Lynda Gray

Proposed water quality regulations are influencing plans at Tim and Kirsten O’Sullivan’s Sustainable Prospects development near Alexandra .

While some are sitting tight to wait and see exactly how and when the regulations unfold, Tim’s looking at ways to future-proof the land and irrigation developed over the last five years.

He suspects that any regulation changes will bring readjustments on the beef and dairy grazing system and in the longer term could mean fewer cows and more specialist crops. A trial for one potential high value specialist crop, hemp, is already in the ground. The one-hectare block is strictly experimental to see if the environment is suitable.

“It could be an opportunity and we’re having a go but it’s complicated because a viable future would probably mean processing and value-adding which is not really what we want to be involved in.”

Another specialist crop they’re growing for the first time is carrot seed in a shared risk contract with Midlands Seed. A 26ha block was sprayed out pre-Christmas and direct drilled by Midlands Seeds in late January for harvest in March/April 2021.

Tim is also considering horticulture crops to add diversity and because of the likely challenges with future water quality regulations.

The block is well placed for horticulture given the nearby vineyard and stone fruit orchards. He took the first steps towards horticulture during development of the McArthur’s block installing 30 hectares of fixed-grid irrigation in the South-east corner that could easily be adapted for an orchard system.

However, the lag time till commercial production and the expertise needed to for such a system are the obvious financial snags.

“We could be looking at a lead time of six years until production so that raises another question of how to fund it.”

A joint venture could be the answer but is not a track he wants to go down at this stage.

Maximum profit for cashflow

Over the past five years the O’Sullivans have developed an irrigated dairy support, cattle finishing and crop system on high lying dryland terraces near Alexandra.

The development comprises two blocks. Lone Pine is where irrigated crop and grass feed dairy cows over the winter and dairy bulls from spring until autumn.

The McArthur Block at the southern end is used predominantly for growing cereal crops for grazing and winter feed.

The O’Sullivans goal is to maximise Lone Pine’s profitability to generate cashflow so it can stand on its own feet. However, the money-making goal has been tempered with due respect to the sustainable use of fertiliser, seed and water. Their efforts to balance profitability with sustainability were rewarded last year with the winning of the soil management, agri-science and integrated management categories of the Otago Ballance Environmental Awards.

A good example of their approach is the growing and management of fodder beet to maximise drymatter production while minimising soil and crop damage in the exposed wind-prone environment. Another example is the banding of compound fertiliser five centimetres either side and below the seed which has reduced fertiliser application to about 125kg/ha. Microbial stimulants are also used to reduce the risk of disease.

Another well thought out aspect of crop management is the 30ha of kale planted out in 20 paddocks at the end of each alternate paddock of beet. The strategically planted kale means cows can be moved easily on and off over the 20 days of transitioning. It also minimises stock movements between crops therefore mitigating the risk of M. bovis spread should an outbreak occur.

Tim transitions with kale rather than silage and kale because it’s cheaper to grow and easier to feed.

This year 20ha of the later-sown beet was under sown with oats. It was an experiment to see if the cereal would help prevent wind damage while the fodder beet seedlings were at a vulnerable stage. It’s been successful although it took careful planning around the application of sprays.

The oats were broadcast six days before the fodder beet was drilled and sprayed out once the beet had three or four true leaves. Even when dead on the ground the oats helped protect the soil surface.

The area of beet grown has increased in line with irrigation development during which the yield has improved to an average of about 26t/dm/ha. It’s high cost to grow at $2,500/ha and Tim says he wouldn’t risk growing it without reliable irrigation.

The planning, establishment and management is largely the responsibility of Wholeseeds rep Tom Bird who makes weekly visits once the crop is in the ground. He uses AgWorld management software to keep track of growth, fertiliser and sprays and can easily share this with Tim and livestock manager Pete Copeland. This year’s crop is likely to be back on yield due to the cold and late spring, so inputs were adjusted accordingly with less herbicide and more fertiliser. Tom gets to see first-hand the results of his management efforts, helping with some of the break feeding of stock over winter.

The farming season is roughly split between the growing, management and harvest of crops from November until April, then winter prep and feeding. This year Tim has winter grazing arrangements for a total of 4000 mixed-age dairy cows from four dairy operations in Southland, West Otago and South Otago who will transition on to beet over 20 days. About 1260 R1 & R2 heifers will also graze the beet. They arrive at 100kg liveweight in December and spend two winters before returning home in time for calving.

Rising two-year Friesian bulls are taken on as well, depending on the feed situation. They arrive in May and winter on a self-feed silage bun. They’ll graze pasture from late August and be finished by December.

Drawn by southern prospects

Sustainable Prospects is a blank canvas development started in 2015.

Before that Tim, a Lincoln graduate and the 2009 Young Farmer of the Year winner, owned and operated Sustainable Water, an Ashburton-based company specializing in irrigation and effluent pond liners.

Keen for a farm development challenge, but without the financial backing for the $20,000 to $30,000/ha price tag on a lot of Canterbury country, the O’Sullivans headed south looking in the wider Clutha catchment.

They settled for 700ha of sloping flats and shallow gullies at McArthur’s Ridge, about 15 minutes north-west of Alexandra. A pointer to the block’s productive potential was the neighbouring vineyard developments, and a further incentive was the proposed Dairy Creek Irrigation Scheme which was commissioned in December 2017.

The scheme draws 1,050l/s from the Dairy Creek inlet on the east bank of Lake Dunstan and is pumped up 140 metres to the boundaries of shareholders on the terraces of the lower Manuherikia valley.

The scheme is a joint venture between the Dairy Creek Irrigation company, a group of 15 landowner shareholders, and Pioneer Energy. The shareholders pay $720/ha annually and a variable charge based on consumption.

Reliable water has transformed the area, as well as contouring and subdivision. A drone was used to get an accurate contour plan for irrigation then the ground was levelled by smoothing out the steeper gullies to a 10 – 12 deg slope maximum.

Paddock configuration is designed for easy management and based on a dairy farm system. They are set up in 55-metre-lanes, about 900 metres in length and water troughs are regularly placed to make back-fencing possible. Hotwires break up each paddock and are easy and fast to shift due to the narrow width of the lanes.

Mixed species pastures including grasses (perennial ryegrass, fescue, prairie, timothy); clovers and multiple herbs (chicory, plantain, phacelia) come on stream at different times of the year and provide a diverse diet.

The name, Sustainable Prospects came from the accountant, without a great deal of thought beyond the word connection with the irrigation business, Tim says. But in hindsight it’s a name that reflects the management practices used during and post-development. For Tim the results of the project – a land platform with potential for both agricultural and horticultural- has been both challenging and satisfying.