Friday, July 8, 2022

Simple all-grass system suits

The Verrys run a 708ha sheep and beef farm without supplements, without even a tractor. Mike Bland paid a visit. King Country farmers Mark and Susie Verry have farmed limestone country long enough to know that a simple approach works best. Their 708ha sheep and beef farm is run using a strictly all-grass system with minimal machinery input. They don’t even own a tractor. Situated at the top end of the Mangaotaki Valley, southwest of Te Kuiti, the Verry’s “Kohatunui” is riddled with limestone features that range from small boulders to large and imposing bluffs. This broken topography can make mustering a challenge. “There are always plenty of places for sheep to hide,” Susie says. Then there are the “tomos” – holes that can open up suddenly in the fragile volcanic soil structure. Ranging in depth from 30cm to 30 metres, tomos can be a trap for sheep, cattle and even working dogs. Mark Verry: ‘The yearling cattle are our safety valve.’ Mark Verry has lost count of the number of times he has had to rescue animals from tomos, and even though an ongoing fencing programme is in place, the Verry’s stock manager, Luke Pizimolas, expects to become quite adept at “dangling off the end of a rope”. But tomos and bluffs aside, the Verrys love their farm and the district. Like his father and his grandfather, Mark knows the strengths of the farm and how to capitalise on them.

These strengths include a generous rainfall. Situated under the Herangi Range, Kohatunui receives 2500-3000mm a year, making it reasonably summer safe.It is also relatively free from facial eczema.

Spring pasture growth can begin late, with September and October being the crunch months. To reduce pressure on feed supplies the farm has a later lambing and calving date than most other King Country properties. All steers and heifers are sold store rather than finished.

No supplement is made, and stock numbers are carefully balanced to ensure late spring grass growth is fully utilised.

With the reliance on an all-grass system, the Verrys use a flexible selling system to counter the variability of seasonal growth. In recent years, beef cow and ewe numbers have been reduced, although this is partly a legacy of the 2008 drought.

Sheep numbers are sitting around 3000 mixed-age ewes and 900 ewe hoggets. Beef cow numbers have fallen from 200 (vetted-in-calf) to 170, and about 35 heifer replacements are bought-in as yearlings in autumn.

Mark and Luke are still fine-tuning numbers, but feel stocking of about 6000 stock units is about right for the farm.

A key priority has been to keep labour requirements and machinery inputs as low as possible, which is another reason why no stock supplement is made and no crops are grown.

This year about half of the steers and heifers were sold in early November, with the steers averaging $810 (net of selling costs) and the heifers $740. Last year, in an exceptional sale, the second cut of steers averaged $1100 in January. The overall net average for all steers sold in 2011-12 was $944 and the heifers averaged $717.

The Verrys don’t set formal targets for production or financial performance. Instead, Susie says, “it all comes down to how much money is in the bank at the end of the year”.

Mark says: “The biggest target for us is to match feed supply with demand.”

He says the cows play an important role in maintaining pasture quality. He and Susie have farmed bulls in the past, but didn’t enjoy it. While it’s possible some form of trading cattle may be run in future, this won’t be at the expense of the breeding herd.

“I think there will always be a place for cows on this farm.”

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