Simplifying operations while boosting profitability has allowed a King Country family a better range of options for their farming company. Mike Bland reports.

After three years of major change on their Northern King Country farm, Leveson and Vicki Gower are starting to reap the benefits of sound business planning.

The changes, which included the introduction of a cell grazing system and the sale of a Hereford herd that “arrived on the farm the night the Wahine sank”, were prompted by a rethink in 2015.

Until then the Gowers had run a fairly traditional breeding and finishing system, (with some dairy support) on their rolling to medium-hill property at Wharepuhunga, south east of Te Awamutu.

A former ballot block, the farm was bought by the Gower family in 1954. Leveson worked the farm with his father, Alec, for many years, and he and Vicki took over the 1420-hectare farm in 2006, forming their own company, Stockland Trading.

Nine years later, the couple decided to simplify their farming operation while boosting profitability. Simplifying management would enable them to spend more time off farm, and lifting profitability would give them more options in future.

“It was about starting with the end in mind and putting systems in place to ensure the farm remained fully functional in our absence,” says Vicki, a chartered accountant.

The Gowers’ son, Angus, 13, is a big help on the farm in the school holidays, and they want him to have choice when it comes to succession.

“He might not want to go farming at all. In the long term, if the farm is generating enough income he could still maintain an interest in it without having to farm it himself.”

So the Gowers decided to review the operation, starting with a new business plan. Their involvement with the Red Meat Profit Partnership programme gave them access to a wide range of benchmarking tools and technology, and they employed farm adviser Bob Thomson, AgFirst, to help them analyse the farm business. Bob used Farmax to compare the profitability of different farm policies, taking into account the farm’s strengths and weaknesses.

Leveson says pasture utilisation during summer has always been a big issue.

“We get about 1800mm of rainfall a year and it’s a good summer-safe farm. But in winter it can get very wet, and when the summer pasture flush takes off, it’s very hard to control.”

The Gowers wanted to utilise the farm’s pasture growth curve more effectively to lift stock production. Crucially, any new farming policy also had to balance the financial side with their environmental and lifestyle objectives.

Labour was another important consideration. Leveson and Vicki run the operation with the help of stock manager Matt Blake. They also employ Pete Herdman on a casual basis to assist with jobs like fencing, weed spraying and stock work.

“The farm has to be a good work place for all of us,” Leveson says.

Thomson’s analysis showed intensive bull finishing was the most profitable option, followed closely by a high-performance sheep flock. Dairy grazing came in third.

“We didn’t want to go down the high-performance sheep path because it wasn’t our passion.”

The Gowers decided to go for the intensive bull beef and dairy grazing options, while simplifying their original sheep system.

Ewe numbers were reduced to about 800, and all ewes are now mated to terminal sires. Replacements are bought in. The farm ran a breeding herd of about 600 Hereford and Angus cows and these cows were sold, a little reluctantly given their long history on the farm.

“They were a great tool for farm development but we didn’t have a job for them anymore,” Vicki says.

“Breeding cows weren’t a good fit for a simple system.”

Careful planning was required to ensure the bull finishing system and heifer grazing unit had adequate separation, so the farm was split into a ‘dairy grazer’ block, a ‘bull block’ and a ‘filler’ block.

The dairy grazer block comprises 192 ha, with the bull block covering 140ha in two sections – 61ha on the northern end of the farm and 80ha on the southern end. The filler block takes up the rest of the 674ha effective.Mapping the farm using GPS technology gave the Gowers a much more accurate picture of how much land is actually grazeable, and the results surprised them.

“We used to work on an effective area of about 800ha, but that didn’t really account for the areas of scattered bush,” Vicki says. “So now we budget on 674ha.”

The farm sits on the edge of the Pureora Forest Park and the balance of the non-grazeable land is in native bush and small blocks of pines.

Vicki says having good systems in place to measure and monitor what is happening on the farm was essential for the business plan.


Construction of the cell grazing system started in January 2016 with the subdivision of larger paddocks into 6-7ha blocks using permanent two-wire fencing.

Each of the two bull units now has 10 blocks split into15 cells/block.

All-up, Leveson says it cost about $1000/ha to contour and fence the blocks, set up a water reticulation system and create environmental setbacks around bush and wetland areas. Bulls are grazed in mobs of up to 25 and shifted every two or three days. Pasture growth is monitored carefully to ensure there is plenty of feed ahead of the bulls.

Leveson says May 1 is a key date for grazing management decisions. Total stock numbers are reduced to a target of 6500 stock units to build a feed wedge for winter.

“That’s when we split the cells in half and put the bulls onto a 60-day rotation” he says.

In summer the bulls go onto a 20 to 30-day rotation, depending on pasture growth. Cells can be dropped in or out of the system to achieve this.

Bulls achieve an average daily liveweight gain of 0.6kg in the system. R2 bulls are finished at 300-320kgCW between June and January and supplied to Greenlea Premier Meats. Prime lambs and steers go to Silver Fern Farms.

Leveson, Vicki and Matt Blake are still fine-tuning the system, but they reckon there is some room to lift bull numbers without sacrificing productivity. Last season they ran 660 bulls and this season they are targeting 680.

