Anne Hardie

When Claire Parkes and Simon Vincent bought their neighbouring farm near Nelson six years ago, the 687-hectare farm carried fewer stock units than their 189ha.

It was also not capable of finishing stock.

Deprived soils and browntop pasture on Wantwood limited production and it carried just 2171 stock units made up of sheep and beef compared with 2276su at home on Castledowns which ran mostly deer. Since then, more than 12km of fencing has been completed at Wantwood for sheep and cattle and 11.5km of deer fencing has been erected to expand the existing deer operation.

An intensive regrassing programme using crops is in progress and breeding is improving stock, with the result they have upped production in a short space of time and today run 7510su between the two farms and finish all non-replacement stock from sheep, cattle and deer.

It’s still a work in progress with paddocks yet to be regrassed and when that is completed, they expect the combined farms to carry 10,000su and be capable of living up to their motto –” finish everything”.

‘We were buying weaners for $50 an animal – they were cheap as. Deer bought us Castledowns and Simon’s job bought Wantwood. We couldn’t have done it without the success of his business.’

It all began from small beginnings for Claire and Simon involving a few deer and borrowed money from a flatmate to buy a house. Claire was in her first year out of university, working as a physical/outdoor education teacher, when she bought five deer caught by helicopter.

It was 1981 and she paid $3500 for each of them and three fawned within the week. Three years later the deer provided finance to help buy a block of land and when five deer were sold for $25,000, it paid for the ring fence on the couple’s lifestyle block.

She’d met Simon at university where he borrowed $5000 from a flatmate to buy a house and ever since then Claire says he has been “financially organised and loves buying land”. He runs a business in dispute resolution where he tackles contractual disputes around the country and that enabled them to buy Wantwood when it came on the market.

They weren’t looking at expanding their farming enterprise, but Wantwood merged perfectly over rolling hills into Castledowns and the combined farms increased options for their two adult children, Matt and Lizzie, down the track if they want to be part of the farm.

Both have had a helping hand to assist them to put together the deposit to buy land and Matt has put it toward buying a 90ha block of Wantwood while Lizzie bought a lifestyle block in Canterbury with her partner. Both still have substantial mortgages to pay off, but Claire and Simon say each is committed to working to get their debt down on their properties and it gives them the opportunity to put their equity into the family farm down the track and build on it, if they want to.

“We figured the sooner they got on the property market, the sooner they get ahead.”

Claire had grown up on a farm and was always an outdoor person, so says she should have gone farming from the beginning and readily swapped teaching for the lifestyle block when the kids came along nearly 30 years ago.

“Right from birth I’d put Lizzie in a fish crate on the front of the motorbike – you can’t do that stuff now!”

When Lizzie was a year old, they bought Castledowns with 1250 ewes on it and gradually converted the farm to deer with the help of cheap deer when prices crashed and everyone else was selling up.

“Deer was very good to us. It went through a crash and we bought up big time. We were buying weaners for $50 an animal – they were cheap as. Deer bought us Castledowns and Simon’s job bought Wantwood. We couldn’t have done it without the success of his business.”

The combined farms now spread between Church Valley and Eighty-eight Valley, a short drive from Wakefield, with a mix of alluvial flats graduating to rolling hills and about 150ha of steeper hill country at the rear of Wantwood.

A 30ha block of forestry at the top of those hills has recently been harvested and will be replanted in pines and the rest of the steeper slopes will retain their original pastures but with the increased subdivision to graze it better. The remainder of the farms can be cultivated and that’s where they have concentrated their efforts, with another four to five years’ work still ahead of them.

Simon Vincent, Claire Parkes and manager Tom Curnow at Castledowns.

Fencing a priority

Claire works alongside manager Tom Curnow who shares their passion to turn Wantwood and Castledowns into a high-producing finishing unit that is farmed sustainably, plus one full-time staff member, Tim Berry.

Fencing was the priority when they took over Wantwood; replacing the “knackered” fences and subdividing larger paddocks so they could manage pasture better.

