Whatever farming system your running, whether it be high input or low, be good at it. That is the advice of Alec Jack, owner operator of Ngawhitu, his family’s beef and dairy farm in Northland. Annabelle Latz reports.

Alec Jack’s goal is maintaining a viable and healthy enterprise to hand down to future generations.

“I will consider myself successful as a farmer when I have created a happy union of financially viable farming and healthy bio-diversity.”

The 2009 Nuffield scholar studied animal welfare, environmental and ethical issues affecting the value of New Zealand pastoral products.

He now looks at farming issues through the “what would our consumers and voters make of this” lens.

Alec says he is continuously striving to farm with a low environmental footprint, be kind to his animals and staff, and practice in a manner his community will be happy with.

Ngawhitu is 20 minutes from Kaikohe and 20 minutes from Kerikeri.

He and his wife Kelly, who have four children, farm 660 hectares which includes a 260ha dairy farm, and an adjoining 400ha beef farm of which 60-80ha can be utilised by the dairy herds in summer.

“That’s a key point, that we can expand the dairy platform on to the beef platform.”

The 1620 stock at March 2020 were: dairy – 516 cows, 140 R2 heifers, and 146 R1 replacements from three weeks of AI. Beef – 28 R3, 128 R2 ,and 107 R1 beef heifers, 280 R2 and 255 R1 bulls, and 20 breed bulls.

The farming operation is based on the 550 KiwiCross dairy cows milked once a day through a 30-aside herringbone shed equipped with cup removers. All calves born are kept, reared, then raised to adulthood on the beef farm. Apart from 6-10 yearling beef breed bulls bought each year, no additional livestock are brought into the system.

Ngawhitu is also the name of his company which Alec hopes will stay in the family for many generations.

The farm has been farmed by the Jack family since 1949. First, by Alec’s grandfather Tod, then by his father Ned who, now 86, was 16 when the family arrived from Auckland and the Waikato to farm at Pakaraka.

Ned was also the founder of the Kaikohe Christian School which he poured a lot of time and money into during the 1980s and 1990s.

Ned and his wife Amber still live on the farm.

When Alec returned home from his travels in 1992, he began transitioning the farm into a bull finishing system. He introduced electric fencing and timber pine lines to protect the eight-wire fences, then began rearing and buying bulls.

In 2011, 95ha of rocky lava-flow soils on the southern slopes of Mt Pouerua was added to their home base of 560ha. The following year, the 225ha neighbouring dairy farm was bought.

The farm also contains 160ha under restriction with Historic Places Trust, due to a very visible pa site, an ‘outstanding natural feature’.

Getting help from the experts from the beginning has been a major factor. He was involved in Dairy NZ early and a NZ Beef + Lamb monitor farm from 2007 to 2009.

Alec enjoys learning, but not all ideas work out, like adding value to culled dairy cows by fattening them before sending them to the works.

“In reality, if it’s a good summer you want those cows to keep producing milk, and if it’s a bad summer you don’t want them on the farm.”

Thanks to encouragement from those already in the game, especially brother-in-law Ken Couper, Alec was confident to start on once-a-day milking straight away.

There was a continual focus on milk production, udder health, and mitigating metabolic issues.

“It’s really a step up on a dairy farm, and there’s a satisfaction in producing something from dot.”

The dairy cows are effectively the farm’s beef breeding cows. Once-a-day milking has always suited because it keeps condition on their backs, “a bit like having supplementary feed that you don’t have to feed out.”

Avoiding the boom-bust cycle

The initial attraction of the dairy farm for Alec was to be able to control the genetics, quality and health of replacement stock for the beef farm.

“When we were traders, the beef schedule would go up and you’d get a windfall gain, but then you’d have to replace at high prices too.

“It was a boom-bust cycle.”

Alec says the 50:50 Friesian Jersey KiwiCross cow is a very productive dairy breed. Through their own artificial breeding programme, he has focused on building a dairy herd that is 60% Friesian 40% Jersey, to increase the cow frame size, enabling them to produce a better beef calf.

