Day Four

Not much to report today. Had a quick visit in the morning to a Wagyu stud farm run by Brownrigg agriculture. They are a pretty large cropping and lamb finishing business, but there is a sideline in Wagyu, both breeding and finishing.

Spot the cows

Spot the cows

This particular unit breeds around 200 bulls a year which go either to their share farming partners, or another slightly related company called Firstlight foods. All of the meat they are producing is finished on grass, as there is not enough market in NZ for grain fed – and the Aussies can export it cheaper than the Kiwis can make it.

Terrible photo, but I thought there should be at least one of some animals. These are F1 crosses

Terrible photo, but I thought there should be at least one of some animals. These are 6 month old F1s, Kiwi Cross x Wagyu

Brownrigg will finish anything from a 100% fullblood animal down to an F1 cross (50%), whereas Firstlight only uses crosses. This is a pretty interesting area to me, as it is something I am currently doing in a very small way (Firstlight have 10-15,000 Wagyu at the moment, slightly more than me). The conventional way to cross a Wagyu is to use an Angus mother, and a lot of these animals are this mix. Wagyu is the number 1 breed for marbling, and Angus is the number 3. Number 2 is Jersey, and a Jersey x Wagyu cross will apparently provide very high and consistent marbling levels, but with a small carcass.

I would like some of these cattle dogs please

I would like some of these cattle dogs please

However, there is a breed used a lot in NZ dairy called the Kiwi Cross, which is Friesian x Jersey. When this is combined with Wagyu, the carcass size is increased, and there is less chance of getting yellow fat – which can result sometimes from the Jersey genetics. Most of these animals will be black/dark brown like a Wagyu, but occasionally there will be some white on the belly. If someone tries to sell you a Wagyu x Friesian cross and it has white above the belly, don’t buy; it’s a fraud! [apparently]

I asked if the genetics were for sale; “If you have a millions bucks you can have this bull” was the answer. I think they liked that one.

IMG_2545After leaving the farm, I stopped off at what can only be described as a shed full of tat. How can someone make a living selling old shoes and dinner sets from the ’70s? Maybe this is what would happen in Wales if subsidies were taken away?

Lake Taupo

Lake Taupo

This evening I am, coincidentally, staying just outside Cambridge. En route I passed through Taupo, and did my first ever skydive. WOW!

Tomorrow should be a really interesting day.

Day Three

I’ve moved a bit today, this is roughly where I’ve been all day.

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First stop Scott Lawson, an organic farmer near Hastings. This is a small 65 ha farm, surrounded mainly by fancy vineyards, and also the outskirts of town. Obviously on a farm this size, the agriculture is going to have to be pretty intensive to make a living. Running a few sheep on some grass isn’t going to cut it. The single main crop is blueberries, of which there are 15ha of bushes, each yielding up to 10kg/year. Scott produces 25% of the organic blueberries in NZ from this small area, and if you ever buy them in Tescos or Sainsbury’s there is a chance they have come from here.


There are half a dozen or so varieties grown, including this one (pictured below), which is almost comically large. If an orange was this size proportionately it would be about as big as a football.


Needless to say they were all delicious, albeit very different in character. This is a very labour intensive crop, as it is all picked, sorted and packed by hand. Of course, none of the farm is highly mechanised, as it is small scale and high margin.

A lot of attention has gone into building a brand, which allows prices to be set according to cost of production plus a margin. It’s a great way of adding value to the product without getting into processing.


On the rest of the farm, lucerne is grown for around 4 years, being cut up to 5 times a year, and turned into silage for dairy cows. After this comes out, a cover crop follows – this could be an oat/vetch mix, or a mustard which acts as a biofumigant. The oat/vetch mix is actually half cover crop and half cash crop, as it can also be baled and used for animal feed.

Next in the rotation comes something more intensive, such as carrots, onions, potatoes or pumpkins. All of these need very fine seed beds, and so there is pretty heavy cultivation going on, although no mouldboard ploughs are allowed. There will usually be three operations to prepare the seed bed – disc harrowing, chisel ploughing, and finally a power harrow. During the growing period weed control is by mechanical hoeing, and by hand. This soil is moved a lot.


There is some capping present, not surprising as the soil is so finely prepared

Scott is unusual as he is well versed and a big proponent of all the usual soil health principles, but not able to always put them into practice. This is a tricky situation as he must grow these high intensity crops, but has not figured out how to do it without moving so much soil, and damaging the structure. The soil in the picture above was very soft underfoot, and I’m sure would pick up compaction quickly. One solution will be some form of CTF, which has been shown to increase the lucerne yields by around 30%, as they have so many compacting passes when cutting, raking, baling etc.


