Large East Coast Maori incorporation station Whangara last year became a McDonald’s Sustainable Flagship Farm, the first outside of the European Union, Sandra Taylor writes.

Breeding cows was traditionally used as a management tool on Gisborne’s Whangara Station but a change of focus has seen them become a highly productive part of the business.

The Maori incorporation farm covers 8300-hectares of hillcountry and incorporates four separate blocks. Two lie adjacent to the Whangara “home” block on the East Coast, while the 1450ha Tongataha block is about two hours’ drive inland.

It is farming at scale and the business runs 35,500 ewes and 6500 head of cattle which combined are producing 220kg of product per hectare of hillcountry, with a target to achieve 240kg.

Last year, Whangara became a McDonald’s Sustainable Flagship Farm, the first outside of the European Union to achieve this status and the farm is also involved in Beef + Lamb New Zealand Genetic’s (BLG) Progeny trial.

‘We have moved to closing our border so there is no cattle trading, we are only buying breeding bulls and semen.’

None of this has happened by accident and the performance of the Whangara herd reflects a concerted effort by the Whangara team – led by general manager Richard Scholefield – to transform a traditional breeding cow operation into a high-performance breeding and finishing system, at scale.

It is a combination of feeding, genetics, management at critical times and understanding the environmental and natural resource limitations of their business that makes the Whangara beef operation both productive and profitable.

Whangara general manager Richard Scholefield says genetics is one of the few factors in farming farmers have total control over.

Of Whangara’s 2500 mixed-age cows, 1500 are put to an Angus bull while the balance goes to a Simmental terminal sire.

For simplicity, the 400 cows on Tongataha are all put to terminal sire and replacements taken from the Whangara home herd.

Similarly, all the ewes on Tongataha are put to a terminal sire and none of the stock bred on the farm are finished on Tongataha – rather they are finished on the coastal properties or sold as store.

Richard says this flexibility is critical in such a big system.

This is a new policy, implemented in the wake of the Mycoplasma bovis outbreak.

“We used to finish everything at Tongataha because we used to buy-in 1200 trading cattle, mainly Friesian bulls.”

These bulls were finished on the coastal farms.

“But we have moved to closing our border so there is no cattle trading, we are only buying breeding bulls and semen.”

He says the business had to remove the trading component to protect itself. While M. bovis was the immediate threat, he says it could have been another disease that forced their decision.

Tongataha is now used to breed and supply cattle for the finishing country at Whangara.

This change in policy has also meant a change in the way cattle are finished and they are transitioning from an 18-month to a 24-month finishing system. A proportion of the male terminal sire calves are left entire and finished as beef bulls, while all the straight Angus male calves are castrated.

Richard says they used to finish 85% of their cattle to an average 270kg carcaseweight at 18 months of age. They are now targeting a 340kg CW at 24 months.

Initially this will mean a significant financial hit, but Richard is confident that on a system basis, the increased value of the carcase will cover the costs of wintering for a second year and returns should be on par with the 18-month system.

“It’s a big financial hit but on the flip-side imagine trying to replace 2500 high genetic worth Angus cows.

“Sustainability is important to Whangara so it is better to close the gate and add value to what we do.”

Richard admits there is an increased risk of ossification in a 24-month finishing policy, but there will be more opportunity for other carcase traits such as marbling to better express themselves.

All of the Whangara cattle are sold to Silver Fern Farms into various programmes including Reserve Grade and Angus-specific. Richard says they are always striving to increase their strike rate in Reserve Grade but failure can be as simple as bad animal handling practices.

Like many farmers, Richard would – in future – like to be able to extract a market premium to capitalise on the significant investment Whangara has made in environmental protection.

Genetic tools drive performance

Angus genetics work well on Whangara and Richard says he values their maternal traits and ability to forage.

“I just like the breed.”

Genetics is something Richard is passionate about as it is one of the few fully controllable factors in farming.

“As a farmer you have 100% control over what ram or bull you put out and that animal will affect your profitability over the subsequent eight to 10 years.

“If you use a bull whose progeny grows 20-30% faster than another bull then that is straight on to your bottom line.”

For their business, Richard is looking for Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) for moderate cow weight, high 600-day growth rates, positive fats, good intra-muscular fat and low birthweight.

Genetic selection – along with heifer mating – has seen them take about 75kg off the mature cow weight of their cows, so they now weigh 570-600kg which is much more efficient.

But Richard places just as much importance on phenotype as he needs structurally sound animals to be able to perform in their environment.

“It’s got to be the package and you can have both.”

Richard uses the on-line selection tools available to source animals with the EBVs he requires. Once he has a list he will go and assess the phenotype to determine whether that animal will fit into their breeding programme and will sell within their budget.

One technology Whangara has embraced is the use of artificial insemination (AI) in their commercial herd.

While they do AI 800 cows as part of the BLG progeny trial, they AI a further 400 cows on their own account every year.

Richard says they have been AIing commercial cows for five years and he is completely sold on the practice.

“I was brought up thinking that the only people using AI were dairy farmers and stud breeders.

“Through AI farmers can have access to some of the best genetics in the world and at a cost of roughly $75/cow it’s definitely a viable option.

“You can AI a lot of cows for $10,000 which is roughly the cost of a good bull.”

At a strike rate of 50-60%, bulls are still needed, but it is a cost-effective way to significantly speed-up genetic gain.

The cows need to be yarded three times for the AI procedure, but one of these yardings is calf-marking, so it is two extra yardings, but for Richard it is well worth the effort.

