King Country farmers Dean and Sue Gower face a range of challenges on their steep hill-country farm. Mike Bland reports.

Steep hills don’t bother Dean Gower. It’s the things he can’t see that offer the biggest challenge to his farming operation.

This year the combined effect of a drought and facial eczema will shave about $400,000 from the bottom line of the King Country farming business he runs with wife Sue.

“It’s been one of the toughest years I’ve experienced since I’ve been farming,” Dean says.

“We had a good lambing last year, but then it was very dry from December through to May and the heatwave just baked us. We’ve had seasons like this before, but they’ve never gone on for so long.”

Fortunately, strong product prices have lessened the impact, and the cost would have been much higher if Dean hadn’t taken a proactive approach to destocking and facial eczema.

This year he and Sue will winter about 16,000 stock units across two properties – 1630-hectare ‘Riverhills’, just south of Ohura, and ‘Pukerata’, a 325ha finishing block at Tapuiwahine, north of Taumarunui.

Dean was raised in the Ohura district and Sue grew up on a sheep and beef farm at nearby Waimiha. Both were born in Taumarunui Hospital.

The Gower name is well-known in central King Country. Dean’s parents Gordon and Francie, still farm the home farm and three other properties a few kilometres further down State Highway 43 – “State Highway” being a somewhat glamorous description of the road between Ohura and Stratford, otherwise known as the Forgotten World Highway. Dean’s brother Scott and wife Robyn farm just west of Ohura.

Although they manage their farms independently, the Gowers band together to share information and buy farm merchandise and services. With more than 60,000 stock units spread across 6200ha, the family group has plenty of bargaining power.

Dean, who studied agriculture at Waikato Polytech, returned to the Ohura in the mid-1990s after an overseas stint which included work in Australia, an IAEA exchange to a cattle ranch in Montana, United States, and two years in Zimbabwe, where he coached polocrosse and trained horses.

He bought the first chunk of Riverhills in 2001 and Pukerata in 2005. In 2012 he and Sue added 500ha of adjoining land to Riverhills, bringing the total to 1600ha effective.

With contour ranging from rolling to steep, Riverhills is a long and skinny farm, sandwiched between the Ohura River and Mangaroa Stream.

It’s in what was traditionally referred to as ‘summer-safe’ country, with annual rainfall of between 1800 and 2000mm. Soils are a mix of Maeroa Ash and papa clay, and contour includes about 200ha of rolling land, with the balance medium to steep hill.

The steeper country is split into 63 paddocks, averaging 22ha. Young bulls are run on a 57ha block of easier contour, which is fenced into one-hectare cells, and beef heifers are grazed on an 85ha block, split into four-hectare cells. Another 60ha of rolling contour is divided into eight-hectare paddocks for heifer calving.

Access through some particularly difficult hill country in the middle of the farm can be tricky, so horses are the best form of transport in these areas.

The Gowers employ shepherd Flynn Burkett on Riverhills, while Anton Loveridge, who has been with the Gowers for 12 years, manages the Pukerata block.

About 13,500 stock units were wintered on Riverhills this year, including 5500 Romney ewes, 1700 two-tooths and 1750 ewe hoggets. Cattle wintered include 450 Angus cows, 166 R2 heifers, 240 R1 heifers and 250 R1 bulls.

Stock ratio reflects sheep returns

Dean says the 60:40 sheep to cattle ratio reflects the strong returns from sheep.

“Sheep meat prices are the best we’ve ever seen. The only issue is wool. We are clipping about 5kg per sheep stock unit but the wool price doesn’t even cover the cost of shearing.”

Riverhills carries the main breeding flock and about 2500 terminal-mated ewes (back to 2200 this year) and Pukerata grazes about 1000 terminal ewes, which are mated to Primera or Suffolk rams. The flock typically lambs at 138-140% (ewes to ram). About 40% of the terminal lambs on Pukerata are killed off-mum in December at an average of 18.5kg carcaseweight (CW). The remainder of Pukerata’s lambs and about 3000 terminal lambs transferred from Riverhills are finished early January-March at about 17.5kg CW. Supplied to Affco, terminal lambs are drafted every 21 days at 38kg liveweight-plus, with the aim of filling a unit load so it’s a straight trip to the processing plant.

For the last two years all surplus maternal lambs on Riverhills have been sold store at about 31-32kg LW. Dean says the store policy is a good fit for the farm, which lacks the finishing contour of Pukerata. Last season Riverhills sold 4000 store lambs at an average of $90. Prime lambs averaged $130, giving an average of $110/lamb for the whole operation.

After weaning, ewes on Riverhills are split into three mobs and rotated around the farm at 8.5ewes/ha from January until early September.

Lambing for the terminal ewes usually starts from September 6, with the maternal ewes lambing from September 16. This year, Dean delayed putting the rams out for a week due to the dry conditions.

“We didn’t have the feed to flush the ewes, but we couldn’t hold off any longer.”

The impacts of the drought and the subsequent FE challenge could have been worse if he hadn’t acted early.