Blueberries & Rhododendrons have their own special type of mycorrhizae

It is interesting talking to an organic farmer about fertilising, as they are pretty limited in what they can use. I find it odd that it is permissible to use rock that is mined from the ground, for example sulphate of potash, but it is not acceptable to use nitrogen mined from the air, like urea. But the vagaries of Organic certification is a whole different thing…

NPK is supplied from compost, bone meal and blood meal. Potassium comes from SOP, as does sulphur. Although the soils are pH 6-6.5, elemental sulphur is applied to buffer against the water used for irrigation, which is a much higher pH; around 8.5. Phosphorous  come from soft rock phosphate which has been biologically activated by composting with “fish sauce” (I’m guessing it’s not Nam Pla) to make it more available to the plants. This isn’t an idea I’ve heard before, but it is an interesting one as this could make rock phosphate a more viable fertiliser for some people needing a quick fix.

We also had an interesting talk about insecticides, and trying to break the cycle of using them. Scott told a story of how one year the aphids were particularly bad, and had been hammering his lucerne – the neighbouring conventional farms, using insecticides, had to cut very early and so lost a lot of yield. On this farm there was not a large drop in the yield, and when it was cut the mower was covered in thousands of ladybirds. Would the ladybirds have been there under a conventional insecticide program?

I don’t normally plan two visits in one day, but it’s happened every day so far this trip. Fellow Nuffield scholar Hugh Ritchie lives a bit south of Scott, and farms 2200ha. 1500ha of this is hillside, which is used to fatten 18,000 lambs and 1800 dairy bulls every year. In the spring the stocking rate can go up to 50 lambs/ha(!).


The other 700ha is arable land, of which 400ha is currently irrigated. There is a fairly fixed rotation on the irrigated sections:

  1. Grain maize, strip tilled and planted with a precision drill.
  2. Squash, for export to Japan, direct drilled
  3. Vining peas then runner beans, double cropped in the same year. Both direct drilled.
  4. Winter wheat, direct drilled
  5. Ryegrass, direct drilled. Grazed in the winter and then harvested for seed in the summer

Runner Beans

All of these high value veg crops are grown under contract, and so there has to be a bit of flexibility in case they are not available. For example, there was some forage rape planted where runner beans were not possible. This will be used for sheep feed in the winter.

Carrots are a new crop, but like at Scott’s farm, they are very hard on the soil, which is ploughed and then bed formed. I’ve never seen carrots like it, they were 5″ across and a foot long, with another two months still to grow. Apparently they can weigh 2 kilos each at harvest. Amazingly they were also very tasty, not woody at all.


Delicious runner beans, almost ready for harvest

Hugh has had a 6m triple disc drill custom made, which fits into a 6.15m CTF system. He will always use this drill without tilling first, although the leading wavy disc does do some cultivation. The drill is designed with a hydraulic drawbar, allowing the weight of the tractor to be put into the front discs, so they can have up to 500kg of down pressure each. There is obviously some work going into it, as the drill needs 50hp/m, not far off a Claydon. Interestingly, he found that a Cross Slot did not have enough penetration power all the time, and also the work rates were too slow for the width of drill that his tractor could pull.

Since no-till was introduced here 15 years ago, yields have stayed constant, but machinery costs have gone way down. Both fixed and variable costs have been reduced enough that Hugh reckoned he could lose 20%of his yield and still be better off than when they were ploughing everything.

The final interesting thing they are doing here is using RTK GPS to level out hollows. This doesn’t mean whole fields are turned into perfectly flat billiard tables, they are just filling in small areas to stop water ponding and damaging crops. If you wanted to go further, it is possible to put multiple different planes into a field, and customise precisely where your runoff goes. Not something I’ve seen anyone doing at home, but maybe now we all have GPS it is worth thinking about?


Giant carrots being irrigated

Day Two

I stayed in the same area today, so no map this time.


I’m very grateful to my first host, Matt Wyeth, who I phoned out of the blue at 7.30am to ask if I could visit that morning. He is a sheep and beef farmer living about 20km west of where I had been the day before. The landscape is much hillier, which means arable cropping is not possible. It also means that they get 1800mm of rainfall each year, over twice as much as yesterday’s nearby farms. The farm is 800ha, 650 ha of which is native grasses, and the rest is in a forage crop rotation. 7000 breeding ewes are the main residents, as well as a herd of 220 pedigree Angus cattle.

