Central Plateau’s Rangitaiki Station is comparing bulls under New Zealand commercial farming conditions. Cheyenne Nicholson paid a visit.

Rangitaiki Station is like its own little community in the Central Plateau just 30 minutes from Taupo. The 8300-hectare property is home to sheep, beef, deer and dairy beef, 24 staff and unlike a typical New Zealand station, is predominantly flat.

Landcorp’s Rangitaiki is one the NZs largest deer farms. Venison and deer leather from the station are sold internationally and locally under the Pamu brand along with wool.

It’s a massive operation that’s overseen by farm business manager Sam Bunny who’s worked for Landcorp for about 10 years with unit managers for the different classes of stock. Farm operation manager James Van Bohemen has been on Rangitaiki for four years and it’s been four years of big changes on the station.

For the past five years Rangitaiki station has been part of the Beef+LambNZ Genetics Beef Progeny Test. The test, now in its sixth year, compares bulls under New Zealand commercial farming conditions, basically, proving EBVs in a commercial sense.

They wanted to start evaluating genetics in a commercial cow herd, looking at different estimated breeding values (EBVs) in bulls and looking at: is it worth paying $15,000 for a stud bull compared to a $4500 bull? “What’s the trade off and are they performing?” Sam says.

The overall testing involves mating more than 3000 cows and heifers annually across the five large stations and one dairy farm involved.

Rangitaiki has 450 cows that are artificially inseminated (AI) each year to a mixture of maternal and terminal sires from genetics in NZ and overseas. All sires are chosen by Beef+Lamb NZ Genetics and the team involved in the test. Maternal sires used are a mix of Angus, Hereford and Stablizer while terminal breeds are Simmentals, Charolais and others. Specific bulls are included to provide genetic links to international programmes, where carcase data is being collected.

Rangitaiki is one the last cabs off the rank for AI in the testing, which starts in the first few weeks of January to line up with the bulls going out in mid-January. They opt for a later AI time than is typical of the North Island to line up calving (in spring) with their feed curve. Weaning and pregnancy testing occurs in April/May and all animals in the test are regularly monitored throughout winter including body condition scoring (BCS) at mating/ AI, mid-winter and pre-calving.

Dairy-born calves in the test are assessed for calving ease (as well as terminal traits), while beef-born steers are assessed on their finishing performance and carcase traits. Replacement heifers are tracked for their maternal characteristics while all steers and terminal heifers are finished onfarm.

Replacement heifers on Rangitaiki are selected first on weight and increasingly their genetics as the data behind each animal grows.

“Now that we know what their genetics look like we have been taking some of the progeny test calves that don’t meet the target weight we normally have because we know what their potential is,” Sam says.

Target weights change from year to year depending on the season but on average 200kg plus at weaning with the aim of getting them to a 350kg mating weight by the end of December when the bull goes out. All steers are kept and weaned at 150 days old and stay onfarm for another two years to finish.

“We wean young because we calve late. We have a short window, winters are long and cold, and our springs are late so it’s a pasture management decision, we need to pull calves off mum so the cows can begin their winter rotations.”

Five years in, Sam and James are starting to see that the data is stacking up.

“In terms of verifying the breeding values and proving them the data is favourable.”

In many ways the project isn’t proving anything a lot of farmers don’t already know but Sam says it’s an important project to prove on a commercial farm the value of EBVs.

“We’re finding there are some EBVs showing stronger correlations than others. 200, 400 and 600-day growth rates are where they should be, for every kilogram of EBV in the bull the calf should on average increase by 500 grams – and by and large that’s happening,” James says.

For the growth traits, 98% of the sires EBVs turned into actual calf performance. Across all traits, 73% was seen. The growth traits lined up very well and on the whole the other traits did a good job of predicting calf performance.

AI an option

AI is used in the testing programme for ease of introducing new genetics from NZ and overseas. AI in commercial operations is talked about a lot and often dismissed as being too labour-intensive. Sam says there’s no reason other commercial farmers can’t consider it as an option.

“In the beginning we thought oh man this is going to be a big job, but we haven’t found it too bad, and a potential way of getting great genetics into your herd,” Sam says.

