It’s hard to believe that hidden right on the coast in sunny, dry Hawke’s Bay is a microclimate that can deliver 375mm of rain overnight and snowfalls up to 1m deep. Russell Priest reports. Photos by Brad Hanson.

This environment only 34km south of Havelock North is the home of Ralph and Nadine Williams and their two sons, Jasper (17) and Henry (9), who own Waipoapoa Station on the coast at the end of the Maraetotara plateau.

The 1200ha farm has an annual rainfall of 1780mm, and three years ago experienced a 1m snowfall that lasted a week.

“There’s no land mass between us and the Antarctic,” Ralph said, “and when a southerly hits it can be a killer.”

Waipoapoa Station sits on the main fault line that runs up the east coast, making the farm extremely unstable.

“I’m always straightening up and tightening fence lines,” said Taine Repko, who has worked on the station for 18 years. “The place is on the move all the time.”

Most of Waipoapoa’s 1200ha lie 500-610m above sea level, experience long, cold winters and are particularly exposed to southerly weather, which brings rain.

The contour is extremely variable with 300ha being easy, rolling country covered in deep volcanic ash from Mt Ruapehu. The rest consists of steep, bony hills covered in limestone boulders with soils being all sedimentary and showing the shattering effect of the fault line beneath. The unstable landscape means fencing of the steeper country has been minimised with a third of the farm being in five paddocks, one of which is 140ha.

Ralph’s father, Peter, managed Waipoapoa from 1968 until he handed over the reins to Ralph in 1998. Ralph increased sub-division fencing and began to lift Olsen P (phosphate) levels from as low as four. After 20 years of P application they now average 17 – no mean feat considering the P retention of the soil is in the 90s. High sulphur levels are a feature of the soil but it needs lime – swede paddocks receive 2t lime/ha two years before the crop is sown.

Maintenance fertiliser of 200kg/ha of superphosphate is spread in the autumn. No nitrogen fertiliser is normally applied to pastures, but this year Ralph and Taine were forced into using it twice. Urea at 80kg/ha went on the lambing and finishing country in late winter as did 300kg/ha of Crop 15 on the young grass paddocks.

“It’s the first winter since I have been here that we’ve used all our supplements, and these were gone by June. We normally carry 400 ten-bale equivalents of balage into the winter,” Ralph said.

For the first time ever a 10ha crop of peas and oats is being grown to be turned into balage to replenish the winter reserves.

They use Kelso maternal and terminal rams, and Ralph and Taine can’t speak more highly of the performance of their progeny under challenging conditions.

“We try to buy the best genetics we can afford and feed the stock well so that the genetics will flourish,” Ralph said.

He describes Kelso maternals as having good natural fertility/fecundity with few wet-dries, good udders, moderate ewe size, and good survivability, longevity and temperament. The ewe hoggets are a lot more precocious than Romneys, are free moving, and rugged.

“They have to be tough here because winters are particularly harsh and pasture growth is minimal. Sheep must have the ability to put on weight during the spring and summer and retain this during the winter.”

While he and Taine feed the stock well they welcome the animals being put under pressure at times to sort out “the wheat from the chaff.”

“We don’t want soft animals. If they can’t handle it they go down the road,” Ralph said.

A Kelso Maternal ewe with twins.

Mating management

They try to flush the ewes before mating, but if they can’t their fall-back position is that the ewes are in good condition.

The hill paddocks are used for mating with three mobs being involved: the five- and six-year mob, the MA ewes and the two-tooths. Mobs are moved regularly during this period.

Mating begins on February 18 with about 1000 five- and six-year ewes being mated to Kelso Terminal rams for about 40 days.

Because of the drought the main mob was mated on March 15, 10 days early, to Kelso Maternal rams for 40 days at a ratio of 1:80.

“The reason we did this was because the condition was starting to fall off them alarmingly and the grass was running out, however, they still scanned in the early 180s,” Ralph said.

The average lambing percentage for the 3000 MA ewes is normally 140% but he thinks this year may be better. He expects the total lamb crop to be about 5100 including hogget lambs.

Hogget mating was also brought forward 10 days to April 10. Two major culls of hoggets are made in summer, based on size, structural correctness and type, before the final 1050 are vaccinated and then mated for 40 days.

“Early mating of hoggets means you don’t get those late lambs that hang around until May,” Ralph said.

