The laws of farming

Despite high-flying careers in London, a young couple couldn’t resist the call of home and the family’s Rangitikei farm. Story and photos by Sarah Horrocks.

In Livestock21 Minutes

Despite high-flying careers in London, a young couple couldn’t resist the call of home and the family’s Rangitikei farm. Story and photos by Sarah Horrocks.

It was a gloomy afternoon in London when Andrew and Emma Thomas received an email from Emma’s father asking if they’d be interested in leaving their careers in London and coming home to Taihape to take on the family farm.

Andrew was a corporate lawyer, and Emma a data analyst for the Royal Bank of Scotland. The pair seemingly had it all, but the family farm and the dream of one day bringing up their own family in rural New Zealand was calling.

They made the shift back in 2014, and after using Auckland as a stepping stone to small-town Taihape, they found themselves in the thick of lambing beats by September 2017.

Emma’s parents, Owen and Sherie Batley, had been farming Waitoka since 1977 and with no sons, it was a relief when Emma and Andrew decided to come home to the farm.

The couple, in their mid-30s, were committed to being full-time farmers. Andrew hadn’t considered being able to still practice law. However, their arrival in Taihape coincided with a senior lawyer leaving Treadwell Gordon, a medium-sized firm in Rangitikei/Whanganui. The opportunity was there for Andrew to retain his law career alongside his passion for farming, and he now splits his time between the two, becoming partner in 2021.

The medium hill country operation is 955ha effective, 82% sheep and 18% beef.

In June 2022 they were running 5500 Romney ewes and 1450 hoggets, buying rams from Rob McCaughan in the Pohangina Valley.

“Their rams carry a genetic package that delivers high fertility and an efficient, moderate animal that’s really hardy,” Andrew says.

They breed their own replacements and try to maintain a closed farming system to bolster animal health.

The drenching programme is simple. Triplets and MA twins get a Bionic capsule two weeks before lambing and lambs are drenched every 35 days.

Drench resistance isn’t a problem but they keep a close eye on it with faecal egg counts, and use a refugia system, which involves mixing stock classes to make sure there are some susceptible worms inside the animal to reproduce. The idea is to create a refuge for worms so non-resistant, more susceptible worms still remain in the population base.

“Last year we gave all the sheep the mineral solution Revive, which has increased productivity.”

The five-year ewes are all terminal, as well as anything with structural issues, the wet/dries, and anything that has a single for two years in a row (EID tagging). This year 2400 ewes and all the hoggets were put to a Southdown terminal ram.

“We mate all the hoggets because we’ve got plentiful feed and we get good results.”

Last year the hoggets docked 122% and it’s slowly lifting. The MA ewes docked 175%, producing 10,300 lambs in total, and Waitoka finished 6000 of those.

“We’ve got really fertile sheep,” Andrew says.

Fungal attack on cycling ewes

This year during tupping they were struck with an estrogenic mycotoxin called Zearalenone (ZEA), which essentially stops cycling in ewes until the pasture recovers from the fungi. ZEA thrives in similar conditions to facial eczema and the consequence for sheep is higher rates of dries and an increased number of late lambing ewes.

Lambing kicks off on August 1 and the use of an intensive harnessing system during tupping has ewes lambing in condensed groups for accurate feed and weaning management.

“The early lambs aren’t docked at all.”

Andrew has found that despite studies finding no evidence of tail removal putting a check on lambs, they perform better when they’re not brought out of the paddock at all until weaning.

Half the lambs are sold through committed space with Atkins Ranch and Andrew is looking at options for the other half after using AFFCO and Alliance in the past.

Everything is weighed, with Atkins Ranch offering a 50c premium for lambs over 18kg carcase weight (CW). Anything under 18kg gets market price so it’s really important to hit the target weight. Waitoka usually gets 50% of the lambs away off mum, and as the season progresses they’re looking for live weights of 43kg or more, depending on whether they’re on crops. The average kill weight over all lambs was 17.9kg last season.

“Our first kill off mum on December 1 drafts 1000 lambs.”

They’re growing 19ha of rape and 9ha of leafy turnip for the lambs, as part of a five-year re-grassing programme. The rape was given a third grazing by the hoggets in winter, which allowed grass covers to build to 1500kg drymatter (DM)/ha for lambing.

