of backpackers now travelling the country has had a big impact.

The two automatic feeders they bought, which read the calves’ EID tags to ration the milk, each have four feeding stations and together will feed 300 calves, reducing Chrissie’s workload.

They send prime beef heifers to the local abattoir for butchers and local trade every week and autumn calving helps them keep that going out of season.

Mating on the dairy units starts on October 20 and calving starts on August 1. On the beef operation, mating begins on June 1, with calving in February.

The best dairy cows are put to AI with sexed semen while the rest go to beef breeds including Wagyu, Red Devon, Hereford and Angus. Following AI, Red Devon and Hereford bulls are used. This reduces the number of bobby calves and provides stock for the beef operation.

“We sell a lot of bulls to the dairy industry so we winter through two winters and then in November they go so we end up with a lot of young stock on the farm,” he says.

“There’re 2000 calves, for instance, which are very picky with pasture so you need a big mob of beef animals or something to control the pasture. Also, the Devons are a small breed, so the bulls are six months older to be used over cows and heifers.”

The dairy cows are fitted with collars that work like Fitbits on humans and can accurately detect by the cows’ behaviour when they’re in heat, which is especially important when using sexed semen, which has a tighter timing requirement than ordinary semen.

“The collars tell us all about that cow’s health before the cow even knows it and they’re drafted automatically,” he says.

Red Devon cattle eating hay behind a break

Richard grew up in Devon in England where his family owned Red Devon cattle. He carried on the family tradition here and now has 466 Devon and Hereford breeding cows.

This spring, the collars are being used mainly to monitor rumination in cows that have calved and until they reach 85% of normal rumination, they are not allowed to go on to twice-a-day milking. Richard says this gives the cows the best chance to recover from calving and pays dividends in stock health.

They’re also using the collars to reduce post-calving metabolic issues, including milk fever and ketosis. Richard’s reluctant to share exactly what they’ve done except to say that in the 25 days prior to calving, the feed is changed from the winter diet of fodder beet and kale.

“We’ve sourced a lot of information in the last 12 months from our collars, made some changes and dramatically reduced the issues we were having,” he says.

Richard says being able to use the collars for virtual fencing is an exciting development for the future. The collars use a mixture of vibrations and sounds to control the cows.

“It means on a cold night with snow or driving rain, we can physically move these cows up to a hedge or we can give them another break of feed; you could be lying in bed and do it,” he says.

“We could be shifting them one metre every hour, absolutely knowing all our stock are well-fed; we’re minimising the mess and we’ve done everything we can physically do, whereas if we have 20mm of rain overnight, we can’t physically get round to 53 mobs every hour.”

With what were six farms combined into one, Richard reckons they’re not going to buy any more and will now concentrate instead on getting the most out of what they have.

“We’re big enough, we’ve created a monster so now we’ve got to try to run the thing properly,” he says.

Red Devon cattle close up behind an electric fence wire

Red Devon cattle are a smallish breed that grows relatively slowly and produce good marbling in their meat.

“That’s one reason why we have put sharemilkers on because we used to run the whole lot together and we were milking and doing all the beefies and also looking after all the staff.

“We were probably doing an okay job, but it wasn’t top-notch so now we can get top-notch sharemilkers in, they look after their bit, I look after my bit and we’re all doing a better job and it’s sustainable.”

Having come up the dairy career ladder themselves, Richard and Chrissie believe in giving today’s young farmers similar opportunities to those they have had.

Two of the dairy units are run by the same 50:50 sharemilker, with the Wrights holding a 50% share in their company.

“They came here as contract milkers five years ago and we expect they’ll be in a position to buy a farm next season,” he says.

“It gives them the scale because normally they wouldn’t be able to afford that many cows and it means they can run an efficient operation, basically one farm with two cowsheds.

“I’m quite big on mentoring young farmers. A lot of them are doing really well, they’ve got money in the bank but they don’t know how to get to the next stage and buy a farm. They always think it’s too hard but it’s no harder today than it was when we were doing it, it’s just different, a different scale.”

Chrissie agrees.

“We’re actually fairly driven on that. You only get somewhere if you work hard,” she says.

While the business has grown large and diverse, with 8000 head of stock wintered on 1850ha, Richard and Chrissie say that being self-contained has helped them keep in touch with what they love about farming.

“By rearing your own stock, you have control over the quality and wellbeing from the start of their lives,” he says.

An entranceway sign surrounded by garden for Tamar farm.

Tamar is owned by Richard and Chrissie and is a dairy and beef farm employing 32 staff.

“You put a lot of effort into them and so if you’re a trader, you tend to get rid of those stock just when they’re becoming easier to manage and you really start to reap the benefits.

“It might be a good financial decision to sell them then but there’s actually no fun in that because you put all the effort in and then you don’t see the finished product.

“It might be more profitable to do that, but we actually like to see the whole thing through, it’s quite enjoyable.”

Farm facts: 

Owners: Richard and Chrissie Wright

Location: Mt Somers, Canterbury

Farm size: 1850ha

Cows: 3500 crossbred on three farms, total stock numbers, including beef operation, 8000 wintered.

Production: Total over three farms 1,520,652kg MS

More articles on this topic