An award-winning Wairarapa farm business has evolved from a long-time family operation. Tony Leggett reports.
Intensity at scale is a standout feature of this year’s Wairarapa Farm Business of the Year contest winners, Stuart and Jane McKenzie.
Their path to today has taken several steps of managing, leasing, and land purchasing. They now farm a total of 2106-hectare (effective) of medium hill country in the summer-dry Whangaehu Valley, north of Masterton.
Their original farm, Te Rangi (999ha effective), is a fourth-generation property for Stuart’s family who first arrived in the region nearly 100 years ago.
Stuart’s passion for scale and performance was shaped by earlier stints on a few large Central North Island stations, including Otupae and Mounganui Stations, both on the Napier-Taihape Road.
But the opportunity to head back to his family’s Whangaehu Valley farm, Te Rangi, came unexpectedly early in his life in August 1990 at age 24 when the manager gave notice to the family he was leaving in a year’s time.
“The truth is I was really loving the work on Mounganui. The manager there, Mel Smith, gave me real freedom to make decisions but was always there with advice when I needed it.”
But Stuart headed to Wairarapa to manage Te Rangi and in 1994 he formed a partnership with his younger brother which enabled the pair to buy out their two sisters. His brother joined him at Te Rangi in April 1997, a month after they leased half of neighbouring property, Waihi, plus Papariki, a 40ha block of flats near Masterton which provided valuable finishing country for Te Rangi’s hills.
Two years later, in March 1999, Stuart and Jane formed their own partnership and bought out his brother’s share of the original partnership.
Heavily in debt to achieve the buyout, it forced a period of consolidation until early 2002 when the opportunity was taken to lease the second half of neighbouring Waihi. At the same time, they relinquished the lease of the flat, but small Papariki block.
“It was a bit like the tail wagging the dog with Papariki. We were holding stock here at Te Rangi to suit the grass growth of the Papariki block but it wasn’t working efficiently enough to keep it,” Stuart says.
The following year, the McKenzies bought all the stock from the McKenzie family’s Te Rangi Trust.
“When we look back on those years after 2002, they were tough times. We were doing a lot of monitoring and that with my personality traits led to a lot of time wasted on making sure things balanced.”
Jane says the serious drought that hit the region in 2007-08 was particularly challenging. They were forced to move their cow herd off to grazing but it gave their remaining stock “room to move”.
By 2012, they were gaining comfort from a series of better years of stock performance and climate, so when the opportunity came up to buy a 387ha chunk of the neighbouring Waihi property they had been leasing for many years, they were ready.
“We got a large area of bare land that basically almost doubled in value when we added it to the home property,” Stuart says.
The couple acknowledge it was a big move for them at the time as the purchase included livestock, but the equity gain in land value helped their position with their bank and made it all possible.
“It took a lot of courage, but I had full trust and faith in Stuart to make it work. I was busy with three young children and just knew he was capable of handling the extra scale it gave us,” Jane says.
Stuart says they never seek growth for the sake of extra scale at any cost. But they were comfortable with the larger farm size so long as it added to the overall business.
Five years later, in March 2017, the couple bought the remaining 600ha of Waihi and its livestock.
“It was really perfect timing for us after we’d leased it for many years,” Stuart says.
A little over a year later, in July 2018, they added a further 277ha of Wai-iti, directly over the road from their Te Rangi Station holding, after agreeing to split the whole property with a neighbour on the back side of the property.
“We weren’t going to buy more hills but Wai-iti was very appealing to us. It’s limestone-based country that goes up 100m higher than home, but has less wind, is more sheltered, giving better survival over lambing and offered us a lime quarry plus a water supply from a big spring on the property,” Stuart says.
So, scale is not the limiting factor now for the McKenzies. It remains climate. Although there is around 40ha of tractor country available to crop, they believe the area is not big enough to finish enough numbers of lambs or cattle bred on the property.
“We’re always conscious of the tail wagging the dog like we had with the 40ha Papariki lease block. I’m beginning to think it’s better to lift our cattle finishing capacity or we may cut balage off the flats to feed to our cows coming out of a dry summer-autumn to ensure calving performance is not as compromised,” Stuart says.
Despite their aim to make every hectare count, the McKenzies have been happy to retire and plant 37ha of land not suited to livestock production. They have also been working on eradicating Old Man’s Beard from the property over the past few years and this year took on the challenge of removing ‘Crack’ willow from river edges.
They will continue to fence native bush areas and have a policy to plant 1000 poplar poles every year for erosion control.
They are also fencing streams and planting riparian strips where appropriate.
November target for lambs
Te Rangi’s sheep policy is geared around maximising the number of sale lambs reaching 30kg or more by late November.