Plantain/Red Clover

Plantain/Red Clover

Matt has recently changed his forage rotation, and it is currently 5 years of plantain/red clover mix, followed by 1 year of rapeseed. This is a popular mix as the red clover works well in the summer, and the plantain stays active in the cooler winter temperatures – and it also has good drought resistance. The rape is drilled with a bit of fertiliser, grazed, fertilised, and grazed again. These fields are used in the winter to hold the cows as if the soil is damaged then it does not mater too much, as the field will be reseeded regardless.

As it happens I turned up on an interesting day, as a load of ewes were being weighed, drenched for worms, and vaccinated. This is a pretty intensively stocked farm, but there are only 2 and a bit men working on it. All the sheep have eID tags, which allows this super bit of kit to work.

This will automatically weigh 300 animals per hour, and as it can read the eID tags, the data is automatically recorded. A few clicks on the screen will show individual stats, like daily weight gain.


An automatic gate is linked in, so that animals that are either too light or too heavy can be separated into different pens. There were a few light animals, maybe 1%, which would be fattened and sold off. All the others will be replacement breeding stock.

This data allows some pretty clever optimisations. Lambs that grow well are put onto the slightly less nutritious grass, and the slower performers go onto the plantain. The idea is to even up the growth rates. In this batch the daily gain averaged 170g from grass – on plantain this can be as high as 300g. Matt aims for a lifetime rate (birth to slaughter) of 150g/day, and his best was 160g. To put this into perspective, the NZ average is 90g.

The system has a high stocking rate, with 12-13,000 livestock units on the farm every year. However it is set up very efficiently, so costs are kept low. The biggest expense is fertiliser, which was being applied today by a contractor.


All field work is done by contractors, including drilling. The Cross Slot debate comes up again here – “For the same price I can get 2.5ha direct drilled with a normal drill, or 1ha with a Cross Slot. Which is better?”. Matt is not a CS convert.


This is what 600 lambs in a lorry looks like

Before I left, a truck/lorry showed up to take some rams to the meat works. They get sent in at 40-45kg, depending on how good the grass is at the time. Prices are currently at NZ$120/£60, which is acceptable but not great.

I’m by no means a sheep expert, but this looked like an impressive operation to me. they were looking after a huge number of sheep with minimal work (per head – I’m sure plenty of hours are put in!), and getting a 7-8% return on capital which we could only dream of. If I was going to farm sheep it would have to be using a similar sort of system. Imagine trying to lamb 7000 ewes inside, UK style?

Next up I retraced my footsteps of the previous day, to Mark Guscott’s 800ha mixed farm. There is a local Jersey farm at home, and when the farmer there explains to me all the animal group they have, and how it all works, my head isn’t big enough to hold it all in. This place makes that look like child’s play, as they can have over 40 separate groups at any one time. Talk about management intensive.

Out of the 800ha, 600ha is hill grass. This holds 2400 ewes, plus another 4000 bought in lambs. 7000 lambs a year are finished here, and the rest kept as replacements. There are also a few hundred cattle – heifers, steers and bulls. Mark obviously doesn’t want a simple life.

IMG_2484The other 200ha is arable, 150ha of which is irrigated. You can see the circular pivot fields in the picture above. Some conventional crops are grown, like winter wheat (9t/ha), spring wheat (7t/ha), tiny little peas for seed (3.5t/ha), silage maize, and the fashionable plantain/clover mix.

More interestingly, there are some exotic seed crops grown here. Phacelia had just been cut yesterday, but the yield isn’t known yet. Kohlrabi is grown every year, and there are two fields growing hybrid sweetcorn and hybrid maize.


Males in middle, females either side

I’ve always wanted to see this. The tassels are removed from the female plants, so that they can only be pollinated by the thin strip of male plants. After pollination the males are destroyed, and the the female cobs picked by hand. It is a very labour intensive operation, and they even fly a helicopter up and down the field to increase the wind pollination [or is this what Mark tells gullible Poms?]. The rewards can be pretty incredible. A bumper maize crop last year resulted in a net margin of NZ$15,000/ha. If you think that is good, onion seed regularly nets NZ$20,000/ha. I’ll have some of that – I wish.

Big thanks to both Matt & Mark.

To finish off, I have just noticed that my visits tomorrow are in a different place to where I thought they were. That’s what happens when you get Wednesday and Thursday mixed up. Oops.

Getting started

I’ve already forgotten half of what I’ve heard today, so better get it written down quickly. Too much information. Well, not too much, just a lot.

This is where I have spent the day – the first of my proper travels.