“Atkins have heavy restrictions on their supply agreements,” Andrew says.

There’s a global animal welfare standard and you must meet the myriad restrictions in the level four criteria. Included are things such as no dog biting, no antibiotics and reduced time on trucks and in holding yards, which has benefited Waitoka.

“We find the kill weights better on our Atkins lambs.”

Andrew references a line of lambs that were split evenly between Atkins Ranch and another processor in 2021. Those killed at Atkins Ranch weighed 700g more and Andrew puts it down to spending less time in holding yards.

Atkins Ranch targets high-end consumers with stringent animal welfare standards, and Andrew and Emma like being aligned with the company.

“We’re very active in adapting our product to meet future consumer demand, especially in the regenerative space.”

Andrew sees future proofing his operation as being one of the most important aspects of the business, with opportunities arising for farmers certified by various organisations and seen as being environmentally sustainable and animal welfare conscious.

“We’ve just changed over to NZ Merino Company six months ago.”

It’s an exclusive supply agreement for the full 34-tonne clip and while Andrew and Emma can’t see a significant premium coming through from that partnership yet, they can see long-term value.

“If there’s going to be growth in the strong wool space, they’re going to drive it.”

Shearing is six monthly in January and June, with wool production at 49kg/ha last year, equating to $8.29/stock unit.

The audit for NZ Merino’s ZQ-RX programme is more strict than Atkins Ranch, but with four audits over the last two years, Andrew has a good grasp on where the sector is headed and feels it has bettered their land and farming system.

The biodiversity chief

There’s a biodiversity plan in place that’s included retiring to natives, with four and five hectares given up in the last two years respectively. Owen is a keen gardener and has taken on the role of biodiversity chief. In the last four years they’ve also planted 28ha of poplars.

Andrew says it was originally done for erosion control but will be useful for offsets with He Waka Eke Noa. It’s all registered in the ETS under the permanent scheme, generating $25,000 of credits over the past three years.

Recently, 22ha of hill country was broken in near the top of the farm at 709 metres above sea level. This $50,000 capital expense shook up the farm working expenses, which were 65% of the gross farm income last year, up from 59% in previous years.

The biggest expense and change Andrew and Emma have made since shifting back to the farm has undoubtedly been in the cattle operation.

“Owen always ran a simple, traditional cattle policy,” Andrew says.

The 270 cows were Hereford Fresian cross and the bulls were Charolais, with all progeny sold at weaner fairs.

“The cows were solely there to clean up behind the high-performance sheep system.”

They were plagued with milk fever issues, partly due to the high milk production of the breed and partly due to potash levels, with the farm on the volcanic plateau.

“Potash inhibits the uptake of magnesium and calcium.”

They lost a lot of cows, which put stress on staff and the bank balance, so Andrew and Emma decided to make the expensive switch for smaller, high-performance Angus.

“We sold all the cows and brought in 270 Angus, all with high-performance genetics,” Andrew says.

Selling cattle at $1000 and buying in a mix of heifers and R3s at $1500 made it an expensive exercise that was completed by May 2022.

Andrew’s father Craig Thomas is a vet and geneticist and has been steering Andrew down the path of using science to get the most genetic gain possible from his new herd.

Reward in marbling

Marbling is what farmers are getting rewarded for, by programmes such as Handpicked, and Andrew felt Kakahu Angus stud was a good fit. As well as buying heifers directly from Tom Hargreaves, he also bought from his clients, Waimate Station and John Levy in Wanaka.

“Kakahu has good IMF and they’re on hill country so I knew they’d shift well.”

When some Mount Linton cows came along, they ticked the right boxes too, with low mature-cow weight, low birthweight and good IMF.

“I’m really pleased with all the females we brought in,” Andrew says.

In the early 2000s Craig completed a masters degree, in which he proved that if a heifer is a good mother and raises a good calf, she’s genetically predisposed to be a better mother for her lifetime.

For this reason, Andrew is now tagging at birth in the heifer mob and plans to do a comparison of calf weight against the bodyweight of the heifer at weaning, adjusted for date of birth and sex. This will give him a ranked list of calves from which to select his replacements.

