A simple yet strong system

A highly efficient sheep flock, underpinned by an exceptional weaning weight, is the engine room of Richard and Becks Tosswill’s award-winning Te Awaawa Farm in Gladstone. Rebecca Greaves went to their field day. Photos by Brad Hanson.

In Business20 Minutes

The Tosswills aim to farm a simple, repeatable system that is resilient in their hostile climate, which is prone to extremes, particularly the summer dry.

With an average weaning weight of 31kg, lambing at 148% over the last five years, and 45% of lambs killed prime off mum at 16.7 kilograms carcaseweight, it’s a system that’s working. Sheep are the priority, though ewe numbers have been reduced in favour of a higher trading component, giving them a buffer when the season goes against them.

The average gross farm revenue (GFR) of $1160/ha over the past four years, total farm expenses sit at an average of 64% of GFR, and an economic farm surplus of $414, the business is performing highly for its class.

It was enough to impress the judges for the Tosswills who won the 2021 Wairarapa Sheep & Beef Farm Business of the Year competition.

Their vision is to work alongside the environment to provide a comfortable, happy lifestyle for their family and provide their three children, Isabella, 12, Sam, 10, and Sophia, 7, with solid building blocks for their futures.

Their innovation and forward thinking approach to the environment was recognised with the supreme award for the Greater Wellington region in the 2018 Ballance Farm Environment Awards.

The dynamic duo, both aged 42, have their feet firmly planted in the present, with an eye to the future. When they bought the farm 12 years ago Richard admits he knew nothing about breeding.

Coming from a banking background, followed by two years leasing the flat family farm in Greytown, his lack of hill country knowledge may have proved a blessing, in that he had no preconceived ideas about how things should be done. His willingness to learn and innovate has been a hallmark of their success.

In 2019, as part of the Beef + Lamb New Zealand Innovation Farm Programme, Richard led a project in increasing legume content on uncultivable hill country. He’s a convert – clover is king.

“The beauty of farming is you have to constantly adapt. I will never know everything about farming, that’s what makes it challenging, and interesting,” Richard says.

Becks runs her own successful design studio, Farmers Daughter Design, from home. She employs a team of four remote contractors and has clients around the country. In 2020 she won the creative arts section at the Rural Women NZ business awards.

Innovation onfarm

Competition judge Geordie McCallum said what separated the Tosswills from the pack was their innovation.

“They didn’t come here with a massive hill country pedigree. It’s not about doing the things that are tried and true. They’ve put themselves out there, like the hill country legume trials, to give things a go – not because they have the answers.”

Their proactive approach to managing the environment and influence in the community impressed the judges.

“They put a lot of good will, information and knowledge out into the community and support a lot of causes.”

The farm has excellent infrastructure. The previous owners put in an integral central laneway system, which almost every paddock musters down to.

“It’s unbelievable, it potentially saves us half a labour unit.”

Richard is a fan of subdivision and it’s something they have prioritised. There are 102 main paddocks, with an average size of 6.1ha, allowing them to bring pressure to gain control of pasture at key times. “Pasture that would once have been tufty brown top has suddenly had a chance to shoot up and express itself.”

Plentiful water is another blessing at Te Awaawa, with most of the farm serviced by troughs gravity-fed from limestone springs. Richard jokes he has a trough fetish, with 83 troughs on the farm – 51 added since they bought it.

Sheep number one

Sheep performance is a catalyst for growth at Te Awaawa, and genetics have played a pivotal role. They have been willing to change things up when it comes to ram breed, to get the desired result.

The B mob is put to a SuffTex terminal ram on March 10. The A mob goes to a Rawahi Romney ram for 2 cycles on March 20, and to a SuffTex for the third cycle.

Coop/Tex two-tooths are mated on April 9 to Rawahi Romney rams. The plan is to then stabilise with Paki-Iti Romney/Texel sires.

