Sandra and Rod McKinnon in one of their wetlands. Sandra says she’s ‘a bit of a sucker for toi toi.’ Pictures: Stephen Barker

Doing the right thing by the land

Sandra and Rod McKinnon are supreme winners of Waikato Ballance Farm Environment Awards for 2018. Glenys Christian reports.

Although Rod and Sandra McKinnon didn’t have much spare cash when they bought their first 44-hectare dairy farm out of Matamata 25 years ago some was quickly earmarked for planting trees.

“The house was a wreck and the farm a bit the same,” Rod says.

“There was a lot of work needed. But we started planting trees even though we had a limited budget and time.”

He still knows all those trees and exactly when and where he planted them says Sandra.

They’d started contract milking at Putaruru before 50:50 sharemilking at Tirau for three years. They moved back to Putaruru for another sharemilking position for two years before their first farm purchase. Sandra, now assistant principal at Cambridge School, had started working there so it made an easier commute for her.

“We love the Hinuera area so the location was important to us,” she says.

“But we knew the farm was run down and we weren’t stupid to that.”

They milked 120 cows through a small 17-bail rotary to begin with.

Two years later they bought a further 25ha block which had been subdivided off the original farm some years before, allowing them to expand their herd to 160 cows.

“There were feral goats running around and drainage was needed,” Rod said.

“I’d be less inclined to tackle that workload now.”

‘Our first priority was to get the riverbanks planted.’

But after development it allowed them to expand the herd to 160 cows. In 2005 they bought a 92ha block directly over the road which had very few sheep and beef on it and no trees. Some of the land was sold off but the rest was able to be accessed by the McKinnons’ herd after an underpass was put in. A 32-bail second-hand rotary was bought from Opotiki and went in on the new block.

“It was what we could afford,” Rod says.

An in-dairy feeding was added and more recently Protrack went in.

They started developing ponds and planting exotics as well as caring for the Mangawhea Stream, a tributary of the Piako River, which runs through their farm.

‘People usually think of councils as big, bad dogs. But they’ve been very helpful. For us, the environment and the council it’s a win, win, win.’

While they bought another 33ha last year, they made a conscious decision not to increase cow numbers to a great extent. They’ve already earmarked 4ha of sidlings and wetlands to be retired from grazing.

“We want to reduce our footprint but increase production per cow,” Rod says.

“We’ve still got to make money.”

And with the new block their young stock can be grazed on the back hills where they have less impact on the soil.

In 2015 they retired 25ha to develop wetlands under a Waikato Regional Council plan. Rod had been working on this area for a few years but then approached Fonterra’s local sustainability manager, Sam Cashel, who brought the council’s catchment management officer, Warren Coffey, out to the farm to see it.

Sandra raises about 8000 native seedlings each year for planting out around the farm.

“I think he was pleasantly shocked,” Rod says.

“At the end of that meeting we were drawing up maps.”

Now into their third year of planting the McKinnons have received funding for fencing around the area along with planting advice.

“People usually think of councils as big, bad dogs,” Rod says.

“But they’ve been very helpful. For us, the environment and the council it’s a win, win, win.”

They estimate they’ve planted upwards of 10,000 trees so far all over their farm at total project costs of $125,000.

“That’s increased because we’ve allocated new areas,” Rod says.

“But we’re more ruthless now about where we put up fences.”

As well as having a great relationship with Tauranga company, New Zealand Native Flora, which supplies and plants for them, they’ve set up their own nursery onfarm, which Sandra runs. She rears about 8000 seedlings each year, admitting she’s “a bit of a sucker for toi toi”. But there are plenty of cabbage trees, manuka, carexes and flax as well.

“I haven’t got too fancy,” she says.

“If I had time I would do more but I’m certainly more regimented in what I do.”

She says it’s not that hard to work out what to do, like planting grasses close to the riverbanks then trees further away, with information from Fonterra and the council.

“Our first priority was to get the riverbanks planted so we wanted to focus on that.”

Next they moved on to wetlands which she says was hard work, especially when some areas they planted flooded shortly afterwards causing banks to collapse and the job had to be redone. One thing they did realise early on was that they’d fenced too near to streams for flood events, so those had to come out and be placed further from the banks.

2015 was also the year that they wrote their own Farm Environment Plan where they included wetlands, ponds and more tree planting for shade and erosion control.

“It had been 25 years in the making, doing the right thing by the land,” Rod says.

“We just formalised it.”

There was still plenty to be done when it came to pest control, getting rid of feral goats, reducing possum numbers and making a start on clearing blackberry and barberry. They attended open days on other award-winning properties and received encouragement with what they were doing.

“A lot of it is about being able to justify what you’re doing,” he says.

In the past when he’d lost an animal in a swamp he’d made sure to fence that area off as a priority. Then his attention moved on to making sure fertiliser wasn’t wastefully spread in wet areas. They soil test regularly and current nitrogen leaching is assessed at 25kg/ha/year, which they would like to reduce even further.

“Prioritisation for planting depends on what money you’ve got available,” he says.

“It has to be both environmentally and financially sustainable.”