Now that the cows in the progeny test have breeding values of their own, they also can rank their commercial cows and select on genetics. Theoretically they could go through their heifer and cow progeny and cull on genetics as well as their normal culling criteria on age, pregnancy, and condition, if they choose to.

Although not currently a practice (due to constraints from the progeny test) they are implementing on the station now it’s not being dismissed just yet. In the future this will allow better identification of replacement cows to breed heifers for the herd and a ‘B mob’ to put to terminal sires.

“We have a motto here and its ‘keep things simple’, we don’t want to complicate things by going down that route of ranking and selecting but it’s something I think is a real option for us in the future.”

Being involved in the testing has taught Sam and James to rethink some of what they focus on. Previously they chased growth rates, efficient maternal cow size and fertility and in their finishing stock they were eyeing up target weights and shifting them out the gate. Now they are focusing more heavily on carcase traits and specifically their EQ result at Silver Fern farms which has significantly lifted over the past two to three years. The nationwide average is about 35% and Rangitaiki averaged 60% this year and 50% last year across the board.

“There has been a real push on carcase traits and trying to maximise the potential of the finishing cattle and finishing them well.”

Carcase weights have been lifted from 300kg to 320kg and above.

Over time, what will the test do?

  • Evaluate maternal performance and survival for different cow types in commercial conditions.
  • Generate potential new EBVs for cow performance – e.g. heifer puberty, cow condition score and cow stay-ability
  • Evaluate the relationship between maternal performance, finishing performance and carcase quality/market attributes.

Change in stock policy

The pasture curve at Rangitaiki is quite different to a typical North Island farm and is more like Southland. Long cold winters, late short springs, explosive spring and early summers and hit-or-miss autumns means pasture management is vital.

As a system, Sam says they just weren’t performing well enough. The team was working hard for low return and the system was complicated, which made it difficult to execute everything well every year.

“We had a real challenge with the amount of flexibility we had in old stock policy and the business had so much more potential. We were cash poor.”

About three years ago Sam and the team decided to sell half of the 22,000 ewes they had and went into a cattle trading policy converting the land into dairy beef and steer finishing.

“That policy has created more flexibility, we have less breeding stock and more trade stock and it gives us the ability to influence feed demand with trade stock such as lambs, bulls or steers when required,” James says.

Project manager Brendan Silvester was in charge of converting 2500ha of the station into smaller paddocks, including techno-lanes using hot wires, and cellblocks of one hectare to more effectively manage the pasture.

“This was a two-year project and Brendan did a great job to get this complete to plan.

“The biggest challenge was that the stock policy change happened almost overnight, but the onfarm land change took two years, so there was a period of time where we had all these bulls and no systems for them to go in,” Sam says.

Although challenging, the team has managed to achieve a significant increase in performance in the last three years going up over 300% in EBIT and the overall performance of all three stock species and the farms pasture production.

Pasture and cropas

Rangitaiki technical manager Nelson Tanner manages everything agronomy, machinery, and facility-related on the property. To take advantage of the explosive late spring growth, silage is cut and 350ha of winter crop is planted each year, usually a mix of swede and kale. Last year they tinkered with fodder beet for the first time and had mixed results. The progeny test steers grew well on it, almost 1kg per day, but James says it was a difficult crop to manage.

A poor crop yield and high upfront costs means they didn’t make their money back but learnt a lot along the way and saw its potential if done well.

This year, they are sticking to what they know and doing some more homework around fodder beet for the future.

The previous year’s cropping paddocks slot into a re-grassing programme; 150ha is also leased to a local potato grower each year for 12 months. These paddocks are different each year and are then re-grassed as well.

“We typically lease the older pastures out for the potatoes. It works well as it’s a way of increasing our re-grassing programme. Potatoes love it out here,”

A lot of the farm is planted in tall fescue, a very drought-tolerant and hardy grass which is ideal for combating the area’s grass grub issue.

“Tall fescue is really resilient to grass grub and it suits our rotational grazing systems. Fescue isn’t in our deer breeding system as that’s set stocked for a period of time during fawning,” Sam says.