All hoggets are mated on May 1 for 30 days, with dries sold as replacements or killed. Andy Tatham’s Cheviot and Cheviot/Southdown rams are used for easier lambing.

An early move to put a straight Texel over the Romney ewe flock made an instant difference to their lamb crop.

“That first cross was the most amazing change with hybrid vigour. The Texel hardiness was a real eye opener and with the Texel influence the milk production in the ewes was amazing.

Ha says the bloom in the lambs was unbelievable.

They started out with a Paki-Iti Sufftex and have more recently introduced half Beltex, half SuffTex rams from Guy Martin.

“They sound pretty exciting with yield and I am keen to see what they can do.” When Richard felt they were struggling with fertility, he introduced a Coopworth Texel.

“The ewes have got a bit fine in the last few years and I’m looking to get a bit more bone and structure back in.”

The plan is to stabilise with Paki-Iti RomTex rams across the flock.

The last two seasons they have also run the Wairere Tufguy Romney Texel flock (187 mixed age ewes, 260 2ths and 253 hoggets), with mating dates the same as their own maternal mobs.

The climate is the biggest risk to their business, and the Tosswills have moved to ensure they are not exposed with too much capital stock if a drought eventuates, reducing breeding ewe numbers from 3500 to 2800. Richard has plans to further cut numbers by 200 ewes.

“Trading stock gives us more flexibility, largely in the form of cattle, for a more sustainable operation. Cattle complement the sheep system – I like to think we can tweak sheep performance up and hit higher targets by having more cattle.”

In 2011, a doozy of a drought was followed by a big snow storm. Bearings in 250 ewes and listeriosis in the hoggets was a real low point for Richard.

“The bearing thing I took quite hard. It highlighted to me that I had no buffer stock and no levers to pull. That was a massive catalyst for change to trading stock to go ahead and knock down the feed.”

Having tried vitamins and salt blocks Richard has decided bearings are a given on their country, and his issues were down to overfeeding and mob pressure.

“Mobs were too big and it was feast or famine, feast or famine.” To combat this he has reduced mob sizes and uses harnesses on everything. He knows when everything will lamb and sets the feed accordingly. Shutting ewes down after the ram is also critical.

Their key to success is a highly efficient ewe and stonking weaning weight. Ewes are about 67kg at mating and the driver is lamb survival.

“The key thing is making sure we have feed and ewe condition right. Wastage numbers are scary and I could see the scanning number going up but we weren’t getting the same result at weaning, so we have to be really careful.”

It’s about striking a balance between the number of lambs on the ground and the quality of those lambs, rather than having lots of potty little lambs. Richard says 145% lambing is the sweet spot. “If you wean well you not only have plenty of prime lambs, you have forward store lambs, which has a massive flow on effect.”

Vet Trevor Cook, who helped formulate their animal health plan, says there are key limiting factors on flock production: body condition scoring (BCS) of females is the biggest limiting factor and weight of ewe lambs going into winter (ewe lamb weight on May 1 is a key KPI). Heavy hoggets add value in terms of setting up the flock and lifting productivity as lambing hoggets.

Richard echoes this sentiment, saying ewe lambs are non-negotiable. They have 10-15ha of summer crop earmarked solely for ewe lambs.

Everything is weighed at weaning and Richard has embraced BCS. He’s looking at the fatties as well as the lighter ewes. The grazing rotation is based on scanning results. Any light ewes go ahead, possibly even mixed in with ewe lambs, twin ewes come next, followed by singles and then cows to clean up.

He puts them up the race four to five times a year at key times.

“I move out the tail end and also take out the big fatties.”

He is continuously making sure the medium is ticking along and putting better feed into the tail end.

All two-tooths and four-tooths are given Ovastim to try to mitigate Texel fecundity. Richard says two-tooths can be a weak link in the farming system and Ovastim is used as a way to keep them in line with the mixed age. “Some people might think it’s cheating, but I’m just trying to get as many lambs as possible, it’s as simple as that. There is a cost but we get a 10-15% lift in performance.”

