Fast track expansion for NZ farmers

11 Jan, 2018 08:42 AM
This partnership has been such a success for us.

A pair of small pink gumboots kick the dust on the laneway as cows wander from their paddock to the milking shed.

Three-year-old Annabelle has had enough of the hot summer day.

Bringing in the cows is often a family affair at White Stag – one of three properties farmed by Andy and Robbie Hunt in New Zealand's Central Hawke's Bay – but today, in the middle of the school holidays, it's big brothers William, 8, and Ben, 6, doing the work.

Andy and Robbie have been on this property since Annabelle was a baby – she was just a couple of weeks old when they had the roof shout for the new shed.

"It's been a busy few years," Robbie says, laughing.

Andy was managing a dairy farm near Onga Onga when the couple started looking around for their next step.

They knew of a property that had just been sold at Ashley Clinton and contacted the new owners to talk about the possibility of a sharemilking position, but instead agreed to an equity partnership.

They've never looked back.

That property was 147ha farm, Cabbage Tree.

White Stag, bought at the start of 2011 from the Severinsen family, has a 108ha milking platform (130ha total), and a neighbouring 135ha runoff, Ratalea, was bought in 2014 from the Wylie family.

Their equity partners are Stuart and Ann McPhail, who dairy farm at Opiki.

"I had worked for a friend of theirs at Linton," Andy said.

"We hit it off straight away and moved up to Cabbage Tree for the 2010-11 season.

"Looking back, we wanted a 50:50 sharemilking arrangement because of all the cashflow benefits that come with that, but we also wanted to settle in one place.

Robbie says: "This partnership has been such a success for us."

"The business initially only involved one farm, but extra opportunities have arisen and Stuart and Ann have been totally on board. We've come up with ideas for development or conversions and they have supported us the whole way."

Andy agrees. "We didn't come up here expecting to expand so quickly but neighbouring farms have become available so we've taken the opportunity to buy them because we might not get the chance again," he says.

White Stag was originally bought as a runoff for Cabbage Tree but converted to dairy on the back of a couple of positive years and an $8 payout.

Andy and Stuart speak regularly, and six-weekly farm meetings are also held with consultant Parry Matthews and Stuart.

"We don't have formal reporting structures in place but have those discussions when we need to," Robbie says.

"We have a great relationship with them. We share the same ethics or values in terms of doing the right thing by the farm, the cows and the people we employ."

Robbie was brought up on her parents' sheep and beef farm at Omakere, coastal Central Hawke's Bay, and went on to do accounting at Massey University.

After a stint overseas, she went back to accounting and has worked at BM Accounting in Waipawa for the past two years.

"I really love the rural side of that as well," she says.

"Rural businesses, particularly farms, present their own challenges and have a uniqueness not always seen in a commercial business.

"Being involved in farming certainly helps when dealing with clients."

Robbie says their two skill sets work well together.

She started on a farm and went to an urban career while Andy grew up off a farm and chose to go farming.

He grew up at Turakina, the son of a teacher and the local school principal.

He says he always loved animals.

He started helping on neighbouring farms when he was 13, was milking every weekend by the time he was 14 and left school at 16 to go farming.

His first job was for the Majors at Turakina then the Fullerton-Smiths at Marton.

After time overseas and a short stint as a stock agent, Andy worked for the Cockrells at Linton before returning to manage the Fullerton-Smiths' farm.

Having met Robbie and making the decision to move to Hawke's Bay, Andy secured a manager's job with Karen and the late Donald Fraser at Rawhiti near Onga Onga.

"I came over to the Frasers to a blank canvas and looked after their conversion from whoa to go," he says.

"It was a great process and I really enjoyed it."

The move to the equity partnership with the McPhails ended up being another natural progression.

"I'm not really a fan of large-scale dairy farming, not for me anyway. I like my cows," Andy says.

"I like to know my cows, where the bigger farms can be more like factories."

Andy also likes to have good relationships with his staff.

Tim Hamilton is their farm manager – he works across the three farms although spends most of his time at White Stag.

Josh Wardle was employed at the end of last year in a 2IC-type role at Cabbage Tree and will be joined by Kahlia Fryer in February.

Robbie says: "Getting the right staff mix allows Andy to have more of an oversight over the business.

"But he does still like to milk and see the cows coming through the shed to make sure they're all looking good.

"We're looking forward to the coming season and feel like we have a great team on board."

