Despite challenges and tragedy, the Knauf family have turned a rundown East Coast hill-country station into a flourishing farm and Simmental stud. Russell Priest visited to find out the secret to their success. Photos: Joanna Higgins-Ware.

Wairoa’s Tangiwai Station was in the middle of a large development programme when 2IC Jon Knauf lost his father, mentor and best mate Kevin in a farm accident, and his mother Colleen lost a devoted husband and soul mate.

It was an extremely difficult time for the tight-knit family. However Jon, in spite of surviving a serious accident himself 18 months ago, was determined to complete the programme as a legacy to his father and today – eight years later – he’s almost there.

“It was a privilege to work with Dad and share his vision for the farm and stud while he was alive and it’s hugely satisfying being able to complete that vision,” Jon said.

No doubt if Kevin were alive today he’d be immensely proud of Jon and all the family and those involved in achieving his vision. But he would also have been equally proud of two significant feats achieved by the station last year.

In 2018 Tangiwai Station not only won the prestigious Steak of Origin Award (the pinnacle of excellence in beef in New Zealand) with a purebred Simmental steak but also its Kerrah Simmental Stud averaged a remarkable $8000 for 80 bulls at its annual on-farm sale.

Tangiwai (meaning “gushing waters”), situated 32 kilometres north-east of Wairoa, was bought in 1994 by Kevin and Colleen Knauf in a rundown state after they moved from a sheep and beef farm in Te Kuiti. It had always been Kevin’s dream to own a large station and Tangiwai delivered him a clean slate – 2000 hectares with all but 30ha moderate to steep hills, 17 paddocks, and 80% lambing and 70% calving. Twenty-four years later these performance levels sit at 135% and 96% respectively.

A hundred paddocks now subdivide the station with 30km of fencing being erected in one year alone. Up to 600ha of kanuka have been cleared, many kilometres of new tracks bulldozed, three major sets of stock yards and a number of docking yards built, and a large woolshed erected, just to name the major improvements.

Up until four years ago the cost of the development was about $1000/ha and was funded out of income. Jon wanted to have the job finished before he was 45 so money was borrowed to complete the final four years.

“My only regret is that we didn’t do it 10 years earlier.”

He said if he had his time again he’d allocate more money to fencing rather than fertiliser earlier on in the programme. He believes fencing enables better feed allocation and control and the establishment of grazing rotations. A lot of capital fertiliser in the form of superphosphate was applied in the early days but this just elevated the aluminium levels, so Jon resorted to applying dicalcic super to try and moderate this.

Lime at 1 tonne/ha will be applied this year over the whole station for two consecutive years at a cost of $145/t. Jon is interested to see if this helps control kanuka regrowth.

Not being palatable to stock has made kanuka a major development challenge, leaving cutting and spraying as the only means of control.

Now that the development programme is almost complete Jon will be turning his attention to finishing environmental projects like tree planting and fencing off waterways and gullies.

Tangiwai Station (2000ha – 1600ha effective) is a farm of two distinctly different classes of land divided by a prominent ridge. The western side (two thirds of the total area) is where most of the kanuka had established. It’s steeper with a shallower topsoil and is less fertile than the eastern side, which is higher and colder but with an easier contour and a deeper layer of ash over the mudstone and sandstone subsoil. This is where the young stock are generally run. The two areas are like chalk and cheese, Jon says.

“I can get the performance I want out of the eastern side but not the western side.”

Soils on the western block are acidic because of high toxic levels of aluminium and manganese in the subsoil resulting in a shallow rooting depth. Low pH, sulphur and phosphate levels are proving difficult to raise.

Iwitea is a flat 100ha block the Knaufs also own on the coast (about 16km away). It is used primarily to carry 200 yearling bulls from August through to April when they are returned to Tangiwai for the annual Kerrah Simmental bull sale in May.

Tangiwai ranges in altitude between 210m and 700m and being all south-facing is vulnerable to cold weather from the south. It also receives significant dumps of rain, with 100mm in 24 hours not uncommon. Annual rainfall varies between 2250 and 2500mm. In spite of this the country is surprisingly stable.

During this year’s lambing 350mm of sleety rain fell continuously for three days reducing the lambing percentage to 130 from last year’s high of 140.


When the Knaufs took over Tangiwai the station was running a 70:30 sheep to cattle ratio. However today the ratio is 52:48 which Jon regards as a better fit and more sustainable long term.

Initially stocked with resident Hereford and Shorthorn cows and 100 Hereford Friesians brought with them from Te Kuiti, the station soon became a united nations of cattle as the Knaufs trialled numerous breeds crossed with Simmental bulls. It soon became apparent the Simmental crosses were performing better than other breeds so the decision was made to go with Simmental.

Sourcing suitable Simmental bulls to handle their steep terrain was becoming a problem so a further decision was made to start breeding their own.

As Colleen put it (referring to Kevin and Jon); “Then in typical Knauf fashion, because they don’t do things by halves, they went out and bought two prominent Simmental studs and the next thing we know we’re breeding Simmental bulls for Joe public.”

Today Tangiwai is home to 500 spring and 100 autumn calving stud Simmental females, 130 of which are rising-two-year in-calf heifers. Despite being stud animals they are farmed like commercial cattle. The only time the females see any flat land is briefly over calving, when they are drafted off the hills in weekly calving groups onto 30ha of saved pasture behind a hot wire.