Richard is using electronic identification (EID) tagging, something he thought would become mandatory and wanted to pre-empt.

“There is value in seeing what animals are doing on live weight gain. Repeat offenders having a single lamb go into the terminal flock. It (EID) is a work in progress, I can see lots of benefits and I find the information fascinating, but I’m not using it as much as I could be.”

Cattle as a tool

The cattle policy is extremely flexible in that it comes down to whatever Richard feels is right at the time.

The breeding cows have spent plenty of time grazing off the farm – three years in a row at one point – but they are important to the system, so retaining them is essential.

“They grow us grass and I find them an invaluable tool. They have a fairly hard life – they’re our grooming tool and set the feed quality.”

The 100-120 mixed age Angus breeding cows are run with a Te Whanga bull on December 1. Replacements are mated to a Wai-Group bull for 30 days on November 1. Weaner steers are sold at the weaner fair or carried through, depending on the market. Weaner heifers are taken through. Their five year average calf survival to sale is 87%.

“This year we needed to get on top of things so we bought a lot of trade cattle to clean up. What’s the policy? I don’t know. Whatever is the right thing at the time, whatever I think there is a margin in at the time.”

He points out that although sometimes the margin on the cattle might not appear huge, it is made up in improved sheep performance. “They are providing for the whole system.”

Network enhances business

Using a strong collaborative network of like-minded individuals to enhance the business was highlighted by judges as a strength.

Richard and Becks have many and varied off-farm interests and community contributions, notably in sport and school groups. Connecting with others off-farm is part of their personal growth strategy.

Both are members of the National Red Meat Profit Partnership (RMPP) action network group, Richard recently joined the Barenbrug Seeds advisory board, and has chaired both the local Ponatahi discussion group and Wairarapa Farming for Profit committee. Becks regularly undertakes pro-bono brand and marketing work for local projects.

Putting themselves out there has opened many doors.

“The clover trial led to the approach from the RMPP group. It’s great having a link to other farmers around the country to bounce ideas off,” Richard explains.

Becks says she is proud of both the farm and design businesses, and that their children see what hard work is, but also giving back to the community.

Strong governance and accountability is also important, and the couple set up an advisory board six years ago. “We felt we were making a lot of big calls, with no one to answer to. We wanted to be challenged a bit on some of the decisions we were making.”

Advisory board member, Sully Alsop, said it was not an admission of weakness and could be viewed more as a ‘sounding board’.

“The key outcome is good decision making.”

One of the revelations for Richard was when the advisory board asked him – do you want to farm 20,000 stock units? His answer was no.

“I’m comfortable with this size. I don’t want to have multiple staff – that just doesn’t float my boat.”

He realised that in 10 years he probably doesn’t want to be hands-on farming, rather he would like to have a manager and be in an overseeing role.

With that in mind, Richard and Becks have turned their focus to looking outside the immediate farm business, such as residential or commercial opportunities. They started early succession planning, and looked at education for their children.

Their strong equity position means they could look at helping a younger person get a foot in the door.

“We have been incredibly lucky to have family support to buy this, not everyone has that. Using our equity position to help another party into a property would excite us.”

“With our business, connections, experience and skillset what’s really exciting is how that might replicate in other places, and how it might help grow others,” Becks adds.


  • Te Awaawa Farm – owned and operated by Richard and Becks Tosswill
  • Gladstone, Wairarapa
  • 646 hectares (622ha eff)
  • Contour: 55ha flat to rolling, remainder hills
  • Winter wet, summer dry
  • Average annual rainfall: 880mm


  • 2400 Texel x breeding ewe flock
  • 400 Wairere Tufguy ewes and replacements
  • 120 Angus breeding cows and 30 replacement heifers
  • All hogget and heifer replacements mated, dries sold
  • Cattle and hogget trading for flexibility