Uplifting award success but future uncertainty lingers

Uplifting award success but future uncertainty lingers

Published on, 3 April 2015

Their financial and production performance officially puts them in the top 5 per cent of New Zealand sheep and beef farmers, but John and Catherine Ford of Rotorua’s Highland Station still feel they are farming on a knife edge.

The couple are the supreme winners of this year’s Bay of Plenty Ballance Farm Environment Awards, a competition they entered partly because they hoped any success might strengthen their case with the local regional council, which holds their farming future in its hands.

The council is developing an “action” plan for Lake Tarawera and Lake Rotokakahi or “Green Lake”, and with 80 per cent of their 1240 hectare (922ha effective) property in the Lake Tarawera catchment and the balance in the other lake’s area, the Fords live daily with uncertainty.

As the council’s been developing an action plan for 13 years – this is its third go, says John Ford – the uncertainty is probably the biggest risk to the Highland Station bull beef and sheep business.

Ford says about 1900ha of farmland in the Lake Tarawera catchment is in the council’s sights in its quest to axe about 350kg of phosphate run off a year – 750ha of which is the Fords’ property, the biggest in the catchment.

While they’re not living with the spectre of losing up to 30 per cent of their stock-carrying capacity like their farmer colleagues bordering Lake Rotorua – a requirement Ford calls “land confiscation” and a “miscarriage of justice” – he reckons the council could be aiming to retire land in the Tarawera catchment.

It all means that even after a “phenomenal” bull beef production year boasting a $1168 margin on bull calf replacements and scooping a prestigious environmental award, Highland Station is looking over its shoulder.

The rolling to steep country farm has been home to John Ford all his life. His father, Allen, began developing the property south of Rotorua in the early 1930s, and John Ford has farmed it for 34 years, buying out the family with Catherine in 1995.

It is the second time Highland Station has entered the local Ballance awards; in the inaugural event 13 years ago it received the Gallagher innovation award.

Ford has developed a strong competitive streak after 18 years in a 12-farm discussion group which benchmarks each other’s financial and production performance each year.

he widely scattered properties are farmed by similarly-aged graduates of Massey or Lincoln who regularly inspect each other’s farms.

“It’s like having a board of directors come to the farm,” says Ford, who’s keen to move into a company governance or advisory board member role and hopes the success in the Ballance awards will boost his credentials.

Highland Station’s annual per kg productivity is 350kg per ha compared to a 2013 national surveyed average of 130kg.

Beef + Lamb’s Economic Service says 350kg would be an “excellent” performance, and 20 per cent above the average for hill country farms carrying similar livestock.

Catherine, a former radiographer originally from Auckland, and John employ five staff, three of whom live on-farm.

Each staff member has a geographic area of responsibility. The bulls and sheep rotate around the whole farm during the year, but the staff are guardians of a designated area.

About 140ha of Highland Station virgin bush is under a QEII covenant, another 100ha registered with the local regional council, and other patches of virgin bush have been retired. All the bush has been fenced off since 1980.

John Ford knows the property’s ancient volcanic soil heritage as well as the cab of his tractor.

“When my father came here it was mostly bracken and teatree, we think as a result of the Taupo eruption 2000 years ago. More recently there was the Kaharoa eruption about 800 years ago and only the bush on top of the hills here survived.

“Then 130 years ago there was the Tarawera eruption. It wiped out part of the bush on this property.”

The result of all this geological liveliness for Highland Station is its soil base of Rotomahana mud, a mix of geothermal sediment blasted out from lakes near the obliterated Pink and White Terraces and very fine scoria, which ranges from 3m deep to about 20-30cm.

Rotomahana mud is grey because it has been under water and its sediment content means it holds water well, a blessing in summer, but less so in winter.

The soil also has higher than usual levels of potassium.

Ford says in a normal season – excluding the last three years of summer drought – the property produces about 10,500kg of dry matter a year over most of the farm.

Highland Station requires its farmers and stock to be hardy.

Composite bred rams were used for a while to lift fertility but the lambs weren’t hardy enough to withstand the cold.

The station has settled on romney rams from Landcorp’s nearby Goudies Station and buys “the very best” of the ram index.

“We are not chasing fertility anymore, we are looking for an animal that can handle the higher altitude, the cold and pressure from the mob. And has solid feet. Lambs need to be robust when they are born,” says Ford.

He says his real strength is in cattle farming and he’s “working on” his sheep skills.

Highland Station notched up record earnings this season for its bull beef – and in a dry year.

The farm has run bulls for 24 years but didn’t make them a focus until 1995 when the couple took over the farm from family.

Friesian bull calves are bought in at 100kg and go off to Silver Fern Farms 15 months later in January – or earlier – at 290kg average carcass weight.