Often top of the list are areas that they see more often and they can appreciate more once they’re planted.

“I like things to look aesthetically pleasing,” he says.

“There’s that feeling of coming up the road and thinking, ‘That looks nice’.”

Rod and Sandra at their 2.7-million-litre effluent pond which gives 90 days’ storage.

His care and attention to detail is well proved when he mentions that he mows around his effluent pond from which effluent is spread over 30ha. Sam Cashel was called on too when it came to working out the best effluent system for the farm. Storage calculations showed 2.7 million litres capacity would give 90-days storage with effluent spread over 30ha by two travelling irrigators

“But I make sure I keep it as low as possible in summer and autumn,” Rod says.

New pumps and stirrers were added and Yardmaster Halo electronic monitoring installed, with him helping to prove and extend the mobile phone application for the innovation developed by TagIT Technologies and Matamata company, Reid and Harrison over the last four years. There’s GPS monitoring on one of the irrigators and pond levels as well as geo-fencing of drains, streams and wetlands, all monitored by the Halo system so there’s no risk of effluent entering the waterways.

“It’s a great failsafe option,” he says.

If there’s a burst pipe the pump will automatically shut down and a txt alert is sent to his phone to let him know what’s happening. Its collected data tells the story on the farm mapping tool of exactly where the irrigator’s been over the last 12 months.

“And with nutrient monitoring we can map exactly what nutrients are going on the land.”

The McKinnons at the Yardmaster Halo electronic monitoring installation.

A strong relationship built with Reid and Harrison has seen many farmers come on to the property to look at the way the system works.

“They’ve brought Chileans, Irish and farmers from the United Kingdom here to see it, and that’s helped us with further developing it,” Rod says.

The farm’s water usage is monitored through water meters with water coming from two bores and reticulated to troughs in every paddock so there’s no need for the herd to find another water source. Recycled water is used to wash down their uncovered feedpad which can hold up to 400 cows.

“We grow 14ha of maize on the farm and felt we were wasting it feeding it in the paddocks,” Rod says.

The land where the crop is grown is too far from the dairy for cows to walk from and has been cropped for the last 15 years.

Covering the feedpad is in their future plans for stock health reasons.

As well as feeding 300 tonnes of maize silage every year they used 180t of palm kernel last season, which previously had only been used as part of a feed blend fed through their in-dairy feeding system used strategically in spring and summer. It will also be used to get more minerals and trace elements into the herd along with their two Dosatrons.

Milk production has increased by 50kg of milksolids (MS) per cow per year over the last four seasons.

“It’s not so much that we’re feeding more but we’re using our feed better,” he says.

Chicory and some turnips have been grown until a move into more maize as part of a pasture renovation plan last season.

Their herd was crossbred but over the years they’ve moved more towards Friesians with the crossbreds now making up only about 20%. Rod has carried out AI himself for the last 20 years using LIC semen.

“I’m quite selective on breeding policy,” he says.

“The key is to milk fewer but better cows.”

After six weeks AI Hereford bulls go out. There’s a 90% three-week submission rate giving an empty rate of around 8%. Their 80 replacements annually, selected from about 100 calves reared, go off to a grazier at Maungatautiri. Herd testing is regularly carried out four times a year, allowing effective culling so their best cows remain in the herd.

They employed two full-time staff, both of whom lived onfarm, but this season have taken on a contract milker.

“It’s all about freeing up Rod from the dairy so he has more time for planting and more wetland establishment,” Sandra says.

He’s a founding member of the Piako River Catchment Forum and their farm has been used as a case study for the Fonterra Tiaki Sustainable dairy programme.

“I’m really proud as a dairy farmer of what we’ve done,” he says.

“Sometimes you have the feeling that you’re the kicking ball of society. It’s a hard row to hoe being a dairy farmer today. But there are so many doing such good things. It’s the 10% at the bottom who need to be forced to pick up their game to the level of the other 90%.”

Sandra said there needs to be education, support and encouragement and sometimes farmers are not promoting what they’re already doing to a wider audience.

“The awards are a big step in that.”

Rod’s plan now is to focus on the environmental side of the farm.

“We believe in what we’re doing and we’re leading by example. As you get older and wiser you’re more conscious of what you’re leaving behind,” he says.

“In a long, hot summer having more trees for shade is great for the cows.”

And then there’s the ongoing maintenance of what’s already been planted.

“Releasing trees is a huge job – it can be bigger than planting,” he says.

“And you need a strong maintenance plan.”

Blackberry is still one of their worst pest plant problems along with convolvulus.

“We were probably planting plants in the beginning which were not strong and well-grown enough, but now we do and we’re sure they’ll survive,” he says.

“There’s nothing better than seeing and hearing a tui in a flax bush.”

The McKinnons have two adult children, Laura, 21, a police officer in Auckland and Lachlan, 20, who’s completing a Bachelor of Management majoring in agriculture at Waikato University. As well the supreme award the couple also won the DairyNZ Sustainability and Stewardship Award, the Miraka Farm Stewardship Award, the WaterForce Integrated management Award and the Waikato Regional Council Water Protection Award.