To cope with the onset of dry summer weather, the McKenzies have previously killed lambs down to as low as 13.3kg carcaseweight at weaning to maximise the number leaving their property. But last spring, with a change in the schedule they opted to kill fewer and lifted their cut-off to a 14.5kg carcaseweight.
Their mixed-age A flock ewes get a first cycle with Kelso composite rams from April 5 before they are replaced with terminal sire rams to add to the ram power for a second cycle.
The five-year ewes are mated from the same date to Poll Dorset-Texel rams, bought from Andy and Jan Tatham’s Kaiwhata stud on the Wairarapa coastline. Their ewe lamb progeny is kept as replacements for the B flock. These B flock ewes are mated to blackface rams from March 30 to boost sale lamb numbers at weaning in November.
“There is also a group of ewes we call the early mob made up of wet-dry ewes, mostly four-tooth ewes that failed to rear a lamb as a two-tooth. These ewes are mated from March 22 and will always rear a terminal lamb unless they return wet-dry again in which case they are killed.”
Two tooth ewes go to Kelso rams from April 10 for one cycle and then are replaced with terminal rams for a further cycle. Ewe hoggets are mated to homebred rams, selected from progeny out of twin-bearing second cycle ewes run with terminal rams. At docking, ram lambs are left entire from selected second cycle ewes that rear twin lambs or better and around 80-90 are mated each year to the ewe hoggets.
After the initial deep draft and sale of store lambs in December, in a long-standing arrangement set up by their CR Grace drafter Johnny Griffith, another 1500 are sold in January and the balance of about 3500 are carried over till July or August.
‘It was a bit like the tail wagging the dog with Papariki. We were holding stock here at Te Rangi to suit the grass growth of the Papariki block but it wasn’t working efficiently enough to keep it.’
Stuart is making a conscious effort to fine-up the wool clip, again making use of the EID-tagged ewes which are mated to finer-wool sires from Kelso.
Ewe lambs are shorn in January and as ewe hoggets in September. As two-tooths, they are shorn in February and again as a rising four-tooth in December. Six-tooth and full-mouth ewes are shorn in March, when the full mouth ewes are carrying a full year’s wool. Four-tooth and five-year ewes are shorn pre-lamb in May.
Other than some pre-lamb treatment, drenching mixed age ewes is rare on Te Rangi. But this year around 450 lighter ewes were given a drench to prepare them for mating. Two-tooths were drenched about the same time after doing a faecal egg count and had a second Salvexin (Salmonella vaccine) jab at the same time.
Ewe hoggets receive both Vibriosis and Toxoplasmosis vaccine shots, and then a booster as a two-tooth. To create a refugia mob, a mob of better-condition ewe hoggets that are scanned in lamb are undrenched leading into lambing. The remaining in-lamb ewe hoggets and the mob of around 1400 ewe hoggets heading off the farm for the late winter-spring period on grazing are given long-acting capsules mid-winter.
Angus, Hereford and Charolais genetics provide the bull power on Te Rangi.
Angus bulls, selected for calving ease and growth from the nearby KayJay Angus stud, are mated to the rising two-year heifers and three-year-olds before criss-crossing with the appropriate sires. The rising two-year heifers see the bull from November 20 to ensure calving is well through by the time staff are flat out on docking.
Mating of the older females to an Angus or Hereford sire, from the Maungahina stud based nearby, starts from December 22. A ‘B’ selection of cows also go to Charolais bulls along with any females kept from two-year heifers, after they have had their second calf by an Angus bull.
The hybrid vigour in crossbreeding means they can sell about half the steer progeny at 12-14 months of age at 400kg liveweight. The remainder are finished to 295kg CW off the hills and are all off the farm by the age of 2.5 years.
“The acquisition of the Wai-it property means we have the opportunity to finish more of the steers rather than selling them as stores,” Stuart says.
“I feel we are better off with more cattle mouths than proportionally ramping up our winter trade lamb numbers,” he says.
Involving their three children in making future strategic decisions is critical for Stuart and Jane McKenzie.
Their youngest child, 19-year-old John, is studying Ag commerce at Lincoln University. He’s the second of the McKenzie children to study there. His oldest sister Harriet, now 23 and based in New York, was part of the second cohort of students who completed the Food & Agribusiness Marketing degree course at Lincoln.
Their sister Annabel is 21 and now in her honours year in commerce at Victoria University in Wellington.
“We talk about our future plans often with the children and that leads to succession planning. I think they think about it a lot more than we know,” Jane says.
Stuart says he and Jane expect to continue actively involved at Te Rangi for up to another 10 years.
“Then we’ll be ready to step aside and either put in a general manager or have the flexibility to make something else work for the children and ourselves,” Stuart says.
In the meantime, they will continue to look for off-farm opportunities to add to the commercial and residential property investments they already own.
They are also not ruling out more land, especially if it has the scale and contour required to balance their hill country and provide scope for finishing most of their sale stock.
