Fallen logs littered many of the paddocks when the Richards bought Romani. Russell Priest reports on the challenges faced at the farm near Taumarunui.

Ross Richards is sometimes thought of as a bit of a hippie having grown up on the Coromandel Peninsula but he is regarded as a visionary and good farmer. Behind his rugged exterior is a man who has successfully combined profitability with sustainability in a farming business he and his wife Ruth, with help from her family, started from scratch.
Their Taumarunui farm, Romani, has dung beetles, green thistle beetles, sheep that are facial eczema and flystrike-tolerant and require little drenching.
The Richards’ drive to achieve a more sustainable farming business involved compromising when they took over Romani in 1993 as equity partner managers with Ruth’s family.
Ross says in the early days he may have been a little too preoccupied with his ecosystem concept when paying off debt should have been his main priority.
However now debt has diminished the development of more sustainable farming practices and livestock has accelerated.
Farming on the southern side of the watershed between the Pungapunga and Taringamotu streams 14.3km east of Taumarunui, the Richards own 356 hectares and lease 544ha (400ha effective) of adjacent Maori land involving six separate blocks. Only 660ha is effective with the ineffective area is mainly regenerating native bush.
The farm had been heavily logged when they took over.
Ross says some paddocks were littered with so much timber that one could hop from one side to the other without touching the ground and there was hardly a fence standing.
It hadn’t had fertiliser for 20 years. The phosphate level was 4 and sulphur low whereas the pH ranged up to 6.8.
Ross and Ruth have four children, nine to 28 years old. The couple run a complex farming business involving commercial sheep and cattle breeding and finishing as well as a Coopworth stud.
There are 180-190 Angus-Friesian cows and about 125 in-calf once-bred heifers. All male calves are left entire and finished or sold store before their second winter.
Fifty 100kg AF heifer calves are bought in the spring and mated to Willie Falloon’s Angus bulls at 15 months on December 10 for six weeks at an average weight of 300kg. Normally 94% get in calf delivering a calving of 95% (of those in calf) and an average calf weaning weight of 195kg in February.
“We used to buy Hereford-Friesian calves however we found as cows they were giving us too many udder-related problems so we switched to Angus-Friesian with much improved results.”
Mated to South Devon bulls on December 20 (for six weeks) as two-year olds and mixed-age cows they achieve a 95% calving based on cows wintered and wean calves in February at an average weight of 220kg.
Cows and heifers used to be break fed over calving however because of time pressure they are now set stocked among ewes and lambs.
All heifer calves born to either Angus-Friesian heifers by Angus bulls or to Angus-Friesian cows by South Devon bulls go into the once-bred heifer programme. In the last two years 140 have gone to Angus bulls for six weeks with 125 getting in calf. Their calves are weaned in February at about 175kg and the heifers are killed at 230kg CW from the end of February soon after weaning.
“If we have the feed to carry them on for another month to six weeks their yields improve significantly,” Ross said.
All cows are mouthed and their udders/teats checked annually and any that are low in the mouth or unsound are culled as are any dries or wet dries.
All male calves born are wintered and either killed at 18-20 months between January and the winter at 270kg average CW or sold as stores depending upon where the best money is.
He could have sold them store before Christmas for about $1400 but due to work commitments he ended up killing them throughout the summer and averaging $1200.
“Unfortunately I don’t always get it right.”

Encouraging the best

The Richards run Coopworths, 2350 commercial ewes and 650 stud ewes.
Ross is adamant that stud sheep must perform under pressure in a commercial environment run with the commercial animals whenever possible. To this end his sheep selection policy can only be described as “brutal” particularly with the studs.
“We make life as difficult for them as we can which encourages the best animals to float to the top.”
He says with genetics, variation can be induced by putting them under pressure for greater progress because it makes it easier to identify those top animals.
Only ewe hoggets that get in lamb are eligible to enter the ewe flock. Having a live lamb is not compulsory because 20% of the hoggets abort in spite of being vaccinated against toxoplasmosis and campylobacter.
“It has been suggested to me that the campylobacter vaccine may be only 80% effective.”
Any ewe that requires drenching, gets flystrike, is dry or wet dry, is lame or unsound is culled. Any ewe carrying a black spot(s) is culled unless it is an exceptional animal in which case it goes into the B flock. Any ewe that requires preferential treatment is tagged and if this occurs again it either goes into the B flock or is culled.
All ewes are mouthed and have their udders palpated annually and those unlikely to last another year and/or have unsound udders are culled. Stud ewes are not cast-for-age as Ross believes the old ewes are the best ewes in the flock. They are checked to determine whether he thinks they will last another year or two and kept or culled accordingly. Those commercial five-year ewes deemed to be able to last another year or two are sought after as one-to-two-year ewes and sold for breeding as are any surplus (lighter) ewe lambs.
The Richards have been culling animals susceptible to flystrike for 25 years. The sheep flock has not been dipped for fly for seven years so a number of families within the flock that have never been exposed to fly-control chemicals. Animals that do get fly struck, which occurs more in wet summers than dry ones, are treated with a long-acting insecticide.
Two-tooths are tested by farm areas renown for fly and facial eczema and are home to the two-tooths providing them with a severe challenge from both.
Ross claims susceptibility to flystrike has been scientifically proven to be both heritable and repeatable and questions why one would not cull those that succumb.
The Richards run a B flock, 550 cull ewes from the stud and commercial flocks. The are mated to Focus Genetics terminal sires on March 10 for two cycles and they start lambing on August 5. The lambing percentage is usually 150. Half the lambs are killed off the ewe at 18kg carcaseweight (CW) in November for a significant premium.
Stud ewes are mated March 10 while the rams go out with the commercial Coopworths on March 25 for two cycles to start lambing on August 20. The stud Coopworth ewes generally deliver a lambing percentage of between 160-170 while the commercials are about 10% behind.
Ewes are not consciously flushed starting their winter rotation when the rams go out.
“The fertility/fecundity genes are now so strongly fixed in our Coopworths that even in a drought year they scan 180%.”
All ewes are scanned for dries, singles and multiples.
Ross said the best scanning percentage is 210% but this was too high. The average percentages for MA ewes is 185%, for two-tooths 175% and for hoggets 120%. Normally after scanning single-bearing ewes are run separately from multiples however last year there weren’t enough carrying singles to put enough pressure on them in a separate rotation so all the ewes were grouped according to their condition.