“After the previous dry year I decided we had to be more proactive, so we sold store lambs in December and sent off 334 cows for grazing between late April and late July.”

It’s the first time in 11 years the Gowers have had to send cows off-farm. At a cost of $8.50/head/week plus transport, it proved an expensive but necessary exercise.

Riverhills was down to winter numbers by May 1, but sheep liveweights were well below optimum and Dean is not expecting a record lambing.

Moisture levels were still low in July and the farm could be in for another challenging season.

“We’ve had a mild winter and when the dirt in the cattleyards isn’t cutting up, you know things are pretty dry.”

Facing the FE threat

Riverhills originally ran a Romney flock but in the late 1990s Dean introduced East Friesian genetics in an attempt to increase fertility and lamb growth rate.

The strategy proved successful, with lambing percentage increasing from 115% (ewes to ram) to 136% within six years. Crossbreeding also helped lift lamb weights by 2-3kg.

But the Romney-East Friesian ewes were getting much bigger, with many reaching 68-70kg. And temperament was deteriorating.

“To put it simply, they were pretty wild,” Dean says.

“Even the lambs would have a go at you in the yards.”

Worryingly, ewe losses were gradually rising, something Dean attributes to the less-hardy constitution of the East-Friesian cross and the growing influence of facial eczema.

Twenty years ago King Country was considered relatively safe from FE, but the season of 1998-99 was a wake-up call.

“This farm was hit hard, probably because there are a lot of steep valleys where the air is dead still at the bottom. That’s good for facial eczema and it’s also good for fly.”

Dean can’t remember how many animals he lost that season “but lambing fell by 15% and there were a lot of dry ewes at scanning”.

Not every year since has been bad for FE, but Dean got tired of seeing “sick sheep at the back of a mob”. He started spore counting to assess the FE risk, but the farm’s challenging contour made it hard to find ‘safe’ spots to graze.

In 2009 the farm got hit hard again.

“We’d had a dry summer and a damp early autumn. The farm gets pretty fog-bound and that keeps the moisture levels in the pasture up, which helps the spores. Riverhills is probably the driest farm in our family’s group, and I’ve always felt it’s more eczema-prone. But Dad’s place got hit in 2009 as well.”

Breeding for tolerance

By this stage Dean had done a lot of research on the benefits of breeding for FE tolerance.

He and Gordon visited a number of breeders in the North Waikato region and talked to them about their breeding programmes.

“I wanted to go back to the Romney to get that FE tolerance into our flock. So we looked for breeders who were achieving high levels of tolerance and had been doing it long enough to be able to focus back on other traits like fertility and lamb growth.”

The first FE-tolerant rams were used on Riverhills in 2010, and the Gowers have continued to breed for FE tolerance ever since, using rams sourced from Keith Abbott’s Waiteika stud at Raglan and the Marchant family’s Marchant Farms at Maramarua.

Dean says sheep fertility has lifted since the switch to FE-tolerant Romney rams. Lambing performance is hovering around 140% and terminal lambs are averaging growth rates of 300grams/day pre-weaning and 135-150g/day post-weaning. Riverhills lambs average 240g/day up until weaning at 110 days.

In addition, the ewe dry rate has halved from 5-6% and annual ewe losses have dropped from 10% to 6% over the last six years.

But this year the double whammy of drought and FE had a big impact on sheep performance, with scanning down 20% and the dry rate up to 3.5%.

The FE challenge started in late March.

“We don’t spore test anymore but the testing we’d done earlier showed us which areas of the farm to keep a close eye on. So we know when conditions are favourable for FE, and vets and other farmers in the regions were warning that spore counts were rising.”

Soon the symptoms of FE started to show.

“You can tell when FE is affecting the ewes because they lose weight faster than they would through lack of feed. They head for the shade and won’t want to get up when you put the dog around them.”

Without a cold snap or heavy rain to slow spore growth, the challenge period continued right through to late April.

Terminal-mated ewes on Riverhills scanned at 154%, the maternal ewes at 145% and the two-tooths at 135%, a result Dean describes as disappointing. Other farmers in the district also reported poor scanning results, with some back by 40%.

Despite destocking early during the drought, Dean says the ewes went into winter much lighter than he would have liked. Liveweights were back by 4-6kg for the ewes and 6-7kg for the two-tooths.

“Our pasture covers were much lower than usual. Normally we’d expect to be at about 1400kg of drymatter per ha by May 1, but this year we were down to 1200kg DM/ha. That has certainly affected our ewe condition score.”

Dean says the bulk of ewes were Body Condition Scored (BCS) at 2.5-3.0 in autumn. In a normal season they would be 3-4. In contrast the terminal-mated ewes on Pukerata scored up to 4.5.

“Scanning for the Pukerata ewes was only down by 10%, probably because it wasn’t as dry and they didn’t have the same FE challenge.”

While it’s hard to quantify how much of the drop in liveweight and scanning performance is due to drought and how much is due to FE, a lower lambing this year will take a big chunk out of the $1000/ha Gross Farm Income the farm usually achieves. But Dean says the situation would have been much worse if the flock’s tolerance to facial eczema wasn’t increasing.