Nelson has been working on lifting Olsen P levels across the farm through their season fertiliser programme. Maintenance fertiliser is applied in spring across the entire farm with a capital fertiliser programme that goes with the cropping.

“The cropping paddocks get a boost in whatever they need to get them to that 35 Olsen P and 5.8 pH we want, we soil-test every paddock and each paddock will get a specialised mix.”

The property has a mix of soil types but being in the Central Plateau has a high percentage of pumice which can mean extra-dry summers but on the flip side, no mud in winter so pugging and compaction damage is never an issue.

Grazing and pasture management is the primary focus to achieving great production. The team works hard on their pasture production through their intense grazing systems. They focus on growing as much high metabolisable energy feed as possible and then having a stock policy that has the ability utilise it and convert it into product.

“In the last three years we have managed to almost double our total liveweight produced per ha.”

Team Culture

The feel of the people side of the business is Sam’s number one measure of success.

“If the team culture is good and the people are engaged and happy that’s the best measure of success for me. If you get that right, then farm performance usually follows.”

It takes a team effort to manage more than 85,000 stock units and 8300ha of land. Rangitaiki station has 24 staff split into three main teams; sheep, beef and deer which is managed by James, the bull beef team plus Nelson’s general team which includes machinery operators and full-time fencers.

So how do you cultivate a good team culture in such a big team? Sam says he is learning every day how to achieve that, but believes in key values such as trust, openness, and positivity.

“For me, people are key. You cannot be successful onfarm without having good people. Even though we have sub teams we try to maintain a ‘one-team’ culture and approach to everything we do.”

All 24 staff live onsite in one of the 21 houses that make up the station community which contributes hugely to the team culture. Regular sub team and a full team meeting help keep everyone on the same page and keeps the collective eye on the station’s goals.

Positivity is infectious and James says the continuing success in the changes onfarm have contributed a lot to the overall feel in the team.

“It’s exciting to be part of a machine that’s churning and providing all these opportunities for people and it can be really rewarding,” James says.

Finding people to be part of a large team, full of people who are engaged and work well together can be hard to find. Sam says they have been lucky in finding the people they have in recent times as they have just slotted in easily.

“With any big team there will always be some niggly things going on within teams, that’s where middle management play a key role in managing that and in making a large team click,” Sam says.

The unit managers are an integral part of getting things done and allowing Sam to look at the bigger picture. Many of the managers, like James, are younger and Sam says they have all stepped up and are developing into good leaders.

James says he’s still learning the leadership side of his job, but the scale, leadership and progression opportunities are what drew him to Rangitaiki.

“I had worked on smaller operations, the opportunity to be exposed to a large-scale operation like Rangitaiki is unlike anything I had seen before. It has brought a number of challenges, but the rewards have been significant,” he says.

Engaging staff in the bigger picture and personal development is a focus for the team. Half the team’s leadership group have been promoted within the business. “Rangitaiki is involved in so many different enterprises based around technical new-age farming. For those who want to be involved it is a great place for individual development.”

Many of their current staff are enrolled in Primary ITO courses and there is always opportunity for people to learn new skills in different parts of the farm.

With some big changes onfarm in recent years, Rangitaiki station has enjoyed jumps in profitability and productivity but Sam says they won’t be resting on their laurels. Having increased their EBIT year-on-year they will continue to reassess and review their systems and see how far they can push their performance in all parts of the station.


  • Running 85,000 stock units
  • Part of a beef progeny test
  • Using AI on 450 cows
  • Wean young, calve early
  • Pasture curve like Southland’s
  • Sold 11,000 ewes to increase cattle


  • Area: 8336ha effective
  • Terrain: Flat to lightly sloping
  • Stock: 9000 ewes, 1200 beef cows, 8000 hinds
  • Dairy beef/finishing: 4000 r1 bulls, 4000 r2 bulls, 1000 2yr old steers
  • EBIT: $600 per ha
  • The station is 80% flat land
  • 750m above sea level
  • Olsen p: 30-35
  • pH: 8