Day 1

First stop was Karen & Mick Williams, who farm 245ha of great land near Carterton. I think it’s fitting to start a project about soils on a farm sitting on over 3m of silt. This is my first time in New Zealand, and my first real look at a farming system like this. The climate seems pretty similar to ours, but about 5 degrees warmer. This means there is always something growing, and often they will get two crops in the same year. A bit like a turbo charged version of our cover cropping system.

Arable crops include spring barley, spring wheat, peas, and seed production for ryegrass, red clover, sweetcorn and onions. I’ve eaten onion seeds (or Nigella seeds as they seem to be sold as) before, but have never seen them being farmed.

Onion seeds

Onion seeds

The yields these guys get are pretty impressive – last year the spring barley yielded 9t/ha, although it did receive a bit of irrigation. Everything here is drilled with a Cross Slot. Finally I get to see one of these [in]famous machines.

Cross Slot

They seem to be built from unused sections of motorway bridges – perhaps a bit over engineered?! This one has a hydraulic arm on the side for lifting tonne seed bags into the hoppers without needing a loader. Great idea! I was a bit surprised at the amount of soil disturbance compared to a JD 750a. They do also roll most of their fields here, and I can see why.


Drilled on right, undrilled on left

Livestock plays a big part on this farm. Often ryegrass is planted straight after barley, and grazed a few months later by lambs which are fattened up and sold in the spring or summer. These fields then go back into cropping, normally barley. Longer term ryegrass/red clover mixes are also used, which can support Friesian bulls for fattening, or sheep. Occasionally they will grow rape or a similar brassica for the forage crop.

Next up I drove a few km to visit Mick’s parents, Jill & Jim, and his brother Nathan, who farm a bit more than 300ha near Masterton. The setup on this farm is pretty similar, except the soil is much shallower, and also much heavier, with a high clay content. Flooding can be a really problem here, and too much moisture is a constant worry.


How about this for a view from your living room?

The cropping here is pretty similar, although they are also growing some winter wheat. This will yield 8-12t/ha, unirrigated, depending on weather and which fields are used – we all know some fields are better than others. There are also sheep and beef cattle here, grazing on either 6 month or 2-3 year leys. The long term grass could also have red clover mixed in, and is often cut for silage before being grazed.


Jim was keen to tell me that he was interested in profit from these heifers, and wasn’t worried about what they look like, a sentiment I agree with entirely – slightly hypocritical coming from someone breeding fullblood Wagyu…

It’s really difficult for me to get my head around the systems and rotations here. Nothing is fixed too far in advance, and one crop could lead into a wide variety of others, depending on what the conditions, prices etc make look the best. Flexibility is a powerful tool.

The crops looked good, and obviously yield very well. The whole system seems very efficient as the land is almost constantly in use, and the wide variety of crops means that weeds are not a big problem. There is quite a lot of volunteer ryegrass, as it does shed plenty of seed in the longer term leys, but this isn’t much of a problem as the fields will always go back into grass fairly quickly. Apparently the profit is split roughly 60:40 in favour of the arable crops, which is excellent in my opinion. When you take into consideration the not easily measurable benefits of having so much grass and livestock in the rotation, they must provide at least 50% of the money long-term.

The family started no-till straight from a plough based system in the late ’90s, when the heavier clay land could sometimes take up to 13 passes to create a seedbed. Not quite as impressive as Geoff Claydon’s 22, but still plenty. They claim that yields have improved steadily since the introduction of no-till, but do acknowledge that this is not just due to the no-till. The main benefits have been in timeliness of work, ease of creating a seedbed, increased resilience to animals’ feet, and moisture retention both at drilling and throughout the growing season.


Jim’s neighbour (also no-till for 15 years+) was having a 12″ (!) field drainage pipe put in, and so I got to see a serious scale soil pit. This farm has a similar depth soil to us, of around 25cm. Underneath that is solid clay. The soil was obviously pretty tough, but even a dry clod will crumble in your fingers. Apparently before no-till these sorts of clods wouldn’t break up even if you threw them onto concrete, so it has made a big difference. Not surprisingly, worm numbers are also much higher, and the drainage has improved a lot as well.


Top soil & sub soil

I’ll write about my Cross Slot thoughts in more detail at the end of the NZ trip, as I will see a lot more of it in the next fortnight. Its fertiliser placement capability is seen to be essential by these guys, who use it for most of their crops. I remain to be convinced it is worth the £££s [££££££££££££££££], but it is obviously a very good and versatile drill.

It is undeniably doing a great job on these two properties, as are the farmers. They seem to have nailed a good system that doesn’t need too much input from the sprayer, spreads risk across different crops, and also between arable & livestock. Most importantly it makes money.

NZ farmers are living up to their reputation.