A farm that was in a run-down state in 2018 has had a major make-over.
Russell Priest compares then with now.

The Maher/Lowry family of Rangiwahia featured in Country-Wide December 2018, the story focusing on the state of the farm they had bought in the autumn of that year.

The 294ha hill country block (now named Whakatiwai) was once described by locals as a model farm but had been leased for the previous 17 years and required a lot of work.

Unfazed by this the manager, Owen Maher (then 35), and his support team could see the farm’s potential and immediately embarked on a massive restoration project.

The result in such a short time can only be described as astonishing. When the writer visited in April it was hard to comprehend that the area was just emerging from the most severe drought and yet Whakatiwai stood out like an oasis.

“The farm was just one big paddock when we took over. It made stock management a nightmare for me because I’m a rotational grazing man,” Owen said.

Fences were falling over, wires were so loose stock could walk straight through them or through large holes under the bottom wire.

“We replaced 1000 posts and fortunately most of the wires were okay and only needed straining so the job was not as formidable as it looked.”

Owen’s engineer brother Derek often helps out with fencing and, while he’s been doing this, Owen has been able to concentrate on the stock work.

“I had a bit of a win when Derek arrived the weekend before the Covid-19 lockdown and decided to remain in our bubble and become an essential worker. He was with us for three weeks.”

The cessation of livestock trading due to the lockdown meant the brothers were able to concentrate on erecting a sub-divisional fence and completing most of the remaining repair work.

“If the lockdown hadn’t occurred and Derek hadn’t arrived I’d be fencing for three months through the winter.”

Owen is now happy that most of the fences are stockproof, allowing him to set up a long winter rotation and making management a lot easier.

At takeover in April 2018 most tracks and water tables on the farm needed clearing. Water courses had been blocked, resulting in large swampy areas that caused a significant number of stock deaths. Dams required cleaning out and new dams needed to be formed.

Owen bought a second-hand 12-tonne Caterpillar digger for $32,000, on which he has clocked up 400 hours.

“I put in new dams to encourage stock to graze paddocks more evenly, and put in crossings where I saw ewes were crossing swampy areas.”

A good source of gravel was discovered on the farm and the digger and a 14t dump trailer and tractor have been used to metal the major tracks and create two pads for feeding balage to in-calf cows and heifers in winter.

Most of the earthworks have now been completed thanks to the digger and Owen’s tireless work. He maintains that using an outside contractor would have cost at least $60,000. The digger’s still valued at $32,000 and $15,000 has been spent on running costs and maintenance, he says.

Vehicle and stock access has been markedly improved, water has been made more accessible, and large areas of swampy land have been drained, recovering valuable grazing land and indirectly saving the lives of many animals.

Raising stock quality

While completing an impressive amount of work on the infrastructure Owen has also created a name for himself in the livestock world in an incredibly short time.

“It was always one of my goals, however, I thought it would take a lot longer to do but the reason it hasn’t is because we started with good breeding stock.”

Not only has he managed to get his breeding ewes and cows to perform at high levels but he’s also created a strong demand for his lambs, R2 in-calf heifers, and weaner steers with most of them pre-sold before birth. While he claims the credit for getting the numbers on the ground he also heaps praise on his stock agent, Gareth Williams.

“Gareth acts as my eyes and ears in the marketplace while I do the on-farm stuff. He and I work very well together and I have 100% faith in him.”

Taking over the farm in autumn 2018 meant it was a struggle to assemble the required numbers of stock of the right quality, particularly sheep. Thanks to Gareth a high quality herd of Angus cows and R1 heifers was assembled but some were calving in early July, which created management problems, and many were old.

“When you buy mobs of cows you don’t always get what you want so it will take a year or two to establish a herd that I’m happy with,” Owen said.

The number wintered (140) suggested by his bank manager (Owen wanted to winter only 70) also took him out of his comfort zone but he came through with flying colours.

The ewes were a mixed bag, some coming with the farm and many were aged. Gareth had found enough reasonable quality Dorset Down rams despite its being late in the ram-selling season. These went out with the ewes March 3 and their progeny were a revelation, as they were again in 2019.

Owen’s first winter on the farm saw it carrying 1250 ewes, 140 Angus in-calf cows, and 103 R1 Angus heifers because a lot of roughage needed cleaning up back then. This year the proposed winter numbers are 1470 ewes, 91 cows and R2 in-calf heifers and 60 R1 heifers.

While the stock units have remained largely the same over the first two winters what have changed significantly are the performance levels, particularly of the sheep. Ewes wintered in 2018 achieved a surprising 134% lambing but last year this figure was 148%. The calving figures were 87% (2018) and 92% (2019).