Shelter important

Six weeks before lambing triplet-bearing ewes are pulled out of the twin mob and run and lambed separately. A paddock in the middle of the farm with a lot of uncleared sidlings providing shelter and an abundance of good lambing sites is used to lamb the triplets.
“Shelter is important to achieve good triplet survival rates however the number and quality of lambing sites is more important,” Ross said.
“A good lambing site is one where a ewe can lamb and remain undisturbed for three or four days while she bonds with her lambs.”
The best lambing percentage achieved with the triplet-bearing ewes is 215%. Ross believes one of the tools for successful triplet survival is the use of Nilvax to vaccinate the ewes. He has found that far fewer lambs die just prior to docking using this product. His theory is that because Nilvax stimulates greater antibody production than other vaccines (because of the presence of levamisole) triplets receive more antibodies through the ewe’s colostrum hence greater immunity.
All ewes (except triplet bearing are rotationally grazed over winter until the first lamb is born then set stocked on to pasture covers as close to 1200kg drymatter (DM)/ha as possible.
The 1200kg DM is the target but the past two years it has been short of that.
“You certainly notice that the paddocks with better covers at lambing deliver the heavier lambs.”
The lambing dates were a month later however Ross changed because of increasing dry summers. Commercial lambs are weaned early December with 30% of males killed at 16.5kg CW.
Commercial ewe and wether lambs get a drench at weaning and thereafter monthly and ewes don’t get drenched at all unless in an emergency.
Ross operates a flexible lamb selling policy over the summer/autumn. He sells on both the store and fat markets depending upon where the best money is.
Coopworth ewe lambs receive priority treatment over the summer in an endeavour to get them up to best-practice tupping weights and beyond. Going ahead of the wether lambs followed by the ewe flock in as long a rotation as possible, they also spend some time on stands of plantain and clover. These are also used to feed twin-bearing hoggets from lambing to weaning and for finishing lighter lambs.
Target cut-off tupping weight for hoggets is 42kg or better. Last year it was 40kg and the previous year 44kg. About 1300 hoggets are put to the ram on May 1 for 35 days. Of these 500 are studs and are mated to stud Coopworth rams while the balance are commercial Coopworths mated to Focus Genetics terminal sires. About 1000 hoggets (80%) get in lamb delivering a 100% lambing.
The first of the lambs sired by Focus Genetics terminal sires out of hoggets are killed in late February at 18kg with all of them killed by the end of March at between 17-18kg.
“We generally have no trouble getting the hoggets that have lambed back up to 60-62kg for mating as two tooths.”
The environment they farm in is a hot spot for facial eczema and a haven for internal parasites. Ross believes the only long-term solution to these diseases is to breed sheep that have some tolerance and through genetic improvement increase the degree of this over time. His initial interest was in breeding for facial eczema tolerance. He pursued this trait for 15 years by buying Coopworth rams from Cambridge’s Edward Dinger. In 2015 when Edward retired the Richards bought his entire stud flock.
At the time it was regarded as one of the most facial eczema-tolerant in the country.
Ross deliberately “neglected the hell out of Edward’s flock” to creating genetic variation.
Edward had not been selecting for worm resistance within the flock so Ross pursued this.
The protocols for developing a genetic prediction for this trait involve not drenching the stud lambs until the end of January. Before being drenched their dung is sampled and the number of worm eggs counted in a laboratory. This data is then sent to SIL where it is used to predict individual animals’ breeding value for worm resistance. The ram lambs received a drench 8-10 weeks later. The ewe lambs enter the normal lamb-drenching programme.