Up to 1000 poles are planted each year for erosion control on Te Rangi Station.
Focusing on technology
Stuart McKenzie admits writing his own new job description was challenging. But he’s determined to drop day-to-day farm operational activities and concentrate on adding value by working on the business, rather than in it.
A new farm manager is expected on board as soon as the Covid-19 lockdown is over and, after a period of settling him in, Stuart will take up his new general manager role.
“Essentially, I don’t have any dogs myself. My job will be to focus on the business, accounts, administration, strategic thinking. It’s an evolving role!” Stuart says.
Having a “finger on the pulse” is a real strength of Stuart’s success. He achieves it through his own experience as a farmer, plus extensive use of new and proven technologies.
He’s a strong advocate of scenario analysis software Farmax which he uses in conjunction with a consultant to chart the progress of the farm, and to spot problems with feed supply and demand early before they become a big issue.
“We used to measure pasture supply with a pasture probe, but we’ve found that we can get as accurate a picture now by eye. By using Farmax regularly, it soon spits out the challenges that need priority thinking to sort out,” he says.
The McKenzies have also introduced to staff on the property a smartphone application called Agriwebb, originally developed in Australia. Agriwebb provides his seven permanent staff and permanent casual workers with real time data via the app, which also acts as a recording device his team can use to note information that would previously have been written into a shepherd’s notebook.
He also uses Dropbox to provide staff with plans and health and safety guidelines so any visitors are signed in on initial arrival, and tracks time and the safe return home of all staff.
The McKenzies are also using EID tags to record the finer-woolled sheep to add some value to the clip and to help with refugia as younger animals.
The farm’s water tanks have data loggers from Wairarapa firm Harvest. These constantly send tank level data to the farm office, allowing Stuart to pinpoint leaks or faults long before there’s a major issue.
“In the past, the first we knew of a problem was an empty trough. Now we can move much quicker and the peace of mind in a dry summer is amazing,” he says.
A Harvest weather station has also been included at the farm, to track weather data and help with management decision making, particularly around the sale of stock.
Dropbox is also used to share information with contractors, regulators, and farm input suppliers.
“For instance, we use Dropbox to share the rotation map with our staff, or things like spreadsheets for livestock weights,” Stuart says.
Use of technology like Farmax, Dropbox and Agriwebb was noted as a strength of the farm business by the competition short-list judges, veterinarian Trevor Cook, former winner Matt Wyeth, and experienced banker, George Murdoch.
Cook says Stuart’s defined plans for feed, management, selling, health and safety, and environmental care are hugely valuable, especially in a challenging farming region where climate can be such a massive influence on performance. A miserly 1050mm of rain fell for the entire 2018-19 year.
Another feature noted by the judges was the investment the McKenzies have been prepared to make in infrastructure to improve management efficiency. In the 2019-20 year, nearly $207,000 was spent on repairs and maintenance on the property.
The entire farm area is split into 250 paddocks and extensive laneways run between them for efficient stock movement. Water is supplied from two massive dams which feed troughs in almost every paddock on the entire property.
Included in a substantial repairs and maintenance spend over the past few years is the realignment of laneways, replacement of the sheep yards and improvements to holding paddocks on the Waihi property, plus a new set of cattle yards and additions to the water system at Te Rangi.
“We’re now in the process of refencing the Wai-iti property. We’re lucky to have two fencers here now working on that,” Stuart says.
The farm boasts its own sheep conveyor, Racewell sheep handler, Prattley portable yards and Tru-test weigh scale units for monitoring stock weights and performance.
What the judges noted about the winners
- Attention to detail means very much in control
- Uses multiple technologies to assist with decision making
- Has a very strong business sense which sits behind a very productive farm
- Has defined plans for feed, management, selling, health and safety and environmental care
- Is very active in promoting farming, supporting farming initiatives and championing the farming vision
- Strong and consistent financial performance has been an enabler of significant business growth whilst also paying out family members
- Focus on good infrastructure to improve management efficiency along with the workability of the property
- Inclusion of children in decision making for growth of business
- Outside house management keeps good capital infrastructure and relationships with staff
- Runs an intensive, large scale strong store policy without the station mentality
- Not a conformist, happy to try new ideas
- Large and diverse staff
- Owners: Stuart and Jane McKenzie, Te Rangi Trust
- Location: Whangaehu Valley, north-east of Masterton, Wairarapa
- Area: 2265ha (2106.5ha effective)
- Topography: Medium to steep hill country, 40ha flats, summer-dry, semi-finishing
- Labour units: 7 permanent, 2 seasonal, 1 casual
- Stock: 21,176 stock units, 10.1su/ha
- Stock ratio: 81% sheep, 19% cattle
- Gross Farm Revenue: $1064/ha (average for past four years)
- Economic Farm Surplus: $847,100 (average for past four years) or $422/ha