Including the BLG progeny test cows, the team are AIing up to 1100 cows over a three-day period.

“If we can do it anyone can.”

Whangara’s involvement in the BLG Progeny trial does create a lot of extra work for the staff and while it is generating a lot of industry-good data – particularly highlighting that EBVs do work – the performance recording required has allowed Richard to gather a lot of data on the performance of individual commercial cows.

This has enabled him to develop an index which identifies their A and B grade cows and these can be strategically mated to select sires.

“We are just playing around with it, but in the future, we may take it a step further and breed our own bulls.”

Two of the Whangara team.

Feeding success

Possibly even more importantly the performance data has made them look at their cow management and identify the critical times where they need to be looked after.

“We get summer dry at Whangara so we need to tighten them up but we also need to look after them at key times to ensure they perform; that’s one of the biggest learnings from the BLG programme.”

Body Condition Scoring (BCS) is one of their most valuable management tools and the cows are scored at weaning, calf marking and pre-calving.

Richard says it is imperative that the cows are at a minimum BCS of 7 at mating.

“That’s the sweet spot, that is what will optimise performance.”

Having the cows at this body condition at mating maximises first-cycle conception rates which means they have more time to recover condition before subsequent matings and their calves have higher weaning weights.

The cows are fed to ensure they are at a BCS of 7.5 at weaning and Richard budgets on the cows losing one BCS over winter so they are calving at a BCS of 6.5. This means it is not too much of push to get them back up to BCS of 7 for mating again.

Gone are the days of allowing the cows to cycle through the year going from fat to thin and back again.

“We try and keep them much more even.”

To do this, they set up pasture covers of 2500kg drymatter/ha for calving – especially the first-cycle cows (the cows are scanned into cycles) – by shutting-up blocks. After calving, they shed the cows and calves off and run them amongst lambing ewes.

Richard admits that it is a much more efficient system to have cows calving amongst ewes and lambs, but they are looking after the cows better by calving them separately on saved pasture.

A total of 350 yearling heifers are mated every year and while Richard aims to have them weighing 350kg at mating, last year they went to the bull weighing an average of 420kg.

The in-calf heifers are scanned into 10-day calving intervals and then calved in blocks behind a wire. This combination of management and genetics – using low birthweight bulls – means they assist very few at calving. Last year only six calves had to be pulled out of 350 heifers.

The heifers average 94% calving, which is just one percentage point behind the mixed-age cows. The second calvers are also calving an average of 94% and Richard puts these impressive calving percentages down to a focus on feeding at critical times.

“We have been part of the Beef Progeny test for six years and this has renewed our focus on cow management, Body Condition Scoring and how we look after our cows at key times determines whether she gets back in calf and the weaning weight of her calf.”

Cows on the Whangara “home” blocks calve in September and are weaned at around 150 days. Richard says the focus is on getting calves on to quality feed. If it gets particularly dry, they will wean earlier as calves are trying to compete with their mother for quality feed.

The terminal sire cows at Tongataha calve in October and are weaned in April or early May as these dates fit the pasture curve on this higher, inland farm.

As long as a cow produces a good quality calf every year she will be retained and Richard says they do have a herd of 100-150 older cows (nine years and over) which they are quite happy to give a bit of extra care and attention.

“We get some of our best calves out of the older cows so as long as they maintain condition and get back in calf then we will keep them.”

Environmental management

As a Maori incorporation farm that will be never be sold, environmental and business sustainability is imperative. As part of this, Whangara has a level 3 Land Environment Plan (LEP), which is the gold standard of environmental management plans.

Through the LEP process, the whole farm was assessed and broken down to Land Capability Units which underpins management decisions about where, when and what class of cattle can be run on what country.

Richard says it wasn’t rocket science, but it did put their management decisions through an environmental and land management lens.

This process was part of their involvement in McDonald’s Beef Sustainability project which was, in essence, about managing cattle without damaging the environment.

The LEP 3 document underpins policies around land management and is used to determine priorities for fencing off and protecting waterways, stands of native bush and other vulnerable areas.

Research and development

Whangara has been open to being involved in a number of research trials and programmes in collaboration with organisations such as Beef + Lamb New Zealand, BLG and AgResearch. As well as the Beef + Lamb Genetics Progeny Trial, Whangara was a Beef + Lamb New Zealand Demonstration (Innovation) Farm where they looked at ways of increasing the quality and quantity of drymatter grown on uncultivable hill country using plantain and clover.

“We’re always challenging the status quo and looking for the next big thing.”

Whangara does have a research and development (R&D) budget and while that is an advantage, Richard believes every farm should have one, even if it is to try a new technology or management technique.

He admits that while they do benefit from their involvement in R&D, it is a lot of extra work in monitoring and measuring and taking the time to share their experiences with the wider sector.

The farm has weather stations, strategically-placed soil moisture strips and 67 pasture cages through which they measure pasture growth.

They now have eight years-worth of data which is highlighting trends and giving them sound information upon which they can base their management decisions. It is allowing them to make decisions earlier.

Looking ahead, Richard is hoping to one day take advantage of some of the genomic technologies used overseas. One of these is Heifer Select which uses genomics to select replacement heifers via DNA at an early age. Traditionally, heifers are selected on size and appearance – but this may not necessarily mean she is the best replacement.

“Often a moderately-sized heifer is genetically better for marbling, fats and maternal traits.

“There is a lot happening under the skin and it is easy to get blinded by size and weight.”

  • Supplied by Beef + lamb New Zealand