The mating season lasts for nine weeks, from October through to December. Farming in Northland means seasons can be shifted slightly, so the Jack family have moved calving to mid-July. This means less chaos during the first week of the July school holidays before rearing up to 550 calves.

The best 400 cows (yard capacity) are selected for artificial insemination for the first three weeks of mating season, while the rest of the herd run with the 20 to 25 breeding bulls, whom they get a couple of seasons out of. Both herds run with the breed bulls for the remaining six weeks of mating.

“To keep things simple during our busy spring calving, we are transitioning from Angus breed bulls to Herefords, simply because the white face over a KiwiCross cow is easier to identify as a newborn calf.”

All non-dairy replacement calves born on the farm are reared, raised and finished on the beef farm at about 2.5 years of age.

A 10-bay calf shed ensures new-born calves get plenty of gold colostrum, then calves are fed two litres of colostrum twice a day for a couple of days, then 4L/day until weaning.

As the calf shed fills, the oldest calves are transferred outside into 0.8ha farmlets where they have adlib access to meal under their north-facing shelters with post-peeling bedding. The farmlets are based around feeding zones where the mobile milkbar can feed four mobs of 40- 45 calves without having to be moved.

The expanded business has also required an increase in manpower. Alec employs one manager for each of the dairy and beef enterprise, Sam Rapana and Larissa Graham, and an assistant for the dairy farm, Philip Kopa. He’s looking to employ another worker in the beef enterprise and brings in a calf-rearer from mid-July for three months.

“The integration has forced a step up in my pasture management, and my staff management.”

The 30-aside shed with automatic cup removers makes life easier.

“It just means one person can milk the whole herd if need be.”

It also means cows are milked to a standard, and there is no risk of overmilking which can cause teat end damage and consequential mastitis risk.

During peak milking season they’re milking 550 cows, and they winter up to 600. December is a month for massively de-stocking due to reduced quality feed production and increased demand from 550 new weaners. Prices are usually also good in December when they sell most bulls, beef heifers and reject dairy heifers at two and half years of age to Silver Fern Farms.

The 211 bulls killed in November and December averaged 308kg carcaseweight and $2020, the best prices they have ever received.

Alec says they’re trying to cap numbers to create an equilibrium. They want just enough dairy cows to produce all the beef and dairy replacements needed. The closed system also means they are decreasing the biosecurity risk.

The aim is 550 calves, yearlings, and dairy cows.

“Each year we have an annual crop.”

In addition to this, in December they sold 70 bull calves and 60 beef heifer calves off nurse cows and once-bred beef heifers; (in-calf at 15 months old, they rear one calf, are sold as a store or fattened cow).

“Because of the drought we sold them all.’

Bulls are in mobs of 50-60 R1s which are split into 25-30 yearlings for finishing. Most systems contain about 30 cells, 0.3ha in size. By mid-April or May they like to be at 60-day rotations, dropping to 25 days in October. Summer rotation lengths vary with the weather. Bulls are stocked at 600- 700kg of live weight/ha for R1 stock on pugging prone land, through to 1200 LW/ ha for R2 bulls on well-subdivided country.

An oxfendazole levamisole combination oral drench is used on young stock, and abamectin pour on is used on stock over one year old.

Soils dictate stock rates

A significant area of the dairy platform has Wharekohe ‘pipe clay’ soils, which translate to a pan layer of imperfectly drained soil with very hard soil underneath, resulting in soil that is unable to provide as much feed, or a high stocking rate.

“Soil dictates how much feed you can grow, therefore indicating what your stocking rate should be.”

Due to paddock history and soil type, there is a wide variation in soil fertility.

The potassic super fertiliser programme varies from year to year based on soil tests every spring but Alec aims to bring pH and all nutrients into the recommended range. A late autumn boost from nitrogen is used when pasture covers are low coming out of drought.

He works closely with Matt Rudsdale from Ravensdown.

Dry spells are always the main threat for the Jack family from November to May, but this summer has been the worst Alec has seen in terms of drought. With such low rainfall last year, the ground water has never been replenished. Luckily, they have good stock water, but the house bore water level is becoming a concern.