“This year we had killed all our bulls on our average kill date of January 15, at an average 291.5kg. They only did one winter and had gone by the end of January. Our margin this year was $1168 on replacements over calves. That’s phenomenal.”

Why? Because getting results from bull beef farming isn’t easy, Ford says.

“People find running bulls challenging. And you’ve got to own them – you need to be able to own or finance them, unlike dairy grazing.”

Ford says farming bulls on a large scale is all about managing and feeding them well.

Highland Station runs mobs of 16-25 bulls, and mobs never connect.

“Each has its own little hierarchy and we keep them as well fed as possible. Our target this year was to grow 1.04kg a day average for their whole time here. A well-fed bull is a profitable bull.”

This year, most bulls had gone to the processor before Christmas due to another dry summer. The station never incurs a second winter’s feed costs.

“Our system is really efficient because we are running yearling bulls through only one winter. On June 30 they are around 330kg liveweight, so they need roughly 2 per cent of their liveweight [in feed] to maintain that weight, so that’s about 7kg of dry matter. If we are feeding them 10kg-plus then they should be growing around 0.7-0.8kg per day,” Ford says.

Highland Station’s puggy soil is another good reason not to farm heavier two-year-old bulls.

There’s a lot of “real stockmanship” on the station with its policy of designating block responsibility, says Ford.

“Having delegated the responsibility for these bulls and their day-to-day movements to my staff they take that responsibility on, they take ownership of it.”

In April, a “cell” system is started for bulls with polywire fencing carrying a minimum 5000 volts.

Up to 16,000 fence standards can take three weeks to put up.

Every bull mob has 12 cells – which might be just two paddocks divided into six cells each.

Mobs are shifted between cells according to winter feed supply. When it rains in winter, they may be shifted twice in a day.

“They go onto fresh food, sit down and chew cud and they don’t fight. A fighting bull is not a growing bull,” says Ford.

When the couple bought out the farm 20 years ago, it had about 100 paddocks. Today there are 230, fenced to separate steep country from easier contours and to be farmed according to corresponding financial plan results.

Highland Station livestock – about 400 ewes, 1200 hoggets and 800-plus bulls – are grown on fresh grass only, with 60 per cent of the station’s income made on grass production through September, October and November. Steers are sometimes brought in for fattening if there is surplus grass.

The farm used to make silage and hay.

When the couple took over the farm they swapped angus cows for hereford-friesians which they put to simmental and charolais bulls.

“Pretty typical stuff and it went quite well, but when the lambing percentage went up and we were feeding our bulls properly we didn’t have spring surplus to feed cows well or make silage,” says Ford.

By 2001 all the cows had gone.

Highland Station also used to run deer, which Ford’s father introduced in the 1960s.

“Deer complicated the whole operation. They were all around the buildings and there were no holding paddocks for shearing and they made it difficult to bring the bulls in every month. So we sold the deer, got $250,000 for them, paid off some debt and restocked with bulls and sheep,” says Ford.

“The whole operation became just so simple, and once you simplify your operation you can focus on what works and what doesn’t.”

About 600ha of the station is steep hill country, the balance easy to rolling.

Average monthly rainfall is about 130mm. But readings are way down this year with just 30mm in January, 60mm in February and 45mm so far this month.

Creating a water supply for animals and the five houses on the station has been challenging, as it was for Ford’s father. While the farm is in two lake catchments, both are distant, and Ford believes lack of surface water was the reason the land was not developed until his father took it on.

In the days when the farm had just one pump, if it broke down in summer, the property would be without water within eight hours.

So the Fords have installed two bores and two pumps with a new computerised switchboard.

They’ve also put in a water wheel at the back of the farm which pumps to two tanks. There is one natural waterway on the property, the Wairua Stream, which is fenced off.

The farm has 190 shallow retention dams, which overflow when it rains heavily but minimise sediment runoff.

Highland Station has two airstrips and has 20 years of fertiliser records. Soil tests are done annually with Waikato consultant Doug Edmeades. Capital fertiliser was put on in 1996 to get phosphate levels up to 30 Olsen units, and today’s economic optimum measurement is about 25, says Ford.

On Rotomahana mud country, sulphur is applied along with a little phosphate.

Potassium and sulphur are applied in spring to part of the farm which lacks potassium, and selenium and cobalt counter mineral deficiency.

In August, sulphate of ammonia is applied on the bull country to ensure strong September grass growth. Urea is applied if grass is running short after a drought, to ensure enough winter feed.

Ballance awards judges recognised the Fords’ “exceptional financial and production results on one of the best environmental outcomes possible”, acknowledging their many years of bush and soil protection work and low nutrient runoff.

Now the couple can only hope the Bay of Plenty Regional Council has a similar conclusion about Highland Station.