A northern Wairarapa sheep and beef farming business is developing at a cracking rate. Russell Priest went along to find out what is driving it.
Keeping the farming operation simple and doing the basics well is working handsomely for Ronald (Ronnie) and Justine King.
In fact it has worked so well the Kings were finalists in this year’s Ahuwhenua Maori Farmer of the Year competition. Even though they didn’t win, they still impressed the judges.
Competition organiser, Beef+Lamb New Zealand’s Mark Harris says the couple may not be quite there yet, but in a year or two they will be a force to be reckoned with.
The Kings’ “keep things simple and do the basics well” is a philosophy which is working for them.
Ronnie says early in their farming career they had a light-bulb moment.
“We realised we were not feeding out stock well enough.”
So they started weighing and condition-scoring which gave them some tangible information from which to make informed decisions.
“It turned everything around for us.”
Bought the station in 2014
Weighing and condition scoring lifted productivity
Targeting GFR of $800/ha, costs 55% of GFR and annual debt repayment of $60,000/year
About $300,000 repaid over three years.
EBITR forecast to increase by $274/ha to $441/ha.
Meat and wool risen 16%, from 129,279kg to a forecasted 150,401kg this year.
Goal reduce debt and buy either a separate finishing farm or a larger station
Puketawa Station 45 minutes east of Pahiatua is the hub of the Kings’ business. When Ronald (46) and Justine (42) bought the 1108-hectare (917ha effective) station in 2014, it was in need of considerable development. The Kings however could see the station’s potential and have set about realising this with the help of Justine’s father Ron Falconer (shepherd/general). They are developing the land and infrastructure while also improving livestock productivity.
It is all part of a long-term goal to reduce debt and buy either a separate finishing farm or a larger station incorporating a significant area of finishing country. Finishing all stock they produce is one of their goals.
Puketawa is mainly medium-to-very steep hill country with only about 12% flat-to-rolling and is run as a sheep and cattle breeding and finishing business wintering 7150su (7.8su/ha). Soils are predominantly sedimentary and the strong north-westerly winds particularly in the spring create a summer dry environment.
To achieve their goals the Kings involve a number of agribusiness professionals and experts. Financial targets include gross farm revenue (GFR) of $800/ha with costs of 55% of GFR and annual debt repayment of $60,000 a year ($300,000 has been repaid over the last 3½ years).
The station has required substantial capital development and the Kings have achieved significant financial progress.
Over the financial period 2014/15-2016/17, the GFR is forecast to increase from $211/ha to $823/ha. FWE is expected to decline by $63/ha to $382/ha and earnings before interest tax and rent (EBITR) to increase by $274/ha to $441/ha.
The FWE was initially high due to large capital fertiliser applications required to kick-start the production process.
Knocking into shape
A carefully planned development programme is financed entirely out of income using cost/benefit analysis methodology.
The state of the fencing at takeover was average-to-poor. All fence lines were investigated on foot and appropriate repairs and renewals made. With some new fences the station now has 77 main paddocks, up from 35 at takeover. Two new sets of satellite sheep yards have been constructed taking the total to five. An extra set of cattle yards has also been erected.
Stock water is supplied via dams, water courses and four separate gravity-fed systems supplying 65 troughs. These were damaged at takeover and have since been restored.
Subdivision has enabled the Kings to establish longer rotations, a more even spread of dung and urine and achieve better pasture utilisation and quality.
As part of the Kings’ goal to farm in both a financially and environmentally sustainable manner, a whole farm plan has been completed through Horizons Regional Council resulting in 150-400 poplar poles a year being planted for soil conservation, 5.2ha of riparian planting and 25.2ha of manuka and bush being retired from grazing. Eradication programmes for possums, feral deer and pigs have also been implemented.
Puketawa Station, Tiraumea,
Area: 1108ha (917ha effective).
Contour: 12% easy, 43% medium steep-to-steep, 45% steep-to-very steep.
Summer dry, rainfall 1050mm average a year.
Total stock units: 7150
Sheep-to-cattle ratio: 70:30
Stock number makeup:
850 ewe hogget replacements.
148 stud ewes.
44 sire rams
238 male hoggets
144 MA cows.
36 R2 in-calf heifers.
34 R2 empty heifers.
28 R2 steers
71 R1 heifers
42 R1 steers
7 herd sires
Gorse is the most serious weed however tawhini and manuka are both present. These are progressively being eliminated by spraying and cutting. Ronnie is conscious of not clearing too much at a time so as not to compromise control of regrowth.
Improving soil fertility is one of the most important objectives in the development programme. When the Kings bought the station Olsen P levels were in the range 5-13. The goal is to increase these to 15-22 in the next three years with capital fertiliser inputs of 2-3.9kg P/su as income allows.
The early-lambing country receives a dressing of 175kg/ha DAP to provide feed for the 950 old ewes mated early. Strategic applications of urea at 40-50kg/ha on 100-150ha are made in the autumn to increase covers going into the winter. Lime at 1-1.2 tonnes/ha is applied before areas are cropped and where areas of gorse have been sprayed. Soil pH is 5.7 to 6.0.
A more recent addition to the development has seen small areas cropped as part of a pasture-renewal programme. Last year 6ha of swedes were sown by helicopter on to a sprayed gorse area and fed to cattle during the winter. A 12ha area of hill country was also sown in plantain/clover using a helicopter and will be used to feed triplet-bearing ewes and finish lambs.
High-performing ewe flock drives production gains
Impressive production gains on Puketawa have followed increasing Olsen P levels. Over a two-year period total kilograms of meat and wool have increased from 129,279kg to a forecast 150,401kg this year (a 16% increase).