As the drought worsened through December and January they readily accepted lower carcaseweights to reduce stocking pressure as the feed slowed up.

“But by fluke, it turned out the beef prices were the best then too.”

The subtropical C4 grass species, the kikuyu and paspalum, still produce leaf during the dry conditions, but the rye grass pastures cease to function with high night temperatures. Smart planting choices is always Alec’s focus, both to maximise feed opportunities, and look after the soils and environment.

The autumn mulching programme works well; broadcasting Italian rye grass on to kikuyu grass pastures which they graze out with cows, then run a mulcher over the area which knocks out the kikuyu dominance to create a seed bed for the new seedling. No chemicals are used during this process; their rate of ryegrass spread is 20-25kg of seed/ha, followed up with nitrogen once the weather has cooled and the subtropical grasses are no longer responsive to the nitrogen.

“By June and July there is high quality Italian ryegrass which grows through winter and spring, then the other grasses carry on.”

Break-feeding 18ha of Barkant turnips to the dairy cows in January and February works well, and in a good year they produce pit pasture silage in the spring. Alec is looking into the potential of growing lucerne, a summer safe quality feed for milking cows and good feed for growing replacement dairy heifers.

A plantain clover mix is grown on the 18ha dairy effluent area. They hope the plantain will utilise the nitrogen so it doesn’t leach into the waterways.

“We have quite a lot of native bush, and if I did have the opportunity, I’d like for us to get a better shot at the greenhouse gas sequestration side of things.

“To put forward a really strong case for net biological emissions.”

He says regulators are only just coming around now to more realistic emission targets.

In the future, rural tourism is on the radar, to be profitable and meet his need for social interaction. Covid-19 has put those ambitions on hold.

Alec has set up a Facebook community group ‘Jack Family Farm,’ available to his neighbours, family members and friends, as a platform to share information. It allows him to keep those around him up to date with what he’s doing, from the days he’s spraying, to sharing news about interesting on-farm projects.

He says it is vital to support, publicly or privately, agricultural champions who stand up for science and logic, or who simply share their stories with their friends and family on social media.

Soaking up the knowledge

Larissa Graham can’t think of anywhere else in the world she would rather be.

Beef manager Larissa Graham says there’s no place she’d rather be than
on the farm.

Her role as beef farm manager at Ngawhitu is her dream job.

Raised on a dairy farm in Okaihau, Northland, Larissa had previously spent a number of years working in Australia in the thoroughbred industry. Ngawhitu was new territory for her.

“I’ve always looked for a challenge, liked to try something new.”

She had previous experience in the dairy industry also, a “stepping stone” after her now five-year-old daughter Mackenzie was born.

Larissa says she is grateful to Alec for taking her on, as her experience with cows was limited.

“I’ve put my horse knowledge into cows and that has worked…”

To build her knowledge base Larissa works closely with Alec and asks plenty of questions.

The love of her job is two-fold. The beef industry itself, and her work environment which lends brilliantly to raising her daughter who has her own pony and plenty of space to run around.

“This place is very family orientated and one of the best life experiences she will ever get. It’s a great grounding to have, you learn so much growing up on a farm.”

She and Alec regularly attend field days and discussion groups which offer platforms to chat to other beef farmers.

There are some older farmers who look at her and ask how she handles the bulls.

“The same way you do,” is her standard response.”

Larissa works 12 days on, two days off. Work may range from fencing to working on pasture improvements. Recently she has taken on a manager role with the beef. At specific times of the year it’s calf rearing and overseeing the calf-rearer.

Larissa is enjoying the management challenge, being able to teach people what she knows.

Agriculture students from Taratahi Polytechnic in Northland have spent time under her guidance on the farm.

“I’ve been blessed throughout my life to have people above me who have taken the time to teach me.”

Larrisa’s long-term goal is to have her own farm. Ngawhitu is the best place to learn about farming and eventually achieve that.

“I’m not a sit down and read text books kind of girl.”