They’ve done most of the fencing themselves, apart from steeper hill country where they have enlisted a contractor to drive the posts in. Fertility was a close second, with Olsen P levels hovering around five and the worst paddock a dismal three when they bought the farm.

Ideally, Claire says they would like to get it up to 25, but realistically they are targeting 15 at this stage. The region is deficient in potassium and sulphur as well and it’s just going to take time to build that fertility and increase stock numbers.

“We took it on knowing it would be a challenge,” she says. “We started with 26 cattle and 2000 ewes and in that first summer we did some intensive regrassing.”

In those first couple of years, paddocks of browntop were sprayed and direct drilled with short-term pasture mixes as the cheapest method of getting new grass in the ground and to begin lifting production. Since then Tom has been systematically working through the farm, beginning with the finishing blocks, to renew pasture with longer-lasting mixes.

From year two, Tom says they planted 20ha in a winter crop of rape for sheep and cattle which was then sown in pasja or rape for summer and followed by permanent grass in autumn including fescue, sub clovers in one area of the farm, ryegrass and cocksfoot mixes in other parts. Some were sown solely in ryegrass, depending on the land and stock that would graze those paddocks.

In the past two years Tom has sown down 20ha of plantain-clover mixes for the ewes coming off the hills with lambs at foot, to graze after tailing and then for finishing lambs. The new pasture has extended the shoulders of the seasons, particularly early spring and late autumn, as well as making it easier to cope with Nelson’s typically dry summers.

All up, it has cost $1100/ha to transform browntop paddocks through two crops and then into quality grass which Tom says has given them a dramatic increase in production in six years.

“You’re pretty much tripling your stock units, going from running three per hectare to about 10 per hectare and we’re now producing 2730kg/ha of meat (average).”

“If we hadn’t done anything,” Claire says, “we wouldn’t have finished lambs half those years.”

Last year was the only year they have sold stores and that was 300 lambs when Nelson was hit by drought. It was the year of the wildfire through forestry surrounding Nelson and critical water shortages, yet Claire says it was pretty much a typically dry summer for the region. They just hadn’t had one for a while.

“We went in with incredible feed and we always have a backup plan. The silage pit is full of feed every year and we carry an extra silo of grain and if we don’t use it in summer, we’ll use it in winter. You always sell lambs if it gets dry and last year we had to sell some trading cattle. Some years you win and some years you lose.

“You have to be decisive. We sit down and talk about strategy. When we’re going into dry, we make a point of doing it weekly.”

After last summer’s wildfire in the region which was started by a contractor working a paddock near Wakefield, Claire says they have increased safety precautions on the farm. Now, they carry fire extinguishers on the farm bikes and ensure they don’t stop the bike in longer grass; looking instead for an area of short grass to stop.

“Nobody can use a chainsaw on the farm when it’s dry. It’s just not worth having a fire.”

Though last year’s drought may have been typical for Nelson, Tom says it has had an ongoing effect.

“It went into autumn which was a killer. Our rams go out on March 10 and we weren’t able to flush the ewes which hampers everything.”

It’s one of the reasons they are now growing raphnobrassica as well as pasja for summer crop. Tom says the raphno can be used to finish lambs, then it can be shut up for either a third grazing for the lambs if needed, or to flush ewes.

He says it’s a very water efficient crop which enables it to make good use of Nelson’s water-short summers. This year they have 14ha planted in raphno and another 10ha planted in pasja. They trialled raphno four years ago when it was first on the market and everyone was still learning how to graze it.

“We were told to graze it like rape, but you needed to graze it harder. You graze it hard first and then hard a second time, otherwise you lose its quality and it goes woody.”

Raphno is in the ground for the entire year, but Tom says they can winter cattle on it as well. Then it is planted into pasja or hunter before being sown back into grass the following autumn when there is more chance of moisture.

Claire and Tim work through the lambs.

Lifting lambing percentage

Ewes are a priority as Claire, Simon and Tom increase the ewe flock and it’s a slow process lifting lambing percentages when pasture and soil fertility are still a work in progress.