Usually about 900 hoggets get in lamb. After mating they enter their own winter rotation to grow them steadily through to lambing. They receive a drench capsule before being set stocked for lambing at 9.3/ha on sheltered paddocks previously lambed on by the five- and six-year ewes.

“We don’t go near them at lambing time and they deliver 950-1000 lambs with the loss of only about 10 hoggets,” Taine said.

Waipoapoa buys specialist Kelso Ewe Hogget Terminal blackface ram hoggets, for mating with the ewe hoggets, for which it pays $500.

The lambs are small and vigorous, wasting no time in getting to their feet and having their first feed. Ralph and Taine consider the Terminal ram hoggets to be a crucial part of their successful ewe hogget mating programme.

After weaning, the hoggets are fed as well as possible in readiness for two-tooth mating.

When selecting their $1500 Kelso Maternal rams, Ralph and Taine focus on SIL’s maternal index with a particular emphasis on early growth and survivability. They’re hoping to investigate Kelso rams being offered as a finer wool option this year.

“I like a good looking sheep with sound constitution and can’t stand things like crook feet, pink noses and black spots,” Ralph said.

Ralph and Taine particularly like the wide range of breeding values offered when selecting rams, the business’s scientific approach to breeding and the excellent advice they get from the Kelso team.

“Southland” wintering system

In spite of Ralph’s being on Waipoapoa for 22 years he admits it took him and Taine 15 years to develop a system that works in the challenging environment, particularly in the winter. To overcome this they have returned to the Southland tradition of wintering ewes on swedes.

“It gives the pastures a six-week spell before the ewes are set stocked for lambing, and allows us to build covers of up to 1500kg DM to lamb on,” Ralph said.

Taine maintains the ewes do amazingly well on swedes, but they seem to need the fibre provided by the balage to hold their condition.

The three mating mobs of ewes end their individual winter rotations on grass before being scanned and moved onto a 20ha crop of swedes where they are break fed and supplemented with mature balage.

Ewes come straight off the swedes and onto their lambing paddocks, which by then have accumulated excellent covers.

The old ewes and their lambs come off the hills towards the end of August, and after docking are rotated on 80ha of Shogun perennial high-sugar ryegrass for 90 days. Subsequently 80% of the lambs are POM at 19.5kg and the remainder are weaned and put back on the same area. All the six-year ewes and cull five-year ewes are killed at the same time, thereby relieving pressure on the finishing areas and making way for the Kelso Maternal male lambs after weaning.

“Our country is not too hard on teeth so we are able to carry most five-year ewes for another year. However, once they get to six-year-olds they start to fall apart,” Ralph said.

Weaning of the Kelso Maternal lambs occurs during the first week of December, after which ewes are shorn. A big draft (1100) of mainly Kelso Maternal lambs is taken in early January, averaging about 18.6kg. This leaves about the right number of lambs to stock the finishing country. About 500 finished lambs leave the station a month after the big draft, at an average weight of 20kg.

All male lambs remaining after the big draft are shorn along with the ewe lambs.

“We’ve tried buying in finishing lambs in the past with limited success, so I’ve decided it’s better to keep our lambs longer and put more weight on them, especially with drench resistance becoming more common,” Ralph said.

Ralph Williams (left) and Taine Repko.

Last year the finishing area was planted in clovers but Poa annua started to invade the stands so Ralph and Taine were advised to replace it with Shogun ryegrass and were assured the lambs would perform just as well as on clover.

“The beauty with grass is that you have more spray options than clover. However, with Shogun the secret is not to graze it too hard,” Ralph said.

Ralph and Taine are strong believers in maintaining ewe bodyweight on as even a keel as possible throughout the year, so after weaning their goal is to try to ensure ewes don’t lose bodyweight over the summer. A pre-tupping flush of the ewes is a bonus if it can be achieved.

Cows power pasture clean-up

Hereford breeding cows have taken care of the pastures on Waipoapoa since 1968 when Ralph’s father introduced them to the station. Without the power of the cow to clean up the extensive hill pastures the sheep would not be able to flourish. Genes from the renowned Chesterman stud Hereford herd (Koanui) just down the road have had a profound influence on the station’s herd ever since.

The yearling bull dairy market provides Ralph and Taine with a bit more of an incentive to feed the herd well over the spring/summer with a view to weaning as many 300kg bull calves as possible. About 134 are sold annually to dairy farmers in November at about 400kg.

