Seeking the best of both worlds

Pasture production is a driving force on North Otago’s Awakino Station for manager Dan Devine and partner Jasmine Matheson. Victoria Rutherford reports in the second part of a series on the operation.

In Crops and Forage18 Minutes

Pasture production is a driving force on North Otago’s Awakino Station for manager Dan Devine and partner Jasmine Matheson. Victoria Rutherford reports in the second part of a series on the operation.

Awakino Station is split into thirds and operated on a three-year rotation for hill country fertiliser. Seed is spread with fertiliser, and Dan says they’ll go with what is reasonably cheap at the time. They’ve used red and white clovers and cocksfoot in the past as well as a lot of sub clover and lotus major.

“It’s a free plane ride with fertiliser, so we’ll try and get whatever we can onto the hill.”

Strike rates vary from season to season.

“The season we’ve had this year has been extremely good for it, just to set seed cover, and obviously not grazing it as hard as we normally would as well.”

Dan’s experience with fodder beet at Ben Todhunter’s Cleardale Station in the Rakaia Gorge, where he was stock manager, set him up well for further establishment on Awakino. They have limited workable flats, so growing a high-yielding crop in a small area has been key.

A family affair: Ida, Jaz, Ada and Dan with halfbred ewes in the Awakino yards.

“They’d only just dipped their toes into the water with fodder beet when we first got here, whereas I had four-or five-years’ experience previously. I knew how well it worked and how well the stock did on it.”

Olsen P averages about 26 over the station. The intensive areas get fertilised with sulphur super yearly, with selenium and other trace elements added. They soil test on a yearly basis, working with Ravensdown’s Dan Laming. “We’ve got good data from the last 10-15 years, so we know where the fertility is sitting and what we need to do to improve or keep it consistent.”

They apply urea as needed, generally to fix a feed deficit. “If we’ve got plenty of feed, we won’t use any at all. But if we’ve got holes in the feed budget we may apply some.”

Crops are used as breaks in a cycle. Permanent pastures are in a five-to-eight-year cycle with two years of cropping in between to get rid of weeds with a double or triple spray for control.

“We’ve got just about every weed under the sun here. I’d like to find a better way of dealing with it, but so far, chemicals are our best option which I don’t entirely like.”

On the dryland portion of the farm they have 400ha of lucerne on flat to rolling hill. Irrigation is 60ha fixed grid and 210ha of K-Line. Permanent pasture under irrigation is Hummer fescue, Rossi red clover and Tribute white clover.

“We get great performance from our clovers. We’ve pushed hard to try and get as many legumes into our pastures as we possibly can.”

This season they’ve incorporated lucerne into their permanent pasture mix under irrigation to provide a fallback if irrigation is switched off.

“Generally, lucerne doesn’t survive that well because the permanent pastures push it out. But it’s going to be an interesting trial anyway. It probably gives us a broader range of chemicals that we can use for spraying as well.”

They are strong on rotational grazing for stock and will shut up areas to allow regeneration where they can. One area a year is shut up on the hill blocks for regeneration, allowing the sub clovers to set seed, working on a three-to-10 year rotation depending on how big the area is.

They prefer a holistic approach over a chemical one for control of weeds, seeing it as a win-win for the operation and the environment. Horehound and Burdock are top of the list for control, but it’s a battle. They’re using sprays and will use Snow Loxton’s [biocontrol agent] moths for horehound, but for burdock there aren’t many options.

“We’ve found deer to be good at controlling horehound. Blocks that would normally be used to fatten lambs have been incorporated into the deer unit, and the hinds nail it till it’s dead.”

Broom is sprayed by chopper, and the broom weevil is present too.

Winter feeding starts at the end of May. All young stock is supplementary fed for 90 to 110 days. Most will go on fodder beet for the first year.

“Anything that is kept over we don’t worry about putting back on fodder beet again, because of acidosis. Young stock don’t know what fodder beet is and so we don’t have to transition them as much.”

Dan enjoys challenging those around him and has high praise for his stock manager Angus Norrie and the rest of the team.

“We have some awesome staff with a wide range of skill sets that complement the place, without them we would only be half of what we are now.”

High farm costs

Gross farm income (GFI) is about $2.4 million a year, with expenses 68-70%.

Farm working expenses (FWE) are still quite high, they would like to get that down to about 65% if they can, but it’s a work in progress.

They’ve put a lot into genetics, particularly footrot susceptibility, but Dan says it’s ‘bloody awesome’ to see the results of that coming through this year.

“Farming’s a shit of a game in many ways – it’s hard to make decisions and perceive what the outcome’s going to be.

“It’s not like a dairy farm where you can see the results of your decisions that day in the vat… some of our decisions take four or five years to resolve themselves, and only then do we get a clear answer on how well we’ve done.”

Environmentally, Dan and Jaz are believers in protecting the station for future generations. Work had already been done on waterway fencing and planting when they came, and they have happily carried this on. A gardener works at Awakino three days a week, planting natives and maintaining existing shelterbelts within a budget.

“We’re working around a five-year plan at this stage,” Dan says. “This will probably carry out to 10 years with native plantings, and we’ll keep fencing off areas gradually.”