Six years ago the flock was achieving 115% at lambing and they have lifted it to 136% with a goal of reaching 145%, though last year’s drought caused a blip in their plans. To date they haven’t lambed hoggets because they have been renewing pasture and using it for the ewes, though Tom says they intend to breed from the hoggets down the track.

“We’ve always maintained we don’t need to lamb hoggets until the ewes are where we want them in breeding and lambing percentage. I don’t think there’s any point doing it when the ewes are 136%. And ewes are the priority at this stage.”

Rams are bought from Turanganui Romneys in Wairarapa and also from Piquet Hill in Waikato, with the latter sought for facial eczema tolerance which has been a minor problem on Wantwood.

“We’ve never seen clinical problems,” Claire says. “But we’re surrounded by people with major issues and our assumption was the younger stock had sub-clinical symptoms when the two-tooths didn’t scan so well. We’ve bought eight facial eczema-tolerant rams to date and that’s our insurance.”

They’re counting on ram breeders doing the work with drench resistance because of its threat nationwide, while on the farm they carried out a drench reduction test six years ago which tests resistance for every drench family. They are doing a similar test now for worm resistance and are awaiting the results.

Later in the season the ewe replacement lambs are basically put under pressure for worms by stretching out drenching and that becomes part of the selection process.

“It’s natural culling really,” Tom says. “Put under pressure, they drop off and go to the works.”

At weaning they have about 1200 ewe replacement lambs and the final selection is not made until August 20 when they retain 900 to continue building ewe numbers which are now up to 2800.

While replacements are not selected until as late as possible, ewes are tagged for culling as early as tailing when they have udder checks and any problems identified so they can be quit as soon as the lambs are weaned.

Meanwhile, cattle numbers have increased significantly to 105 Angus breeding cows and their progeny, plus

between 60 and 80 cattle are bought in annually as 15-month-old steers. The latter means they only need to take them through one winter and slaughter them before heading into summer.

“Last year we bought cattle averaging 400kg at $850 and sold them this year for $1650,” Tom says. “That was because it was dry when we bought them and we had the winter feed for them.”

Between their own cattle bred on the farm and the bought-in steers of mixed beef breeds rather than dairy cross, they have between 150 and 180 cattle to sell each year. Once ewe numbers have reached 3,000, Tom says they will reassess their trading options.

Depending on the season and if there is surplus grass, they also buy in lambs. It wasn’t an option last year due to the drought, but the previous year they bought a truckload from Southland in early January.

“You have to be flexible in your trading,” Tom says. “Bar the weaner deer because we have a relationship with three breeders and we would be better to buy them and trade out of them (if necessary) to keep that relationship.”

Relationships are valued which is why they sell all three classes of stock through one company – Silver Ferns Farms – as well as sourcing stock. Deer head to Hokitika, beef to Belfast and lambs to Pareora where the latter will be slaughtered the same day as long as they leave Nelson first thing in the morning. The same-day kill policy continues throughout the season and Tom says it’s a big incentive.

Lambing begins about August 10 and the first draft of lambs is in mid-November when about 35% will get over 35kg to kill out at 18.5-19kg CW and go on the truck.

“I think that is one area we can improve and if we can get 50% off mum, it dramatically improves everything else. They’re your money lambs because you have done nothing to them.”

Returns have been phenomenal for both sheep and beef, but Tom’s cautious about how long China’s swine fever outbreak will last and its need for replacement meat.

“Commodity prices are high but at the back of your mind you’re hoping they don’t crash. It’s only a matter of time before they build up their numbers. We can’t be too shortsighted.”

KEY POINTS

  • Bought neighbouring 687ha farm which carried less stock units than their 189ha.
  • An intensive regrassing programme has lifted stock numbers to 7510su with a target of 10,000su
  • Cost $1100/ha to transform browntop through two crops into grass
  • Over 12km of fencing for sheep and cattle, 11.5km for deer.
  • Lambing 115% to 136% in 6 years, average of 2730kg/ha of meat