A herd of 365 cows is milked at Cabbage Tree which has a 150ha milking platform including 25ha from one lease, as well as another 25ha leased support block.

The herd produces 1100 kilograms of milk solids a hectare or 475kg MS for each cow.

"The first few years we were up to 1200kg a hectare but as we got bigger we took our eye off the ball a bit," Andy says.

"The weather dictates a lot and we've had it tough both climatically and definitely financially with the payout.

"The goal is to get back on track up there and boost that production again.

"In the first year after we converted it, White Stag was producing 540kg a cow but then we had those harder seasons.

"This season we have 235 cows and we're on track to produce 1100kg a hectare."

Cabbage Tree also milks 120 heifers once a day from mid-September.

Smaller cows are kept up there and larger ones move to the herd at White Stag.

Both herringbone sheds have in-shed feeding of maize grain.

Their fodder crops, chicory and turnips, are direct drilled.

"Chicory is common for us, we've been growing it for about eight years and it suits the climate at Cabbage Tree," Andy says.

"There is 18ha of chicory up there but we've changed to turnips (8ha) at White Stag because the chicory struggled in the dry last year.

"We're drier than the top farm."

There is also 15ha of kale at Ratalea, where 350 calves were reared this year.

"We have 140 replacements and we've already sold 120 bull calves at 100kg-plus," Andy says.

"We've done well out of them.

"The remainder will be sold when the market is right but will be gone before autumn because Ratalea's business is to winter our cows."

The Hunts had signed up for water rights for the two lower farms from the now-defunct Ruataniwha Water Storage Scheme.

"It's disappointing not to have that option anymore," Andy says.

"This season has been okay but this time last year we were milking once-a-day and struggling because the farm was brown and dry, which is summer in Hawke's Bay to a tee."

The business has completed a farm environment management plan for the Hawke's Bay Regional Council.

"It was done by Ravensdown's Colin Tyler, who lives down the road.

Under the region's Tukituki Plan Change 6, the farm has to be under certain nitrogen limits by 2020.

The three farms are leaching 45 units of N and under the rule change they will only be allowed to leach 23.

The main issue is high rainfall – 1250mm a year at Cabbage Tree - and light soils.

Through MyFarm, Rachel Baker, who also lives down the road from the Hunts, is gathering data on the three farms to use as a case study.

"We're doing that because we're trying to be proactive with the whole issue," Robbie says.

"If we're going to have to build a feed pad or reduce our stocking rate or winter graze off the farm we need to figure out how our farming system can adapt to cope with that… and budget for any changes.

"That's one of the reasons we've increased the number of calves we're rearing – diversification in light of any future changes."

The Hunts have planted 700 trees since taking over the three properties – mainly natives and gums.

"It's mainly for shelter and protection of the tanker track as well as some riparian," she says.

"Going forward it is definitely something we will carry on doing."

White Stag also has a protected area of native bush and totara trees dot the landscape.

Cabbage Tree has the Mangatewai River gorge along one boundary.

The couple is adamant dairyfarming gets a bad rap that is undeserved. They want a farm they can be proud of.

"We think twice about telling people we're dairyfarmers sometimes when we're at a gathering where we don't know some of the people," Robbie says.

"There can be a negative attitude to what dairyfarming is all about. But we love it and we're good farmers.

"We have a stream that has trout and native eels and the kids love swimming in it, as do visitors.

"We want our children to be proud they come from a dairyfarming background even if that's not where they ultimately end up."

Andy agrees, angry at a headline he saw that morning unnecessarily targeting farmers and not reflecting the nature of the story underneath.

"We have rivers and streams running through the farms and our kids swim in them all the time," he says.

"We want our waterways to be clean.

"I like that quote from Doug Avery about farmers having their gates open and being 100 per cent visitor-ready all the time."

Robbie says they focus on healthy, happy cows and healthy, happy people.

"We don't have to have the big, expensive gear," she says.

"Our business is about the cows.

"We can't pay top dollar to our staff so we can't compete with the bigger companies, but our accommodation is good and we have an understanding with the rosters that families and personal lives come first and we try to make things work for our staff."

The same family-comes-first thinking follows through to the Hunts themselves.

"The kids love the farm and love helping Andy and working with the cows," Robbie says.

"Dairyfarming can be an unsettling industry for a young family. I'm happy we've been able to forge lasting relationships that have enabled us to make our business our home."

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