Weaner bulls and heifers are wintered on separate 40ha blocks at 3/ha on some of the best easy-rolling country on the station. The blocks are divided into 3ha paddocks with electric fences, and animals are shifted every 3-4 days. The winter rotation length is about 35-40 days.

The R1 Hereford heifers are culled from 140 to 100 keepers at the end of August with culling based mainly on size, type and soundness. The culls are retained and, along with 140 good Angus weaner heifers bought in the autumn, are carried through two winters before being mated as two-year olds and sold in-calf in the autumn as R3s for about $1600-$1750.

The keeper heifers are vaccinated against bovine viral diarrhoea and leptospirosis, and single-sire mated, at 1:50 starting on November 1 for six weeks, to two low birthweight estimated breeding value (EBV) Hereford bulls. After a cycle the two bulls are swapped over to the other heifer mob.

“If we get over 10 dries we’re disappointed and we have had as few as two,” Ralph said.

In-calf R2 heifers are wintered on grass, usually boxed in with the R3s, so they don’t get any special treatment. Calved behind a hot wire they get a fresh break each day but if the weather is inclement they get two breaks. After calving they get shifted onto ad-lib grass.

“We have a set of yards nearby if we have any calving problems. We generally calve about 10 out of 90,” Taine said.

Bulls are used over the heifers for about three years until they become too big for them, after which they are used exclusively over the cows.

“We buy the best two bulls we can afford at Chesterman’s sale and try to get curve benders so we can use them over both heifers and cows without compromising growth,” Ralph said.

Last year an average of $12,500 was paid to secure two bulls, both of which Ralph and Taine are delighted with.

Balanced EBVs are what Ralph and Taine look for when selecting bulls, with a particular focus on the milk and 400-day weight EBVs, and, most importantly, good temperament.

The MA cows spend the winter cleaning up the five large hill paddocks before being calved down in a 140ha sheltered basin paddock. Calving begins on August 20 and Ralph says they would normally get 150 calves from the 170 cows.

Mustered out of the calving area at the end of October, the cows and calves are placed in a paddock with good covers that has previously been occupied by lambing hoggets and shut up for six weeks.

Three bulls go out with a mob of about 150 MA cows in early November. The mob spends the spring and early part of summer rotating around paddocks of ewes and lambs mopping up the surplus feed.

Ralph commented that the occasional bull has a strongly territorial nature, which is not desirable in a multi-sire mating situation, so he is culled.

Weaning occurs in early March with cows and calves put on opposite sides of a fence topped with a hot wire. After three days the calves are moved away and drenched. Further drenches are given at no more than five-weekly intervals until the shortest day with two given between that day and spring. No further drenches are given after that.

Growing of green-feed crops forms an important part of the farming calendar on Waipoapoa. Swedes are grown as part of an annual pasture renewal programme to plug a gap in the farm’s winter feed deficit. Spring sown Shogun perennial ryegrass, which is replaced every four years, follows swedes in the cropping rotation. This year Ralph and Taine intend to grow 8ha of rape for lamb finishing, then shut it up and block graze the regrowth with two-tooth ewes after scanning so they don’t have to compete with the older ewes on the swedes.

Pastures are frequently renewed using the technique of going from grass-to-grass.

Taine Repko has worked with Ralph on Waipoapoa for a long time and is one of the business’s greatest assets. He is thoroughly familiar with the management system that he and Ralph have perfected over the last 15 years.

Nadine, Ralph’s wife, worked from home as a travel broker before Covid-19 struck, and now spends most of her unpaid time refunding travel tickets.


  • Waipoapoa Station, Central Hawke’s Bay.
  • 1200ha (1067ha effective), 150ha leased.
  • Sheep breeding and lamb finishing.
  • Cattle breeding and trading.
  • Breeds Hereford yearling bulls for the dairy industry.
  • Greenfeed crops for finishing lambs, swedes for wintering ewes.
  • On a major fault line with landscape constantly moving.
  • Elevated, harsh winter environment with high rainfall.


  • 3000 Kelso Maternal ewes
  • 900 in-lamb Kelso Maternal ewe hoggets
  • 170 Hereford MA cows
  • 90 R3 in-calf Hereford heifers
  • 90 R2 in-calf Hereford heifers
  • 200 R2 Angus and Hereford trading heifers
  • 200 R1 Angus and Hereford trading heifers
  • 150 R1 Hereford bulls
  • 50:50 cattle to sheep ratio.