Timing critical to productivity

Owen has increased ewe numbers significantly since taking over and is comfortable carrying up to 1500. The ewe market has been so strong over the last two years he has been forced to buy older ewes but his preference is to buy four-tooths.

He aims to establish a rotation of buying 300 – 400 four-tooth ewes each year and, at the end of their final year in the flock, sell them with lambs at foot just before docking (early October). With the extra feed then available the remaining stock should perform better and enable him to achieve his goal of selling 90% of his lambs averaging 34kg off mum before Christmas (54% last year) and getting rid of all cast-for-age ewes at the same time.

“I’m looking to lift significantly more lambs from the under-30kg to the over-30kg weight bracket and sell them before Christmas ‘cos that’s where the best profit is.”

After weaning, the remaining ewes and lambs will be mobbed up and rotated until shearing in January. Owen says the ewes have an average condition score at docking of about 2.5, which improves dramatically to 3.5 at shearing in response to the extra feed they are getting from being in a rotation.

He is amazed at the growth response of the pasture in moving from a set-stocking regime to a rotational one. Both ewes and lambs pile on the weight, with the weaned lambs settling down quickly and the un-weaned ones appearing to self wean.

“If they didn’t go into a rotation the ewes that were hard at weaning would still be hard at tupping.”

With fewer mouths to feed over the summer Owen expects to be able to feed the cattle, the remaining lambs, and the ewes better and enter the ewe-buying market knowing that he has enough feed at home to sustain an extra 300 – 400 four-tooth ewes.

Last year drought indicators were starting to appear before Christmas so Owen wisely sold 95% of his cull ewes ($148) and a third of his lambs ($132) in early December, then sold a further 400 lambs at the first sale in January for $108.

“I knew the money wasn’t going to be good at the first sale so I worked out how many lambs I could carry over the summer and instead of selling 800 I only sold 400.”

Bulls need tight fences

During the 2018 bull-buying season Owen and Gareth bought five outstanding Angus bulls for an average of $9,600.Unfortunately the poor state of the fences prevented single-sire mating of the cows, resulting in a disrupted mating and two bulls suffering serious injuries through fighting. Consequently the mean calving date was pushed back and the number of dries was above expectations (92% scanning).

In addition, a patch of bad weather in the last 10 days of calving resulted in high calf losses and the percentage plummeted to 92%. To avoid the rough weather, many of the cows calved on steep sidlings and the calves rolled down into the swampy areas in the valley floor.

These factors have been remedied. The 2019 year’s mating went without a hitch (after paying an average of $10,000 to replace the two injured bulls). The swamps have been drained and a track put in to allow easy vehicle access to the valley floor.

Owen now uses a drone to keep an eye on calving cows because he tags calves at birth. A job that used to take him 1 – 1½hrs takes only 20 minutes with the drone. He’s now found other uses for it on the farm, like general surveillance work and determining where to erect fences and dig drains.

Mobile yards improve calving

The area on the farm where the MA cows are calved is some distance from the cattle yards so a set of portable yards has been installed on a ridge between the two main calving paddocks. The yards have proved invaluable in dealing with cows, particularly those with twins (10%). He paid for them in one year with the cows and calves that were saved.

Owen is particularly proud of the performance of his R2 heifers and believes his aim of producing heifers better than his cows has already been realised. The 15 that calved last year were from a mob of 82. They weaned calves that averaged 255kg (the same weight as calves from the MA cows) with the heaviest being 310kg.

Last year he sold an even line of 67 R2 in-calf heifers to a farmer who achieved a 98% calving and a 98% rebreeding rate. This same farmer wanted to buy them again this year but couldn’t because of the drought, so Owen sold them locally. The average price over the last two years for 98 R2 in-calf heifers was $1540.

Owen puts the success of his calving two-year olds down to the right genetics and good feeding. His yearling heifers went to the bull this year on November 10 for seven weeks, weighing 365kg. At scanning they were 425kg and by calving they will weigh 490-510kg.

A much larger percentage of the breeding herd wintered this year will be R2 heifers (28%) giving him the opportunity to cull the MA cows heavily, particularly the late calvers. This will enable him to bring the mean calving date forward significantly and have most cows calving in the first cycle.

For the last two years Owen has sold 73 weaner steers, averaging $870. This year they left the farm during the early stage of lockdown, which was a huge relief to Owen because of the drought.

Owen is the first to admit that what has been achieved by the input from his mother Teresa, partner Janelle Gillum, his brother Derek, bank manager Mike Russell and many others.



  • 294ha hill country sheep and beef breeding farm.
  • Situated 40 km north-east of Feilding.
  • Bought April 12, 2018 in rundown state.
  • Today most of the infrastructure restored.
  • Major earthworks and fencing undertaken.
  • Dramatic improvement in stock performance and soil fertility.
  • Fast developing reputation for quality stock.