John Small on Wai-totara Farm, Dannevirke with R2 Red Devon cross steers and heifers. Picture: Brad Hanson

Preview: In at the deep end

A young couple found themselves taking over the family farm following parental death. Russell Priest reports.

Faced with the death of both his parents in close succession John Small had little time to reflect before taking over the farming business.

John was brought up on the farm which his parents had farmed for 30 years. He spent two years working full time with his father Ross before he died last year. His mother Sandra died in 2015. It’s barely enough time to learn many of the more-detailed farm management practices, but time will fix that. At 24 John has plenty of that on his side. Also in his favour is the good state the farm was left in by his parents for which he and wife Leah are grateful for.

Infrastructure forms a large component of a farm’s capital expenditure.

From the well-constructed and maintained fences, yards and farm buildings to the degree of subdivision, provision of water and quality of the pastures, John and Leah have a sound foundation on which to build their business.

‘Spreading the lambing dates reduces the storm risk and also makes it easier to build up feed covers for lambing.’

Leah, 23, who hails from dairy-farming stock, works three days a week in nearby Dannevirke as a property management consultant with a real estate firm. She spends much of her spare time helping John on the farm for which he is very grateful.

John Small in his woolshed.

The Smalls’ Wai-totara, is a 600-hectare (550ha effective) sheep and beef farm, 35km south east of Dannevirke in southern Hawke’s Bay. Most of the farm is rolling-to-medium hill country (450ha) with 50ha of flats and 100ha of steep hills rising from 250m to 730m. An occasional fall of snow is experienced particularly on the higher peaks.

The Weber area is renowned for its strong west-to-north west winds. Sometimes venturing to the highest point on the farm is too dangerous due to the likelihood of being blown over. The wind is great for getting wool dry but tough on soil moisture levels.

The predominantly clay soils receive an average annual rainfall of 1350mm which is normally evenly distributed although the farm can often experience dry summers.

Crossbreeding pays off

Wai-totara has been farmed as a traditional sheep and cattle breeding and finishing business but there are a couple of curve balls involved – Red Devon cattle and Texel sheep.

Ross introduced the moderate framed, early maturing and placid cattle to his predominantly Simmental herd eight years ago to improve ease of calving, docility and fertility. John has continued with his father’s policy of top-crossing the cows with Red Devon bulls so now there are a number of purebred females in the herd.

Eighty cows with varying percentages of Red Devon blood, up to a quarter of which are R3 in-calf heifers, are farmed. Being an easy-care breed means John can run the mixed-aged (MA) cows on the highest and most exposed country during calving without supervision. It also allows him to avoid lambing ewes at this altitude where lambs can readily die of hypothermia. The R3 heifers are calved on the easier country among ewes and lambs.

The breed met all of John’s father’s expectations having delivered close to 100% calving last year (one dry cow out of 80) although John concedes the bull is normally out for 70 days.

“This makes it easier to achieve a higher in-calf rate than with a more restricted mating period.”

Bulls are out from December 1 to February 15 and while 15-month heifers are not mated John is intending to introduce this practice in the next two years.

Yard weaning of calves has been practised in recent years. Calves are fed on hay for five days giving them the opportunity to interact with humans while also being exposed to an electric fence as John extends the yard area into an adjacent paddock. This provides them with a useful learning experience for when they are break-fed on rape from mid-June to early September before being spread among the ewes and lambs. R2 steers and surplus R2 females are sold in the yards before the second winter.

MA cows not only perform the role of pasture groomers over the spring/summer period but also clean up any roughage during the winter that has developed.

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