“We’re using Inherit Select on all the heifer calves born this year.”

Inherit Select is a genomic tool that removes the environmental influences when selecting heifer calves for replacements, with the biggest calves at weaning often coming from high milking, older cows who know where the good grass is.

“It’s important for us to be able to identify and breed from the heifer calves that exhibit the characteristics and carry the genetic profiles we want in order to improve in our herd.”

Andrew plans to sell all the steers through the store market at weaning and carry all the heifer calves through to the spring. He’ll then know which females he wants to retain and anything else will be sold at 320kg LW.

Bulls were bought from both Kakahu and Ranui Angus back in June.

The bull selection process was pretty straightforward – Mature cow weight below average, IMF above two, calving ease must be good, and a curve bender was a bonus.

“Ranui and Kakahu are both in AngusPRO so they’ve got the feed efficiency EBV.”

Andrew sees access to feed efficiency data as a good fit with everything else they’re doing onfarm, ensuring the entire operation is as efficient and environmentally friendly as possible.

While Andrew has the land and feed to create an opportunity to finish his own progeny, this might be two or three years away.

“The real goal for me is to build a reputation for breeding cattle that marble well with good growth and docility, and to find buyers who will pay a premium for that.”

With their chequered history of milk fever issues, Waitoka played it safe this year to ensure they didn’t lose any of the new females. The older cows were calved on the airstrip for their October 1 start, which was dusted with magnesium oxide to assist the cows to mobilise their calcium stores and prevent milk fever.

“We fed DanMix in winter to bolster the trace minerals and we blood test the animals monthly to check magnesium and calcium levels.”

Young cows have calved on the hill with no issues, and the heifers were all calved behind a wire for their September 8 calving, so they could tag and record the correct dam with Stockbook.

The economic farm surplus usually sits about $700/ha, with a gross farm income of $1700/ha or $167/su, but with the changes in the cattle programme and a reduced infrastructure spend, Andrew has budgeted on an EFS of $900/ha for the 2022-2023 year.

Plenty of money has been spent on fertiliser over the years but Andrew says it’s led to good soil fertility – Olsen P levels are 25–50 across the farm.

The pH has dropped from 5.8 to 5.6 in recent years and after learning that magnesium and calcium uptake is reduced at lower pH levels, Andrew partly attributes their issues with milk fever to this.

“As we’ve been putting more nitrogen on to boost the lamb feed, our pH has been dropping.”

Andrew now only uses nitrogen to boost the paddocks with triplet ewes and in some of the shorter twin paddocks.

Being off farm for three days every week means Andrew relies heavily on manager Richard Minty and shepherd Cody Craw.

“When I’m onfarm, Richard is my boss and the rest of the time I’m the boss.”

Andrew says it works well, with them playing to one another’s strengths, and he enjoys being able to just do whatever is asked of him when he’s onfarm. He sees it as a refuge from the stresses of work life at the law firm, where he deals with farm sales and purchases, estate planning, wills, trusts, and of course, succession planning.

“We are right in the throes of our own succession,” he says.

Succession under way

Andrew and Emma are still working for Owen and Sherie in a shared profit arrangement but by the end of the year the ownership structure will collapse and Andrew and Emma will take on the entire Waitoka Farming company.

Andrew has more than a solid grasp of how succession works, but personal experience has opened his and Emma’s eyes to how emotions and personalities play various roles in the process.

“It’s a huge thing for my parents who have lived, worked and developed this farm from the ground up over 45 years, to step back from that and hand it over,” Emma says.

They went in with what isn’t an atypical scenario, offering a complete buyout in the form of a vendor loan. Their primary goal was to look after Owen and Sherie with an income for life, some equity release, the stability of off-farm property investments and no debt.

“At the end of the day, the big drawcard for Mum and Dad was them being able to stay on the farm,” Emma says.

Owen and Sherie are living in the cottage next door to the main homestead, where Andrew and Emma now live with five-year-old Freddie and two-year-old Oscar. They’re close enough to hear the squeals of delight as the grandchildren play on the front lawn and it all seems picture perfect.

“We can only dare to dream that one day the boys themselves will want to take all this on,” Emma says.