High octane forages drive farm

Russell Priest

Photos John Cowpland


A Hawke’s Bay farming operation is successfully finishing an increasing number of lambs and bulls on a range of high-quality forages.

Four years ago Kirsty Hill and Gary Holden (see p7) decided to quit breeding ewes and cows to intensify the farming business.

Kirsty, who has completed a Farmax consultants’ course, ran the numbers with AgFirst consultant Phil Tither. They decided to drop the breeding cows and ewes. They also put a greater focus on velvet production as well as the lamb and bull finishing.

The effective area farmed is 505 hectares which includes the home farm Waiwhenua, 325ha (32ha irrigated), 90ha leased next-door and a recently acquired 90ha 15 minutes away at Otamauri.

Waiwhenua is near Waiwhare about 53km north-west of Hastings. At an altitude of about 215 metres the area is regarded as relatively summer safe however the weather can be extremely variable.

‘The self-feeding silage system is brilliant because you don’t have to use machinery which makes a mess when it’s really wet like this winter.’

Annual rainfall is about 1100mm, mostly during winter, but there is significant variation within the farm. The farm is split equally between flats and easy hills with predominantly loess over clay soils with some alluvium near the river. Olsen P levels on the developed part of the farm are in the early 20s with the pH about 5.8.

Waiwhenua’s main focus is to grow as much forage as cheaply as possible and convert it efficiently. The average net return is 18c/kg DM grown.

The challenge for Kirsty and Gary is to carry enough stock through winter to be able to utilise as much of this spring growth as possible. They achieve this by restricting stock intake except for winter contract lambs and feeding crops to bulls during the winter.

This winter they are growing green-feed oats (17ha), Goliath rape (27ha), pea/barley silage (37ha) and fodder beet (2.5ha). Kirsty does most of Waiwhenua’s drilling however the bigger cultivation jobs are left to local contractors.

Fodder beet is a recent crop with a relatively low cost a kilogram of drymatter. Last year a dryland crop produced 18 tonnes DM/ha. More of it will be grown at the expense of the pea/barley mix. Lucerne balage will be used to boost the protein level of the beet. Growing peas/barley on the paddock where it is to be self-fed as silage, then establishing Goliath rape on the paddock after the silage has been harvested, enables two crops to be grown on the same area in a year.

Perennial forage hunt

With the transition to an intensive finishing enterprise work in progress, Kirsty is still “feeling her way” with regard to forage selection. Areas not suitable for cultivation remain in ryegrass/white clover. Perennial forages red clover and plantain/clover, tetraploid ryegrasses and fescue are grown.

Last year during the severe drought she thought a 20ha, four-year-old plantain/clover stand would need replacing so cleaned it up with cattle. To her surprise a massive germination of plantain and clover seeds occurred after excellent autumn rains. Lambs were withheld for eight weeks then introduced to a totally reinvigorated sward.

Chicory may be added to the plantain/clover swards.

Red clover appears to be the best-performing finishing forage to date and usually only stops growing for a month or two in winter.

She believes single-species forage crops like red clover and lucerne in 20ha blocks allows a good number of animals to be rotated around the blocks for an extended period. This minimises the number of times rumen microbes have to be adjusted.

Older pastures are being replaced by modern fescues and productive ryegrasses following a rotation of winter oats and summer brassica crops. These grasses perform especially well following autumn rains after summer dry periods. They also show explosive growth in the early spring, a characteristic required to feed the large number of animals wintered.

“In a normal summer we do dry out so we deliberately have few stock on and are not interested in trying to grow a lot of forage over this period.

Autumn, winter and spring give the most reliable supplies of forage.

The converters

The 142ha self-contained deer unit has been a breeding and venison finishing enterprise for the past 30 years. Now the focus is more directed towards producing velvet. The breeding herd is down to a nucleus of 100 elite hinds to accommodate the velveting stags. This year they bought a stag specifically for its strong velveting genes. The oldest velveting stags are five.

Gary who has his velveting certificate, spends two or three days a week velveting during the season.

