The winners of two neighbouring regional farmer of the year awards in 2020 share several distinct qualities.

Stuart and Jane McKenzie’s Te Rangi Station enterprise won this year’s Wairarapa Farm Business of the Year Award on strong financial performance through a period of significant growth in land area and stock numbers.

Their 2100ha (effective) station is a patchwork of 7ha paddocks tucked away in the Whangaehu Valley about 25km north-east of Masterton. It’s an extensive property managed intensively and has achieved remarkably consistent financial and livestock performance in a challenging summer-dry location.

Simon and Trudy Hale’s Kereru Farm at Weber 30km east of Dannevirke is also a consistent financial performer, smaller in size but intensively and safely farmed by very capable owners who manage its 790ha (effective) with one full-time staff member.

Both couples are forward thinkers, especially when it comes to the increasing demands coming on environment preservation. The Hales won the 2019 Ballance Farm Environment Awards overall prize for Tararua on the strength of their efforts to enhance their farm’s environment and biodiversity. The McKenzies have also invested substantial money in fencing and planting to protect sensitive catchments and wetlands.

Consistently high flock performance coupled with flexible cattle policies are also evident. Both run cow herds for pasture control, but cattle make up only about 20% of the total stock units on each property. Ewe condition is the priority for both sets of owners, so retaining flexibility in the cattle policies is paramount.

Being in control means keeping track of data and information and both would find that challenging without the aid of software and mobile phone apps to monitor performance, plan stock rotations that ensure ewe target body condition scores are met at critical times, and provide detailed farming task schedules for all staff.

Both teams of staff and owners make extensive use of labour-saving sharing systems and programmes like Cloud Farmer, AgriWebb, Dropbox, FarmIQ, Farmax, Cash Manager, and Excel spreadsheets. A must-attend Monday morning meeting sets up the task list for everyone where everyone is encouraged to contribute on a no-surprises basis.

Neither owner is wedded to dates to wean lambs, preferring to put ewe condition ahead of weaning weight of their lambs. Early weaning is often a reality, and that’s where crops on Kereru Farm are providing feed for ewes to free up space on spring pasture paddocks to keep lambs moving ahead off mum.

At Te Rangi, up to 50% of 6000 lambs are sold at weaning before Christmas. About half go prime and the balance in store condition to regular buyers, the Grace family at Hunterville. Another 3500 are sold mid-year, either prime or forward store, when the focus of feeding stock shifts to getting ewes up to BCS 3.0+ leading into lambing.

Both run cow herds for pasture control, but cattle make up only about 20% of the total stock units on each property. Ewe condition is the priority for both sets of owners, so retaining flexibility in the cattle policies is paramount.

Kereru Farm faces higher risk from more regular summer droughts and certainly experienced a lengthy dry period for the first half of this year. Strategic cropping and re-grassing to reduce drought-induced feed pressure has been a game changer in recent years.

Paddocks selected for cropping for their first time are dessicated, contoured and drained before seeding with a direct drill and adding capital fertiliser. Cultivation is avoided to minimise sediment run-off and reduce re-grassing costs to about $1000/ha including capital fertiliser and drainage.

Kale is usually the first choice for the cropping programme on Kereru Farm. It is used primarily in a dual graze policy, firstly to bring lighter ewes up to higher tupping weights or put weight on ewe hoggets to ensure more are mated in the autumn, and then provides a winter graze to help create higher covers ahead of set stocking.

In the 2020 drought, light and early ewes were stopped for 20 days on kale and scanned 185% and 195% respectively, compared with the mixed age ewes which scanned 157% on pasture topped up with maize grain.

Chicory and clover is then direct drilled into these kale paddocks for grazing on rotation as ewes with lambs at foot are gradually mobbed up in spring, and later, for lamb finishing. If the summers that follow are kind, these chicory/clover paddocks will survive two years before a shot of Italian ryegrass is drilled in.

At nearly three times the effective area, Te Rangi’s systems and infrastructure are key reasons for delivering levels of performance and consistency not expected from a station-sized property with plenty of challenges and complexity, including a winter stocking rate of 9.6 stock units/ha. Laneways create efficiencies for stock movement around the farm, and well-sited yards and woolsheds add to that.

Paddock rotations are carefully planned and monitored by Stuart and his stock manager who is one of six permanent full time staff on the property. Having 250 paddocks means managing feed and having a ‘finger on the pulse’ is easier than a traditional station approach with larger blocks and designated stock class areas where predicting a looming feed shortage can be more challenging.

Te Rangi sheep performance is built on Kelso genetics, a staggered mating to spread workload and risk at lambing and docking, and a lambing percentage that has averaged 136% over the past four years. The McKenzies regularly graze dry hoggets off farm for four months from September to December. In the 2019-20 year, 1400 left in September at 42kg and arrived home in mid-December at 65kg.

Sheep and wool revenue for Te Rangi’s 2019-20 year was $128/sheep stock unit from a 144% lambing and hogget lambing of just under 80%.

The Hales’ sheep performance is exceptional. In their 2019-20 financial year, they earned $163/sheep stock unit which is $20/ssu above the average of the top 20% of performers in the BakerAg financial analysis bureau (FAB) database for similar land types. Their cattle earned just over $111/cattle stock unit in the same year.

Overall, Kereru Farm earned gross farm income (GFI) of $964,775 or $1220/ha in its 2019-20 year. Total farm expenditure was 56% of GFI.