“Breeding for eczema tolerance is definitely working for us.”

Spreading the risk

Dean and Sue Gower’s decision to buy a 325ha finishing block in 2005 added another dimension to their farming operation.

They are now on the hunt for more, easier-contoured land to expand further.

In 2018-19 their finishing block, Pukerata, ran 1000 terminal-mated ewes, 50 Angus cows and 250 R2 Angus bulls, most of which will be sold to dairy farmers as service bulls. All terminal lambs are finished on Pukerata, north of Taumarunui, and bulls are grazed on a 95ha block divided into 1-2ha cells.

Surplus R2 heifers are finished at 220-230kg CW on Pukerata between January and March, though numbers were back this year as stock were offloaded early due to drought.

“Normally we’d expect to be carrying about 240 R2 heifers, but this year we are down to 165,” Dean says.

About 140 R2 heifers are retained for breeding and about 100 cast-for-age cows are culled annually.

While Riverhills was badly affected by drought this year, Pukerata, which is a 35 minute drive from Ohura, performed much better.

“It sits at a slightly higher altitude and it’s a bit cooler,” says Dean, who runs the block with long-time staff member Anton Loveridge.

The Gowers expect to sell about 220 service bulls in November this year. Any that aren’t sold will be finished at 340-360kgCW in February.

“We used to sell our bulls store, but we’ve found there is a good market for homebred Angus bulls for dairy mating.”

Sue says the dairy service bulls provide cash flow at a time of year when income is normally low.

And Dean believes the Mycoplasma bovis outbreak has helped lift demand for their bulls.

Good temperament is another advantage.

“Because they are farmed in a cell grazing system our bulls get very used to human contact. We sell them in the sheep yards, much to the surprise of dairy farmers.”

In 2012 the Gowers were able to buy another 500ha block that adjoined Riverhills. About 15ha was under QEII covenant and the remainder was grazeable, though Dean says it’s taken three years to clean up manuka, blackberry and ringfern. This has been done mostly by hand.

Casual fencer Simon McKenzie is employed for most of the Gowers’ fencing work, and once subdivision has been completed on the new block, capital fertiliser will be applied to bring P levels on the hills up to around 10.

The addition of this block gave the Gowers the scale to lift labour from two to three full-time units (including Dean) and now they are at a point where another full-time labour unit is justified on Riverhills.

“We’d like to take on one more full-timer but it’s not easy to find staff and in our case it can be even harder because we do a lot of stock work on horseback and so we need someone with good horse skills.”

The next stage of the plan is to find more finishing land to compliment Riverhills. Dean is optimistic about sheep and meat prices and is not afraid to go into more debt for another Pukerata-type block.

But Sue is a little more cautious: “Every time Dean buys a new block, we get a really bad season.”

Scanning results were down 20% this year.

Horsepower reigns on Riverhills

King Country farmers Dean and Sue Gower have several farm bikes on their 1630ha hill-country farm, but they don’t use them much.

Horses are the preferred mode of transport.

The 12km journey to the back of their Ohura farm, Riverhills, is best tackled on horseback and horses are used for most mustering.

Dean says access across broken hill country can be a problem in winter and it’s often impossible to get a motorbike and trailer unit across the farm. The bike might make it, but the trailer inevitably gets bogged.

A long horse ride doesn’t worry him.

“It’s one of the best ways to keep in touch with what’s happening on the farm.”

The Gowers have always loved horses and met through their involvement in polocrosse. Both were NZ representatives in the sport, as was Dean’s father Gordon.

While horses have been supplanted by farm bikes on many hill-country farms, they will always have a place on Riverhills while the Gowers are there. Flynn Burkett, general shepherd on the farm, is also a keen horseman.

“It’s important that our employees have horse skills because a horse is safer than a farm bike on this type of country,” Dean says.

The Gowers’ passion for horses has been passed on to the next generation. Son Curtis plays polocrosse and daughter Tara is a keen showjumper. Sue’s older son Jesse and daughter Kyla were both NZ polocrosse representatives.

Dean says polocrosse is an ideal sport for rural families.

“You only need one horse, so you’re not having to train or cart several horses at a time.”

As the name suggests, Polocrosse is a blend of polo and lacrosse. Players use a racquet instead of a club and the aim is to propel a rubber ball between the opposition’s goalposts at the end of a 165 by 55m field. There are six players per team with three on per chukka (a six-minute segment). Each team has a goal scorer, the only one who can score, a midfielder (attack and defence) and a defender.

It’s a game that combines horsemanship with ball and stick skills.

• Dean and Sue Gower, King Country
• ‘Riverhills’ 1630ha (1600ha effective)
• ‘Pukerata’ 325ha total (310ha effective)
• Stock units: 16,000-16,500
• Contour: Rolling to steep
• Farm type: Class 4 hill-country sheep and beef
• Farm policy: Store, finishing, service bulls
• Gross Farm Income: Approx. $1000/ha
• EBITDM (Earnings Before Interest, Tax, Drawings
and Management Fee): $650/ha