To avoid having young weaner Friesian bulls on the farm during the difficult summer period and growing crops to feed them, they buy about 500 in the autumn/winter period at about 200kg.

Some R2 bulls are wintered on grass, grazing immediately ahead of slow-growing spring-contract lambs, spending three or four days in 3ha paddocks on a 60-day rotation. The remainder winter on a combination of ad lib pea/barley self-fed pit silage and Goliath rape in mobs of 40-50 occupying a dry, warm 15ha area between forestry plantings.

“The self-feeding silage system is brilliant because you don’t have to use machinery which makes a mess when it’s really wet like this winter,” she says.

Waiwhenua hinds.

The best of the R2 bulls are killed in the autumn at 550-580kg liveweight (LW) and the remainder in the early spring at 650-700kg LW.

R1 bulls bought in the autumn at about 220kg will go on to a combination of Goliath rape and green-feed oats or fodder beet and self-feeding barley/pea silage. After transitioning to beet for 21 days the bulls get about 4-5kg DM and 2kg of silage a head.

Kirsty plans to establish an intensive cell-block finishing unit.

The lamb-finishing business runs from December, when the first lambs are bought, through to November the following year. An agent buys most of the 10,000 lambs they finish. Last year the average buying in price was $71, this year it has been about $95. They expect to average a margin of $20-30/head this year.

“We normally try and buy 28-30kg framey lambs in large numbers so that we can put plenty of weight on them over the winter/spring period, taking them to 22-24kg CW.”

Lambs with these specifications have been difficult to buy this summer/autumn forcing them to buy heavier, shorter-term lambs.

Both male and female lambs are bought but are run separately. On arrival they receive a quarantine drench, are drafted into weight ranges and managed according to when they are likely to be killed.

Spring-contract lambs are finished on stands of red clover and plantain/clover.

“Lambs at this time of the year are doing in excess of 300g a day on red clover and a little less on plantain/clover.”

Ovation kills all Waiwhenua lambs under its Hawke’s Bay lamb supply commitment programme. Average lamb slaughter weight is normally about 21-22kg however this year it has been increased by about 2kg to make a more-acceptable margin.

Waiwhenua was a recent winner of Ovation’s Supplier of the Year Award.

Revving up lease block

Kirsty is keen to get the recently leased neighbouring block up to productive speed as soon as possible. Olsen Ps have been lifted from below 10 to nearly 20 with 23ha of plantain/red and white clover, and 45ha of new grass established. The plantain/clover area will be subdivided into 2.5-3ha blocks with temporary electric fencing allowing it to be rotationally grazed by lambs over the winter, spring and autumn and bulls in the summer.

A mixed crop (12ha) of peas/barley grown in the spring and harvested for silage in the summer was replaced with Goliath rape in February. The silage is being self-fed to R2 bulls in the winter in conjunction with the rape. The remaining 11ha is in green-feed oats and will be used as winter feed for R1 bulls before being established in fodder beet in the spring.

Kirsty prefers to plant areas destined for fodder beet and plantain in barley or oats first to break up the ground and help remove some of the potential weed burden.

Planning ahead

Kirsty has three children, Robbie (25) has an ag science degree, Willie (23) an ag and farm management diploma and Amanda (21) a social sciences degree.

Kirsty and Gary have structured Waiwhenua Farms, a company to give the children the opportunity to be part of the business through share acquisition.


Spring-finishing lambs in the winter rotation.

Farm production

Intensive lamb, bull and deer finishing, and velveting


10,000 lambs @ 22kg CW

480 bulls @ 300kg CW

600 kg velvet

9000 kg wool

Financial returns

Kirsty and Gary’s total gross farm income is 26c/kg drymatter (DM) with Sheep, 24c/kg DM; beef, 23c/kg DM and deer, 37c/kg DM.

From July 16, 2016 to June 17 this year, Farmax recorded Waiwhenua’s net pasture growth as 6611kg DM/ha.

Total farm expenses are an extraordinary 8c/kg DM, which Kirsty said was the the figure Farmax spits out. They do a lot of the work themselves.


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