Taking care of their most precious asset

Taking care of their most precious asset, 22 March 2016

It’s clear June Birchall thinks a smart farmer should put environmental care high up their priority list.

“Good production starts with healthy land and healthy cows – why would a good farmer not take care of their most precious asset?” she asks. “It is in their best interest to.”

June, her husband Shane and children Daniel Birchall and Megan Schutt, walk the talk when it comes to ensuring their farm and the surrounding land is thriving. When you are living on the doorstep of Lake Okaro, near Rotorua, there seems little other choice – although few farmers are triple award winners for their efforts.

The Birchalls milk 550 crossbred cows on the 280ha Waionehu Farm, which has rolling to steep contour. Shane has lived on this property since he was 15 years old and his parents bought the then-137ha farm.

Shane and June bought the farm off his parents in 2003 and since then it has become an increasingly family-oriented business.

The couple are closely involved in the management and day-to-day running of the farm alongside Daniel and Megan, who have worked together on the property for the last seven years.

“On the farm, we’ve always made it so everyone does what they are best at,” June says. “Daniel takes care of all the maintenance, fertiliser application and effluent systems, I do the books and all the domestic chores, childminding in the spring and some relief milking, Megan oversees the herd, health and safety, environmental management, payroll, financial budgeting and calf rearing, and Shane oversees everything.”

Shane’s nephew Jason Birchall is in his fourth season working at Waionehu and other members of the Birchall family are relief milkers and weed sprayers; 14 of the extended family live on or near the property.

Megan’s two sons, Ryan, 20 months, and Charlie, 8 weeks, are a joy to their grandparents and have added renewed vitality to the family unit.

“I stick around for two cups of coffee in the morning when the kids are around,” Shane says.

Farming this property has never been easy; many challenges have been overcome along the way. But it seems that whatever hurdles arise on farm, the Birchalls tackle head on with good grace and a sense of humour.

In the beginning, it became apparent that the steep contour was making standard twice-a-day milking extremely difficult.

“It wasn’t an easy farm, contour-wise,” Shane says. “It was extremely labour intensive and we weren’t making any headway. Cows just weren’t getting in calf again; our empty rates were disappointing.”

Shane put his young herd on once-a-day milking in 2008 and things started looking up; the empty rate dropped from 12 per cent to 3 per cent and production lifted.

“The young herd just wouldn’t stop milking,” June says. “They were still milking in May.”

It is now their eighth season milking both herds once a day, which was the best thing they ever did, June says.

“Milking once a day has reduced the stress on cows and on us, plus production hasn’t suffered,” she says.

Despite the once-a-day milking, Shane still prefers an early start: cups on at 4.30am and finished by 8am.

The Birchalls have also found challenges in sourcing good once-a-day genetics in New Zealand.

“Crossbred cows are better suited to once-a-day, but we are increasingly looking to overseas semen for good genetics,” Shane says. This season, they have sourced semen from three different companies in order to improve their herd.

Maiden heifers are AB’d for three weeks, mature cows for six weeks. Bulls follow up “the odd straggler”.

Shane says 9-10 weeks is the cut-off date for cows to get in calf; those labelled empty or late after nine weeks are put on the cull list.

“The herd has improved out of sight as a result,” he says. “We udder and attitude the whole herd on a one-to-ten basis, which is overlaid over the heifer calves. If they aren’t up to scratch because of the dam, we cull on that also.

“For the past seven seasons we have had a surplus of heifers calves to choose from; we are very particular about what we keep.”

Calving starts on August 1 and the Birchalls target a nine week spread and 90 per cent calved in the first six weeks.

As is the case with steep contour, managing pasture has also been a challenge. The Birchalls can only mow 30ha of the property due to the gradient, so they set the stocking rate high enough to keep on top of it. They also started planting plantain and chicory 12 years ago, which has been a benefit for the farm. Both plants have deep roots so help draw up water and nutrients from further down the soil profile; it also withstands dryer conditions for longer than pasture.

“It has been huge for the farm, especially on the sidelings,” Shane says. “It really gets the stock up and grazing the harder, steeper country.”

The farm has a pasture-based system, with only around 400kg a cow of grass silage as winter feed coming in, plus some bulk silage.

