Former shearer Mickey MacDonald had been used to planning things in his head before becoming manager of Landcorp’s Te Wharua Station. Mike Bland reports.
When Landcorp asked Alan ‘Mickey’ MacDonald to manage their new King Country farm, Te Wharua Station, in 2005, he didn’t think he’d still be there 14 years later.
The former shearing contractor was used to being his own boss and wasn’t sure he could work for someone else. He was leasing the original 1430-hectare block north of Taumarunui, when Landcorp (now called Pamu) bought it with the intention of turning it into a breeding and finishing unit.
“They asked me if I wanted to stay on as manager and I had a good think about it and said yes. I already had a good team here and they all stayed on, so basically we kicked in from day one.”
Answering to a large state-owned enterprise was a steep learning curve for someone previously accustomed to “doing all the planning in my head while I was out on the farm or in the woolshed”.
While he probably spends more time recording and reporting than the typical farm manager, he has enjoyed the challenge of running and developing the farm.
Pamu gives him plenty of scope when it comes to determining farm policy, but he admits he can be stubborn if he doesn’t agree with suggested changes.
“I tell them what I think and they expect that. They are happy for me to spend money on infrastructure, within reason, as long as I can justify the investment. So I run the farm as if it was my own.”
He knew the station had potential when he leased it back in 2002. He was raised in Piopio, just up the road, and his shearing business serviced the area.
“As a shearer you can judge where the better farms are, based on how well the stock are doing. This area always appealed because it had good soils and a good climate mix without the extreme weather patterns or high winds.”
In the early 2000s, increasing production on Landcorp farms meant the company needed more finishing country to finish lambs and cattle. Te Wharua was ideal because of its location and contour mix.
Landcorp took over the farm in January 2005 and immediately invested in fertiliser, fencing and water reticulation. Development started with the construction of a 4.5km metalled laneway through the middle of the farm which formed the focal point for future subdivision.
Today the farm is split into about 130 sheep-proof paddocks, including many 10ha paddocks which are subdivided further using one-wire electric fencing.
Capital fertiliser was a priority in the early years and Olsen P levels on the station now range from 11 on the steeper faces to 39 on the cropping country. This year Mickey has opted to defer some fertiliser expenditure in favour of upgrading existing fencing.
Water supply has been another focus. Originally the farm relied on natural waterways for stock water in the steeper country but a new reticulation system now reaches about 95% of the station.
In 2007 Landcorp bought a neighbouring block bringing Te Wharua’s total area up to about 1800ha, of which almost 1670ha is effective.
Mickey says about 500ha is flat to rolling, with the balance medium to steep hill. Annual rainfall is 1500-1800mm and the soils are mainly Maeroa Ash. It also has some papa soils that can get “wet and sticky in winter”.
Te Wharua runs its own breeding ewes and cows while finishing about 4000 lambs and up to 1000 cattle from other Pamu farms.
In 2018/19 the station wintered about 15,500 stock units, including 6000 Romney ewes, 2200 ewe hoggets, 270 Angus cows and 170 first-calving heifers. It also carried 600 yearling heifers, 150 Angus steer calves, 120 30-month steers and 170 30-month heifers.
A lighter footprint
Last year the station switched to trade heifers instead of steers as part of a policy designed to reduce the weight of cattle wintered.
Up until recently Te Wharua finished up to 1000 steers a year. Many of these steers arrived on the farm at about 15-months of age, averaging 400-430kg liveweight (LW). They were generally carried through until around two-years of age, then slaughtered at an average of 300kg carcaseweight (CW).
“But from now on, the only steers on the farm will be those produced by our own herd,” Mickey says.
About 600 mostly Angus heifers from other farms will be finished at about 240kg CW from January onwards.
“The goal is to get about 450 of those heifers away before their second winter. Most of them come here at around 200kg LW, so we will have to work hard to achieve the 0.8kg LW/day needed to get them to weight.”
After arriving on the farm the young heifers go through a 10-day yarding-weaning process, during which they are fed hay and sometimes silage. They are then rotated in mobs of 100-120 around the easier contour.