Once born the calves are weighed and tagged, followed four days later by a general check-up in the yards, a dose of copper for their mums and a return to the hills where 150ha of saved pasture awaits.

As the grass comes away on the hills under the ewes and lambs and more grass becomes available through the shortening of the yearling heifer rotation and the removal of the yearling bulls to Iwitea, the cows and calves are moved progressively towards the back of the station to perform their pasture grooming role.

Having an autumn calving mob has enabled Jon to attain his 50:50 cattle:sheep ratio and has also given him a safety valve if hit with drought. Two years ago half the autumn calvers were killed for this reason.

Autumn calving begins in January with calves weaned in June. Spring calving starts with the heifers on September 4 and the cows on September 12 and is finished by the end of October. No mixed-age (MA) cows are assisted at calving but the occasional heifer is as Jon tries to push the production boundaries for growth.

Besides growth and calving ease, Jon’s breeding objectives revolve around endeavouring to maintain fat covers while increasing intramuscular fat (IMF) and yield. In a notoriously difficult breeding cow environment Tangiwai consistently weans 96 calves for every 100 pregnant females wintered.

The day before their bull sale this year the Knaufs held a farm tour and many of those on that tour were in disbelief that purebred Simmentals could be run successfully on the sort of country they were viewing.

“If an animal’s structure’s not right it packs up very quickly on this country.”

Jon believes most animals adapt to the hills confirmed by an average of only two bulls a year breaking down during mating mainly with broken penises. Only 200 of the male Simmental calves born each year are left entire. The rest are castrated. It was a steak from one of these steers that won the coveted Steak of Origin competition.

Six steers are usually scanned for the competition and of these two are entered. The winning steer had an actual IMF scan of 4.8%.

The winter rotation

Rotational grazing is one of Jon’s most important management tools and now that development has provided him with a good number of paddocks he’s a happy man. He tries to create as few mobs as possible and prefers a 55-day rotation length, which delivers a reasonable level of feed at the start of the second round.

After mating, the hoggets and two-tooth ewes are merged into one mob and begin a rotation followed immediately by a mob of autumn calvers and three-year old heifers. The ewes are all boxed together and form another rotation with the MA spring-calving cows which immediately follow the ewes. Having to clean up roughage sometimes means the cows slow down this rotation. The two groups swap rotations after finishing one round.

Weaner heifers and bulls are in rotations of their own on the easier country on the eastern side of the station.


Unlike many sheep farmers Jon is not looking to maximise his lambing percentage. On Tangiwai, particularly on the hard hills on the western side, triplets are unwanted. If a ewe manages to rear triplets to weaning they are generally all small and her condition is compromised.

“We don’t have scope in our present operation to preferentially feed triplet-bearing ewes.”

He believes the optimum lambing percentage is about 140% as above this the incidence of triplet births becomes too high. This figure was achieved for the first time in their tenure last year.

“It’s much easier to get 1000 extra lambs out of the hoggets than it is the ewes.”

Tangiwai carries 5000 hybrid ewes involving crosses between Romneys, Coopworths and Perendales. Four thousand A flock ewes generate female replacements and 1000 B flocks go to Sufftex terminal sires. B flock ewes are those with obvious faults or have had two singles in their lifetime. Jon puts all the ewe hoggets to breeding rams not required for duty in the A flock and of the 1500 generally 1000-1200 get in lamb, generating about 1000 lambs.

Tangiwai scans its ewes although Jon has doubts about its cost effectiveness since the only information he uses is that which identifies the late lambers and dries. He believes Tangiwai doesn’t have enough easy country to make it worthwhile separating the multiple and single bearing ewes.

Lambing starts on September 6 for MA ewes, September 20 for two tooths and late September for the hoggets.

Lambs are weaned in mid-December, drenched and put on good feed until early January when any lambs over 35kg are sold store on the station. The remainder are drenched and the same procedure followed until all lambs are sold. About 1000 lambs a month are sold store on the place. Average lamb price last year was $100.

For many years Tangiwai bought their rams from Forbes Cameron so there is a strong Romney influence in the flock. While Jon was reasonably happy with the results the rams delivered he wanted to address the issue of facial eczema tolerance and to a lesser extent lambing percentage so he started using Brett Teutenberg’s Coopworths. Jon has also bought Perendales and Romdales from Ian Brickell for many years and believes the Perendale is the breed that suits Tangiwai the best. Ian’s sheep are not quite as FE tolerant as Brett’s so as soon as an acceptable level of tolerance is reached in the flock he will return to using Ian’s rams.

Sufftex rams from the Morton’s Paki Iti stud are selected on SIL’s terminal index and dark features so the progeny can be readily identified.


Jon (45) acknowledges the considerable effort put into the business by his wife Samantha and mother Colleen (who sees to all the paper work and is also President of Simmental New Zealand) as well as his four children Josh (21), Lauren (20), Tesa (16) and Ben (14) who are all interested in different aspects of the business. And without employees Johnny Hayes (head shepherd and 2IC), Malcolm Wesch (full-time general) and recent arrival and agricultural graduate from Wales, Lliffon Davies, the business would grind to a halt.