The majority of Waionehu Farm is Rotomahana mud, which is a very fertile but heavy clay soil prone to pugging.

“We have a no-pugging policy that can be almost impossible to achieve,” Shane says.

The family have invested in two Herd Homes, in 2007 and 2009, which has helped them achieve this policy for most of the winter months, resulting in huge improvements within the pasture sward. In spring and winter, when it’s wet and cold, the family sleeps better knowing the cows and newborn calves are under cover and the pasture is not being pugged.

The Herd Homes have also been invaluable for supplement feeding, as a high proportion of any supplements fed onto the wet paddocks are wasted, and movement around the farm with tractor and feed out wagon is hazardous.

Rotomahana mud is also notorious for growing ragwort and Waionehu Farm is no exception.

Each year, the Bay Of Plenty Pig Hunting Club does a fundraiser on farm where 20 members armed with knapsacks spend the day spraying ragwort and thistle.

The Birchalls have always been proactive when it comes to the condition of their land. They were conscious of the potential problems of run off from the farm into the lake and were already intending to construct a wetland on their property when Environment Bay of Plenty approached them in 2004 with the news that a wetland was part of their plans for developing the Lake Okaro reserve. The Birchalls provided 2ha for the project, with the council providing a further 0.3ha of reserve land.

“It was quite a big decision for us but we wanted to do it for future generations,” Shane says.

Lake Okaro had sadly been defined as “super-eutrophic”, the second-worst lake water quality category, with persistent blue-green algal blooms most summer. Using 60,000 plants including rushes, grasses, flaxes, cabbage trees and kowhai trees, the wetland was planted in 2005 and was the first in New Zealand to be designed specifically to protect a lake from natural runoff (as opposed to effluent).

Once mature, the wetland was expected to remove about 165-210 kilograms of nitrogen per year, roughly one-fifth of the N reduction target set in the Rotorua Lakes Protection and Restoration Plan.

In 2009, the Okaro Catchment Lake Restoration Group was formed with representatives of each of the landowners in the lake’s catchment, including Shane as chairman. Using the Overseer programme as a benchmark for each property, a whole catchment action plan was developed.

Today Shane and Megan are involved in Project Rerewhakaaitu Inc, encompassing Lakes Okaro, Rerewhakaaitu and Rotomahana, with the aim of getting the majority of properties within those catchments to have nutrient management plans.

With such a passion for caring for the lakes it is not surprising the family won three awards in the 2016 Bay of Plenty Ballance Farm Environment Awards – the Ballance Agri-Nutrients Soil Management Award, the WaterForce Integrated Management Award, and the Bay of Plenty Regional Council Award 2.

“The water and soil awards were especially important to us given the location we are in,” Shane says.

The judges were impressed with the “innovative family with individual talents and collective strength”.

“They have excellent understanding of nutrients and soils and have an environmental focus within the farm and the community”.

The Birchalls have completed many improvements on the property in addition to the wetland, including permanent exclusion of stock from all drains, streams, wetlands and seepage areas; revegetation and pest plant and pest animal control, and re-routing the two streams flowing into Lake Okaro through the constructed wetland.

The family will continue to update their environmental action plan as they go, with more improvements on the cards.

“The science of farming has changed so much in the last 30 years and when you know better, you do better,” Shane says. “It all takes time and money so we do things as and when we can.”

The Birchalls are firm believers in spending time off the farm too. Shane and June are heavily involved in the Rotorua Pig Hunting Club, having been president, treasurer and other roles over the years.

Shane likes to go fishing at Ohope Beach with his mother and father when time allows, and June loves to get away to their Whitianga bach for a few days of peace and quiet.

Daniel and Megan also run side businesses connected to Waionehu Farms in their spare time. Daniel runs a contracting business on the weekends, which started as a hobby and is now thriving, and Megan and her husband Danny have drystock on a lease block. They started by inseminating five black white face cows with rare brahman semen four years ago, and now have 100 head of cattle, plus sheep.

Shane says 10 years ago, they never thought their participation in environmental work would have increased to its current level.

“We have some great neighbours, passionate farmers who are dead keen on doing what they can to protect water quality,” he says.

“We hope that somebody else down the lakes catchment decides to enter the Ballance Farm Environment Awards next year, which will further enforce the fact that we are not sitting back and letting things happen down here.”