In early September they are weighed and re-drafted into early-finishing and late-finishing mobs.
Last season the station also finished 352 steers at 330kg CW from December to June, along with 140 Friesian bulls, which were sold February-March at 270kg CW.
Next season Mickey expects the station to finish about 600 trade heifers, 120 home-bred steers and 170 two-year heifers.
It’s a mostly grass-based operation but a 50ha swede crop is grown for the mixed-age cows and for the older steers and heifers. The station also makes about 1000 bales of baleage annually.
Mixed-age cows start calving from October 1 and the heifers from September 8. Heifers come off the crop a week before calving starts.
Lamb crop gets chop
A summer crop used for finishing lambs has been phased out to reduce costs and to simplify the system.
Instead, surplus home-bred and trade lambs will be finished on grass only.
Mickey says some 4000 lambs from other Pamu farms arrive on Te Wharua from December to January at 25-28kg LW and will be finished April-June at a minimum of 17.5kg CW.
“Autumn is our toughest season here, so it can be a real challenge to get lighter lambs up to finishing weights.”
Te Wharua’s role as a finishing block means a steady stream of stock trucks coming and going from the farm.
In total, the station typically finishes 10,000-11,000 lambs a year, including about 7000 to 7500 home-bred lambs. This year about 2400 lambs were sold store in April-May, due to the dry autumn.
Finished lambs averaged 18.5kg CW, returning a record $130 per lamb.
Of the 6000 ewes mated on the station, about 4000 will go to maternal rams and the rest will go to terminals, usually Texel. About 2000 ewe lambs are retained annually as replacements.
Lambing starts in mid-August and the mixed-age ewes have averaged about 155% lambing (ewes to ram) since 2015, reaching a peak of 161% in 2016.
Mickey says signs are positive for another good lambing this year. Ewes scanned at 183% and he is hopeful of achieving a lambing of 160%.
“We’ve had a very kind winter. Ewe condition score was about 3.5-4.0 going into winter, so they were looking pretty good at the start of lambing.”
Ewe hoggets haven’t been mated for three or four years but the door remains open if conditions are right.
“Carrying so many lighter lambs through the autumn makes it hard to put extra weight on our own ewe lambs. But if we have a favourable season and can get our hoggets up to a minimum of 42kg, it could be well worthwhile mating them again.”
Mickey says one of the advantages of hogget mating is “it gives you a great incentive to get your ewe hoggets right”.
Maternal lambs averaged 29kg at weaning last season and the terminals 34kg.
Lambs typically achieve growth rates of 150-200grams/day from lambing to weaning, but this falls off to about 80g/day between February and April.
Extra lambs can be bought-in at any time if surplus feed is available.
With returns from sheep and beef riding at an all-time high, Mickey says Te Wharua is in a solid position to capitalise on the development work carried out over the last 15 years.
“Soil fertility is great and the farm has excellent infrastructure and good breeding stock, so the nuts and bolts are pretty sound.”
Good team makes Te Wharua tick
Mickey runs the farm with the help of four full-time staff, including shepherd Anita Kendrick and fencer general Doug Carmichael.
His second-in-charge, Carl Carmichael, who is Doug’s brother, recently transferred to another Pamu farm near Mangakino. Mickey is close to finding a replacement for Carl and says he will be missed.
“Carl did an excellent job while he was here. He’s very passionate about farming and very driven in what he does.”
Anita has been on the farm for nine years and is an experienced shepherd.
“She’s great with stock and she’s got the best team of dogs on the farm.”
Anita was raised in the region but broke her back in a farm bike accident in 2011 when she was 18. She uses a wheelchair and a modified ATV to perform farm duties.
Contractors are employed for shearing and for new fencing work.
Mickey says he’s been lucky to have good employees on Te Wharua and they work well together as a team.”
- Te Wharua Station
- Central King Country
- Owned by Pamu Farms of New Zealand
- 1800ha, 1670ha effective
- Breeding and finishing
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