Jaimee and Chris Pemberton bonded over a love of farming. Now they’re grazing dairy heifers and running Fresian bulls on grass supplied by PGG Wrightson Seeds at Becks, Central Otago. Story and photos by Karen Trebilcock.
It must be close to the perfect match – an agronomist passionate about growing pastures and brassicas and a farmer with a contracting business.
Jaimee Pemberton met her husband Chris when she was working for Ravensdown. He was farming with his parents in Millers Flat in Central Otago and she was his fertiliser representative.
With Chris’ parents retiring and the sale of the farm, plus Jaimee beginning work for PGG Wrightson Seeds, the couple went looking for a new property and a long 18 months later found Clynelish – 170ha at Becks on the road to the Blue Lake.
Now, a year later they’re grazing 200 R1 and R2 dairy heifers and about 100 of their own Friesian bulls on some of PGG Wrightson Seeds’ newest grasses as well as kale, rape, fodder beet and swedes.
“One of the great things about working for PGG Wrightson Seeds and being on our own farm, is that I can be the first to put my hand up to test out the latest cultivars,” Jaimee said.
One of these is Vast, PGG Wrightson Seeds latest tetraploid perennial ryegrass which has a heading date of plus 35 days, keeping its feed quality going longer into summer.
“Vast has been very impressive so far. However, I’m excited to see how it recovers after a winter with the minus eight degree frosts we get here.”
Challenging but rewarding
Jaimee grew up in Timaru and was planning on studying a Bachelor of Arts at Massey University but a summer of rousing changed that.
“I loved it. I asked Massey if I could do a double degree in agriculture and arts and they said it was an unusual request. Every lecture clashed.”
Instead she went to Lincoln and did a Bachelor of Agriculture.
“Lincoln was amazing but those first few weeks were tough. There were things the lecturers were talking about that I had no idea what they were. I didn’t know what a heifer was. I didn’t know how a pivot went around.
She spent her summers at university working on a dairy farm near Geraldine and was accepted into the Ravensdown graduate programme.
After nearly four years with the fertiliser company she was “itchy” for a new challenge and the position at PGG Wrightson Seeds came up.
“Working at PGG Wrightson Seeds is challenging but very rewarding. I get to visit all sorts of farming businesses across Otago and meet a wide range of people.
“Most farmers will deal directly with their local retail rep. Often the retailers will bring me along to farm visits for a range of things. Something as simple as helping to diagnose a crop disease to something as complex as creating a whole farm agronomy plan.”
“Sometimes people have used a certain crop or farmed a certain way for years, usually with very good reason, but often we can still make small tweaks to a system to get that extra bit of production for the client, and that’s where the real satisfaction comes.”
Each year Jaimee likes to keep her knowledge up to scratch by attending events like the annual Grasslands Association conference, local field days and this year she attended the Resilient Pastures Symposium in Hamilton.
“I really look forward to these events as I always come away with lots of new information and ideas which I can pass on.”
One of Jaimee’s favourite parts of Clynelish is her regional research site which is set up on a hard, dry corner of the farm near State Highway 85. It’s where Jaimee’s day job and the farm collide.
“At PGG Wrightson seeds we have regional research sites set up all over the country but Otago has always lacked a large site.
“We have a wonderfully wet site in Gore where we take clients and farmers to, so I always had my eye out for a dryland site to contrast this.
“When we moved onto Clynelish we just happened to have the perfect little corner which wasn’t adding a lot of value to the farm.
“With the help of my colleague, Ethan Butcher, who works as our agronomist for Otago and Southland, we’ve drilled a trial site with about 40 different species and mixes.
“We’ll record data and make assessments on how all the different species perform. We can then hold field days and share data with retailers and farmers in the area.
“This site has already surprised us with some annual clovers and dryland grass species really starting to prove their worth under the challenge of dryland conditions.
“Our list of species we want to try is growing quite long, so we will have one part of the trial which each year is drilled into a new crop.
“However, the perennial plants will be untouched long term to gather more data on how long plants like Cocksfoot, Fescues and red clover will persist in our environment.”
Clynelish is split by two roads and has 100ha under pivots and another 35 to 40ha irrigated by K-lines.
“We use our water strategically over summer to establish crops and top up our pastures.
“Having variable rate application means we can adjust the water rate on different parts of the farm.
“Going forward, our plan is to use more drought tolerant plants like lucerne and tall fescue to improve our water use efficiency across the farm so we can be even more targeted with our irrigation.
Chris said the beef operation was where the profit was but the steady cash from the dairy grazing was needed especially as they were just starting out.
“Also, the dairy yearlings and heifers are lighter on the soils compared to the larger animals. We’ve got quite heavy soils here and we need to look after the soil structure,” he said.
“In the future we could look to incorporate some trading lambs into our system but for the time being we are just
set up for cattle and that’s what works well for us.
“We also both have a keen interest in exploring some of our arable options going forward.”
They farm in an equity partnership with Karl and Ro McDiarmid. It was the McDiarmid’s second farm and a change of lifestyle also saw a change in their priorities.
They put the farm on the market but Jaimee and Chris couldn’t quite manage to purchase it alone.
The idea of an equity partnership was suggested and, after many meetings and much careful consideration on both sides, they decided to set up the 50:50 equity partnership.
“When we were considering an equity partnership, we wanted to make sure that we all got on and that our values and farming philosophies aligned,” Jaimee said.
“We were advised by many people that the key to a successful equity partnership is open and honest communication and that has been working well for us so far.”
Jaimee and Chris get paid for managing the farm and the profit is shared on the percentage of ownership. During the next 10 years the plan is for the Pembertons to buy a greater proportion of the farm until they own all of it.
“We talk to Karl and Ro every week, but they’ve said to us to treat it like it’s our farm and farm how we think we should farm,” Chris said.
Already planned is riparian planting with their own home-grown natives and fencing off and forming a wetland in an area that goes under in heavy rain.
Keeping the finances flowing is their contracting businesses. Between the start of November and into the autumn they make 8000 bales of balage along with some cultivation and drilling work for their clients.
The dairy grazing is from a farm nearby at Omakau and the bulls are bought through Anzco, coming onfarm between 300kg and 400kg.
“We get really good growth rates from them in the spring, 2kg/day from September through to November and we sell them at about 600kg.”
They use the TechnoGrazing system which keeps the bulls in small mobs of up to 10 animals behind wires with portable troughs. They’re shifted every second day. It reduces bulling and stress on the animals, grazes pasture more evenly, and stops animals walking causing damage to soils.
As well as the bulls destined for the works, they have another 40 ready as dairy service bulls.
Jaimee helps on farm and with the contracting when she can, however working full time for PGG Wrightson Seeds consumes most of her time. Jaimee says Chris is the farmer of the two of them.
“I still manage to get soaking wet when I shift the K-lines.
“I like being challenged. My personality type is a learner and with PGG Wrightson Seeds you don’t even have to ask for professional development, it’s just there.”