“When we came here I quizzed the locals about eliminating weeds and they told me first of all soil fertility must be raised otherwise the regrowth will beat you,” Ronnie says.
Areas of manuka on steep sidlings are left uncut to provide nectar for bees, shelter, soil stabilisation and carbon credits. All carbon on the station has been measured, mapped and credits applied for. Beehives are placed by helicopter on Puketawa under a share farming agreement with local business, True Honey.
Production figures soar
Lambing has increased in the past two years from 109% to 148% last year. Scanning percentage has gone from a flock average of 121% to 182% (MA ewes), 176% (2ths) and 91% (hoggets). Females are only scanned for twins and singles and obvious triplets.
Ewes on Puketawa at takeover were of a type Ronnie believed did not suit the country (big-framed with high maintenance requirements) so he was not prepared to breed replacements from them. Instead they were all mated to terminal sires and have been ever since.
Breeding ewe replacements were initially sourced as hoggets from ram clients of Chris Bendall with some coming from Forbes Cameron. Ronnie continues to buy 200-300 ewe hoggets annually in February from one of those original sources. He was also fortunate to buy Chris’ small Romney stud flock and is now breeding most of the station’s commercial Romney rams from this flock as well as supplying a couple of other clients.
The Kings’ ewe mating dates are to some extent determined by the environment. Ronnie prefers to delay mating until target condition scores (3 to 3.5) and pasture covers of at least 1200kg/ha have been reached. These generally occur in mid-March for the 950 five and six year ewes mated to terminal sires (Suftex and Growbulk), mid-April for the MA ewes (A and B flocks mated to Romney and terminal sires respectively) and 1 May for the hoggets and stud ewes.
‘We realised we were not feeding out stock well enough.’
Of the 750 five-year ewes weaning lambs, the best 200 are retained, 120 are killed and the remainder sold annually to two Hawke’s Bay farmers.
Average target mating weights are 67kg (MA ewes), 62kg (2ths) and 42kg (ewe hoggets). Of the 800 ewe hoggets retained this year 540 were put to the ram and 460 conceived. In future Ronnie would like to put all ewe hoggets to the ram and cull any that are dry.
A small trial was undertaken to compare the lambing performance of those two-tooths that lambed as hoggets and those that did not. The difference was 7% in favour of those that did.
Rams are out for two cycles at a ratio of 1:80.
Ewes are wintered in mobs of generally no more than 1400-1500 with cows in rotations of between three and four weeks. Cows are often left behind in a paddock until the roughage has been removed to Ronnie’s liking. Lighter ewes are drafted from the main mobs whenever near yards and given a drench and preferential treatment.
Lambing begins in early August with the ewes on easier DAP- boosted country closer to home. MA ewes lamb towards the back of the station with single-bearing ewes lambing on the steeper, more-exposed paddocks. As the older ewes are weaned, the younger ewes and their lambs are brought forward ready for weaning, drafting, drenching and shearing.
Ronnie aims to kill 50-60% of the lambs from the old ewes off their mothers in mid-December at 16.6kg.
“We don’t go for big weights in our lambs as our aim is to get as many killed as possible before it gets dry.”
Last year 640 were killed. Those not killed (550) went on to be finished on Ronnie’s brother-in-law and sister’s farm near Eketahuna under a share-farming arrangement. This added another $15 a lamb to what would otherwise have been store lambs. Early lambing cast-for-age ewes are also killed at this time.
“We try to avoid selling store lambs on a weak market and now with the arrangement with Rob and Marama we can finish a good number of our homebred lambs.”
The first pick of the later-lambing MA ewes occurs in early January when last year about 660 lambs were killed off their mothers and another 600 sent to Rob and Marama’s for finishing. By mid-January the Kings will have sent 2500 lambs off the station – an important drought strategy. A further 800 lambs are killed between January and April and 900 sold store.
Most lambs are killed at Affco’s Whanganui plant and marketed as part of a King whanau collective representing 37,000su.
Robust cows needed
While the ewe flock drives the engine room of the business the cow herd does the vacuuming. It is their role to maintain pasture quality for other stock classes and still produce a calf.
Puketawa runs 144 Hereford-Angus cows and 36 R2 in-calf heifers generated by crossing Hereford-looking cows with Angus bulls and vice versa. Only 15-month heifers that have reached 350kg by mating time in late January are run with the bull (for 21days) achieving an in-calf rate of 85-90%. Two-year-olds achieve a conception rate of 92%.
Bull-out date for the MA cows is between Christmas and January 5. Bulls were out for 42 days achieving a conception rate of 91% this year.
MA cows calve on the hills amongst the lambed ewes and R2 heifers behind a hot wire on easier country close to yards.
“I need robust cows on the station so I don’t want them to start their productive life too small otherwise they’ll drop out of the herd.” Ronnie says.
Most of the steer (minus the small ones) and some of the heifer calves are sold as weaners with 60-70 being wintered and retained for breeding.
When selecting bulls Ronnie targets growth (particularly the 400-day weight EBV), the milk EBV, the ease of calving EBVs and the days-to-calving EBV, as well as soundness and a compact type.
The business and their children, Dallas (11) and Bridie (9) benefit from strong whanau connections. Regular community involvement in shearing, mentoring and training youth and horse club affiliations are a feature of the Kings’ off-farm activities. Ronnie is a NZ-certified shearing judge and referee. In 2015 he travelled to the United Kingdom with the NZ shearing team as manager and NZ judge.