Tony and Lynda Gray have farmed in the Pohangina Valley, northern Manawatu for 16 years and their dedication to maintaining stewardship of their land sees them finalists in this year’s Ballance Farm Environment Awards for the Horizons region. Cheyenne Nicholson reports.
Tony and Lynda Gray’s deer, sheep, and cattle breeding farm was the first Horizons regional council whole farm plan under the Sustainable Land Use Initiative (SLUI) and was the starting point of their path to farming smarter. Over the past 16 years, the plan has included planting more than 1200 poplar poles and six hectares of douglas fir along with retiring more land into QEII covenants and fencing off waterways.
The 406ha farm is a good balance of hill country and flat land with 130ha of deer fencing and great tracks and accessways mostly put in by the previous owners. Their business is comprised of 49% sheep, 29% deer, and 22% cattle. They run a Romney breeding flock of about 1300 sheep with rams bought in from the Waikato. Each year they normally finish around 1400 lambs to a target carcass weight of 18kg. With the cattle, the goal is to sell Angus steer calves at weaning at 220kg and retain heifer calves as replacements. Wagyu/Angus calves are sold at weaning at 165kg. The weaner calf weights will be down this year due to the lack of feed for the cows and calves.
They are carrying 60 Angus cows including first calvers mated to a Wagyu bull, the calves will be supplied to Firstlight Wagyu.
During the 2004 floods, they had some bad slips, eight in one paddock.
“I gave Alec Mackay at AgResearch a call and said we needed help.”
They had just bought the farm and were unsure where to start. At that stage, they didn’t quite know what the end product of the SLUI Plan was going to look like.
“We had all sorts of people coming out to look at the farm including a helicopter load of people visiting from Wellington.”
Tony says they explained what they were wanting to do with pole planting and retiring more land into QEII and they asked why we weren’t just doing it all at once.
“Obviously, we couldn’t. It had to be done out of income and not increasing our debt.”
The SLUI plan influenced several decisions that have held the farm in good stead over the years, from their shift from Hereford/Friesian cows to Angus, decreasing winter stocking and picking up stones on the back flats leading to a boost in the productivity and versatility of that area.
“The previous owner had cultivated using a ripper, so part of our whole farm plan was to pick up the big stones, it cost us about $1000 per ha but now it’s much more productive land that we can utilise easier.”
The 25ha of back flats are now the main cropping area and drive lamb finishing. Paddocks are planted with a rotation of swedes, kale, chicory, raphno brassica, plantain, and ryegrass-clover pastures.
On average they plant between 100-150 poplar poles each year on hill faces to prevent erosion.
Lynda says they’ve become more strategic about their placement, noting they ‘over-did it’ in some areas of the farm in the early years. The poles were challenging to establish in the deer unit, with the deer taking a liking to chewing the bark and leaving rub marks but they have established well on the rest of the farm.
“We have trialled several methods of protecting the poles in deer paddocks in the last two years and this seems to be successful although a lot more expensive.”
One project they are addressing under the SLUI plan is looking at ways of reducing nutrients entering the waterways near the woolshed by utilising poplar chips.
One way is to cut a channel, fill it with poplar chips so when the water flows through the chips, it is filtered and is clean on exit. He knows of another farmer trying this system so they are interested to see if it does work. He came across it when on the farm research advisory group for Beef and Lamb NZ.
During their time on the farm, they have retired a further 60ha into QEII on top of the existing 65ha that was covenanted by the previous owners. They have also been investigating carbon farming options and are working with a local beekeeper who has hives on the farm.
Stopped finishing deer
When they first arrived, they had been advised they had 339ha effective area to farm and set to buying stock in. They quickly found they were always short on feed and were left scratching their heads as to why. It wasn’t until they did their whole farm plan they discovered they were unknowingly running 11.5 stock units to the hectare, or trying to.
A number of scrub blocks were included in that effective area that grew nothing. So they had to make some quick changes. They were also trying to finish everything, lambs, bulls, and deer as well as their breeding stock.
“The most obvious option was to quit finishing the deer so we joined Firstlight Venison.”
Buying into the vertically integrated company as a breeder has allowed them to simplify their farming operation, especially as they were learning about the deer industry when they first started out. They also saw it as a great way of smoothing out the financial humps and hollows the deer industry is prone to.
“Our goal is to produce well-grown weaner deer for another member of the Firstlight group to finish. “
They do this through good genetics and feeding. Ideally, they will feed a bit of maize a few weeks before weaning so when the weaners leave the farm to go to the finisher they’re used to it.