Good yards and swinging gates

Good infrastructure and a high standard of maintenance is a feature of Romani. The farm only employs Chris Andrews and carries 8000su at a rate of 12.1su/ha.
“Because there are only two of us running 8000su we need things that work, like gates that swing, stock-proof fences, yards that are easy to work in and laneways that make stock easy to move, so we keep up with the maintenance,” Ross said.
The farm area is well subdivided into about 250 paddocks which is the result of having so many small leased blocks. These give Ross lots of management options and help him to grow more grass.
Weathered Taupo ash 0-2m deep (ejected 1300 years ago) covers most of the farm while the leased blocks are mainly mudstone with pumice flats. The latter is deficient in copper, cobalt and selenium.
Phosphate levels are 25-40, sulphurs 10-24 (organic sulphurs 8-12) and PH is 5.8.
Romani’s annual superphosphate-based maintenance fertiliser of 25 units of phosphate and 30 units of sulphur fortified with copper, cobalt and selenium goes on before lambing. Ross doesn’t hesitate to use nitrogen in the mix if Farmax modelling indicates a shortage of spring feed. Last year after a dry summer, autumn feed covers were extremely low so 40 units of nitrogen were applied in May over the whole farm.
“It was a bit of a gamble because it was so late and I wouldn’t normally apply nitrogen so late,” Ross said, “but it paid off and feed grew all winter.”
Most of the home farm is south-facing with the contour of the whole farm being mainly easy hill with 20% steep and 10% cultivable. Annual rainfall varies between 900mm and 1500mm with an average of 1250mm. Most of the rain falls in winter and arrives from the west and northwest. Nothing comes from the east. Snow falls occasionally with 150mm being the deepest fall at the house but it only lies about for 24 hours.
“We used to get lots of thunderstorms during the summer which promoted good pasture growth but we seldom get them nowadays.”
The Taumarunui area can be one of the hottest places in NZ during summer and in recent years has experienced some exceptionally dry summers.
“The moisture status of pumice soils can be very confusing in the summer,” Ross said.
“The grass can be kept green by regular but small falls of rain while the pumice underneath can be very dry. I get very nervous when this happens.
“We are heavily stocked so we see the dry coming before most farmers in the area.”
Few crops are grown on Romani. Swedes (5-10ha) are sown as a winter crop, followed by a summer crop of kale replaced in the autumn by a stand of clover and plantain.
Two and a half years ago an 8ha north-facing, dry pumice paddock badly infested with calis was sown in a wide range of clovers, including annuals. Ross has been particularly impressed with the amount of winter growth delivered by the annual clovers but the whole stand has been extremely productive over the spring/summer as well. It was used for lambing 250 twin-bearing hoggets and carrying them through to weaning. After weaning their lambs were returned to the paddock and stayed there until the end of February.
In mid-November in a growthy spring Ross shuts up an area to fallow over the summer. The grasses go to head and set seed before collapsing and making way for clovers. The area is grazed in February by either weaned calves out of once-bred heifers or by lambs.
“Lamb growth rates on it are as good as on a summer crop and certainly better than you would expect.”
If the remaining feed is not required Ross drives large mobs of ewes and cows and calves over it (preferably on a rainy day) to trample it into the ground which creates an ideal seedbed for the mass of seed lying on the ground.
“It’s a cheap summer crop and paddocks are noticeably more productive over the two years following summer fallowing,” Ross said.


• Farming 900ha (660ha effective)
• Commercial sheep and beef, plus a Coopworth stud
• Sheep:cattle ratio 51:49
• 8000su at 12.1su/ha
• A high performing business, EFS $851/ha
• Strong focus on sustainable farming practices
• Using genetics to reduce farm input costs


An ANZ Bank analysis for the 2018/9 financial year showed Romani’s financial performance was well within the top 20% of sheep, beef and deer farms in the King Country region. Economic farm surplus, $851/ha (top 20% $756), gross farm revenue was $1695/ha (top 20% $1404) and earnings before interest tax, rent and management $818/ha (top 20% $729).


Four species of dung beetles have also been introduced on to Romani in recent years.
“We’ve introduced thousands and thousands of dollars of beetles in cowshit on to the farm in the last three years and we haven’t seen them since, so hopefully they’ve established,” Ross said.
“They’re very industrious. What’s excreted today will be buried by tomorrow. Once they’ve established they’ll be active virtually all year round.”
Some of benefits of beetles are increasing plant rooting depth, improving organic matter incorporation and, reducing internal parasites on pasture.
Five years ago they introduced a green thistle beetle courtesy of Horizons Regional Council to control Californian thistles.
The population now occupies an area of five square kilometres and has reduced the cali population by 80%. Ross says there are still too many thistles, however the beetle is definitely making significant inroads.