Ensuring every stock class has two different income streams is one of the major strategies for success on Awakino Station. Story and photos by Victoria Rutherford.

It’s a long-term game farming a high-country station, but if there’s one thing Dan Devine doesn’t like, it’s losing.

“We’re trying to stay ahead of the game as much as we possibly can,” he says, “hence trialling things and looking at old ways and reinventing them.”

Dan and partner Jasmine Mathisen have been steadily building production on Awakino near Kurow, North Otago over the past six years. They have two daughters Ava (5) and Ida (1).

Dan says they’re constantly thinking, changing, and trying to keep ahead of everybody else.

“We don’t want to be in the bottom bloody 50% of the farmers, we want to be in the top 20%… I hate losing. It really annoys me.”

Dan and partner Jasmine Mathisen with their two daughters Ava (5) and Ida (1).

One of the major strategies they have employed is ensuring every stock class has two different income streams. Every stock class on the place was scrutinised when they took over. The station now winters almost double the stock units it did when they arrived – 24,000su split between sheep (50%), beef (25%) and deer (25%).

“We’ve worked hard on trying to guarantee an income stream through every month of the year,” Dan says.

“We’ve diversified out to secure this, instead of relying on one period of the year where we’re rich and the rest of the time we’re broke.”

Dan is quick to credit the previous managers for laying the foundations needed for the station to up its potential.

“We’ve been lucky,” Dan says. “It was all there ready to go, it just needed someone to push the production at the other end.”

Family-owned since 1986 when it was bought by Dan’s grandfather Tom Fraser, a Dunedin businessman who dreamed of owning a high country station.

Dan is the first family member to farm Awakino. Climate heavily influences the way they farm – hot, dry summers and cold winters are expected.

“One of our biggest drivers is farming to the season that we have,” Dan says.

“We can go from having 800mm of rainfall one year to 350mm the next year. The variability makes it challenging to farm.”

Having multiple stock classes offers options when dealing with high-country climatic scenarios. “Flexibility around the seasons is probably one of the biggest things we had to build into the programme.”

Winters have been a bugbear of previous managers, but it’s less of a problem nowadays with feed budgeting. Baleage and silage is cut in spring in preparation for the winter months. Summers remain the biggest challenge – decisions are based on fattening through the spring and having everything off by Christmas, before the dry hits.

“We either have too much feed or none at all, normally it’s the latter.”

This year they’ve had 900mm of rainfall and everything has stacked up nicely.

“If you want to whinge about it, we haven’t had the sunshine to be able to utilise it as much as we normally would. But hey, no-one’s complaining.”

After spending time working on extensive high-country farms, Dan moved to the stock manager role at Ben Todhunter’s Cleardale Station in the Rakaia Gorge. It was there he met Jaz, the Cleardale stud manager.

“I can’t speak for Jaz, but the reason why I went to Cleardale originally was to learn about the intensive side of management,” he says. “Cleardale was a golden opportunity to do that.”

EBVs play a big part in Awakino’s operation across the three stock classes. They target one or two traits, including growth rates. “If we get other traits that are acceptable, we’ll take it, but it’s just really focusing on two main traits that don’t have any correlation to each other.”

Of particular focus has been the efficiency of the cow herd, who are instrumental in maintaining pasture quality. Their sole duty is to clean up post-weaning, and Dan says they do a tremendous job.

“The cattle are very necessary for this place, they’re a vital tool,” says Dan. “They’re probably the lowest-earning stock class on the place, but we couldn’t do without them.”

Awakino winters about 1200 head of cattle as a closed herd. Progeny are kept as replacements or sold as in-calf heifers. EBV-focused growth rates are key, with a close eye kept on constitution. Fertility and eye muscle are also considered.

“EBVs are huge for us, but, at the same time, we still need to ensure the cattle are suited for travelling around the hills.”

The 430 mixed-age cows are Hereford. A high EBV growth rate Hereford bull is run for the first two cycles, followed up by a high EBV Angus chaser to ensure the third cycle progeny can catch up.

Hereford bulls have been sourced from Benmore Station for years now. “They’ve got a good, broad spectrum of types,” Dan says.

Younger Angus bulls from Cleardale are used over 75 R2 first-calving heifers, targeting growth rates. About 130 R1 red heifers are kept as replacements, and Dan is particularly proud of his 96% in-calf scanning rate for the heifers, which he believes has come through his focus on using EBVs.

Fertility already sorted

There’s been little fertility improvement since they’ve been here.

“Previous manager Tony Plunkett put a lot of energy into culling underperforming cows, lifting fertility and calving percentages.”

Ease of calving is also important. The switch to Cleardale genetics has helped with a focus on low birthweight EBVs. “When we first came we were pulling a lot of calves from first-heifers, but now we are only pulling one or two a year,” says Jaz.

About 70 R2 Angus-cross steers are finished for Five Star Beef at 480-500kg liveweight and 70 R2 Angus-cross heifers are sold in-calf to other stations as replacement progeny.

