Northern lights

A Simmental-based herd of cattle are the stars of the Wagener family’s Far North farming operation. By Glenys Christian. Photos by Malcolm Pullman.

In Livestock19 Minutes

A Simmental-based herd of cattle are the stars of the Wagener family’s Far North farming operation. By Glenys Christian. Photos by Malcolm Pullman.

It would be hard to find a more diverse farm than Mt Camel Farms at Houhora in the Far North, with rocks, clay, peat and sand along with fresh and salt water.

“That’s what makes it different,” says Gareth Walters who makes up the workforce on the farm with uncle, Norm Wagener and his son Rob.

“It’s lots of things to lots of different people. It’s a massive credit to the people who went before.”

Norm was born and raised on the farm which is now run as a family company with him and his two sisters as directors. Gareth’s parents, Patti and Warren Walters, are now permanent St John’s paramedics in Kaitaia but Warren, who’s now mainly involved in fencing and tractor work, worked there full-time from the 1980s until Gareth returned from farming overseas and in New Zealand in 2020. Patti is the head possum trapper.

Norm Wagener’s preferred mode of transport when working on the farm, particularly when moving stock.

A move was made from Hereford to Simmental-cross cattle in the 1980s. As the herd became more Simmental-based, Red Devon bulls were used over the heifers, but now only Simmental bulls are used. Four to six bulls are bought annually from stud breeders in the north, some of whom have strong links to Wairoa’s Kerrah stud.

A herd of 440 cows with their progeny are carried over winter with 70 replacements kept. The heifers begin calving in late July with the cows beginning at the start of August. Stock work used to be all carried out on horseback with Norm and Robert still using horses today with three on the farm.

Most cows that are due to calve are regularly sorted on horseback in the outer pens of the southern yards on the Mataroa block so any close to calving can be taken back to the calving paddock on the northern area of the farm and closer to facilities.

The farm does have a quad bike and Gareth uses this for his stock work on the less-steep northern part of the farm.

Part of this operation is the separate calving of an older mob of cows which calve in the paddocks during their normal rotation. Gareth also has several mobs of rising yearling cattle here.

Hay is fed out mainly to the cows with about 200 big square bales made by a local contractor.

A niche market

The vast majority of progeny is sold as store stock at the Houhora Spring Fair the following September with the farm now having “a bit of a niche market” at spring sales. Historically, steers in particular have been sold to southern buyers.

Norm says some have gone to Te Kuiti or Wanganui and more recently South Waikato.

There’s a two to three-week overlap between cows calving and the yearling sale and that’s the tightest bit.

“But overall, the defining thing is what numbers we can carry over summer.”

After weaning in April the cows are moved on to maintenance country. A forestry block harvested from 2005 to 2008 is also used with care taken not to push the stocking pressure up too high.

The kikuyu-dominant pastures are regularly mulched.

“It’s the only species that hangs on.”

While annual rainfall averages 1200mm it has been half that some years.

“We’ve paid for that dearly.”

Solar-powered pump

A big recent development has been the installation of a solar-powered pump next to a dam fed by a natural spring. This means water can be pumped to a tank allowing regular water supply to 200ha of higher country. Before water reticulation the farm was fenced to take advantage of natural water and dams but they dry up in the summer leading to open-gate farming.

Unsure of where on the farm it would best perform, Norm mounted the panels on an old trailer. He has already moved it once and can also easily tweak the angle to best match the sun’s seasonal movement.

For the past five years 30 to 40 heifers have been shipped to China with buyers often taking animals not wanted on the local market. The odd steer and cull cow not in-calf will go to the meatworks.

For the last seven years a local grower has been growing from seven to eight hectares of watermelons on the farm, which require a new site every year. Norm has sown a range of new grass species after the crop is harvested.

About 85 tonnes of maintenance fertiliser is now flown on from one of the two airstrips on the farm after using about 100t of reactive phosphate rock with added sulphur for some years. Every second year they carry out their own ground spreading on easier country, after carrying out their own tests on the wide variety of soil types.

Norm’s sister Patti Walters uses the money she akes from selling the fur of possums trapped and shot on the family farm to buy plants for
native revegetation plots on the property.

Possum furs pay for seedlings

Norm’s sister, Patti enjoys hunting and leg-traps possums before shooting them, with their fur plucked and sold to a buyer in Okaihau. Her tally over the last 15 months is 2681 with the income used to buy seedlings to plant in 200ha of swamp that has been gradually fenced off.

“It’s a mission, but I’ll get there,” she says.

Totara, puriri and cabbage tree seedlings have all been established with poplar poles and toi toi going in around a couple of dune lakes on the sand country. There are still some possums in areas of the farm which can’t be walked as well as rats, rabbits, feral cats and pigs.

The main area of native bush on the farm is around Mt Camel which is 216 metres high. A radio mast on its second-highest peak services St Johns, forestry and marine radio networks.

A block of just under 300ha which was planted in forestry in the 1970s, as part of the deal with NZ Forest Service to stabilise the sand dunes, was harvested before 2008 and not replanted. About 80ha which has gone back into pines is registered in the emissions trading scheme (ETS).

Despite only one third of the almost 2000ha of the property being in pasture, Mt Camel Farms is not considered carbon neutral. Most of the land is made up of large areas of kanuka and manuka along with native bush. But looking into the Government’s ETS regulations at times has been difficult to understand, Norm says. And closer examination with the help of rural professionals convinced him even more that there was “a lot of smoke and mirrors”. Conversely wilding pines had been identified on the property by Northland Regional Council and these have been either poisoned or chopped down by contractors.