They do all the preparation work; drenching, ear tags read and vaccinations so deer can walk off the truck and go straight out in the paddock at the other end.
They monitor the feed availability for the hinds rearing fawns and when necessary will supplement feed the hinds as has occurred this year.
Over the years they have refined their deer breeding operation with the help of their local Advanced Party group. One of the biggest issues they were coming up against was the dwindling deer numbers in the North Island making it difficult to buy in good replacement hinds.
Advanced Party facilitator Pania Flint said at one of their meetings they were sending their best genetics out the gate.
“So we worked on crunching the numbers on breeding our own replacements.”
The first year they kept their best and biggest, and then they just kept growing. Their average liveweight was about 110kg but these things grew to 130kg, so after that, they decided to take the second cut.
The first year they naturally took a hit financially by missing out on the sale of the 50 hinds they kept back, but after that, there was zero dollar exchange in terms of their bottom line. Keeping the replacements would however require them to feed the R2 hinds well enough to attain 100kg average liveweight by mating in March.
“At the start of this we were using Eastern Red genetics, but they were just too big so we decided to switch back to English Red genetics.”
They don’t have the growth rates of Eastern Reds but are a good all-round and robust animal.
“I’m hoping we’ll end up with hinds around 115-120kg.”
Their deer system is largely a closed system with the exception of bought-in sires which are selected on weaning weight and early kill index figures and more recently they have been putting more emphasis on maternal and reproductive performance in line with their decision to breed their own replacements.
Over the years their deer numbers have increased organically. Sitting about 330 hinds Tony says they’re fairly comfortable where they are at but do have scope to scale up if they wanted to.
They have many Massey University students visit the farm, including second-year farm management students who had to work out what the maximum number of hinds the Grays could run was.
If they had crops specifically for deer the students estimated about 400 hinds on the farm would work.
Investing in the future
One of the biggest lessons from the Whole Farm plan was the analysis of soils.
It gave them a greater appreciation for where they could and couldn’t put stock, especially in winter, in any concentration. This has enabled them to minimise soil damage and maximise pasture growth in spring and autumn.
Along with the nutrient reduction project under the SLUI, the Grays are also upgrading their water reticulation system. Unlike their neighbouring farms, the farm lacks a reliable natural spring and for the first time in their 16 years there, a lot of the dams dried out completely this summer forcing them to open gates between paddocks to ensure stock had access to water.
Tony says this season they had to drop a lot of lambs out the system, about 700 in total between store lambs and prime lambs.
“We just didn’t have any feed for them.”
Along with offloading lambs early and some cattle, they have been feeding out to the deer since late January with balage and maize. They are fortunate to be able to pump water from the stream, via a petrol pump but they are looking into the benefits of solar pumps.
“The solar pump won’t use petrol or emit the fumes or require us to start it two to three times each day in the height of summer.”
They will just keep pumping continuously during daylight or for as long as their battery storage lasts.
“We just have to look at the capabilities of lifting the water 140 metres to the airstrip.”
As for the future, Tony and Lynda say they want to focus on being able to efficiently work the farm in an environmentally friendly way. Through the changes they’ve made via the whole farm plan they’ve reaped the financial rewards from increased productivity and smarter farming.
It’s just the two of them to work the farm so things need to be efficient.
They also have their hats in the ring for other industry things like the Advanced Party, chairing the local Deer Farmers Association and a Pohangina Valley catchment care group.
“So we’re often flitting between jobs!”
Lynda says they are in a fortunate position now of being financially able to invest in the improvements they want to make and make life a bit easier as well.
With both of their two daughters keen on careers outside of farming, Tony and Lynda have given serious thought to what they want to do when they are ready to take a step out of farming.
He knows it’s difficult getting into farming and lucky to be born and bred on the farm. He was the fourth generation on the family farm in Marton.
“So if the right sort of person came along we’d look at an equity partnership to help them get a foot in the door. “That won’t be for a while though mind.”
- Location: Pohangina Valley, Manawatu
- Owners: Tony and Lynda Gray Kinross
- Total area: 406ha
- Effective area: 267ha
- Deer: 700
- Sheep: 1200
- Cattle: 540
- Average lambing 150%, scanning 182 % (ewes)
- Average lambing 90%, scanning 115% (hogget)
- Fawning %: Average 87%
- Lamb finishing weight target: 18kg CW.
- Calf weaning target weight: 220kg (Angus steer calves) Wagyu X Angus 165kg
- Farm working expenses: Average $175,000 but is likely to be much higher this year due to buying in feed for the drought