They’ve carried on a Hereford chaser bull programme selling into the dairy market, set up by a previous manager. It works well with their diversification strategy and clients are returning.

“Early spring is a very good one for bulls, it provides us with a solid income when we don’t have a lot coming in.

Dan says the dairy bull market ranges each year between $2200 to anything up to $2600, based on schedule plus a small premium.

“We’re careful not to overcharge because we want to keep those loyal people coming back each year.”

About 134 R1 and 130 R2 Hereford bulls are run, with the true Hereford colour a priority so the buyers can tell the difference between cycles in their dairy herds.

“Red-necked, too much white – that really them off, so we’ve stuck to a traditional colour with the Herefords and it’s important for us to stay with that.”

The bulls also help maintain pasture quality over their two winters, running through the deer unit on clean-up duty after the hinds.

“They are fed maintenance with no preferential treatment, and then as soon as that spring period happens, they go onto lucerne to power up for the dairy guys.”

They aim to have them between 500-600kg LW for the dairy market. Too small and they struggle to get up to weight to kill by the end of summer, but over 600kg and they can be too big for dairy heifers.

“We’ve got to be reasonably good at predicting what weight we’re going to have them at so we can shut them down or speed them up if necessary. If we must speed them up, we’ll run them on to a supplementary crop that’s left over from another stock class after winter.”

Switching up the sheep side

A switch from Romneys to Halfbreds is working well on Awakino. Six years ago the station was running about 750 merino mixed-age ewes and 4000 Romneys, not including hoggets. They now run 4000 Merino ewes and 4000 Halfbred ewes including two-tooths.

“The Romneys weren’t doing it for us with the wool, hence the change to Halfbreds,” Dan says.

The Merinos have stayed static in weights, lambing and weaning percentages, however the Halfbred performance has been surprising.

“We thought we’d get a 10 to 15% drop between Romneys and Halfbreds fertility-wise, but they’re not far behind. In fact, they’re almost bang-on what the Romneys were doing.”

They scan about 180% for mixed-age ewes and lamb 155%. Two-tooth Halfbreds scan and lamb 160%, and 145% (to the ram), respectively. Lambs are contracted at 38 to 40kg LW with Alliance for the Merino meat brand Silere.

“That’s an important one for us.”

He says the specs for the contract are 17kg CW, and generally they’ll pay about 40 cents above schedule. The breed change has lowered their output but they hope to be back to capacity of 10,000 lambs this year to capture the 10c/kg volume supply payment.

Hoggets are separated into dry and in-lamb mobs and fed through the winter. Ewes and two-tooths are scanned, drafted and split into lambing mobs, and fed kale or swedes post-shearing. This continues through to set stocking in September. Twin and triplet ewes are supplemented.

They’ve moved from Halfbred rams to three-eighths to fine up the micron of the halfbred replacements from average of 26 to 24 micron. Genetic selection over the past six years has been based on fertility and footrot scores, but Jaz says they’ll turn focus back to wool, which has been treated more as a by-product while getting to where they want to be. They are ruthless with their culling but need to be with footrot and hard winters.

Replacements are taken from the two-tooth flock. Everything else just goes to a blackface terminal for simplicity.

“Genetic gain is fast-forwarded as much as possible through using younger stock,” Dan says.

On the Merino side, they buy in 1000 replacements Benmore Station in October. They’re sitting about 15 microns with good EBVs and footrot resistance. The Awakino mixed-age Merino ewe flock is about 17 microns.

“It’s a good system for us. We’re riding on Bill’s back… he does all the bloody work!”

It also offers flexibility.

“If we do get a bad drought, we can dump everything in that Merino sector and then pick it up again the next year by just buying and replacing from Bill again.”

About 1000 Merino hoggets are brought from Lachie McKenzie at Tabletop Station in the Hakataramea Valley, wintered, then shorn in October.

Merino ewes are mustered out by shepherds to the extensive country on the Maniototo side of the property in February. They’ve got to be back before the snowcap (late March/early April), otherwise they won’t get them back over the St Mary Range again.

Dan says years ago, they used horses and walked them.

Now, they’ve cut the muster down to two to three days.

“We’ll get the chopper out and then just muster one block to a hut each day and slowly bring everything home.

“Using a helicopter has sped everything up. They can find the sheep and drop people off right on the mobs rather than spending half a day looking for them.”

They use data to their advantage with all animals EID tagged. This makes decisions around production and footrot easier.

“Excel is quite a powerful tool for us,” he says.

Most of their decisions now are based on historic data. The previous managers may not have had the computer power, but they’ve kept reasonably good diaries.

“I’ve got good records, right the way through.”

They’ve used Farmax for the past five years but find modelling the hill country station a struggle.

The hill offsets the flats a lot so they needed two models, one for hill, another for intensive fattening.

Everything’s shared through Cloud Farmer, so the staff members have access to information as well. If they want to know something, it’s just at their fingertips on their phone.

  • More on Awakino in the June issue.