The Kurow and Awakino rivers both run through the station and the hill country has a lot of year-round springs that feed them. They water test voluntarily on a quarterly basis through Irricon, testing for nutrients and E coli.

Dan laments spending much more time in the office these days dealing with bureaucracy. Environmental legislation is a big one.

He says the worst part of his job is trying to understand government legislation and interpret it correctly. It’s been difficult.

“The days of reading through a piece of bureaucracy and then just putting it down have completely gone.

They don’t see the results of their on farm decisions for two or three years and it is the same with legislation.

“Everything that’s coming in now we’ve got to try and foresee what the future’s going to look like and try and make those decisions based on what we think it’s going to be.”

Dan can understand why people want to bury their heads in the sand. When it all gets too convoluted, he goes back to their original vision statement.

“Sustainability, being able to pass on to the next generation, and looking after the environment are the three big ones that make up our philosophy.

“And quite often we’ll just go back to those three philosophies and work on that when we don’t understand something, or if something’s not working with the government.”

Passing on a sustainable operation that’s environmentally conscious is important to them.

“Jaz and I worked out long ago that while we might be here now as managers, we’re only custodians for the next generation. And that’s something that we keep very close in the back of our minds.”

Meat the driver for deer

Traditionally Awakino ran red hinds sourced from Mount Hutt Station, using a Wapiti-Elk cross from Clachanburn.

“They winter well but we’ve changed a bit. We’re half Wapiti Elks and half B11 (Eastern European Red) stags from Peel Forest Estate to try and work out our growth rates and our gains.”

Weaners are generally kept through the winter and fattened in the spring, killing out at about 58 to 60kg CW before Christmas.

“Velvet doesn’t play a massive part, we’re still working on that. We’ve got to be careful because velvet and meat are at opposite ends. Generally, you’re either breeding one or the other, and we’re trying to combine both if we can.”

Meat’s still the predominant driver.

“We’re still treating velvet as a little bit of a by-product, even though it’s a very expensive by-product at this stage, so we’re deliberately not selecting on that for EBV traits.”

Deer are weaned at the end of January/early February. Hinds with weaners at foot will do two to three weeks on the intensive country. This allows the hill country fawns to get used to a different environment so at weaning they’ll shift well. Hinds are condition scored at this point and anything light (under 120kg LW) is preferentially fed as there’s a short window between weaning and the roar in March.

“Condition scoring is based on condition, not an actual weight as such. We’ll put a hand on everything that comes through the shed, condition score and draft.”

They also offer guided hunts with Horn and Antler Safaris. Stags come in from Peel Forest Estate, chased by an all-American market over the roar and early winter period.

Fodder tree impresses

Jaz has been trialling Australian fodder tree Tagasaste as a food source and shelter option on Awakino. Known as tree lucerne, it’s a high-protein N-fixing evergreen fodder tree with a deep taproot.

Dan first came across Tagasaste when he was working in the West Australian outback where it was planted on the salt plains. He was impressed with its ability to withstand high temperatures and drought conditions while maintaining feed value for animals.

Jaz says in 2021 they had the biggest drought in 30-odd years, so Dan started looking at additional food source options.

“We were at the point where we were looking to buy in feed for the stock and we don’t like doing that.”

The Tagasaste trial has become Jaz’s project around the girls and cooking for the staff. Working with agronomist Andrew Harding, five of the initial six trial trees have survived the first winter on Awakino.

Since then, she’s raised 70 seedlings and transplanted them at 40cm high. The initial plan was to plant 100 per year but Jaz says 70 is a good number. “By the time you’ve planted those last 10 with two kids in tow, they’ve definitely had enough!”

Jaz found seeds were germinating over a two-to-three-month period which she wants to shorten this year.

“In the initial trial I soaked the seeds in near boiling water until the seed had swollen and I ended up with a 60% germination rate. This year I’ll try soaking in sulphuric acid or nicking the ends with nail clippers to boost the germination rate and get them germinating closer together.”

Once established, they should be able to take cuttings off and plant them directly into the soil.

As they are quick-growing, they may work as a shelterbelt option or as erosion control. “If we can get it growing on those summer-dry faces where the grass struggles then we’ll really be utilising those areas and getting a win-win there,” says Jaz.

It’s early spring flowering means it will be good for the bees on the station which they are looking to encourage. Three different beekeepers currently access Awakino.

“Three years ago we had the great bee wars because one a guy put his hives on someone else’s turf,” Dan says with a laugh. “We ended up with a couple of 70-year-olds scrapping over it. But look, we encourage them to put their hives everywhere. The more bees you can get on the place, the better.”

This winter will be the big trial for the young Tagasaste.

“It’s fine in the droughts but I think in those first two years you’ve got to baby it a bit,” Jaz says.

“I’ve put wool dags around the base of it as an insulation to protect it from the frosts or the snow.”

Trials have shown it to be tolerant to frosts of -10C, but the proof will be in the pudding. They’ve planted them near their lucerne stands and on the Awakino River flats. Also, biodegradable tree guards have been used for protection during establishment. These will break down to provide a mulch and give nutrients to the tree.