Ngai Tahu farm working towards a sustainable future

The land, water and people are top of mind at Ngai Tahu’s multi-stranded farming operation on a former Canterbury forestry plantation, writes Tim Cronshaw.

Not that long ago a forest stood where Ngai Tahu’s vast dairy, grazing and sheep and beef farm operation has sprung up at Canterbury’s Eyrewell.

It’s hard to picture this scene with just a remnant of the pine plantation remaining and billiard-table farmland, lanes and riparian planting stretching out as far as the eye can see.

The Eyrewell block, called Te Whenua Hou, broadly runs parallel of the Waimakariri River over 4880 irrigated hectares.

This is broken down into 2480ha of dairy farms, 1300ha for dairy support and 1100ha for sheep and beef grazing.

Another 150ha is being restored in native bush, in keeping with the tribe’s strong environmental position.

On the dairy land are eight farms milking 8000 cows, while five dairy support farms have 2000 rising two-year-olds as well as 2200 calves and 150 carry-over cows, with 500ha in crops.

There’s about 28km from the bottom to the top of the farm, rising 200m in elevation.

After a massive conversion project, this all takes a team of just under 50 staff to operate, including 41 working on the dairy farms.

Farming and Forestry general manager Will Burrett says Te Whenua Hou profits go back to the tribe to be redistributed throughout the 18 Papatipu Runanga across the South Island.

Some of that is reinvested in farms so they work within the natural environment.

Running such a large operation comes down to people, he says.

"It’s about having a very clear direction from your shareholder and we’ve got that from Ngai Tuahuriri (manawhenua), who have aspirations for us to demonstrate best practice and also try and formulate different ways in which we can lead and demonstrate to the wider sector how you can achieve that. So there’s big expectations on us, but it all comes back to the kaimahi (people), capability and clarity.

"We’ve got fantastic assets the tribe has invested in so it’s about optimising those within a set of expectations around our environmental kaitiakitanga (guardianship) and wai (water) use and nutrient use."

He says managing this isn’t as difficult as it might seem.

"I don’t think it’s any different from anyone else’s expectations on themselves — we’ve just got absolute clarity that we can’t differ from that, so that gives us an absolute awareness of how we are to treat the whenua (land) and wai (water) relative to the kaitiakitanga, whanaungatanga (guardianship and close connection between people) and manaakitanga (care) values that we strive to achieve."

Ngai Tahu’s vision for water as both a regulator and farmer is to keep as much of it as possible in the river. This joint role is a strength as it allows the team to try new things with the goal to use every drop of water and consume less, he says.

Te Whenua Hou’s water is sourced from the Waimakariri River and it has its own intake and head races.

Each farm has an 18-day storage pond and all 50 centre pivots have variable rate irrigation to target the water on each paddock rather than spraying at will.

Mr Burrett says Ngai Tahu’s vision of Toitu te Marae o Tane, Toitu te Marae o Tangaroa, Toitu te Iwi — when land and water are sustained, the people will prosper — speaks about the way they try to approach farming.

He says they get feedback from frequent manawhenua engagement and back in 2018 that resulted in a reset after working with scientists from Our Land and Water, a National Science Challenge hosted by AgResearch.

"Our soils weren’t evolving as fast as we would’ve liked and that gave us a clear mandate that we needed to try and do something different. That led us to the regenerative trial in our dairy support farms and that’s been really exciting."

Soils were mapped on 16 different metrics to show that they weren’t growing enough organic matter in a conventional system as quickly as desired.

"That challenged us to try something different on these soils and that forced us to look at other alternatives and in 2020 we converted 110ha into a diverse pasture species mix with no synthetic fertiliser, a longer round length and we’ve mapped the evolution of the soil from then. That’s given us quite a lot of confidence there could be a different way."

He says this won’t suit everyone, but it does suit the age and stage of their immature soils out of forest so they can develop a base that will give them options for the future.

Lysimeter tests in long tubes have shown the carbon to nitrogen ratio has dropped from 22 to 13, compared with a steady farming rate of 11 or 12.

They hope longer and deeper-rooted pasture varieties will improve soil organic matter and the ability to retain water and nutrients.