But they don’t want to increase numbers further until the environmental impacts are assessed.

The Gowers are keenly aware of the risk Mycoplasma bovis could pose to the dairy grazing operation, so they are very particular about where they source their bull calves from.

“In July this year we bought 145 calves from two farmers with closed herds and had the calves reared for us. The rest of the calves come from two other farms we trust, also with closed herds. We only buy direct from the farm and we are prepared to pay a premium for good calves because it’s important we protect the dairy grazers.”

Weaner bulls are purchased at between 100kg and 180kg LW, depending on the time of the year. Leveson says the cell grazing system can handle 550 bulls at any one time. Surplus bulls go to the filler block.

“The filler block gives us a lot of flexibility because we can transfer stock in and out. We use it for heifer calves, prime steers, surplus bulls and the ewe flock.”

The Gowers reduce the risk of pasture damage in the cell grazing system by altering mob size and rotation length.

“Bulls are on two-day shifts in winter, but if things look like they are going to get really wet, we might shift them a day early. We’ve also tried different mob sizes and found that 25 R1 bulls/cell is about right. If we push them up to 30, they can start to niggle.”

Bulls are generally mobbed according to age, but Leveson says they will vary this if behavioural problems occur.

“The aim is to run a similar quantity of liveweight per cell, but sometimes we will run one or two older bulls with the younger ones to reduce behavioural issues while keeping weight per hectare (850-1000kg LW/ha) on target.”

Most of the bulls are Friesian but the Gowers also buy beef-cross calves. This season they will steer some of the Anguscross and Hereford-cross bulls to see how they perform in the cell system.

Liveweight and pasture growth data collected from the bull grazing system is entered into FarmIQ and Farmax, so the economics of steers will be carefully assessed.

“We are not averse to changing stock classes if the financials stack up.”

Though cell grazing is quite labour intensive, Leveson says they are now at the stage where the system can be efficiently managed by one person.

“We try to shift the bulls on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday, so the weekend is free.”

Thomson has suggested the Gowers could increase the cell grazing area, but at this stage the couple are happy with its present size.

Leveson says cell grazing has provided an interesting challenge.

“I don’t really think of it as a bull farming system. I think of it as a grass growing system.”


Now that the bull finishing and dairy heifer grazing units are all set up, the Gowers are moving to the next stage of their plan.

“We’ve still got a bit of water supply work to finish, but the big project stuff is pretty much done,” Leveson says.

The farm is now set up so that one person can handle most of the day-to-day management, and with stock manager Matt Blake on board, the Gowers can take more time out for other projects.

“We are close to achieving our goal of working on the farm business and not in it.”

Phase two of their plan centres largely on environmental improvements. Working according to a Land and Environment Plan, the Gowers are fencing and planting sensitive areas, including around the Puniu and the Mangatutu Rivers which cross the farm.

They are also in the process of setting up a river catchment group with Beef+Lamb NZ.

With the Pureora Forest Park on the boundary, Leveson says keeping deer out is an ongoing battle. “Sometimes I think it would be easier to fence them in rather than out.”

A key aim of their plan was having more time to spend away from the farm, and the Gowers are gradually achieving this. Son Angus is a keen ski racer, and they enjoy getting down to the mountain to watch him compete.


Last year Stockland Farm achieved an economic farm surplus of $490/ha (after management costs and depreciation) and this year’s EFS should reach $500/ha.

Vicki says this fits the $500-$550/ha goal initially targeted. More importantly, she says the farm’s new system provides a far more consistent EFS than the previous system “which was all over the place, depending on market prices and weather conditions”.

The bull system provides 47% of the farm’s gross farm revenue (sales minus purchases), with heifer grazing contributing 40% and sheep 10%.

Vicki keeps a close eye on costs, and budgets conservatively.

“The accountant in me prefers to be aggressive when estimating farm expenses and cautious when estimating production.”

She says large areas of indigenous vegetation on Stockland Farm mean farm expenses are higher than the industry average.

The priority now is to fine-tune production on the bull block and reduce overhead costs.

“Water and subdivision work is complete, so the next step is to increase performance in the filler block.”


This year the Gowers are grazing more than 1000 heifers for three clients.

Heifers are grazed for a flat per head fee, with the client covering all animal health costs. The heifer block is stocked at about 600kg LW/ha.

“We could run them at a higher stocking rate, but we like to look after them and make sure they go home fat and beautiful,” Leveson says. Heifers grazed this year include 535 R1s and 491 R2s.

Leveson says the dairy heifer grazing operation is a perfect fit for the farm’s pasture production curve.

“It really helps us make the most of the summer flush.”

In winter the heifers are supplemented with up to 250 bales of baleage, made on the farm.

Surplus baleage is sold.


• Farm owner: Leveson and Vicki Gower, Stockland Farm
• Location: Wharepuhunga, Northern King Country
• Total Area: 1420ha (approx), 674ha effective
• Farm policy: Bull beef finishing, heifer grazing
• Stock: 660 bulls, 1026 dairy heifers, 800 ewes
• Gross farm income: $1350/ha