A form of rates postponement has been allowed for an unproductive area of sand dunes where covenants have been in place for some years with the Far North District Council.

“But we’re swimming against the tide,” Norm says. “That land is both priceless and worthless.”

Those who went before

The land which is now Mt Camel Farms was bought from Maori in 1865 by the original members of the Subritzky family. The matriarch Sophie and her eldest son, Ludolf, and his wife Maria lie in the cemetery on Mount Camel.

As well as other related early family members, Norm’s parents Bill and Rosemary are also buried there. Weed control and maintenance of the cemetery is carried out by his sister Sue Dow and husband, Alan.

During the Depression, Bill worked on a dairy farm south of Kaitaia but returned home and took a job barging shingle from the base of Mt Camel opposite the Houhora Heads up to the Pukenui Wharf. He joined the war effort becoming a radio operator and rear gunner on Lancaster bombers. He met his future wife in London and after the war returned to the north where they began developing family land into a dairy farm.

In the 1940s the then owner of Mt Camel, Bill Evans, passed away. This led to Bill and Rosemary, with the help of an inheritance from Northern Ireland, submitting a bid for the property when it went up for tender. While they lost the tender, a year later the successful bidder offered it to them as it was more than he could handle.

The block was landlocked until the late 1960s, with a launch and flat deck barge used to transport sheep, wool and general supplies in and out. For decades cattle were driven over the upper reaches of the Houhora Harbour at low tide.

Initially they were sold at the Hukatere Saleyards, at the edge of Ninety-Mile Beach on the west coast, until that closed, then Kaitaia before the Houhora Saleyards were built in the late 1950s. Now the trip is made by truck.

While there used to be just a few mangroves they soon started encroaching in the harbour.

“They do have a place because they protect the shore, but they’ve grown legs and are now in places where there used to be sand,” Norm says.

He worked on the farm and ran the tug and barge operation barging metal from the quarry opposite Houhora Heads, going on to work on other coastal tugs and launches in Auckland before returning to farming.

The land was also under threat on the eastern seaward side with sand dunes “coming in at a great rate” from the Pacific Ocean. In the 1970s the Forest Service tried to stabilise them by planting marram grass, then lupins followed by pinus radiata, as had been done on the west coast of the Aupouri Peninsula.

Unfortunately, this failed as the lupins wouldn’t grow. But as part of the deal a large part of the land, outside of the dunes, was planted in pines. A big advantage of this was that a roading network and fencing was developed. Now there’s gravel road access to much of the farm, including a right of way from Henderson Bay Road over neighbour’s land.

As well as cattle, Perendale sheep, which survived well, were run on the farm until the 1960s, given free range over unfenced areas after scrub cover was burned off.

The original three-stand shearing shed was pulled down by Norm’s father and uncle and resurrected in a position on the farm more easily accessed by boat.

The former shearers’ quarters now serve as a seaside bach for family members, which they say provides a wonderful sense of home to each successive generation. It’s a connection to place and people past and present and is particularly enjoyed by those who now live far away. As well as a number of family funerals, weddings have been held there including that of Gareth and wife Sally.

The groundsell invasion

A worsening problem on Mt Camel Farms is gravel groundsel, a relative of ragwort, which has spread through large areas of the Far North and Northland.

“It’s very prolific,” Norm Wagener says.

Senecio madagascariensis/inaequidens, also known as fireweed, is a native of Africa and now a problem weed in parts of Australia, including Queensland and in Hawaii.

It produces yellow flowers from spring to autumn and while it thrives on light gravel, volcanic and sandy soils, large infestations are being increasingly seen on clay soils, Keri Keri-based entomologist Dr Jenny Dymock says. She was involved in much of the work importing dung beetles and getting them established on farms in the north.

Infestations are becoming more widespread and rapidly denser where they’re not controlled, due to seed being spread by wind, water, hay and machinery. It’s a rapid coloniser of pasture, especially on lighter soils.

Stock won’t eat it willingly but will if it makes up just a small component of break-fed, lush pasture, which can result in poisoning due to liver damage.

“It will seriously reduce productivity either by there being less edible biomass in the pasture, having stock avoid grass near gravel groundsel or through them being unhealthy,” she says.

And the nectar collected from its flowers by bees taints their honey. The plants seem to be perennial and are hard and costly to kill, requiring high chemical rates and good management.

Leaf sample analysis carried out at Lincoln University, where it was compared with a Hawaiian sample, showed they were most closely matched with a sample from Lesotho, but it’s likely hybridisation is widespread. She’s sent further samples to the CSIRO in Australia for DNA analysis.

In a 2018 study she carried out on four Far North sites five plants at each were suctioned using a modified leaf blower to find out what insect pests were present. The most significant were the green vegetable bug, the brown shield bug and the larvae of the Nyctemera moth, also known as woolly bears. Also present was a seed-feeding fly, Sphenella ruficeps, never previously recorded in NZ.

Now entomologists at the CSIRO in Canberra have started work on a biocontrol programme using the stem weevil, Gastroclisus. Last year weevils collected in Durban, South Africa, were shipped there with the aim of establishing a colony in quarantine to be tested on its gravel groundsel species and other Senecio species, with the aim of introducing the weevils to Australia as a biocontrol agent.

Dymock says if this weevil is shown be host-specific to Senecio madagascariensis it could be considered as a biocontrol for NZ.