When combined with longer grazing rotations and slightly lower stocking rates, this will provide the same, if not better, total liveweight gains per hectare.

Manawhenua have sent a clear message that they want to "measure, not model" to confirm their footprint on the farm and wider environment .

This goes beyond Overseer modelling software to the lysimeter tests to measure the likes of nitrate leaching in the root zone .

The data lands around the clock.

Ngai Tahu Farming’s environmental manager Monique Dalton says the overall vision of native tree...
Ngai Tahu Farming’s environmental manager Monique Dalton says the overall vision of native tree planting at Te Whenua Hou farms is to be part of a native bird corridor from the mountains to the sea. PHOTO: TIM CRONSHAW
Mr Burrett says it’s a great tool to validate the impact of the farming system.

Large leaps have been made with the enormous task of converting former forestry land into productive pasture.

But Ngai Tahu is mindful of the need to keep on evolving within its strong beliefs of looking after the land, water and people.

"There are still the core principles of farming and converting dry matter into a product in the most efficient manner with using our nutrients, and we need to make sure we retain and grow our people and provide opportunities and pathways so we can retain them. We are no different as a large organisation as a small farmer, just on a different scale."

He says the soils are "still a journey".

Ngai Tahu Farming, which manages the land on behalf of the iwi, sought a higher economic return from farming and in 2010 started felling the pine forests, converting the land to create Te Whenua Hou.

Mr Burrett says the aspiration initially was probably to put this into high-returning dairy farms.

"But the reality is that we needed to get a more balanced outcome and in my view that was the right decision. Now we’ve got an opportunity where we can be a self contained dairy business and try and produce animals out of the dairy business to supply to the finishing and grazing businesses to convert this into protein, so it’s a nice internal supply chain of dry matter and livestock. We continue to challenge ourselves on our business model and new opportunities to sustainably produce kai."

Te Whenua Hou was opened up this month to sheep and beef farmer-suppliers from meat company Silver Fern Farms (SFF) during its annual conference, and much of the interest was in its beef and grazing operations.

Mr Burrett says the team finishes about 5500 animals a year on grazing blocks.

He says the core model is a hybrid of traditional beef finishing animals and a trading element focused on beef and lambs which are owner-bred and antibiotic free.

They are selected to fit in with the premium programmes of meat company SFF, he says.

Te Whenua Hou supplies grass fed finished animals to its 100% Prime, Angus, Lamb and Reserve programmes as well as supplying other meat processors. Ngai Tahu farming is working with SFF on its sustainability programmes.

Of the 5500 cattle traded during the year, liveweight gains average 1.1kg a day.

About 70% of them are Angus, with mixed breeds including Hereford, Charolais and other exotic breeds.

Will Burrett is the farming and forestry general manager at Ngai Tahu Farming. PHOTO: TIM CRONSHAW
Will Burrett is the farming and forestry general manager at Ngai Tahu Farming. PHOTO: TIM CRONSHAW
Dairy beef stock are internally sourced with up to 500 grazed, and the goal is to put more weight on them at a younger age. Wagyu cattle are also contract grazed, providing year-round cashflow.

Mr Burrett says the lamb finishing business of 6800 trading lambs brings in cashflow in late spring and summer.

"We buy these in spring and summer and try to sell them within a certain day window, which isn’t ideal competing in a hot market and that’s why we’ve gone to buying in-lamb ewes this year, just for getting a certain percentage of our lambs organically through our own procurement."

The liveweight target for the lambs is 300g a day and the wagyu beef animals about 800g. An evolving goal is to push more dairy beef animals through the dairy herd by mating with beef sires, but not at the expense of good dairy replacements or reducing liveweights.

Once the finished cattle reach the target weight of 260-275kg carcass weight, they go to SFF’s Belfast works, a short distance of about a 20 minute drive away, or to other plants.

Between 120 to 220 head are being sent a week for processing.

Many of the yearling beef cattle are in smaller mobs for winter on mainly fodder beet at intakes of six to seven kilograms a day, 800 rising three-year-olds on kale and 150 of the later ones on grass to be finished through winter.

The grazing and dairying animals on fodder beet are offered good quality baleage and whole crop silage to provide the protein and carbohydrate balance.

Ngai Tahu’s insistence that farming has initiatives to lesson its impact on the land and water has resulted in heavy investment on its environment.

A goal is to continue planting about 30,000 native trees a year and dedicated dryland reserves have been set aside for the planting, as well as paddock corners and under centre-pivots.

Environmental manager Monique Dalton says they’ve learned a lot about planting over the past seven years and the amount of care and maintenance needed for them to flourish.

"We are up to 90% success rate which is pretty exciting, but we’ve had a lot lower in the past and we’ve found it’s not as simple as just chucking them in there and have gone with the full contractor approach."

Annual biodiversity monitoring is showing positive results, she says.

"The overall vision of this native planting project is to restore the native bird corridor from Ka Tiritiri-o-te-Moana (Southern Alps) to Horomaka (Banks Peninsula)."

Fertigation trials on a centre pivot at one farm are producing just as much dry matter with less nitrogen as solid fertiliser. Another investment has been in a recycling scheme to divert baleage and silage wraps from landfills.

Ngai Tahu’s hard stance with measuring has seen an automated system on a dairy farm that has 40 lysimeters in the ground to measure nitrate leaching rates in the soil and also water-use. More technology on fertiliser spreading trucks measures nitrogen in the pasture and applies only the right fertiliser rate for plants, relative to their ability to uptake the nutrient.

The goal is to plant 30,000 native trees a year at Ngai Tahu’s cluster of farms at Te Whenua Hou,...
The goal is to plant 30,000 native trees a year at Ngai Tahu’s cluster of farms at Te Whenua Hou, in Eyrewell, Canterbury. PHOTO: TIM CRONSHAW
Ms Dalton says they want to see what’s happening in the soils in real time, beyond Overseer modelling. Building organic matter in the soil is a primary goal and there’s been promising results from trials of mushroom compost and chicken manure as a slow-release organic fertiliser, she says.

Mr Burrett says the overall environment strategy rests on three pillars — water quality and quantity, planting and biodiversity and their greenhouse gas response.

The latter remains a question mark, but they’re working hard with science providers to find a way, he says.

"Our shareholders’ focus is on measuring, not monitoring, and we’ve invested quite heavily in science and tools to help validate what that looks like. Moving forward, we hope to be involved in innovations across a lot of scientific and system measures."

Te Whenua Hou is one of three farming businesses that Ngai Tahu operates in the South Island.

The others are the former Balmoral Plantation site next to Hurunui River, and Whakatipu’s high country stations which are further south.

Balmoral’s 9407ha has 2400ha of pasture and just over 7000ha in pine. About 6000 beef cattle are on 1200ha of irrigated beef finishing farms and 1200ha of dryland pastures.

Mr Burrett says they’ve worked hard to provide a pathway into farming for young Maori.

"That doesn’t necessarily have to be on the farm, there’s plenty of entities and businesses that are trying to promote the right set of behaviours and values behind the farmgate that young Maori and especially young Ngai Tahu can be a part of."

He says they’d love to recruit more, and farming’s image needs to be made more "sexier" so people really know the satisfaction of working everyday in nature to provide nutrition for global customers.

Close to 25% of the 60-70 positions across the farming operations are occupied by Maori. They include senior roles with a farm manager at Balmoral and Te Whenua Hou and two variable-order sharemilkers.

A model of managed dairy farms has moved to a hybrid of two full herd owning sharemilkers and four variable order sharemilkers.

"The vision there is to create a pathway of opportunity for someone so they could start as a farm assistant and go right through to a sharemilker in the same organisation without losing any talent. Notwithstanding that, it’s also about providing that next generation opportunities to create wealth and equity and I think that’s important on the dairy side and sheep and beef as well."

Mr Burrett says Ngai Tahu’s vision for the next 10 years and onwards is to develop Te Whenua Hou’s soils while remaining respectful of the land, the water and the nutrient profile within it, and evolving a farming system that works with its natural environment.

"We have to be tough on ourselves because we have a shareholder that expects only the best and that’s great."